Q&A: PATRICIA SWANNELL
One of Jaggedart’s regular artists on the value of trees, the experimental nature of art, and the unusual response of Marylebone people
Interview: Ellie Costigan
Portrait: Orlando Gili
Your background is an unconventional one. How did you go from economics to art?
I worked in the City for 20-odd years. There was an opportunity to retire—so I took it and went to art college. I was very interested in the visual arts but didn’t understand how they work. Having taught people professionally in the banking world, I was of the belief that you can learn theory all you like, but you don’t really understand something unless you try it. So instead of studying art history, I started off doing a course in print-making at Morley College. One thing led to another—an adult education course became a foundation course, which was a bit more rigorous, and then I thought it’d be really good to challenge myself with a degree. Amazingly, when I finished my BA, I got my first opportunity to show here at Jaggedart. I’ve been showing with the gallery ever since.
That must have been a huge change...
Having always focused on the rational, the numerate, it was really unfamiliar territory—it’s a totally different part of my brain. Initially, if I’m honest, it felt a bit humiliating. I had been used to always understanding things, yet found myself in a situation where my knowledge was… not irrelevant, but really not the point. It was a humbling but enriching situation, as it taught me there’s more than one way to see the world.
Art is not just the process of making an image; it’s the process of communicating something that’s very difficult to talk about in words and numbers—though I do use a lot of words and numbers in making the images. I can’t get rid of my background. I think what I enjoy more than anything else is meeting someone who I otherwise have nothing in common with, and getting to a point of communication with them through an image. It’s so human and profound.
You’ve been with the gallery for more than 10 years now. How has your work evolved?
I have the same concerns, but it’s been really interesting to move between mediums. Luckily, working with a gallery like this, there’s always the opportunity to branch out and show different categories of work. All of it seems in some way to relate to time: whether it’s the paintings, which are quite abstract, or images and drawings—with all of them, I am thinking about time and how we value things.
Tell us about the creative process.
I don’t really think of any of my work as a finished product. It’s more an exploration—having an idea and trying to find a way to express it. I’ll be thinking about an issue, and that will set in train a series of thoughts. Then I’ll wonder about the right medium, and experiment within it to create a body of work that relates to the research process. There are all kinds of things going on in my head that may or may not be communicated, even if I think I’ve made them absolutely clear—so it’s utterly fascinating to see what people from the outside take from the result. I don’t know how people make a piece of work and think of it as a performance. I’m much happier when I think of it as an experiment, an exploration. But it’s one that takes a visual form.
Nature seems to be a central theme. Is that deliberate?
When I started at art college, one of the first things they said to me was, “Why are you making an image?” They really challenge you: “Why are you bothering to devote your time to this?” That really made me think, what is the most critical issue of our times? Really, it’s how we relate to the environment. In the City, the measure of value is, typically, money. That’s something I always felt uneasy about. We undervalue public goods—the environment, the air, public spaces, the services provided by our trees. Looking at nature and how we value it is, I think, absolutely central—not only looking at how we value it today, but thinking about what the impact will be, going forward. We tend to ignore what might happen in the future, which is really frightening. That’s what motivates me: to call attention to nature and underline its value.
Where did you draw inspiration for your current show at Circus on Marylebone High Street?
It’s a continuation of that theme. There are three very different ‘vintages’ included in the exhibition, the first of which was created in 2007—cross cuts of trees from Gloucestershire, entitled The Definition of Money, which again was about the value of wood as a resource—the next was the Woodland Trust project in 2012, and then we have the latest tree ring drawings, which I only just finished in time! They are imagined cross-sections of the trees in the St Marylebone churchyard, which you can see from the gallery—it’s wonderful.
I start with the seed of the tree, then I repeat the English name, Latin name, the location—all in pencil, by hand—to create the rings of the tree. Often when people see them they look at me like I’m mad, because they understand the amount of time it must have taken. That’s the point: to think about the amount of time that’s crystallised in the trees—how many years they’ve been looked at and looked after. It’s funny: I’ve done these tree ring drawings for about 10 years; it involves measuring tree circumferences with my little cloth tape measure—which is quite eccentric—and this was the first time that people have come up and offered to help me. In other places, people look at me like I’m strange; in Marylebone people say, “Shall I hold that for you?”
Tell us more about the Woodland Trust project.
It relates to a newly planted woodland in Leicestershire, orchestrated by the Woodland Trust for the Queen’s diamond jubilee in 2012. We’d been having conversations about how they can entice people from the surrounding area to make the most of this green space. It’s converted open-cast mines and arable fields, so it wouldn’t have been a destination previously. Also, while there are wonderful places with land art, there was nothing previously in the middle of England. One of the ideas I came up with, and they eventually ran with, was finding a way of comparing tree life with man life; tree years, as opposed to human years.
We defined a platform with a plinth to rest a camera on, and every year for 60 years we will take a photograph of the same family, in the same place. At the same time we created the platform, I collected wildflowers that were growing in the area and produced 60 etchings, which you can see on the wall at Circus. Each year, one will be replaced by a photograph of the family. The older son is outstripping the trees in terms of growth at the moment, but pretty soon they’ll be surrounded. It goes back to thinking about future generations—environmental inheritance and legacy.
The project will go on beyond your lifetime—so in a way, it’s part of your legacy...
That’s really central. I think your perspective changes when you start a family, and you start thinking of your children and your children’s children, as well as the people who came before, and how what you’re experiencing now is so dependent on the nurturing of nature. That’s the whole point of the exhibition at Circus.