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Artist Hayley Lock shares the secret of making art inside Dr Johnson’s historic house

17 October 2011 Tom Hunter

"As an artist, I make pieces when the idea builds up from research and naturally orbits and so the ideas then becomes actual beings through digital means, through drawing, through collage and through making objects." Hayley Lock

(Now that would be) Telling is a project by artist Hayley Lock and writers Jessica Hart, Lucinda Hawksley, Ben Moor, Hallie Rubenhold and Liz Williams, and curated by Catherine Hemelryk. The artist and writers are creating site-specific works for five stately homes, embedding new portraits and uncovering parallel histories for these remarkable homes. London Calling caught up with artist Hayley Lock to find out more about the process of creating an art piece within the home of one London's foremost icons, Dr Samuel Johnson.

London Calling: Can you tell us about the Telling project and how you came to be involved?
 

Hayley Lock: The curator Catherine Hemelryk and myself met for the first time when we were selected to take part in the first Arts Council England East’s pioneering talent development programme, Escalator, held at Wysing Arts Centre, just outside Cambridge in 2009. 

Set up to support artists in the eastern region to develop and extend networks and contacts, Wysing Arts Centre and students from the Royal College of Arts MA in Contemporary Curating initiated a call out to artists and curators living in the eastern region who use narratives and encounters within their creative practice.

After selection, a week-long residency at Wysing ensued where we shared our ideas and working practices with eight other artists and curators along with invited speakers. Over this time Catherine approached me to discuss the possibilities of working on a project that involved hidden histories, imaginary portraits and believable tales. After a few further meetings and discussions around our practices emerged the idea of ‘(Now that would be) Telling’, a travelling project which was later funded generously by Arts Council England, spanning five historic houses up and down the UK working with site specific invented parallel histories, portraiture and family ties to stories from the houses themselves, both real and imagined.
 
LC: Working within historic spaces can have all kinds of unforeseen issues, how did you find working within the space affected final piece? 
 
HL: For each house I have created a variety of different works that are intentionally made to blend into their surroundings. This has been, for both of us, intended as a deliberate measure to ‘play’ with the audience, to entice and yet question the validity of contemporary pieces in historical settings. When seen in their site-specific arena, it is hoped that the works are both suited and ill fitting to their chosen environments.
By choosing deliberate pairings of artist and writer, the subjects of truth and rumour, authorship and ownership, real and fake, it is hoped that the pieces are left in a state of flux as to where they belong, in history or in the present, or as present that is history.
 
On each visit to each venue, I have taken extensive notes and photographs, detailing meticulously a list of materials that have been used in each instance from existing work as well as subject matter that chimes with duality and reflection. This has led me to then choose modern sympathetic materials as symbolic gestures of each house’s content and to give the new works an imagined parallel history.
 
LC: Can you tell us more about the research you did for the project, and your artistic approach. For instance, did you have a strong initial concept from the beginning or was it more a process of finding your way towards a final finished project?
 
I visited each selected venue a handful of times each, detailing the architecture, the stories and the ‘feel’ of the places at first hand. This is a particularly important part of my research as I wait to be grabbed by something, albeit a painting, an object, a curiosity. Each venue had a curator, a director or a passionate member of staff that was able to answer questions from both myself and/or the writer. Happenings, stories or other specifics that were felt engaged with were then pursued further. Hallie Rubenhold and I for example visited The Heinz Archive in the hunt for sitters of portraiture, Lucinda Hawksley and I had many discussions around her findings in The British Library concerning Ruskin and his acquaintances. Each story was then built contextually from the writers perspective as well as my own through ongoing discussion whilst I visually researched pertinent moments and existing works.

As an artist, I make pieces when the idea builds up from research and naturally orbits and so the ideas then becomes actual beings through digital means, through drawing, through collage and through making objects. I rarely know what I am going to produce at the start of the research, allowing for conversations and for experimentation to take place before beginning the finished pieces. The only thing I knew at all of these venues was that it was to hold imaginary portraiture as a starting point.
 
I have been very fortunate in working on this project with five invited writers that has added a third dimension to the works created for each venue. Each writer was chosen for his or her chosen genre, from science fiction writer to romantic novelist, from art historian to comic playwright and this has been a new and exciting venture for me in terms of furthering my practice and extending notions of collaborating in terms of practice.
 
LC: And how did the project work in terms of working closely with both a curator and another artist/writer, Hallie Rubenhold? 
 
HL: Dr Johnson’s House in Gough Square is unique in terms of its physical existence as well as its historical content. Working closely with Catherine Hemelryk, the projects curator, Stephanie Chapman, the House’s curator and the writer Hallie Rubenhold was equally unique and in my opinion successful probably due to our mutual admiration and respect for each other’s practices, values and concerns in making the project work. Careful mediation and discussions around suitability of the work to the venue, validity of the work to the project and mutual trust have been significant throughout.

Hallie and I spent the first of many meetings discussing our similarities in how we research, built ideas and shared working approaches to subjects significant to our practices. Our shared approach to writing and making pieces for Dr Johnson’s House was an incredibly easy process because of our previous discussions face to face, sounding out our ideas and voicing our wishes for the project from the outset.

I have been particularly fortunate in working with these fantastic writers for (Now that would be) Telling and am extremely grateful for their openness to the project and for all their hard work and generosity in making (Now that would be) Telling happen.
 
LC: Can you tell us more about Francis Barber? 

HL: Francis Barber was Dr Johnson’s servant, his equal and his ward. Coming from a sailing background, little is known of his life before he met Samuel Johnson. Historical accounts describe him as a well - spoken polite young black man, a handsome and loyal companion to Dr Johnson for many years. Francis’s wife, Betsy Ball was the daughter of a book seller whom he met years prior and on her death, letters from Francis (known as Frank) written to an anonymous ‘other ‘were discovered by their children as significant traces of his life and romantic liaisons before his marriage to Betsy.

His letters trace back to a time when he was engaged in conversations and never ending social pursuits at the house, encountering the ever changing mish mash of characters that Dr Johnson had living in his home at any one given time, albeit seemingly chaotic. Tales of parties, intellectual discourse and private moments, particularly with a ‘Pol Carmichael’ reveal a superstitious Barber, a man of ritual and a believer of dark spirits.

The letters and significant love tokens are displayed in the house revealing the tenuous relationship of fact and fiction in (Now that would be) Telling, a project blurred by rumour and superstition.
 
LC: And finally, what are you working on next and what grand project would you love to be involved in if funding was already all covered? 
 
HL: The next part to (Now that would be) Telling is based at A La Ronde in Devon working with the science fiction writer Liz Williams which opens on November 5th. After that (Now that would be Telling) concludes in London in January 2012. Beyond that, over the winter months, I will be working on a film that is geographically placed along the North Norfolk coast that blurs stories from Enid Blyton, Arthur Conan Doyle and The Black Shuck called ‘The Black Seven’.



(Now that would be) Telling will be on show at Dr Johnson's House until Tuesday 1st November

Click here to visit the (Now that would be) Telling website

 

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