This is the fifth in our series of blog posts leading up to the December Mostra, our first exhibition of this academic year. As part of this series looking at the individual practices of our seven resident artists and resident architect, we interviewed Josephine Baker-Heaslip, our 2017-18 Sainsbury Scholar in Painting & Sculpture.
In the past few weeks you have been working on an ambitious number of works on paper. Is this a new development in your practice, or do you see this more as a natural progression from your more sculptural work? Is there a relationship between the two?
I have always made drawings, but their intensity has changed. I used to draw very quickly, and being able to slow the drawings down here in Rome has reminded me of drawings I made when I was a teenager, not as an art student. I am enjoying returning to this meticulous way of working. But I think it is a natural development as well, insofar as when you start in a new place and you do not have abundant facilities and tools around you, which you become used to as a sculptor. For example, when I graduated from the RA Schools in June I rented a temporary studio with no facilities at all, I had to change my methods and I started to draw on paper again, using chalk to create colour fields and patterns resembling landscapes. I find starting from scratch in this way helps me to see what is around me again.
I see drawing as the mediation between different moments or stages of a sculptural or more spatial practice, and for me it is often the place where ideas for new sculptures first arrive. I guess partly because of this the sculptures often feel quite flat, reduced and diagrammatic. I have often been told that they look like physical drawings in space. As I come from more of a printmaking background, working within the parameters of a surface comes relatively naturally. This limitation is also something that interests me about architectural space the building materials that I use.
I am currently taking things that I have learned from sculpture and reapplying them back into my drawings, to try to in turn figure out what can be made physical again. So, yes, it is a progression in my practice, by me learning how to look both into the past and future of my work. Making these intense landscape drawings now is going to inform the sculptures that I make here in the next months.
What things in Rome have particularly struck you and influenced you during this period?
I’m not really able to talk about it until I can see the influences starting to operate in my work. For example, I can see it here in these drawings of organs.
It has been critical that in every church I have been into in Rome there has been this incredible strange musical edifice of the organ. Being confronted by an overtly Catholic culture here, as an atheist, has drawn out my interest in my own relationship to these places. The organ is so huge and so silent when it is not being played, even though it is practically the loudest instrument in the world. There is something about a need to believe and a will to sense, and how they are visible or invisible to one another, that is particularly powerful, which I want to try to visualize.
Also, in Rome the kerbs of the pavements have these interlocking sections. When my auntie visited me in Rome she said that my gran was always struck by these kerb patterns. Even though it is a very pragmatic form, it suddenly felt to me very personal and the shape became imbued with another kind of history. These interlocking semicircles now recur as a motif in a lot of my drawings.
I try to approach things very naively at times. Like seeing some huge holes through the façade of a Roman structure, and not knowing what they were for, guessing that they were to do with water, so my drawings of this form often have charcoal smudged into water flowing out of them. I like to play with the processes of the imagination and how they can predict reality, or structures of knowledge, in an attempt to figure out how I am affected by the landscapes around me.
Being here for twelve months I am able to take things quite slow and let the city take me by surprise. You never know what you are going to encounter and how it might change your practice. Rome is saturated with these moments, and at every turn there are moments that your gut has to pick out.
You are in Rome for 12 months, are there any specific places that you would like to visit?
I have been able to go to Venice for the Biennale and Turin for Artissima while I have been here, so far. However, in both places it has not been the art fairs or festivals necessarily, but other things that have struck me on my visits.
While in Italy, I am particularly interested in visiting the earthquake sites and in doing so start to understand a country that is much more affected by natural disasters (earthquakes and volcanoes) than the UK. I have used images of natural disasters in my work as a frightfully real metaphor for a lot of contemporary conditions. Thinking about the environment in the 21st Century and the distinction between natural and man-made catastrophe has been a constant theme in my practice for the past two years.
I would like to go and see Giampilieri Superiore (Messina) in Sicily, a small town that was completely decimated in 2009. And also visit the volcanic island of Stromboli. I don’t know exactly what will come out of these visits, but I know the motivation has much to do with observing a human relationship to nature in crisis, and how these extreme situations and their imagining relate to the complexity of the current migrant crisis.
How has being resident at the BSR affected your practice?
I am making a wall sculpture of a large backgammon board, based on a travel one that I have here in the studio that I brought with me, with the hope that I’d find someone to play with! This form has come into my work as both an architectural and natural one, and for me represents a certain kind of structure of loneliness. This is not immediately obvious from the work, of course, but for me it was the motivation to use this motif, as well as it being a popular ancient game in Mediterranean countries. The board, dice and pieces will also play with the ideas of cause, effect and chance — which are recurring themes in my work. So being at the BSR has affected me, but I think it is more about being self-aware and figuring out what you are affected by and using it in the work.
Will you show both sculpture and drawings in the mostra?
In the mostra I would like to use the space to experiment with the relationships between my sculptures and drawings. I didn’t end up doing this for the show at the RA Schools and I would really like to push this spatial relationship between really concentrated works on paper and scattered sculpture. I am looking forward to creating a series of connections in the room and from there think about where I would like to go next.
Josephine’s work will be exhibited alongside the seven other resident artists in the December Mostra. The opening will take place on Friday 15 December 18.30-21.00. Opening hours 16.30-19.00 until Saturday 23 December 2017, closed Sundays.
Interview conducted by Alice Marsh (Communications & Events)