Interview - 'Silenced Voices'

© 2017 Jo Manby

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Was it an exciting moment for you artistically and creatively when you saw the potential in ‘Scar’ (a work which began with a single pencil line on thick watercolour paper)? 

Yes, it was a bit of an epiphany. I was up very early one morning worrying about an issue in my day job which can sometimes be traumatic. I thought about a conversation I had with a self-harmer about why he always opens up the same scar, again and again and the comfort and satisfaction to be gained by this repeatedly picking and pulling back the skin from the same scarred edge. I started pulling a pencil line back from a faint drawn line, repeating the process with pencils of different strengths from 10H through to 4B. 

What got you involved with Preston’s University Forensics Department? Did you ask for a tour around? 

My work evolved organically informed by images of the wounded body (scars, bruising), forensic pattern (polymer chains, DNA, blood spatter, bullets) and elements of the landscape where a crime may have taken place and where something or someone might be hidden or buried. I applied to show my work in a Performing Arts Festival, Forensic Derelict, in Preston and one of the venues was a building where Forensics students were able to practice their work such as a burned out room. Each room in a small terraced house had an art intervention. I exhibited some drawings and small sculptures in a Forensic Tent in the back yard. I was unable to access any forensics students unfortunately. 

Can you describe the ‘destroyed rooms’ and the possibilities they inspired? 

These rooms were like something out of film, spooky, dark and it was the overwhelmingly claustrophobic earthy colours which remained in my visual memory. 

Have you had any contact with real forensic experts, from a research point of view? 

It could be useful to my working process - I have been trying, without any success, for five years, to find a way into Forensic academia and police labs. Repeated attempts have not generated any interest. At first this really frustrated me and then I carried on using information which is in the public domain. The secrecy surrounding all this stuff is what fires me up with frustration sometimes and I think to myself, what the hell, why do I need it.

Tell me about the Thomas de Quincey link. 

There were several things that made me curious about De Quincey’s writing. I knew already of De Quincey’s essay Confessions of an English Opium Eater. I knew he was originally from Manchester and then, I attended a talk by Curator and Art Historian Lucy Worsley at Southwold Arts Festival in June last year where she refers to De Quincey’s Essay ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’, in her book, A Very British Murder, The curious story of how crime was turned into art (2013), to accompany the television series entitled A Very British Murder, first broadcast on BBC4 in 2013.

In ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’, for Blackwood’s Magazine, published in 1827, De Quincey writes as a member of an imaginary London club, The Society of Connoisseurs in Murder. This group, he says, are ‘Murder-Fanciers’ who, when they meet up, discuss a murder as would an art critic discussing a work of art. They are the precursors of the current phenomenon of the Armchair Detectives, we the public.

What’s the quote from the arena of crime and forensics, ‘from ground up, sky down’? Is this a known phrase? 

No, it is how I work the drawings. There is often a birds-eye view of a landscape which I dig into the paper first using an embossing tool and then I literally build up the pencil layers from the dug edges with the paper resting on a flat surface so I can get really close up to its surface for a while, working the tiny patterns. Then I put the work up and look at it from a distance and work on it until I am happy with it. 

Does the role of the artist justify the fact that you can make something that touches on forensics (a form of non-negotiable truth) but that then deceives the viewer in a way, because it harbours this mysterious indeterminate scale and when, for example, we are looking at ‘Prison Loaf’, we could just as well be looking at a map? Or is this just in the nature of things?

The role of the artist justifies nothing except the making of art. I am not sure that forensics can be considered to be a form of ‘non-negotiable truth’. I have been doing a lot of research about mistakes made by forensic scientists. Some call me a forensic artist to suit their own purposes because it sounds somehow authentic but I am not a forensic artist. I am a Fine Artist who uses forensic images that are in the public domain and I change them as my drawing evolves. 

The word forensic is an interesting one. There are many different types of forensics and I have noticed that in this age of the ‘Armchair Detective’, the word is constantly in the news or on the radio applied in different fields. I guess where my work is forensic is that  it gets down close into a pattern and digs into the tiny places, microscopic but without using one, a microscopic process but it is not about looking through one, it is about searching with the pencil instead of looking through the glass.

The completed drawing looks like a map or landscape from above or from a distance and this is intentional. This is what I mean by working from the bottom-up and top-down. 

When you are working on these exquisitely detailed drawings – and you start generating new ideas in the thinking space it affords – do you take notes? Or is it all a case of mental processing? 

It is both. I pause from the drawing to take notes when ideas come into my head or when I have to clarify some question forming in that moment. I may look something up online or access some reference in a book for a while and then go back to the drawing. I am mentally processing stuff all the time. 

Tell me more about the epiphany on waking after working on these pieces the night before. What form might this process of enlightenment take? 

My drawing process consumes me so intensely that my mental processing goes on unawares, ends up under layers of practicalities and I wake up either in the morning or indeed, in the middle of the night, with something which progresses the work or inspires another. I often get up and continue working. 

What was the link with the forensic scientist Sarah Black? Was it a reference to embroidery? 

Sarah Black is a forensic scientist based at Dundee University, an expert. The crime writer and Portico Library Patron, Val McDermid, does a lot of research for her crime novels and she often goes to see Sarah in her lab to authenticate her narrative. No reference to embroidery here whatsoever. Some say my work looks like textile but it has nothing to do with textiles except where I might draw polymer chains which are used to detect a particular item of clothing forensically. 

Can you recall what it was like to listen to Latin Mass and, as you have referred to it, imagining yourself elsewhere?

The Latin Mass offered me some peace away from the domestic duties I was expected to carry out at home and which were taking me away from my reading and drawing. I have always loved being surrounded by languages I don’t understand because I have the opportunity to be alone with my own thoughts. In fact, I feel quite at home with languages. Maybe it’s the Maltese in me – my Maltese family are good at languages. 

Anyway, there I am in church, on bended-knee, in pain, hungry, looking angelic in my Sunday best and imagining little scenarios in my head! Before Mass, also kneeling, I had to make confession and this was definitely the start of my creativity as I had to make things up on a regular basis because I felt that nothing I ever did was actually wrong and certainly didn’t deserve the penance of repeating 10 Hail Marys and 4 Our Fathers! 

Was the artistic/decorative environment of Catholicism an influence on your becoming an artist? 

I am not sure if it was the environment but more the process, the ritual, the devotion to something. I easily moved from Catholicism to art. Art took over from my good-girl religion. 

Can you describe the process involved in creating ‘Bruise’? 

This painting was a drawing that evolved into a painting. I wanted to do something different with this and incorporated an inner shape of a heart with various patterns incorporated – DNA, polymer chains, poppies. Around the same time when looking at the colour of bruises on the internet, a friend of mine became very, very ill and I found myself letting go with watercolour, flooding it with rose madder red like Rhesus Negative. I was thinking of him every day for two weeks. My aesthetic intentions were drowned in the colour. Bruise is a personal piece and my aesthetic shell was full of holes. My friend finds the painting too upsetting to look at. 

Tell me about the introduction of colour. 

It’s difficult. I am so frightened of colour. I have to hold it back in case my intentions get drowned in it! 

You’ve said that colour for you is a distraction – ‘like a party’ – is it too emotionally intense? Or is this a sensory surfeit? 

Colour for me can be sensory surfeit, utopian, flooding the senses to take away thought and planning. It depends how I use it. Instead of allowing any flooding, I tried a different, slower approach. I worked with a limited palette, working the Inktense pencil, pulling the colour back from an edge and then sometimes applying just water, sometimes thicker watercolour, felt tip or gouache. 

Do you try to keep your palette true to life and practical, rather than indulging in an aesthetic code of some kind? 

I think it is a bit of both. In my drawings, I try to limit my palette and anchor it in something real to do with forensics e.g. the earth disturbed by a burial, the pink tone of a long buried tooth, a tinge of colour from a scrap of fabric, the colour of tree bark where things can be hidden way. With the paintings, it depends on what materials I have to hand which dictates the colours I use because I need more courage to paint and if I don’t do it then and there, it will be certain to be left undone. In the unsolved crimes series, some of the colours were based on something real like Jimmy Saville’s pink sunglasses lens or his blue string vest. 

The idea of doing forensics on your own work is an interesting one. How did you get onto Magitape, and is there any reference to the discovery of Graphene here or not? 

This tape was chosen for its pure ease and speed of use! I am not involved in forensics proper but I am a bit of a devil’s advocate. My paper restorer sister would throw her hands up in the air in despair if she could see what I am doing with this tape and also, a collector refused to buy a piece of work with tape on it knowing that it would eventually eat through the drawing mirroring the process of a decaying body. I have no idea what these fragments will look like in a year’s time! I will not allow them to be restored! 

As for Graphene, what a wondrous Manchester invention. I am full of awe. I suddenly find myself fascinated by the possibilities of anything scientific. 

Did you draw and paint from a young age? When did you start? 

I did draw when from a young age but I did not study art at school as it was not considered a serious subject. I did literature and languages instead. I was prepared for marriage and children and learned to cook. Fifteen years into my marriage, I discovered the wider world, went to university and discovered I enjoyed drawing. I have never looked back and it continues to be the biggest challenge I have ever tackled. 

Was it in your family? 

Yes, an aunt was a talented painter and very eccentric. Also, my sister is a brilliant artist turned picture restorer with a studio in Brussels. She works on miniscule areas of drawings and paintings and it was in her studio that I too first worked in this way, with tweezers and the contents of a hoover bag, looking for a bit of an Ensor drawing which had blown off the side when the studio door was opened! 

Where did you study? 

I did Dip He at Manchester Polytechnic, then a BA in Fine Art, then an MA in Art and Design and then an M.Phil. in Fine Art. 

When did you start teaching? 

I started teaching very late in life, in 2004 when I was in my forties. 

Do you feel you have the balance right or do you long to make art full time? 

I think I am getting there as regards the right balance. I have a ‘day job’ for three days and the rest of the time, I am in the studio. The day job subconsciously feeds my art work and I am happy with that. 

Do you feel inspired by the landscape you live in amongst? 

Yes. I live on the top of a hill above Hebden Bridge and I can see Heptonstall across the valley where Sylvia Plath is buried. There is definitely something spooky and Wuthering Heights/ish about this area. I am surrounded by artists and writers and this is inspiring, particularly the books of folk crime writer Ben Myers who lives down the road in Mytholmroyd and with whom I collaborated on Silenced Voices at The Portico Library.  

How many hours in a day or week do you spend in your studio? 

I am in the studio for four days a week on average. 


What do you like best about your studio? 

It has heating and good light and there are lots of artists who come in and work in the surrounding studios. I can walk to it from my cottage on the hill instead of having to drive for ages and worry about going home in all the traffic. 

Do you find that reading/studying works of literature augments your creative practice? 

I think it is the thinking space that reading allows which works well for me. Being able to rest the brain in somebody else’s creativity is wonderful. I find myself reading the sort of fiction that feeds my visual imagination. I didn’t realise that other people approach their reading of fiction totally differently. They don’t see what they read. They might get really involved empathetically with the characters but I cannot read a book unless it is set in an interesting environment which I can visualize. I put everything in a 3D world when I am reading with colour, form and atmosphere. Some books simply do not do it for me especially those with loads of speech marks which stop the flow in the most aggravating manner. 

If so, which books/authors are you most drawn to? 

I am currently reading my favourite, Ben Myers, but I am slowly going through lots of crime fiction including Patricia Cornwell and Val McDermid. I am indebted to the Brontës too. The first books I ever read were Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. I love books with evocative landscapes and vivid description. 

Did you find the experience of exhibiting at the Portico inspiring – a venue full of books? 

It has definitely been an amazing experience especially handling such precious books on different aspects of crime and forensics, some falling to pieces, others in pristine condition even after all these years. The environment is integral to the exhibition and the work is definitely at home here 

Do you feel that your creative practice is a necessary part of your life? 

My creative practice is my life. I don’t know how to do anything else. When I use my creativity, even my day job is fun. I am considered to be a bit ‘strange’ and somewhat ‘eccentric’ but then, to work where I do in the way I do, you have to be a little crazy! 

Can you imagine how it would be without it? 

This is something I have often thought about. One of my worst fears is having sight loss in old age, if I get to that stage, I guess I would spend the time listening to stories on the radio and using that to inspire work. Sight or hearing loss would still allow me to feel materials differently, moulding them in whatever ways I could to suit my purposes. It is something I find difficult to contemplate. 

Carolyn Curtis Magri March 2017