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Sally and Anna swap tips via Yew Mail for avoiding the critical mind, situating oneself within deep time, and playing nice with the inescapable devil, Instagram.

A meandering email exchange between Sally Button and Anna Harris

“If I follow my intuition, the eyes and the hand can overtake the thinking mind, disengaging critical thoughts”

We love the idea of two artists in conversation with one another, the coronavirus pandemic has limited that, so we’ve fashioned the idea of a meandering email exchange between two auspicious artists. Modern pen pals. We hoped that allowing artists to interview each other uncovers a new level of understanding that perhaps a journalist couldn’t unlock. With minimal guidance and not much form, we were curious to see where these email exchanges would take us and the reader. Our first pairing exceeded our expectation by providing a colorful and intimate insight into two artists and their convivial world.
Sally Button:
I am currently based in Lancashire but came from Cornwall where I did my BA in Drawing at Falmouth Uni. I have now been home longer than planned, but luckily this time has enabled me to set up a studio in a spare room, which is a blessing. I am starting MA Writing @ the RCA in September and after that I plan to mosey on back down to Cornwall.

For now, I am mostly drawing, painting, writing and knitting. I love reading, textiles, photography, music, yoga, cooking. I’m interested in craft and colour, and I am often thinking about the body, the mind, the cosmic and the infinite.

I think art and writing is important to me because it's just always been there. It is completely intuitive, the thing I go to in times of joy, stress, anxiety, boredom. I often struggle with overthinking and comparing myself and my work to others. This year I have been trying to break out of that cycle, by always remembering the value of making, in any form, as a way to quiet the mind. If I follow my intuition, the eyes and the hand can overtake the thinking mind, disengaging critical thoughts. phew:) Daily yoga practice, which I began last year, has a similar effect. Even the small, unremarkable action of moving the body, or making artwork, can be a form of protest in a power and money-driven capitalist society. Learning to be slow, silent and still basically means you’re not getting sold stuff!

I think about artists from the past all the time, especially women artists because they are too often forgotten. I am in love with the work of Agnes Martin, Anni Albers, Hilma Af Klint, Louise Bourgeois. A contemporary artist I recently discovered is Annabelle Binnerts. She makes lovely things ! I enjoy artists who use and explore colour in interesting ways; it is so powerful and universal. And I like artists who work across medias because it reminds me to think about the process over the final ‘object’.

I recently watched an interview with Giorgio Griffa where he says “the memory of painting is 30,000 years stronger than my memory” . This stuck with me because it reminds me to think of my materials as separate to my actions… they already exist, with a past and a future.

“I spend a lot of time thinking about deep time, how we might come to comprehend this through the materials around us”

Anna Harris:
Lovely to hear from you, and what a wonderfully written email, I can already spot many shared interests between us – I think we’re going to have a lot to talk about!

To introduce myself, I come from near Oxford but am currently living in Falmouth doing a BA in Fine Art. I’m just coming to the end of my second year (which has unsurprisingly been very different to first year what with everything that’s gone on recently!), and have also established a home studio, although mine is sadly just my bedroom!

Despite this slight lack of facilities, I have still loved being in Falmouth as being able to wander down to the beach and along the surrounding coastline is just as important to my practice as being able to access workshops and studios. Recently I have been collecting washed up objects/materials/things that catch my eye, particularly those that appear to have some kind of human past but that have also begun to morph back into nonhuman material, such as bricks that have been weathered and eroded until they appear simply as terracotta pebbles. I feel this relates really well to what you said about thinking of ‘materials as separate to our actions…they already exist, with a past and a future’ – I can certainly see why you’re going on to do a Writing MA, I really enjoy the way you put that! Do you see writing as an intrinsic part of your practice or does it feel separated more into ‘art’ and ‘writing’?

I also love your phrasing of ‘the body, the mind, the cosmic and the infinite’ as well as ‘learning to be slow, silent and still’ – I spend a lot of time thinking about deep time, how we might come to comprehend this through the materials around us and how I might therefore be able to express it through my art. I think Katie Paterson does this very successfully, managing to harness cosmic events and present them on a human scale, allowing us to begin to understand ourselves in relation to the vastness of the universe. Other contemporary artists I enjoy are Cornelia Parker, Rachel Whiteread, Vija Celmins and Tania Kovats (yay for women artists!).

I feel like I’ve gone on about myself quite a lot now but quickly before I sign off I realise I haven’t mentioned what media I work in – currently it is mostly drawing, casting, ceramics (air drying clay for now!) and sculpture more broadly (playing around with these found objects, sticking them together in various ways etc). Do you have anything you’ve made recently that you particularly love? Or even hate?! I’d love to see some of your work!

I can relate to what you say about being able to walk along the beach and the coastline, and I agree, sometimes that stuff is way more important than the workshops/studio. Although it must have been difficult without the more social side of the studios... I still miss that after graduating nearly two years ago!

Love how you're finding and working from human/nonhuman objects. Does your work often reflect the place or places that you are in? And I agree about the past/future of our materials - it seems quite important at the moment to move away from our usually very human-centered outlook. There's a really interesting podcast I listen to called BBC Earth. I think you might like it - there's one episode that came to mind when you mentioned 'bricks that have been weathered and eroded until they appear simply as terracotta pebbles', about what archeological evidence we might leave behind ...

In terms of my writing, it's a weird one because they are very connected in some ways but quite separate in others. I often write about my art and vice versa - make artwork from the writing - but I've only recently started to think about the writing more seriously so it rarely crops up in anything that I put online. I haven't quite worked out how I want them to cross over.... it's quite hard to make writing/drawing work together without feeling they'd just be better off on their own! I am also really interested in non-traditional critical writing (like art writing that isn't academic and wordy) so in that sense it is quite separate.

I've just googled 'deep time' and got a bit excited haha that is exactly the sort of stuff that I'm interested in. So fascinating! Did you know that if our sun was the size of a grain of sand, our solar system would be the size of our palm and the milky way would be the size of North America lol !! I heard that a few weeks ago and can't wrap my head around it. That feeling of wonder or vastness is something I'd love to try and understand and reflect in my work.

Drawing and ceramics/casting go together so nicely... both really subtle and responsive mediums. I'd love to see some of the things you've made! It would be interesting to hear about your most recent work and where it might take you next? Do you use drawing and sculpture as kind of interchangeable, moving easily between them, or are they quite separate?

“Non-traditional critical writing is also such an important one for making the art world more accessible”

Firstly can I just say how much I love your work – your use of organic forms is really effective at evoking a sense of nature, sort of tiptoeing along the line of abstract and representational. The tones and colours are also so beautifully subtle, I feel a certain sense of calm and relaxation just from spending a few moments looking at them. What does your usual creative process look like? Do you tend to plan pieces or is it more a fluid sense of ongoing experimentation, picking out those you like more retrospectively?

I can’t say that my work often has a specific sense of place but I think the feeling of the land and the coast comes through the materials I use. I’ll attach some recent pieces but admittedly I am currently in a bit of a transitional period in my work where a lot of things are feeling quite ‘unresolved’ (a fancy art word that I’m enjoying using that essentially means I’m not quite sure what I’m doing!). I wouldn’t say I use drawing and sculpture quite interchangeably in the sense that I use them for different purposes, but also they are definitely both quite experimental. I generally keep them quite separate but I have very recently started drawing from my sculptures, an idea I got from an artist talk by Donal Moloney that I saw recently.

I completely agree with what you said about the social side of the studios, it certainly is one of the things I am saddest about missing out on. Everything online seems so intentional with scheduled calls and carefully curated online exhibitions – you miss the chance encounters of overseeing works in progress or having a revelation while chatting to someone on a lunch break! But I’m feeling ok about the end of the term and the move to third year – my focus at the moment is my dissertation proposal which is proving to be surprisingly difficult for a short piece of writing. I think I’m struggling with summarising and condensing many avenues of research and interests down to one coherent idea.

I know exactly what you mean in terms of the relationship between art and writing being a complex one. I know I personally find writing about my work really helpful (although I often procrastinate doing it oops) but I’ve never quite had enough faith in it to start considering my writing as artwork. Non-traditional critical writing is also such an important one for making the art world more accessible, especially as it starts to move away from the Eurocentric notion of ‘clarity’ that is often privileged in academia currently. Do you have any particular writing exercises that you do to get yourself into the right frame of mind to start writing?! Or do you have certain times/places that help you write? I’m interested in any tips and tricks you might have hehe

Glad you liked the concept of deep time – such an evocative name as well I always think! I’ve also just remembered another artist you might like whose work combines nature with deep time – her name is Rachel Sussman and the project is called The Oldest Living Things in the World.

“The elitism and inaccessibility of the art world is honestly really off-putting”

Beautiful images and drawings Anna! The use of that plastic is really effective - placing it next to the stones really draws your attention to the absurd, artificial texture of it, especially in the places it is kind of pulled tight. Some of the sculptural pieces make me think of archaeological collections, and that rectangular form is so subtle, but the corners give it mass and real presence. Lovely !! It reminds me of my friend Taylor who was on BA Drawing with me - she did a lot of casting and used latex to take the imprints of huge stones.

Do you see the photographing of the work as an essential or important part of it? They could almost become still lifes!

Thank you for your lovely words about my work - I definitely see it as kind of moving between representation and abstraction and I think I can see that in your drawings too... is abstraction something you consider when working? I guess abstraction can happen by default when forms are removed from their original context. I'm quite interested in finding the place where one ends and the other begins.

In terms of my creative process, on a good day it is intuitive, quite fast paced, very fluid as you said.  I usually find that things work when I just begin, without thinking too much about it, and respond to the image as it emerges. I try to get ahead of the critical mind, so I often use my non-dominant hand or close my eyes to reach that place. That instinct is quite important to me, but I sometimes find it hard to justify that whilst thinking about the context and ideas behind my work, which tend to make me feel I need to plan things more. I guess I am just mindful of making work that has a reason behind it rather than lines for the sake of lines, if that makes sense? How about you - Do you have habitual processes or methods? Are things planned out or evolving piece by piece?

Yep - the elitism and inaccessibility of the art world is honestly really off-putting. But then the community of the art world in terms of real people, real artists, is usually so positive and supportive. There’s a weird disparity between that kind of 'real world' art and the world of big institutions and collectors.

And writing about your work can be super helpful! I find keeping journals helps as well. In terms of how I get into the swing of writing it's pretty elusive to me as well hahah. I think I tend to just seize the times I feel in the mood for it and start quickly before I find something else to do! Automatic writing can be a good starting point - just setting a timer for 10 minutes or so and writing constantly for that time, no matter what comes out. It can be quite useful for loosening up the mind. I also look at a lot of old poster designs etc because they usually merge visuals and words pretty seamlessly.

Your work to me seems like it has quite a really lovely explorative quality! I wouldn't worry at all about things feeling unresolved - some of the best things grow out of uncertainty. Your use of both drawing and sculpture seem to really complement each other even though they are separate processes for you. And drawing from them sounds like a great idea - maybe you could then make sculptures from those drawings etc !

“I have a tendency to just try and document my sculptures as simply and truthfully as possible”

It’s always so refreshing and helpful to have someone else’s unbiased opinion on what you’ve made so thank you for your kind words! I’ve been told a couple of times that my work has an archaeological quality to it so it’s something I’m playing around with a little more intentionally at the moment. I think it’s something to do with the idea of material traces, particularly with the interaction between human and nonhuman forces, that has something archaeological about it.

An interesting side I’ve found to working in this strange online space has actually been the documenting and presenting of work. Whereas before you might just place a sculpture on a plinth in a gallery, now it has to be photographed/documented and uploaded in some way which obviously massively impacts how the work is seen. I think I have a tendency to just try and document my sculptures as simply and truthfully as possible (perhaps where the archaeological vibes come in), but you’re right – I could start treating the photos as still lifes in and of themselves! How have you found documenting and showing your work over the past year or so – has it changed at all for you?

I love your observation of abstraction ‘happening by default when forms are removed from their original context’. I think that is how I approach and consider abstraction when I’m working although I hadn’t actually managed to put that into words quite so well as you’ve just done there! I’ve done a couple of pieces cropping in close to textured surfaces, causing an abstraction through the loss of a sense of scale and creating vast landscapes out of these tiny areas.

Drawing with your non-dominant hand or with your eyes closed in some ways feels similar to the automatic writing exercise you also mentioned – all ways of trying to loosen up and ‘get ahead of your critical mind’ (another excellent phrase!). I know what you mean about finding a balance between planning and non-critically making, it’s so hard! I think in some ways you have to let the two flow alongside each other, often leaning one way or the other but trying to avoid falling into either too intensely or for too long?! I think having some kind of journal is key to helping balance the two sides but again I haven’t quite figured out what works best for me on this front – for ages I had a blog where I’d write loads but recently I’ve been enjoying just briefer/rougher note taking as I go. What about you? Do you have a designated journal space or preferred way of journaling?

“The line between the human/nonhuman is a really interesting place to inhabit and explore”

The line between the human/nonhuman is a really interesting place to inhabit and explore. Perhaps it's a blurry one, and it makes me wonder at what point or place does a human object become non-human? And how much does an object have to change to become something else?. I guess form and function come into it as well - the intended purpose of an object feels quite integral to that 'human' label. Who knows !

Documenting and photographing my work is definitely something I think about a lot, maybe because Instagram is now such a key part of being an artist.  I actually had a long break from social media last year, which did wonders for my mind and my productivity... maybe it took the pressure off each drawing being 'instagram worthy'. So since then I've been trying to move away from seeing Instagram as this polished, careful, important thing and instead see it as more of a realistic (and useful!) way to document my work and process. Having said that I do really enjoy photographing things and making them look pleasing and fun.

I'm not even sure if still life is even the right phrase, but I guess I was thinking about how lighting and composition etc can easily alter the whole work, so it could be something interesting to think about. I like what you said about keeping the images as truthful as possible, and maybe it would be worth thinking about truth in an image and how you could use the photography to signify or reflect this . Photography adds another layer right - like a layer between us and the real object. Idk where I'm going with that but it’s interesting to think about, especially when we are all doing that every day on Instagram haha. And about scale - it is fascinating how natural forms can so easily look like something tiny or something big and expansive !

In terms of finding the balance between planning and intuitive work, I love the way you have put it - letting them flow alongside each other and leaning between the two. I have also been thinking I might try to narrow down my direction, because I always feel a bit overwhelmed by deciding where to settle and then I end up not settling on anything. I also think limited options often allow for more creativity within that space, even if it is super simple stuff like exploring one or two colours or forms.

Interesting that you mention a blog, as I've been thinking a bit about long form blog posts in contrast to Instagram - the possibilities are so rich but people (myself included !) are often not prepared to spend the time, when everything is usually so quick on social media. In terms of my journaling, I always have a small sketchbook on the go which I take everywhere, and it’s usually a mixture of notes, writing, and drawings. I also have a few rolling documents on my laptop where I just type things out and ramble about various topics when I feel the need to.

The line between human/nonhuman is such a blurry one isn’t it, and definitely something I’ve been thinking a lot about with my dissertation proposal in mind. I recently read Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter which looks a lot at the idea of recognising the liveliness of the material world (ie the nonhuman) and our (human) place as entangled within it, rather than separate from or even above. She really plays with these boundaries of what we consider human and nonhuman, even to the extent of questioning if our own bodies can be considered wholly human. The example she uses for this is the human microbiome and how we can use it to think of oneself as an ‘array of bodies’ rather than as one body – as she says, ‘the its outnumber the mes’.

I worked on an online Arts festival that my year group have been working towards – it’s @so_far_yet_so_close.21 on Instagram (some cheeky promo hehe). Exhibiting online is certainly a different experience to being in a ‘real’ space, especially with sculptural work. Someone I know has been making 3D digital renders (if that’s the right term..?!) of their physical work which in some ways makes you more aware of the virtual space you’re in, but also in some ways gets you closer to the original object. I’m actually also going to be part of a real life (!!) exhibition of miniatures at Grays Wharf in Penryn very soon which is exciting! Exhibiting is definitely something I don’t feel I’ve done enough of, my work has been existing in a bit of a vacuum lately which is rarely a good thing! What do you find is the best way to get feedback on your work? Do you have certain people that you go to with new work or is it more through exhibiting/social media etc?

I know what you mean when you talk about the pressure of deciding where to settle between planning and intuition being quite overwhelming. I think at the moment I still have the comfort blanket of uni which means that my work is contained roughly within these term-time/deadlined structures. Obviously that has its downsides but I do think it helps in terms of finding a bit of a rhythm and always knowing there’s a point coming up where at the very least you’ll have to pause momentarily just to wrap everything up for hand-ins. How have you found that since leaving uni? Have you found yourself trying to keep vaguely in line with that sort of structure or really moving away from it

“Yoga translates as 'unity', and they would explain meditation as bringing the self down to a single point, one single atom, and in that we move from the individual to the universal”

That book sounds fascinating! I've definitely been thinking recently about the human world as being part of, rather than separate, to the natural and animal world, and in a similar way trying to remember not to anthropomorphize animals. If anything perhaps we should remember that we are animals too. Thinking of the self as an 'array of bodies' rather than a single body made me think about some of the ideas that are integral to more Eastern philosophies, which I've come across in doing and learning about yoga and meditation. I did a Drawing Intensive course with the Royal Drawing School recently, and one class Movement and Mind taught me a lot about this . Yoga translates as 'unity', and they would explain meditation as bringing the self down to a single point, one single atom, and in that we move from the individual to the universal.  The concept of 'oneness' is talked about a lot - seeing the self as part of everything in the world or even the universe, rather than separate or higher from it. I don't quite know enough about it to explain it very well but it stuck with me when the teacher said "I am the tree, I am the mountain, I am the stars". Which is a lovely way to think about it especially relating to drawing observationally - you can see yourself as the thing you are drawing instead of a bystander. I've found these ideas really helpful and interesting to my work at the moment!

I was part of an online exhibition last year called 'Curated for Covid' which had a lot of lovely artists included, but it’s a whole different experience compared to real life exhibitions. Seemed quite anti-climactic because there's just a list of images rather than a physical space to see the work in, and meeting the other people involved would usually be a huge part of it. It does make me feel for the graduating classes that had online degree shows, because it's not a realistic comparison and definitely not what would have been planned for or expected. Although I guess we've all had to adapt and I do think that's an important skill to have, but I feel like there might be a cultural swing back to the 'real' tactile, tangible interactions after this past year being very much 'virtual'. Let’s hope so anyway!

A real life exhibition sounds like a dream. Plus group exhibitions can have such a friendly, supportive atmosphere. It is too easy for work to exist in a vacuum at the moment, or without the deadlines or structure of an exhibition or uni. Something useful I realised just this week is that by framing my recent drawings they became much more 'finished' and felt like an tangible result of a few bursts of productivity. Then the pile of drawings (almost) stops existing purely in that 'vacuum', although they are still just sitting at home lol but they feel a bit more ready to exhibit or sell. What sort of work are you putting forward for the exhibitions?

I keep in touch with some close friends from uni about our work, but I've also recently found a small community of fellow women artists from the Drawing Intensive course, and we are keeping in touch with zooms to talk about our work/ plans/applications etc... it’s so useful talking to other people about their work, and also having conversations about your own work. It adds a level of accountability too, and by talking to people about your process and plans they become more 'real' - it's easy to discredit or belittle your work and ideas if they don't leave your own space. So for me recently that's been great! As you say with university I'm sure you have a similar community of people to talk to?

Not gonna lie, trying to figure out a regular art practice after graduating was very difficult, and although now I am in more of a routine with it, I don't know if I would have done that without lockdown. I'd say make the most of it whilst you have the stability! And just keep talking to people when you leave! Do you know whether you want to stay in Cornwall after uni?

“I completely agree, having a community of people to talk to about your work is so important”

Glad you like the sound of the book, it was a fascinating read! Anthropomorphising is an interesting one isn’t it – in some ways it’s entirely the opposite to anthropocentrism but then in other ways it can still play into it a bit. I guess it depends perhaps if we’re projecting a humanness onto something or if we’re actually seeing a genuine commonality, especially if we’re opening up and exploring what it is to be human in the process. I love the idea of moving from the individual to the universal, and yes you’re completely right – ‘I am the tree, I am the mountain, I am the stars’ has something so visually evocative to it! I really like it when ideas spark an obvious visual representation like that as sometimes I find it can be hard to get between academic/philosophical ideas and texts into something more tangible (if that’s the right word). Phrases like that can be a good link between the two, even as just a starting point.

Framing your work to make it feel a bit more finished is a great tip, I really need to get some more know-how on all things framing and presenting etc. I guess that is actually another up-side to Instagram, or just posting your work anywhere really, in that it becomes more of an output/a ‘finished’ piece than if it were to just sit in a pile on the floor! For the arts festival I’m putting forward a couple of the works I sent you a few emails back, and for the miniatures I’m submitting a little (obviously hehe) plaster cast of a rock face.

I completely agree, having a community of people to talk to about your work is so important, although I do regularly have to remind myself of that! I have a real default tendency of tucking myself up in my room/studio away from the world and sort of just assuming everyone can read my mind whenever they do see my art! Having to actually talk someone through your thought processes is so helpful! A course mate and I actually recently started a podcast just to essentially try and document some of the chats we were having about our work as we realised we’d often say things in conversation that we hadn’t realised we’d known before we said it?! If that makes any sense lol – sometimes things just click when you’re talking and it’s nice to have a record of when that happens. It’s called Down to a Fine Art if you want to have a listen.

I’m not 100% sure what I’m going to do after uni at the moment but I’d love to stay in Cornwall if I can. Maybe moving somewhere other than Falmouth just for a little bit of a change of scenery but honestly who knows, I’m just going to see how it goes and how I’m feeling this time next year! Probably very stressed I imagine..

Do you know where in Cornwall you might want to go or what you might like to do after your MA? Or are you just going to do a similar thing and see how you feel nearer the time?!

It has been so so lovely to get to know you and hopefully this won’t be the end of our conversation, I feel like we’ve got so many things to talk about and shared themes in our work – I’ve really enjoyed our emails this week! Hopefully one day we may even see each other somewhere in sunny Cornwall!

I love the words you've written for the exhibition! 'the swarming bubbling sea' is so evocative and puts a beautiful context to the work. And the images - that tiny object could be a landscape in and of itself! I feel like after reading your writing my attention was really drawn to all those little valleys on the surface.

Yes the imagery definitely allows a way into theories and ideas that can seem quite distant at first. I've found even us talking briefly through them this week has helped to make them seem more down to earth. Without the conversation they seem to be more like rather obscure parts floating around in my head hahaha!

I feel you in terms of tucking up in the studio - I could very easily spend all my time pottering about on my own but again, perhaps it’s that moderation and balance that we need.

Yeah fair enough I had no clue what I was gonna do until the time came hahah. Enjoy your second/third year though while you're there! It is the best place to be. For me, post-MA, I don't really mind where I go, obviously Falmouth appeals but I think I'd hopefully go with wherever a job was, whether that's Devon or Cornwall. Or who knows it could be the other end of the country - we're still a way off so I guess I'll see where the wind takes me .

I was thinking too we should be drawing these lovely long conversations to a close. It's been so nice putting thoughts out into the screen and hearing back from you with even more interesting and wonderful thoughts! And of course seeing and hearing about your work has been so interesting - good luck with the dissertation proposal. Absolutely - lets hope to cross paths in Cornwall!

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