I’m so excited to share this Culture Vulture interview with you all – this interview is with brilliant, Newcastle based visual artist, Bethan Maddocks.
Bethan was actually one of the first artists, I became fascinated with before the Culture Vulture was even a sparkle of an idea in my eye. She’s a multi-disciplinary artist that works with different types of materials – in fact, I’m pretty sure, if you look up multi-disciplinary artist, you’ll see a picture of Bethan smiling back at you. I found it so inspiring when I was first starting out, to see a fellow creative, confidently working across lots of different types of projects and refusing to sit neatly into a box – Bethan to me was an artist that represented creative possibility, opportunity and the beauty of constantly evolving and growing through projects and collaborating with people.
Her work, projects and sculptures bring to life people’s stories and her own ideas, into technically brilliant, unique visual interpretations. They are often socially engaged too – which in present times, is not only crucially important, it also shows that art has a really powerful role to play, reinterpreting and reframing thoughts, ideas, history and can often enable audiences to see and consider things in a different way.
Bethan was one of the first artists, that I noted co-creating art with communities in such an inclusive, warm, participatory way and I witnessed, the joy of folx seeing their contributions become a final professional artwork or sculpture! Participatory arts in the community, in my opinion, outside of the art world, isn’t really understood and massively undervalued. Bethan was my first real exposure to not only the positive impact of a participatory arts project but also, that the art work created can end up displayed at a professional exhibition or light art event.
I’ve always been a little star struck by Bethan too, a little bit in awe of her. If you know me – you know, I’m not detail focused, I’m not precise, I’m creatively chaotic and methodical process just isn’t a natural thing for me. Bethan’s work is often so delicate, so precise, made from paper, all about the small touches and detail – she probably represents my polar opposite type of creative! I admire her technical brilliance so much – she creates type of work that I look at in total awe, as she’s so highly skilled, accomplished and brilliant.
So this artist interview has been on my “NEED to interview” list pretty much, since I started out as Culture Vulture. And across the years, our paths have crossed many times and I’ve been lucky enough to support a few projects she’s worked on over the years. She’s an absolute North East gem and a really lovely, kind, open human.
Over to you Bethan!
Hello Bethan, can you introduce yourself and tell my fellow Culture Vultures a bit about your practice?
Hello! I’m a visual artist; I work with light, paper, fabric and found objects to make large sculptures and installations that audiences can touch, explore or add to. The last few years I’ve become really interested in paper-based work so currently I make lots of intricate paper-cuts.
I often work with archives, communities and organisations to collect stories and make socially engaged, political or site-specific artwork.
I ask every artist I interview this question; can you tell us about your journey into the creative industries?
Ever since I was little, my twin sister Catriona and I, were always scavenging things for ‘projects’; bottle tops or bits of scrap metal from outside the tiny blacksmiths in our village. Haberdasheries and DIY stores were our treasure troves. I’m grateful that I’ve always been encouraged in playing, exploring and creating since I was a little kid; probably one of the reasons that workshops and community sharing are such a core part of my practice nowadays.
I studied art at college, then Northumbria University and also at a Finnish University for an Erasmus Exchange. After graduating I volunteered on every creative project I could find, till I started getting small projects myself – I think it was easier for recent graduates in the last years of the Labour government as there was more support for young artists and a greater all-round appreciation and understanding of the arts from those in power.
Huge congratulations on being awarded the Dover Prize – so excited for you! Can you tell us about the Dover Prize?
I was really lucky (and completely blown away!) to win The Dover Prize in 2019. It’s an amazing £10,000 bursary awarded every two years to a UK-based artist. Its aim is to help artists develop their practice and comes with the gorgeous ethos to ‘provide the artist with time to think, research, reflect and experiment with new ideas’.
As an artist you’re always applying for things, seeking ways to make your work fit a commission proposal; what’s brilliant about the Dover Prize is that it’s centered around the artist’s own work- the initial application form asks useful questions about your practice and your aims – things I found helpful to reflect on.
In February 2019 I was shortlisted from over 100 applicants and invited for an interview where I got to meet the judges and discuss my work and practice in person. The judges were great, and again asked really helpful questions about my aspirations and inspirations (I even somehow managed to talk about meeting my favourite artist Louise Bourgeois as a wide-eyed 20 year old. I’d like to think Louise was looking down, helping me to win -a sort of artist fairy-godmother!).
The Dover Prize 2021 is now open (deadline February 14th!) and I’d hugely encourage any artist to have a punt at it – it’s been incredible support for the last 2 years. You can apply HERE.
Can you tell me a bit about what you’ve done with the award these last 2 years?
The Dover Award originates in Darlington; having grown up in County Durham it felt great to focus my practice on a part of the world where I began my journey as an artist. I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the history of the area and trying to connect its historic backstory with contemporary politics. Darlington’s schools, libraries and social infrastructures were massively developed by several powerful Quaker families in the 18th century, so I connected with the local Quaker chapter to learn about their ethos of listening, equality and stewardship to help ground some research. Sitting in silence with a group full of kind strangers, waiting for ‘ministry’ is quite something!
I also used the bursary to help fund a residency to the incredible Studio Garonne in Southern France, where I collaborated with designer Remi Bec to make a series of paper and light sculptures and drawings and I also embarked on a research project to Canada to meet some brilliant paper artists such as Crissy Arseneau, Rachel Ashe and Brangwynne Purcell. I’ve made lots of experiments combining my papercutting work with machine cut elements, and I’m hoping to translate some papercuts into metal this year.
Can you tell me a bit about your relationship with Woodhorn Museum in Northumberland?
I’ve worked with Woodhorn Museum on and off for the last few years often creating large installations in their huge, ex-mining industry buildings. A lot of my work is about exploring hidden stories, and Woodhorn has a great ethos for uncovering Northumberland’s lesser-known stories – so we’ve collaborated together on some really fun projects.
The Programming team often invites me in, to create installations based on brilliant random ideas they’ve had for exhibitions such as ancient forests, homing pigeons and orchid growing!
Even in 2020 they managed to commission a new project for myself and Unfolding Theatre (as well as the ever-brilliant Ruth Johnson, Nick John Williams and Jill Bennison). The Quest of Missing Questions was Woodhorn’s invitation to its audience for its re-opening after the first lockdown. The commission personally was a bit of a life saver, showing me that good organisations can (and should!) support freelancers even in tough times and in doing so create lovely rich collaborations.
Here, here! You’ve worked with them a few times in the past? Tell me about one of those projects?
One of my favourite pieces was The Fallen Forest that explored the prehistoric carboniferous forests that existed here 250 million years ago, which formed the coal so key to our region’s economic and socialist development. I spent several months researching fossil records, becoming my own pretend geologist. I did a residency over in Borneo and managed to connect the kind of foliage that you find in modern Asian rainforests with similar foliage from these ancient rainforests. I created giant ferns and cycads and huge 5 metre tall papercut trees- each paper-tree’s surface referencing the bark patternations that you find recorded in fossils.
It was open for 9 months and the audience could attend workshops to make small paper artworks to add to the forest, so that it grew, expanded and then collapsed; mirroring the ancient forests growth and demise.
I love projects like that; I get to obsess and learn so much about random things. I’m always dreaming that one day I’ll go to a (very specific!) pub quiz and know all the answers from all the avid research I do (it has not happened yet!)
A lot of your work involves engaging with communities and community contributions – why are community contributions important to your practice? Why are opportunities to contribute to creative projects important?
I’m a huge champion of creativity for so many reasons – it’s the great unifier; when you get a group of people making artwork alongside each other there will always be brilliant, eye opening, heart expanding conversations. There’s some magic that happens when people use their hands to make; it sort of frees up their thinking and people reconnect with their inner child.
I love working with other people as it’s always a helpful side-step for my thinking, I can have the best laid plans for what I want to create for an exhibition, and then a conversation or even a throwaway comment from someone, plants these delicious seeds, and sends me in ways I’d never of thought of. It’s an honour to work alongside people from such diverse backgrounds – there’s always so much to learn from other people.
You often create sculptures/artwork to scale – what is your favourite thing about that type of work? Do you enjoy watching folx take it in?
When I go to exhibitions, it’s alwayslarge-scale sculptures and installations that I love to see and experience the most; that sense of becoming aware of your own scale – a little like standing at the top of a massive mountain and feeling so tiny in this all-encompassing landscape.
I also love making loud noises in quiet acoustic buildings, touching stuff that maybe you shouldn’t, opening drawers, prodding around, and I want to make artwork that encourages that, where you can be a playful nosy parker! I made an installation a couple of years ago, where there were hundreds of sandcastles inside a tent, all decorated with cocktail umbrellas. We opened the tent and loads of kids came in, all wanting to smash them down but thinking they ‘weren’t allowed’. Watching the first kid (my nephew- ever a proud Auntie!) go and kick one down and then all the other children running forward to join in; it was just absolutely gleeful to see all that work disappearing in joyful, anarchic seconds. I want to create moments like that.
What is your role at BALTIC? Have you been involved in any of their online creative work during lock down?
I’ve worked freelance for the Learning Team at Baltic for about 12 years; they took a punt on me as a relatively inexperienced but eager workshop facilitator just after I graduated and I’ve been working there ad-hoc ever since. I love the range of groups that we get to work alongside and the Learning team’s encouragement to try out new stuff, take over spaces and explore the exhibitions. They were also brilliant at the beginning of 2020 madness (we’ve got to champion the good ones!), paying all freelancers for sessions they couldn’t deliver, and helping support us to do online workshops. I’ve made quite a few online videos since, and it’s a learning curve, but I spent a lot of my childhood apparently critiquing Neil Buchanan for his crafting on Art Attack, so perhaps it was meant to be. You can watch them here and here and here
How has lock down/pandemic affected you as an artist/freelancer?
Well it hasn’t been easy for anyone has it (except perhaps for political donators and disaster capitalists…)!? I had a week in March where I had 7 exhibitions and two years of work cancelled which wasn’t particularly fun. It has been difficult being self-employed and I hope the brilliant work that people have done in raising awareness of the vulnerability of self-employed and zero hour contract workers has helped the public to appreciate cultural and hospitality workers better.
On the flip side, I’ve had more time in my studio at 36 Lime Street, which is just a dreamland to work in, a building full of lots of talented, diverse makers in the heart of the Ouseburn – my windows open right onto the river so I get to work to the sound of the water and the ducks and swans flapping about.
I’ve also loved watching things like #ArtistSupportPledge, Beccy Owen’s Pop up Choirs, Mutual aid support groups and Artists’ Union England’s solidarity fund come together. The arts are a mixed bunch of brilliant, creative, bloomin’ hard working people, and even in all this weirdness, they’ve given me lots of moments of joy and celebration.
That made me so teary, I’m so proud to be in this sector with wonderful folx like you! Do you have anything to say about artists being described as “unviable” ?
I mean it is ridiculous isn’t it!? Weapons manufacturing, the aviation industry and fossil fuel use aren’t exactly viable, if we want to have a happy, existing planet, and yet governments never seem to pull them up…
I think there are things in the arts that aren’t particularly viable – like reserving huge amounts of funds for top management and the running and upkeep of buildings rather than fair living wages for all employees, and I hope that this can change.
And look at everything that we’ve ever sent into space to be found by future/other civilisations, or any time capsules that we’ve buried in the ground and they are full of the arts – music, literature, artwork, Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man carved on the side etc. Our society is defined by its culture past and present – make that unviable and you have a pretty grey world.
An answer like that is exactly why I bliddy love you Bethan! I personally believe creative opportunities for all are more important now, than ever – as a process for folx to make sense of what’s happening, feel connected to others, express themselves…… any thoughts?
Definitely; it’s what’s kept us all sane hasn’t it! As unsatisfying as culture being mostly online can be it’s also opened the doors for some brilliant new ways of engagement and accessibility- I think of all those people with mobility issues, with young kids, with low self-confidence who in the past haven’t have been able to engage in the arts physically, who were effectively blocked from going over the threshold and now they can join in. They can settle their kids, pour a glass of wine and go online and join in on a bookmaking course, or watch a piece of live theatre, or go to a gig on their couch. We’ve got to celebrate that. And when things become more open again, we’ve got to make sure that we keep people with us, that this new accessibility doesn’t stop with a vaccine, but changes the landscape. We’ve got to make this the best learning that we can.
Can you tell us a highlight of 2020?
I’ve missed live music; there’s not much better than having a dance at a gig with your mates, so I had a particularly brilliant birthday, in amongst this strange year. County Durham based arts organisation Jack Drum Arts, were organising doorstep gigs with musicians and storytellers coming to perform for small groups during the summer holidays. My Mum surreptitiously organised for the legends that are Baghdaddies to come and play in her garden for me and my twin sister on our birthday. We had our own tiny festival- sousaphones, trumpets, drumkits popping out of the flower beds, mojitos in our hands as we “wiggled our bums, our big fat bums…”. That was pretty heady.
Sounds glorious! So, what’s next for you? Can you tell us about a project you’ve got coming up?
I have an exhibition ‘Finders Seekers’ that has just ‘opened’ at Greenfield arts (although currently no-one can visit it!). It was a lush commission to create artwork around ideas of possibility, changing perspectives and inquiry.
The exhibition is made up of a series of paper installations of trees, mushrooms and lichen combined with objects such as ropes, ladders and magnifying glasses – tools of investigation and elevation. I spent most of Christmas hand-painting and cutting 300 paper oak leaves to thread onto a ladder!
I wanted to create a fun, celebratory, optimistic exhibition; artworks interconnected like an ecosystem, where the viewer enters a childlike world, a paper-made forest full of metaphor, imagination and elevation.
Where can we keep in touch with you and check out your work?
I’m currently reworking on my website with the brilliant Branded by Naomi and I’m hoping to have a snazzy new launch of it early this year www.bethanmaddocks.com. Or if you want to find photos, drawings, papercutting videos and the occasional lycra-clad leg kick you can find me on Instagram bethan_maddocks.
Thank you Bethan! Interviews like this make me feel so certain that I’m in the right sector, working and collaborating with glorious humans and that the power and potential of art, is that it can change the world and make such a difference in people’s lives.
That’s all for now Culture Vultures……until next time!