How did you start as an artist?
I come from a show-business family so while I was growing up it seemed right that I followed in the family business and learnt to sing and dance and act. But I found I was at my happiest and most fulfilled when I was creating: drawing, painting, sculpting, writing. The combination of words and images has always been very strong with me. I made little theatres with scenery and characters and wrote stories for them to act out. I illustrated my own children’s books, which led me into writing for animation. Ten years ago, I did an art foundation course at The Cass, Whitechapel, and studied time-based media. I made short films using stop frame animation and made complicated models to film. I have always loved small plastic figures and over the years have collected hundreds of them. I have used them on mirrors and in box frames and have used them in my art many times. My writing career has always worked parallel to my artistic career, but I feel that they enhance each other and feed each other. For me it’s always about telling a story, exploring characters, whichever medium I use.
How did you come to choose the varied mediums you work in?
I had two projects on my art table. One was putting small HO-sized figures into terrariums to create scenarios. The other was cutting out old books to make frames for photographs. I had the square cut out of the front of a book, ready to insert an old photo of my mum into and instead randomly decided to put the characters I had ready for the terrarium into the gap. It was a woman hanging up washing. Immediately I could see the potential. I added sky and trees and suddenly it was as if the book had come to life, like a living illustration.
How would you describe the evolution of your art over time?
It has been a total evolution. To begin with I just thought the combination of the book and the figures looked fantastic. Then I realised that the scene would have more impact if the words surrounding it made sense of the picture—told a story. Then I realised that I could search the book for perfect words and I didn’t have to go with whatever happened to be on the first few pages. That’s when it began to feel like a collaboration between me and the author. I don’t consciously explore themes. As a storyteller, I like to tell stories within my art and the themes often emerge as these stories evolve. It’s like the characters begin to talk to me.
I soon began customising the figures and making more complicated scenery. I found that more serious themes began to emerge such as teenage suicide, lost childhoods, violence against women—subjects quite outside the books I was using. I began to learn techniques of model making. I am sure that more realisations will occur as I keep creating.
In your first solo exhibition, Bleed Between the Lines (2015), at the Cob Gallery, you displayed your book arts, where you carved up antiquarian books and installed tableaux vivants inside them using purchased small figurines. What were the concepts you were engaging with and invoking in this exhibition?
I sometimes feel that my process is somewhat Frankensteinian. I combine my chosen materials with someone else’s art by use of a scalpel (hence the name of the exhibition Bleed Between the Lines) to create something completely different.
I have always been drawn towards the dark side of human behaviour and emotions, so I feel I have found a medium that is perfect to explore these themes. In some of my pieces I feature sex, voyeurism, deviant behaviour and violence towards women. But the scenarios are never what they seem. There will be a metaphor, a subversion, a twist in the tail. My piece called The Illustrated Doctor showed a happy wedding group in the centre of the book. But around the tableaux sit the realities of the lives of the smiling guests. In each compartment are scenes of bullying, domestic abuse, exploitation, unfaithfulness, loneliness. Behind them is the illustration of a human heart—the place we hold all our emotions. I wanted to show that despite these ritualistic moments in time where everyone seems happy, behind the hired suits and the glossy hairstyles, everyone is struggling. Everyone has their own demons to fight.
In The Amazing Marriage, a couple smile out from a perfect living room, surrounded by photos of themselves, happy, romantic, a picture of togetherness. But below them, in the basement, a woman is tied up and below her, in the ground, is a dead woman. This piece for me was about secrets. How certain men will marry women and systematically destroy them. And when they are a husk of the person they once were, they will move on.
I love subverting Enid Blyton books. I’ve done a series of The Five Find Outers. Five feisty fearless children that are always up for any adventure or mystery. I have truly enjoyed creating the most terrible grisly fates for them. In the case of The Children’s Life of Christ by Enid Blyton, I crucified Noddy. Initially this was an ironic statement about the fact that the creator of Noddy had written about the life of Jesus. But it slowly dawned on me that the image that I had created expressed a loss of innocence, representing the lost childhoods of so many children who have been touched by war, abuse, and violence.
Tell us about your 2017 exhibition, The Cut, at Gallery Different. Why did you choose this subject matter and how did you build upon your previously developed collage techniques?
I had been making and exhibiting my book sculptures for two years and during that time I had been researching and buying HO-gauge small figures to put in my scenarios. These figures are normally used by model railway enthusiasts. During this journey I discovered that, as well as the standard passengers and railways workers, there were other characters such as sex workers and people having sex for sale. There were also murderers and kidnap victims. I began to view all those model railway enthusiasts in a totally different light. What must go on in those attics when they put the guard’s hat on and set off up the ladder! And then I thought I need to create a model railway—a railway where peculiar, dark things happen.
I often use recurring characters in my book sculptures, so I thought that The Cut Railway would be a place for those characters, for a continuation or a precursor of their mishaps and stories. For example, in my book collage, The Bravest Boy in Camp, a scout is protecting his troupe’s sausages from three hungry tigers. So the thought occurred to me: ‘where did the tigers come from?’ And The Cut provided the answer: a crashed circus train!
I bought the actual train set online. I customised it, changed the landscape, put lights in, got new trains and characters—and The Cut was born. It was wonderful working on something so big for a change. Up to this point my area of creation had been tiny. But I soon found I needed to learn so much about modelling. I had to kill clowns and make them look as if they were being eaten by tigers and polar bears. I needed realistic blood, so my materials became a combination of model railway and war gaming items!
The Cut train-set was a really successful part of the exhibition. It was a spectacular centrepiece. It seems people are really drawn to a moving train set. They loved exploring it and finding all the little strange scenarios I had nestled in and around it. The Cut was like an image of the perfect English countryside but with dark and peculiar undertones. It was like a treasure hunt for adults. Critics said it was like The League of Gentlemen meets the Chapman Brothers. There is even a soundtrack.
It is definitely an area I will continue to explore, but I will start the next train set from scratch. It is very absorbing creating a small world of your own, even if it is a totally bizarre one! And who doesn’t like a model train set?
Where do you find inspiration?
I find inspiration everywhere: characters I meet at a bus stop, stories people tell me about their lives, movies, music, television, art. But I will always have a writer’s sensibility. So to me it’s always about the story and I think that’s what draws my viewers in. And if I can make them laugh, cry, or think about an issue, then all the better.
I now know that no one is ever what they seem. No situation is never straightforward. It’s a multi-layered thing. There will always be secrets and that’s where you will find me—forensically exploring them.
What are you working on at the moment?
I have been working on new editions of my pieces and a new piece for three exhibitions coming up very soon: the Parallax Art Fair in Manchester (23rd to 25th November), the Edinburgh Art Fair (23rd to 25th November), and I’m really excited to be exhibiting in Blackwater Gallery, a new gallery opening in Cardiff in January. I’ve just created a new studio in my house and have some really exciting new ideas primed and ready that I will be working on in the new year.