Artist Patricia Townsend writes about her collection, 'Interviews exploring artists and the creative process', recently deposited and made available at the British Library.
What does it feel like to be an artist? Are there common threads between the experiences of individual artists or does each artist work in his or her own idiosyncratic way?
As an artist myself, I began to think about what happens in my mind as I create new artworks and to wonder whether my experiences are shared by others. Do other artists also begin with a vague intimation of what they want their subject to be, but with little sense of what form the potential artwork might take? Do they also sometimes have the experience of an idea for a new work bursting suddenly and unexpectedly into their minds? And if so, do they, like me, initially feel a sense of elation as if the new idea is perfect even though they know from experience that sooner or later (and usually sooner) this elation will evaporate and the idea wonâ€™t seem so wonderful after all? I set out to explore these questions and more in a series of interviews with professional artists working in a variety of media. These interviews, many of which are now archived in the British Library, formed the basis of my research for a PhD at the Slade School of Fine Art and for the book â€˜Creative States of Mind: Psychoanalysis and the Artistâ€™s Processâ€™ (Routledge 2019).
When I began this project I didnâ€™t know whether the artists I interviewed would be able to put their experiences into words. After all, I was speaking to visual artists who have deliberately chosen a non-verbal medium in which to express themselves. Many of them were accustomed to being asked about their material processes and their motivations but I was asking them to talk about how it feels to make a work of art, something they might not have considered in depth before. Would it be possible to express this verbally? If the answer had been no, my whole project would have fallen flat, but as it turned out I neednâ€™t have worried. Many of the artists were wonderfully articulate, often finding poetic images that vividly conveyed the qualities of their experiences. For instance, painter Hughie Oâ€™Donoghue used the metaphors of archeological digs and of dredging to describe his process of unearthing something from the subconscious as he paints:
This recording adds another dimension to the understanding of Oâ€™Donoghueâ€™s work that we might not have gained through the written word alone. His reflective way of speaking mirrors his deeply thoughtful engagement with his developing painting.
Another example is provided by photographer Sian Bonnell who describes how it feels to be immersed in her work, even to the point of making herself ill:
This recording takes us, as listeners, inside this artistâ€™s experience. Through the way in which Bonnell speaks, as much as through her language, we get a feel for the intensity of the state of mind she is in.
These examples attest to the individuality of each artistâ€™s experience. And yet, the interviews reveal many shared threads too. Oâ€™Donoghue speaks of his painting as acquiring â€˜some kind of lifeâ€™ through his work on it. A number of other interviewees also speak of a point in their process when their developing artwork begins to come to life. And the state of complete absorption described so vividly by Bonnell is also referred to by many other artists, each of whom finds his or her own particular way to convey the quality of the experience.
In conducting the interviews, I wanted to find out whether there would be enough common threads in the artistsâ€™ accounts to enable me to trace the journey from the artistâ€™s first inkling that he or she is onto something, through the artistâ€™s work with a medium to the completion of the artwork and its launch into the outside world. It seemed clear to me that the making of a work of art involves unconscious as well as conscious processes but, of course, neither I nor the artists I interviewed could provide information about processes that are out of our awareness. Therefore I looked to psychoanalytic theory to try to fill the inevitable gaps and to shed light on the artistsâ€™ narratives. But in the interviews I was not attempting to analyse the artists as individuals (something that psychoanalysis has been accused of in the past). Rather I wanted to use psychoanalytic theory to analyse the creative process through factors in common across many interviews. This is what I aimed to do in the book â€˜Creative States of Mind; Psychoanalysis and the Artistâ€™s Processâ€™.
It was a great privilege to have the opportunity to interview these artists and each encounter gave me enormous pleasure. I am delighted that 25 recordings are now available through the British Library so that others can hear the voices of these remarkable artists for themselves.
To find 'Interviews exploring artists and the creative process' search C1801 at sami.bl.uk. For other collections of oral history interviews with artists, sculptors, craftspeople, theatre designers, photographers, and fashion designers explore our collection guide to Oral histories of visual arts and crafts.