Alice Wilson is a multimedia artist living and working between Scotland and London. Her practice spans various mediums, including mixing painting with photo transfers on wood, and using repurposed and reused materials. She teaches at the University of the Arts London, University of East London and at MASS.
Wilson uses residencies as a way to gain distance and make space for the unknown in her work, with significant opportunities being realised through funding from the British Council and Arts Council England. She exhibits both nationally and internationally, including the New Forms exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in September 2022. Most recently, Wilson installed sculptures as part of Mumbai Gallery Weekend in central Mumbai. She discusses her process and practice with us, from using different mediums to the impact of residencies.
What is your first memory of art and when did you decide you wanted to be an artist?
My first memory of painting was with my Winsor & Newton watercolour set; I still have it now. It was a gift when I was about nine or ten. It allowed me to experiment and control the quality of line and colour in a way that children’s poster colour paint had not afforded me. I remember working on quite minimal portraits – I didn’t really like making mistakes, and mistakes are hard to hide with watercolour, so perhaps I limited what was on the page because I was feeling anxious not to muck it up!
I always knew I wanted to do something creative, but in all honesty, I had no idea you could be an artist. It was quite odd to do an art foundation course and realise there was this possibility.
Can you tell us a bit about your practice?
Materially, my practice is quite broad, and spans photographic, painterly and sculptural modes of making. I use landscape as a medium to articulate how it’s employed as an idea as opposed to a subject. It’s not the depiction of landscape that I’m interested in but more the way we access it; questions of privilege, what it might provide and how that is used – be that an image on a wall or an outdoor area that people visit when living urban or suburban lives. In some way these concerns mirror my own journeys between London and Scotland; thinking about what shifts and changes, and about what is held in the memory.
What is your creative process like now and how has it changed over the years?
I think it would be quite fair to say that my creative process has moved from the wall to the floor over the years. I still make wall-based works, but the practice is definitely more sculptural. When I first began to talk about what I do I called myself a painter, partly due to being nervous to use the more (what I perceived to be) grandiose term of artist. People who’ve come to know my practice in recent years refer to me as a sculptor. I have come round to the term artist as I no longer find it appropriate to be attributed to a specific medium.
I like the ability to work in ways that feel most appropriate – the photograph has been a constant through my practice, however it is now the physical materials – the wood, construction timber and architectural debris – that has been of greatest focus over the past year.
Can you tell us about a typical day in the studio? Are there any rituals or routines you use to get your day going?
Coffee! I’ve had a really busy few years with a lot of exhibiting opportunities which has been fantastic – my days have been diverse and driven, needing to meet deadlines and make decisions. I’ll get to the studio quite early, doodle a bit and make a plan for the day – this can involve things like priming some wood or metal as a surface to draw on, and then there will be ambitions set for the making.
I’m strict about what I want to achieve in a day. Once I’ve decided I want to make three casts, for example, I won’t rest until that’s done. There can be quite a speed to my making, but decisions on what to make and do take time. I am looking forward to some studio time later this year where it will be slower, as I feel a need to reconnect with my practice a bit, making time for experimentation and playing again.
Can you tell us a bit about the process and combination of materials you use, from photo transfers on tree branches to site-responsive installations?
My process has evolved to working with the most appropriate way of making for the materials and ideas. I have a very large series of works titled The Barrier System Paintings and this is where all my processes collide. There is always a photographic transfer, an area of cast material (plaster or concrete) and construction timber baring the marks of its previous lives that are present.
As well as paintings I often made furniture in a bid to reform sculptures. I first did this with sculptures from Denmark. I thought they were quite good and when they came to the UK I was asked to exhibit them in a couple of venues, but each time I was disappointed – perhaps they’d lost their connection to the space in which they were made. Either way, I decided to make the sculptures into a table and chairs so I could not be tempted to show the work again.
Do you have a favourite brush, paint, medium or colour that you keep coming back to?
I always have a really good supply of Winsor & Newton Promarkers. I really like the speed at which I’m able to draw with these as they glide beautifully, and you have a choice of tips. I don’t really like drawing with pencils, so these markers are my go-to for doodling and planning.
You often work with reclaimed wood and materials. Is this a reflection of an interest in sustainability and the environment?
Not overtly, but it is indicative of the way I make and the value I place on resources. Every scrap of material that comes into my studio is used and re-used until exhausted, then at this point it is made into breeze blocks (having previously found its way into paintings and furniture).
I’ve always kept all my off-cuts – to me they are like the negative space of construction, and perhaps holding on to what is cut away. There is also an element of chance that I quite like about my use of materials. I have and do buy wood occasionally, but more often than not my materials are retrieved from other peoples’ building projects, so I come into contact with material that I’ve not made decisions about. For example, a pile of roof joists or a load of off-cuts of framing mouldings. This way, part of the process becomes about seeing what I can do with them.
You have participated in several residencies; how do they contribute to your development as an artist and how do you decide which one to apply for? Can you share one residency experience that was particularly impactful and why?
I’ve found residencies to be incredibly valuable. The residencies I have sought out have been quite specific to my needs at the time. The first residency I went to was at Hospitalfield House in Arbroath. What I learnt from this residency ended up not being so much focused on practical outcomes, but it was a realisation that it was okay for me to spend time solely working on my practice. We even had meals cooked for us, and it was the first time I was able to dedicate two solid weeks thinking about what I was doing and why. I think artists find they have to justify themselves, both publicly and personally, and the people I met on the residency appeared focused and confident in a way I hadn’t managed to be by this point in my career.
More recently, I worked to obtain funding to go to Aarhus in Denmark for three months. The first year I tried I was unsuccessful, but I got the funding the second time round. I’d been particularly eager to work in this city due to its topographical features; a cultural hub, surrounded by beach and forest, all within ten minutes’ cycle from one another. It was a way of thinking about landscape in a different proximity, not miles away or ‘other’ to everyday life but built into the geography of the city. Having the agency to work on one project over a significant period of time saw a change in my practice – I was able to open up dialogues with practising artists as well as various professionals in institutions and galleries.
What advice would you have for an artist just starting out?
Always reach out, as it can feel like an intimidating world to step into fresh from school or university. Coming from a very ‘non-arts’ background myself, it all felt like quite a mystery. This is something I’ve really tried to address when I give talks, sharing as much of the mechanics as possible. Above all, there is quite a lot of resilience required, and the most important thing is to keep making and be ready to seek out and respond to opportunities when they arise.
Do you have any shows coming up that you would like to share?
I have a group show in a dilapidated building in Peckham, London, coming up this September and a small solo show with a project in Hackney, London.
All images are courtesy of the artist. Click here to see more of Alice's work.
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