Our collaborative residency exhibition - Site Visit was a prompt for creating connections despite distance and separations, finding parallels and synchronicity between “visits” to the artworks of other artists presenting their own views. As part of its artist conversations series, Nicholas Hales from South Africa (2019 Resident) shared his views with Peggy Stevenson based in Chicago, USA (2020/21 Resident). Both Peggy and Nicholas’s artworks for Site Visit encapsulate a sense of quietness, solitude and perhaps even hopeful frustration. Each was confined within a room of their own, and chose to use it as the subject of their work. In Peggy’s images, she looks across and out towards the city she has grown to know so well, and in Nicholas’s video piece he puzzles through the light patterns and days passing in his accommodation in Paris when he was too ill to leave it. Both gazing objectively at the scene before them and inwardly confronting the conflict of being unable to leave. In Peggy and Nicholas’s conversation that follows, some of these questions and crossovers become evident and we get to visit the sites of their thinking.
Nicholas: There was something ‘calm and meditative’ for me when I saw your ‘Lonely but Safe’ work. The dark greens and rich olive colours gave me a sense of ‘winter’ and going into hibernation. I’m a fairly introverted person and felt lockdown was going to be like doing a ‘retreat’. And in some ways I welcomed the time to become quiet and ‘retreat’ from the world. So I was interested that you titled it, ‘Lonely but safe’.
Peggy: I very much like your initial comments on “Lonely but Safe”. It was (and still is) a very unusual time to be a street photographer, and although much of my work takes place by its very nature “outside”, I also welcomed the time for sheltering in place and keeping safe. Like you, I’m actually very introverted and putting myself out on the streets and capturing city life as I see it still requires a certain mental preparation for the attention I might receive as a result. While I welcome and build connections with people if I am photographing them, my first instinct is to always try to capture a moment without people being aware in order to capture their more real expressions. To me, this is always the beginning of a “story” and my work has always been driven by the need to discover what that is and to tell it in the best way that I can.
Nicholas: I’d like to hear your thoughts on the effects on a ‘global lockdown’, individually and collectively. In my work I’m interested in the process of going ‘inward’ and the transformation possibilities of what I felt in lockdown. Your ‘street’ photography seems a lot about connection to people and a city. What was lockdown like for you, as we went into ‘interior’ spaces, both literally and figuratively? How did that affect you and your creative practice?
Peggy: As the pandemic was raging on, along with the numerous protests that swept through the country after the death of George Floyd, the images I ended up photographing from inside my living room weren’t necessarily “street photography”. We’re now in a semi lockdown again because of the recent surge in the virus. I appreciate that you called my place calm and meditative -- I did end up writing more, and drawing and painting during the lockdown. I guess these were more therapeutic than anything. I have also picked up my film camera again just to find something new-ish to do.
Nicholas: I will look forward to seeing how your work develops, particularly as a ‘street’ photographer in a pandemic, where public spaces have become a rather contentious space. It is really interesting that you are actually quite an introverted person and you have to prepare yourself when you go out to take your ‘street’ photographs, as you interact with your subjects. Sometimes when we put ourselves in uncomfortable positions it forces us to grow.
Peggy: I agree that growth is indeed uncomfortable when we plunge ourselves into something new, where we’re not completely in control. There’s a different kind of energy driving the work— but I also think that’s where much of the kernels of your ‘true’ art, or if you like, your true self, emerges and flows.
I watched your video "The Bedroom and the Spring" and I really liked the format you chose, and I particularly liked the voice and pacing. There was something almost poetic about it. How did you decide on this approach to interpreting the theme Site Visit? I liked how you turned your being ill into the story and that Paris and the residency became more of a side note. I especially liked the images in the ending where you created a kind of ghostly movement in the room. I'm really interested in your process of selection and ultimately what inspires you to create. Do you see yourself as a storyteller? Does the written word dictate your art? Or does it grow alongside…
Nicholas: This ‘narrative’ storytelling aspect is something new in my visual art. I guess there is an overlap in our works, as your street photography and your ‘interior’ photographs are windows into an unfolding story. I’m always interested when we see an individual image, how we create a story in our minds. Sometimes close or widely different from the ‘truth’.
About 9 years ago I did a screenwriting program. I’ve written a number of scripts over the years but this is the first time I used narrative storytelling in my visual art. It was a fun project to incorporate these two aspects of my creative work. I had the initial story in my mind. Getting sick before I left for Paris and then being sick in Paris and watching the residency slip away while in bed, waiting to get better and then having two really great experiences near the end of my time in France, once I got better. The drawing workshop and then the trip to Lourdes. In screenwriting there is a process whereby your protagonist has a ‘want’ and a ‘need’. The want is what he or she wants from a particular situation. The need is something they need but they are often unaware of this in themselves. Often in a film a protagonist gets their need met but not their want. I was kind of playing with that concept in this piece. The ‘ghostly’ images was a visual metaphor for the process of being confined in a room, being sick and the process of getting better. There are some overlaps with the present global lockdown and the pandemic.
Peggy: It’s very interesting to see what went into your creative process. I liked that there was an element of discovery for yourself, being in Paris but unable to do the thing you were there for, and then to go into these other experiences that pushed your creative output in a new direction.
I really liked your discussion on what people want as opposed to what they need and how these things unfold in ways we don’t expect. I was born and raised in Manila, the Philippines, a city very different in climate and culture of Chicago. It wasn't easy to adjust and much of what I set out to do was simply to try and capture the feelings of “being here” as compared to “being there” and slowly, the story grew. One of the happy discoveries I made for myself was that the feelings of connection I built through the years of this practice eventually helped connect me to the city in a deeper, more personal way.
I selected my photos for Site Visit with this in my mind—a sort of short story featuring the city as the main character experiencing something out of the ordinary. Of course I am also the unseen character in the stories, since I am the one 'fleshing' out the city. On that note, I was really hoping to dedicate my time in Paris to figuring out how to step inside its essence and learning more, not just about Paris or people but also myself and how I might be inspired in new, unexpected ways. Hopefully we’re nearing the end of this global pandemic and we can safely travel again soon.
Nicholas: You mentioned that you have picked up your film camera. Interested to know what camera you have? What are you filming? I’m working on a ‘film’ piece but entirely created ‘digitally’. It is an installation piece which I thought I would try and create but with lockdown and less money around felt a digital version fitted the zeitgeist a bit better.
Peggy: I decided to take a different tack photography-wise, by going back to film and shooting with much more deliberation. I was referring to my old SLR camera and have started using it again, instead of my DSLR. I embraced the DSLR and loved how liberating it was not to mind the end of the roll. But, after years of working this way, I’m trying to figure out my way back to creating work that speaks more authentically for me right now, and possibly lead me down a new path in creating connections between images and stories. I’m sure it has a lot to do with the virus and the lockdowns, and the distances separating all of us. Anyway, I dug out my old canon EOS Elan II (for black and white) and an old Minolta for color film…
I’d be very interested to see your installation piece when it’s finished! I like installation pieces particularly for their story hidden inside the piece— I’m always curious to know what the piece is saying to me and to the world and what it made me think of.
Finally, I came across this the other day and I thought I’d share it with you:
“The basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and its occasional nastiness, not through argument but through feeling, and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way pass from feeling to meaning. It’s not something that committees can do. It’s not a task achieved by groups or by movements. It’s done by individuals, each person mediating in some way between a sense of history and an experience of the world.”— Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New.
Does this resonate with you too? Do you have any particular artists or writers you go back to again and again? I was greatly influenced by seeing the works of Walker Evans and I look at his work when I feel in need of inspiration...
Nicholas: I resonate with what you said about ‘feeling’ and Hughes quote. My work is driven by ‘feeling’, I have a thematic framework that I know I’m investigating but then let things flow within those lines. A lecturer once told me to create a conceptual frame, like two railway tracks and then let things flow between the two tracks. I try to just let my feelings flow and see what the subconscious brings up. What I’m drawn to and what resonates with what I’m investigating.
I liked Hughes' quote but I’m always slightly distrustful of anyone saying, this is what art is about or this is what art should be doing. We all are so different and unique. I’ve more gone for ‘Art is life’ and that really encompasses everything.
Peggy: I agree with you in regard to quotes as a mere guidepost in your own personal expression of your art—and that it’s all part of the process.
I’ve really enjoyed talking about creating and the creative practice, as well as the exchanges we've had on each other’s work—it's not often you get a one on one chance to connect with another artist from a different part of the globe and have a discussion like this!
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Cover Image: L'AiR Arts residents, Multidisciplinary Program, January 2020