Abingdon Studios is elevated above the town in an old accountant’s office above Abingdon Street Market – hosting a plethora of creative happenings. Blackpool Social Club finds out more about a recent collaborative exhibition and what soft hands-on mossy rocks really means.
Tell us a little about you and your collaboration:
(K) My name is Kerry Tenbey, an artist and curator originally from Blackpool, now living in Lancaster.
(E) …and I’m Ellie Barrett, an artist, curator and lecturer also living in Lancaster.
(K) Our collaboration began back in January 2019 when Ellie was part of a group show at the Hanover Project Gallery in Preston, where I was assistant curator at the time. As part of the exhibition program, Ellie gave a talk about her PHD research, and everything that she said was exactly the same as things I was researching for my dissertation and things that I was interested in. We got chatting and it just kind of stemmed from there really.
(E) It was from talking to Kerry that I really started to feel I could share my research with someone who really understands what I’m talking about and why it’s so important. Our approach to making work and using art as a critical tool is so similar, yet we go about things in slightly different ways which really helps me to understand and articulate new ideas.
How would you describe your creative process?
(K) For me, I never stop looking and thinking, it’s constant, which can be a bit annoying, but my artwork is what I’m most passionate about and I hope it will be a life-long love affair really.
All of the looking and thinking usually leads to an idea for an object or a sculpture. Making is my way of working through an idea or a thought. I find it difficult sometimes to articulate ideas with words. Ideas are usually sparked from looking at the world around me and thinking about how I fit into it. I find that materials just kind of jump out at me and catch my attention when I am driving to work or out walking with my kid. That process is at the heart of research really.
(E) I make sculptures from “everyday” materials we have in our homes – things like tin foil, soap, and salt dough. I’m really drawn to these because I like to challenge how we think about the things we use on a daily basis and I want viewers to have a sense of ownership and understanding when they look at my work. My creative process is really led by the materials I work with – I try to understand how they act and what they will or won’t allow me to do. This means I can make my own technical methods.
I can see your work explores identity and place with some really beautiful aspects of the human condition, what inspires you?
(K) I’m really motivated by trying to understand aspects of my own identity and what has influenced it. I really strongly believe that our material surroundings play a huge part in how we understand ourselves and each other and therefore it makes sense that in order to unpick some of that, I should be looking very closely at material compositions around me. I tend to get stuck on specific locations each time I approach new work. I become very methodical and meticulous about recording materials I find in locations and how they are interacting with other materials close by. I then start to explore how we fit into those connections and our cultural understanding of those materials. In a weird way I tend to think of myself as a bit of a material detective, chasing lines of enquiry until I have some kind of breakthrough moment. I don’t think I will ever crack the case though, and that’s kind of the point.
(E) I agree with Kerry – looking at the materials, objects and environments is an important part of understanding ourselves and each other. I’m inspired by finding ways of presenting the world around us as active and responsive, helping us to imagine our surroundings as having as much impact on our bodies and behaviour as we do on each other. I want to make sculptures that make things look alive, and I do this by tapping into the associations we might make with the materials around us. I’m also really inspired by the “handmade” – all of my works carry traces of the making process in fingerprints, and they look a little clumsy and childlike. Handmade objects can be really engaging and can create a connection between artist and viewer as well as bringing some humour into the work.
Is being from the north important to your work?
(K) Yes definitely. I grew up in Blackpool. Blackpool is where I am from and no matter where life takes me, I will never give up visiting or maintaining a strong connection with my hometown. It’s funny really, and I am sure most readers from Blackpool will agree, whilst you are growing up here, you are always dreaming of being somewhere else, somewhere bigger, somewhere better, but actually, there really is no place like home. As an adult, I now recognise and appreciate just how vibrant and alive Blackpool is. So much fascinating history and culture to be explored. Blackpool and other places in the North west are a constant source of inspiration for me.
I think there are certain values and attributes which feel inherently Northern too, like hard-working, industrious and made of tough stuff. I’m proud to come from working class family of makers, carpenters, builders, people that have contributed to northern industry. I think growing up and spending time around those skills and trades has definitely contributed to the way I understand the world and how I approach my work.
(E) I have a very strange relationship with my regional identity. I lived in the South of England until I was 10 and then I moved to the Wirral where my Mum is originally from. I spent my teenage years in Liverpool and I definitely think of myself as Northern which is captured in the tone of my work. I don’t take my sculptures too seriously – I want them to be funny, like they’re sharing a joke with the viewer. The works I make are accessible, making use of everyday materials in the home – they have a very DIY, no-nonsense attitude which reminds me a lot of the Northern identity. I definitely think the North is the most exciting place to be as an artist – there’s more of a sense of camaraderie and collaboration here, and a drive to make contemporary art accessible to lots of people. Both my work and the way I do things are definitely impacted by living here.
What advice would you give to artists who want to work collaboratively, and do you think it is important to work in this way?
(K) I think there are many advantages to working closely with someone who shares similar ideas and interests. It is a validating experience to share your thoughts and have the person completely understand where you’re coming from. Because of covid and last year’s lockdown, we (me & Ellie) have not had much physical time together developing our work. But in many ways, the separation has allowed us to develop ways of working which transcend the need for being together in a physical space. We have been doing lots of image sharing, diagrams, and much more focused discussion around the project.
(E) Definitely important! This is the first time I have collaborated in this way and working with Kerry really helps me to understand what I am doing and why that’s important. Hearing Kerry’s ideas – the way they make and think about work which is slightly different to mine – means that I am challenged to think through things in a different way. This is so important because it gets you out of your own head and helps you to see your work through another pair of eyes. In terms of advice, I would say it’s really helpful to share what you can with each other in lots of different ways – Kerry and I have communicated by sharing images, making diagrams for each other, and sharing texts. It really, really broadens your perspective and helps to enrich your own work.
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