Lesley Hilling is a contemporary artist who utilizes reclaimed antique wood to create her intricate and alluring sculptures. All of her materials have past lives, some of the objects she has included in her work include: bowling balls, lenses, saw blades, syringes, chess pieces, mirrors, and photographs. Each of these objects bring a new dialogue to the already complex plethora of interweaving stories present.
In 2013 Hilling created the character Joseph Boshier, and attributed her new exhibition to the fictional architect. The tragic story of fame, failure, and disgrace was believed by many, and can be read about in depth here: http://www.josephboshier.co.uk
BM – your work is very haptic and tactile, not only in the way it is produced, but also in the way it invites touch. Is this something you allow or would you rather the work is viewed only by the eyes?
LH – I go for that on purpose, and I’d like it to happen a lot more. I think that’s something quite important.
BM – In the Boshier exhibition there were little doors with things behind, often people think they aren’t allowed to touch an artwork. Does a lot of the detail go unseen because of this?
LH – When I did the Boshier show I was actively encouraging people to explore the works. It was about ‘what lies behind’ etcetera.
BM – That resonates nicely with the alter ego you’ve created.
LH – Yes, I think so, it was intended as another layer. Having people looking at them closely is a really important element. I started putting magnifying glasses and lenses in as well, so that as you moved around, the photographs inside became distorted. It’s all to do with memory, and how the memory distorts.
BM – How much of the aesthetic of your work is dictated by the original appearance of the materials, do you use existing joints and cuts or do you make them all yourself?
LH – I cut all of the joints myself. I think the work has two different sides, there are the pieces that are all antique wood jointed together, and there are the larger Joseph Boshier pieces. The Boshier ones are a cladded substructure. If it all goes horribly wrong I can just re-clad. So it’s only really the colour or the texture that dictates how the piece would come out, rather than the shape.
The Boshier pieces are a lie, whereas the others are quite truthful.
BM – Something very obvious in your work is your love of balance, both with colour and also with the precariousness each piece suggests. Is this something you do intentionally or is it something that happens more instinctually? A lot of the pieces look like they shouldn’t be able to stand unaided.
LH – That’s right and I love that. It’s amazing how they do stand. I think its about 40% me and 60% something else, I’m not quite sure what. It’s a bit dangerous. The bigger pieces are in sections, so when we’re photographing them or moving them and they are not in their complete form, they can fall over. The top section will balance the piece perfectly when in position, but the piece isn’t balanced without it and is liable to fall.
BM – Is the process of creating artworks for you cathartic or do you find it stressful?
LH – Both. Its interesting, because at the end of the Boshier documentary Derval reads out the last entry in his diary, and it says “My art has seen me through”, which does suggest how cathartic it has been, and I think it’s true. I can be one hell of a nasty, bad-tempered person if it’s not going well. My partner Nel knows when things aren’t going well.
BM – Your work gives off a very ‘mad scientist’ kind of vibe, do you think there are elements of that in your character? This seems to be what you have written about the Joseph Boshier alter ego. How akin are the two of you?
LH – Not at all. I’m so modern and young. I’m very up-to-date with things. I’m certainly not mad, I’m a bit reclusive maybe. (Laughs)
BM – A lot of artists are, I think you have to be.
LH – I’ve been with Nel for 32 years this year, so I’ve always had someone around, coming home from work or pottering about the house. She’s creative too, and we’re part of Brixton Housing Co-Op, which is the LGBT community. I know everyone around here, and there are loads of artists and poets. It’s full of creative people. So although I’m reclusive I still have a network of friends around me.
The Joseph Boshier character was a real recluse - his story was about guilt, loss and longing. Emotions that are important to me and my work. Maybe that’s why they have that Mad Scientist look about them.
BM – What do you think the connection is between the LGBT community and the arts community? Do you think its because artists are quite liberal and free?
LH – Maybe liberal, but also maybe damaged. A lot of people who do art are damaged in some way. We’re all a bit damaged I guess. Now it’s quite open to be a lesbian or a gay man but when we were young it was really difficult to come out. Years before that it was illegal. I think all that feeds into people wanting to have a creative outlet. There is definitely that correlation between artists and queers.
BM – Do you believe in the ‘Tortured Artist’ dialectic?
LH – I don’t know, I’ve never really thought about it. A lot of artists have emotional baggage they are working out in the art and it makes it that much more interesting. Also I think people who can create convincing political work and those who come from cultures where they experience oppression, bring so much more to the work.
BM – Maybe the past experience of hardship is what differentiates a good piece of artwork from a good piece of craft?
LH – If you have all of that going into it, it really does help.
BM – Do you think there is still a disparity between women and men in the art world?
LH – I suppose there is, there is in the world isn’t there? Not so much in the west these days though. I think there are so many great women out there doing really great work.
BM – You are using what some would call a traditionally ‘masculine medium’, do you think that’s why you chose a male pseudonym?
LH – Actually I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be a man. My dad was always doing woodwork and things, he built a boat in the front garden. So as a child I was always doing that with him. I’ve always had that interest. When people who don’t know me see the work that do assume I’m a man because Lesley can also be a man’s name.
BM – How much did you have to get into the Boshier mindset whilst creating the work, did it have any adverse effects? Did you start thinking like him? And did you create the works for that show or were they existing works?
LH – Yeah a lot of them were already existing, and I think that’s why it worked. I borrowed a lot of previously sold work so it was a bit like a retrospective. I don’t think I could have made the pieces specifically for the show. Joseph came out of the work, the work couldn’t have come from him.
BM – In your opinion, is the whole story, and the reactions from the press and the public part of the artwork itself, or is that all just auxiliary and a means of publicizing the show?
LH – Yes, it was part of it. The story was like another layer on top of all of that wood. The success of making up a story like that is dependent upon the reaction. In a way I felt it was slightly flawed, because so many people left thinking Joseph Boshier really existed. I wanted people to leave the show doubting.
BM – Did anyone come out of the woodwork genuinely claiming to have known him?
LH – Yes, we had someone claiming to have heard of him. A magazine also wrote an article and I don’t think they realized he didn’t exist.
BM – What has been the single piece of artwork or exhibition that has affected you in the most profound way?
LH – Chris Ofili, his work when he won the turner prize. I really love soul and black culture. I felt his work was saying “OK you can do anything” and I found that so inspiring.
Lesley Hilling's new show In A Silent Way is a collaborative show with Anders Knutsson and is on at :
The Knight Webb Gallery, 54 Atlantic Road, Brixton SW98PZ