Sufficiently sticky from twenty-six degree heat, I was more than pleased to be invited into the cool and creative rooms of Salford-based independent arts organisation Islington Mill, by Rachel Goodyear. With her bohemian-like attire and relaxed demeanour, she seemed very much a part of the place. Her studio is her scrapbook; here you can find magical traces of her imagination such as odd clippings about fungus, her mascot ‘A Girl with Birds Inside Her’ mask and a collection of gothic figurines in a glass cabinet. In her darkly fairytale work you’ll find relentlessly dancing devils, humans wearing beastly masks, young doppelgangers, the trappings of vulnerable animalistic stances, and even a couple feeding each other like birds. Yet her world is her own; these are not archaic characters, but slightly skewed versions of her everyday experiences and observations. Her most recent exhibition work at London’s Pippy Houldsworth Gallery differs significantly from her previous work, and now she’s in collage-style experimental mode. It was a privilege to hear her talk so openly, especially about her collection of drawings ‘Unable To Stop Because They Were Too Close To The Line’ which were her diary while she was undergoing chemotherapy in 2006 for Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Where did you train as an artist?
I did my BA at Leeds Metropolitan University. It was quite a long time ago now! I was in a really productive year, so I think as a year group we all got along well. There was a lot of support and enthusiasm, which helped a lot.
What has made you stay in Manchester – what is it about the art scene that has made you stay?
Predominantly this place (Islington Mill) – I do sometimes wonder that, especially being in the same studio for so many years and watching everything change around me – even the view out of the window is changing. It does come back to this place. There are some really fantastic places in Manchester as well; it’s a brilliant support network. There’s the International Three Gallery, Castlefield Gallery, Manchester Art Gallery…It’s a good city to be in, but the Mill is definitely my creative home.
Much of your work is like a twisted folklore, a darker version of Alice in Wonderland which sucks all the cliché out of the Disney adaptations. Were you read fairy tales as a child?
Yeah I was read fairy tales, but also my Mum was really into Norse and Greek mythology, there was always these peculiar story books lying around – a lot of them were really old. Also, my great aunty was a mischievous old storyteller – she was quite a character – she would look after me quite a lot and just sit and tell me loads of stories. Some of them were true, others she just made up. I grew up with a lot of tall tales!
Are there any particular figures which feature in your work?
There tends to be more of a serendipitous meeting of characters. Whenever I make work I never actually think about fairy tales or folk tales. What I tend to do is look at the everyday and twist it slightly, perhaps using the objects as metaphors. Because a lot of folklore is built upon those lines as well, I think you get a crossover of old characters and beliefs. I start to notice little similarities there. A few years ago I started to look closely at the trickster character in mythology, mainly because I started reading about the trickster from various different mythologies and cultures and started to notice so many similarities between the characteristics of the trickster and those in my own work. There’s mischievousness, deception…
Explain your use of white space… It seems to correspond to your artwork titles which are simple and devoid of excessive allusion – it’s as if each one encloses a moral or a secret which can’t quite be pinned down the same way as conventional fairy stories…
Right from when I very first started bringing the drawings out of the sketchbook, I saw them as being fragments almost like if you extract something from its natural surroundings, or a sentence from its usual context. If you just strip everything else away it just heightens that ambiguity of who it is, where it has come from, what it’s doing. That white space becomes a charged space even though there’s nothing in it, making you question what could be there. When there’s a lot of space around something it can become quite bleak and maybe appear to be quite vulnerable. It can be like a sinister character in the mist.
Have you ever considered book illustration?
Not as such. I have had people come to me, and if there’s a particular drawing they like that already exists which they think will really suit the story then that’s fine, but it’s more a meeting of creative minds. Robert Shearman, who has written collections of dark short stories, has used some of my drawings in this way. I’ve also done album covers for close friends; when I really like their music and they like my art work, we put the two together and it just kind of works. But it doesn’t happen very often, I can’t illustrate other people’s ideas! I find it quite peculiar when I’m labelled as an illustrator, because I can’t!
There’s something addictively uncanny about your work, which is both familiar and distancing at the same time. Is this intentional?
In a way. Sometimes more so than others, I will have an idea before I put it on paper and it will be quite deliberate. The other way I work is more like a stream of consciousness. To be honest, I prefer the stream of consciousness, but it does tend to take a little longer for things to happen that way, it’s more of a process that’s ongoing over time. There are definitely things you can recognise in my work, because of the way it takes in what’s around, sometimes very ordinary things and twisting them – putting things together that might not necessarily go together. Kind of just screwing things up a little bit! It’s a kind of in-between, sleepwalking state, real but not real. That’s the kind of state I’m interested in.
I loved seeing your animation ‘Girl with birds inside her’ – I felt she was inescapably trapped, in comparison to the characters in your drawings…
That’s pretty much what I want the animations to do. When I first started getting interested in animation it wasn’t to make a story. The girl with birds inside her is a long standing character for me, even my studio mascot is ‘the girl with birds inside her’. It’s a sketch which I’ve been doing for years and years. I always imagined she would have all these birds inside her; she would cough one up and another one would take its place so she could never get her breath or be given her voice. But then again I had this idea that she was guided by the fluttering, and the birds’ compass direction was working inside her.
The scenarios I draw on paper tend to show characters caught in a moment, so you could imagine anything could happen next. I had ideas for characters caught in a cycle, which I knew could only be achieved through movement and creating a loop. That’s when I got interested in animation. Most of my animations work as an inescapable cycle, but this was my most ambitious. I underestimated the amount of work which goes into them!
How did you make the animation?
Alex Hindle, an animator from the group Soup Collective, assisted me with all of the technical stuff. I told him what I wanted to do and he gave me quite a bit of guidance, but I also wanted to keep it really DIY. First I made hundreds and hundreds of drawings, then he helped put these into animation programme After Effects and played around with timing/loops. Sound artist, Matt Wand, did the sound for me – most of one day I spent coughing out tomatoes in front of a microphone!
Your artistic repertoire is one of abject substances, claws, teeth, whips, masks and cloaked identities. Art critic Cynthia Freeland notes that art in recent years has shown an obsession with horror; would you say that the contemporary Gothic realm is a spectacle, rather than a physical presence?
Horror has become such a broad term, as has Gothic, and I struggle with them as labels for genres and cultures with so many layers and subtle differences. I think that contemporary Gothic Horror offers both the spectacular and physical presence and I do tend to dip in and out of it. I am a huge horror film fan, particularly silent films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, and really enjoy a good zombie or monster movie, but I love horror films that create a sense of anxiety from very little at all. I really enjoyed ‘Under the Skin’ for these very reasons – I still keep thinking about it.
Looking at your portfolio, your style has changed. This is especially so in 2012, and in your work exhibited at Pippy Houldsworth, where your pages seem to have become fuller of activity, in comparison with earlier drawings. Do you ever feel like the world you’ve created is growing or simply changing?
It’s changing constantly. I’m now in another period of change. I’ve just finished my show at Pippy Houldsworth, so I’ve been thinking about some new techniques and directions. More recently I’ve been looking at a larger landscape and at what would happen if I put multiple characters together. I have noticed in the most recent larger drawings that there seems to be quite a lot of overlapping going on, so one character’s set of activity would create a platform for a parallel activity. Now I am looking at how I might be able to develop that and see where the drawings can go next. I’m allowing myself a little time in the studio to be playful.
Is your sculpture a tangible extension of your drawings? These are like nothing I’ve seen before, in their combination of pencil drawing with materials like porcelain.
Yeah. I wouldn’t ever call myself a sculptor, although I did do sculpture at college. These porcelain works came from a desire to play with what a drawing can be. With my works at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, in combining 3D objects with drawing, I saw the 3D elements as drawings which had fallen off the paper. I got the idea that if the drawing escaped it would be all floppy and unable to hold its weight. This mixed in with the figure of the trickster – kind of creeping out, then suddenly in uncomfortable territory. It wasn’t about making sculptures, but extending what a drawing might be.
Is there a place for drawing as a medium in the contemporary art world?
The contemporary art world certainly seems to recognise Drawing as a medium in its own right and there is a lot of discussion around the importance of drawing and what it can be. Some institutions focus predominantly on Drawing in its widest sense, notably The Drawing Room in London and The Drawing Center in New York. Drawing can be so extensive and this is something I am thinking a lot about at the moment. I mostly work with pencil on paper, but I am open to the possibilities of what it means to ‘draw’ – with different materials, maybe even the body…
If you had a twin what would they be like?
I think of myself as a double personality anyway. I can be gregarious one day and insular the next, depending on where I am and how I wake up that day. Dressing up can change how I feel too! I like how with a mask or a wig, you can completely change your personality. So my twin would probably be one of them! There have been times where I turn costume into performance, the mask ‘the girl with birds inside her’ was originally part of an art performance I used to do with my friends where I just used to skulk around and hide in corners – I made myself into a strange illusion.
Do most of your ideas come to you in your studio, or elsewhere? The countryside in this area is beautiful…
I’m always looking for ideas. It happens in different ways, sometimes a lot will come together in the studio but then I have to remind myself it’s really unhealthy to just expect everything to happen in one room. Recently, I went on holiday to Scotland. My boyfriend and I just got in my car and drove up to Scotland, all around the Highlands right to the very top. We went to some of the most remote, beautiful places. That definitely got under my skin; when I got back it got me thinking of a whole new body of work, maybe even a new way of working. It was a different jolt to what I would get in this room, or in the city.
I’m visiting Fairfield Hospital to see your series ‘Unable to Stop Because They Were Too Close to the Line’. Were these a kind of diary you kept whilst you were there?
When I was ill, I kept these really intense diaries. The stuff I was drawing in those tended to be really loose scribbles. About half way through the treatment I started to translate these images into more coherent drawings. Even though this is the most personal body of work I have ever made, the final drawings were more about unrest and a period of struggle, rather than about Hodgkin’s disease itself.
There’s a UK based charity called Paintings in Hospitals which uses visual art to create environments that improve health and wellbeing for service users, their families and staff…do you think that art be used as therapy?
Yes, definitely. Art can play a very important role in therapy.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m giving myself a bit of time to put some new ideas together. I’m pulling back a little bit from the fantastical and looking a little more closely at the everyday and playing around with combinations of images and installations. So rather than try and get too bogged down in narrative, I’m taking more of a collage approach and exploring new techniques.