"You need patience and mindfulness - light is everything."
Interview by Julie Hogg
Annie O’Donnell is a Sculptor. I’m a poet who became fascinated with her work during a recent Localism exhibition at MIMA, so much so that I was compelled to write poetry in response. Annie’s gestural sculptural practice researches place and identity and draws spatially on her previous experiences as a dancer. A bright morning in late July and here we are again at the gallery, at home in our roots.
Your Northern identity is inherent in your work. Tell me about your childhood.
I should perhaps first of all say that my parents chose for me to be born in Middlesbrough for sporting reasons. My father, who was born in Dublin, had been a really great sportsman but couldn’t play for Yorkshire because he wasn’t born there. My whole birth was very specific in order for me to do something in the future, something that would be useful for me. Not that I ever played for them! I was brought up in Billingham, on a large council estate, built in the 1950’s. On the edge of this physically convoluted estate, where we lived, the town fell away into fields and railway lines and the village of Cowpen. This locality mirrored that of my parents’ childhoods. My Dad worked for chemical giant ICI and British Steel and my Mum was a housewife, having worked for ICI during the war in a ‘man’s’ job, later resenting conforming to office work.
How did you discover your artistic spark?
Art started almost pre-memory. I was diagnosed by a doctor as having an artistic ‘bent,’ I was very physically active and loved to paint. This man was a Czechoslovakian Jew who fled during the war; he served in the Free Airforce and RAF before being displaced to Billingham. Dr Ables had a Feldenkrais background, matching people physically to things he thought they would be good at, and dance was, wonderfully, chosen for me. I had a long dance career as a teacher and choreographer on Teesside, both in ballet and contemporary dance. My son was born in my late 30’s which naturally coincided with me going back to basics and commencing training in Fine Art.
I realised during the first week of my BA at Cleveland College of Art that my work would be three dimensional. I was given a space, about the size of a phone box, and within that space I created a structure around myself using a waterproof sheet. I’d created a dancer’s space, a kinesphere, unleashing the fact that my previous research for choreography had been an expression of myself as an artist through dancing. This was abstract not figurative. I identified that, outside of the British obsession with figurative, there were pockets of abstraction, including the narrative of my hometown of Billingham and the birth of post-war modernism.
Is colour important to you?
During my masters, I explored how colour inhabited objects or was separate to them, through the work of Matisse and Ellsworth Kelly. At this time, I also became interested even more deeply in place and identity, colour in the highly industrialised environments of chemical plants, theatrical colour effects of performance and how art is not just visual but also consists of bodily experiences, smells, sounds and feelings. High colour interests me and its association against western sensibility, femininity and childishness.
How does colour reflect your own, personal, style?
My childhood next door neighbour was a ballroom dancer and I can remember miles and miles of net being ironed and spilling out of her kitchen, pinks, blues, bright orange and fluorescents. I have an awareness of which colour I’m wearing and a massive collection of souvenir headscarves which are a a nod to place, time and colour. I’ve worn black as an artist to show I’m in neutral mode, and thinking in a slightly different way, and customised clothing as a dancer. More and more, as I get older, I just put things on. There was a point in my early fine art training, when a male tutor said to me at an exhibition that I was turning into my work!
Who inspires you?
Two female artists had an early impact on me. Phyllida Barlow had a huge instillation at Baltic in Gateshead of enormous drifts of wood bound together with tape and then a quite small piece, applying colour with paint. I found that the difference in scale almost offended me and I wanted to ask her why she was doing that. During a response to this work I was introduced to Jessica Stockholder’s work which was a revelation. She has fantastic sense of colour, with kinship in her use of readymade, for example fur with paint poured over it. She draws on narratives of her childhood too. Her title’s and the naming of things are very important to her, as they are with me.
How did you become interested in identity?
I’d formulated an idea of a PhD that would include the idea of knowing your place, academically, intellectuall and on a kenned, intimate level, including belonging, displacement and shadows of my parents’ experience to this area as incomers. I think I would struggle to make work in a place with a history of hundreds of years. The ‘Tees Valley Giants’ project was beginning, with the ‘Temenos’ sculpture by Anish Kapoor, and there were dialogues in newspapers, who did Teessiders think they were? I worked with three PhD supervisors at Newcastle University, Venda Pollock, an Art Historian, Katrin Huber, an artist and John Tomaney an urban geographer.
How do you select your materials?
Again, very early on, I realised that I had specific preferences for certain materials. I was interested in traditional materials for sculpture but not really interested in making work with them. I use found materials, metal, wood and man-made materials. Plastic in particular is very expressive for me and poignant for my hometown of Billingham which was the centre for its research, development and production. My parents worked in the Plastics Division of ICI so the house was full of samples when I was growing up. A global material that, for me, has hyper local connotations. I lived on the edge of plastic and this became a trope for the idea that my area is seen as a very toxic place because of its industrial history.
Tell me about your exhibitions
I’m interested in exhibitions as a research tool, working in a site sensitive way where each piece relates to each other. Mostly, my work is adaptive. I’m interested in the way sculpture is moved to a new place with experiences of previous place prevalent in it. My thesis exhibition centred around the narrative of Middlesbrough, almost portraits of people who were seen to have huge significance to this place, their symbols, temporary or permanent, expressed in the monumental with classical drapery. Found readymade materials fascinate me, those made through industrial techniques that I don’t have access to.
There is so much movement in your sculpture. How do you create it?
Although I have moved away from performance, everything I make has a sort of performative element to it, a sense of movement or rhythm. As a dancer, I made lines visible lines of limbs as they moved through space, like sparklers. There was an awareness to of those parts of my body that I could see and those I couldn’t, but where I could feel the line. Dancers also make a line through a mirror reflection. For me, my initial thought and the earliest manipulation of energy and materials become a finished piece.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working with two artists based in Newcastle, Sarah Tulloch and Katy Cole. They work more often in two dimensions or film and we have explored a fluid collage practise, bringing disparate elements from life together and juxtaposing them. Cutting into colour, like Matisse, for me is very closely related to sculpture. We’ll be researching in Frankfurt and Manheim this Summer at the Hannah Hoch Exhibition. I’ve also been working for the first time with dancers, in a sculptural role. My exhibitions all have space where movement could happen, in or around sculpture. Viewers move in a way that a dancer would – in the theatrical empty space. I love the collaboration of it all.
Annie O’Donnell is represented by Platform A Gallery