What experiences or memories have played a role in your art-making practice?

In the lead up to Art Week Exeter (AWE) the AWE group have asked all participating artists to take part in a survey.  For the 60 days leading up to the event, sixty artists’ responses will feature on their blog and my contribution started it all a couple of weeks ago.  There are seven questions in particular I wanted to expand on here in the lead up to the exhibition I am doing as part of the city wide event in May.  Last week I shared the first, the second I expand here ‘What experiences or memories have played a role in your art-making practice?’, below is my response included on AWE’s post.

[My] formative years as a child play a heavy role in what I do now. Seeing how my body lost its gender neutrality and how I was gazed upon, treated as not just a woman but an overweight one too, really impacts on how you experience your physical and psychological presence in the world. I have always been introverted and as a teen I loved spending time at home, sketching and creating…. It was in recent years that the medium my artwork takes, textiles, got more and more feedback on nostalgia being brought to the audience and its tactile affect. This draws me closer to wanting to explore this further. It’s not just I want to make work about the body and that it just happens to be made from textiles, I now realise that it’s about the audience’s body too, how they are physical beings perceiving that art…

Formative years

Like many other humans, my childhood built my formative years.  I was brought up, with my brother, on a council estate by a single mother in a small town in Cornwall.  We weren’t a very cultured family, well to be honest there was no culture at all.  Which was quite typical, we were poor and growing up as kids within the Thatcher years, art was for the privileged and not for people like us.

Rebecca harris artist as a child

Having said this, my father was artistic.  This would have not played a huge role in my influences now as we rarely saw my father, but was it in the genes?  He created a lot of art whilst spending his various prison sentences in Dartmoor and Exeter prison.  There was one work of art on the wall at the bottom of the stairs at home that stays with me.  It was a nude he created, it was a women that wasn’t my mother.  

My brother, like myself, is also an artist, so maybe it is in our genes after all?  But then I do remember seeing a funny father’s day card recently that stated something like, thanks dad for just enough emotional baggage to make me an artist and not a drug addict.  Yep, maybe it’s that!

Instead of a series of stories of misspent youth, my time was spent, as teenager, teaching myself to draw, crochet and paint.  I remember as a child also creating structures in the garden, taking objects and plant material to create assemblages.  I was fascinated how ‘things’ could become other ‘things’.

The Gaze

Growing up seeing my body drastically changing as a teenager had a huge impact on how I saw myself.  As puberty hit, not only did the hormones increase so did the fat cells.  I remember becoming increasingly chubby and when out and about with my mum, her friends, when greeting us, would comment on me as ‘sum maid’ (Cornish for big girl).  I was becoming aware that my body was public property to be commented on.  In my later teens and at college I was badly bullied for being that big girl. It got really nasty and I had to eventually move to a different college.  It wasn’t that I was even *that* big, not that it would have been justified had I been bigger.  But when you are just a UK size 14 which I think is average, then you don’t end up with much body love when all around you think otherwise and body shame you.

Rebecca Harris obese art MRI head scan
MRI head scan manipulated by Rebecca D. Harris

This blog post is no ways a means to just vent these experiences and memories, they really have impacted on my arts practice.  For my 2012 masters (MA) degree project I used my body as an axis for research.  Coming quite close to having weight-loss surgery at the time of my MA I started making work about that experience, or what I refer to as the alien interventions into the obese body as a means to normalise it and allow it to literally fit into society.

In the project report I wrote about the theme of the gaze and in particular on the obese body, here’s an extract:

In weight-gain, arguably no other organ is more physically altered and visually modi ed than the skin. Flesh, viscera and bones reside relatively undisturbed as the mass of the body grows around. As the fat swells, the skin expands, transmuting the body towards the discursive fat person. (above)

Murray suggests that there are collective negative tendencies to judge the fat body. She states:

As members of Western society, we presume we know the histories of all fat bodies, particularly those of women […]. We read a fat body on the street, and believe we “know” its “truth” […] The fat subject is lazy, not willing to commit to change or to the dictates of healthy living. They are compulsive eaters, they are hyper-emotional; in short the fat body is discursively constructed as a failed body project. (Murray, 2006, p.154-5)

The social gaze is primarily constructed from our experiences with other people, Jean-Paul Sartre observed that one comes to the realisation of one’s self not just as a being-for-itself but as a being-as-object and being-for-others upon the encounter of the social gaze (Leder, 1990, p.93-5). Feminine bodily aesthetics, Murray argues, are formed by the relative worthiness or unworthiness bestowed by the heterosexual male gaze (Murray, 2008, p.91). Within the media, men’s bodies are ‘premised on the privileging of masculine bodily strength, power and ability to protect […] whereas the woman’s motivations are centred on their appearance’ (Murray, 2008, p.91). Linking fat as feminine, Murray posits that fatness for men is a feminising characteristic seen to weaken them, and for women their relationship with fat is a process of obtaining, or retaining, the ‘normal’ body to be aesthetically beautiful or desirable to men (Murray, 2008, p.91).

Leder, D. (1990) The Absent Body, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Murray, S. (2006) ‘(Un/Be)Coming Out? Rethinking Fat Politics’ in Social Semiotics, Vol. 15, No. 2, pp.153-63.

Murray, S. (2008) The Fat Female Body. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Textiles

Rebecca Harris Eden Project keith martin
Public interacting with Symbiosis at the Eden Project, Cornwall. Photo credit: Keith Martin

It is not just about the body, my work uses the body in perceiving it.  It is through observing how people interact with my work that furthered my interest in how I could best utilise this.  There is an affect which happens between artwork and viewer.  When interacting with the public whilst I was creating Symbiosis for the Eden Project I saw how much textiles appeals to the public.

There's a power with textiles, it has an intimate relationship with us from birth.

There’s a power with textiles, it has an intimate relationship with us from birth from its close proximity to skin and its everydayness.   Furthermore, I found people would talk with me about their histories with craft, evoking nostalgia through the methods I chose to create the work with.  I discovered through this public interaction that textiles does not just have a sensual capacity to produce and transmit affect but it also opens up memories.  This makes the work much more accessible, especially for this piece I talk of in particular being a rather scientific based work.  It draws people in through that friendly, welcoming sense of familiarity and comfort before sharing its own story.

I hope you enjoyed today’s expanded post?  Please follow for updates on the rest of the AWE questions I shall share in the coming weeks.

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