‘I do it because I can’t imagine doing anything else, really.’
Jenny Smith‘s project for Cupar Arts Festival will centre on the creation of a site-specific installation formed from shadows, making direct use of handwritten responses to the question, ‘What is shadow?’. Here, she talks to Jenny Messenger about her work as a visual artist, her plans for CAF, and the need to step into the unknown.
What do you do and why do you do it?
I am a visual artist. I studied drawing and painting at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee, and I would say one of my main areas of interest has always been exploring how broad the definition of drawing can be. I have drawn in lots of media over the years: paint, mixed media, film, artist books. At the moment I am particularly interested in exploring laser cutting as a drawing medium and also looking at handwriting as a form of drawing.
I do it because I can’t imagine doing anything else, really.
Tell me a bit about your planned artwork for Cupar Arts Festival on shadows – or as much as you know about it yet.
I have been interested in shadow as a layer or element of drawing in my work for many years, embossing and cutting into paper in a way that means shadows are created and the work changes in response to changes in the space in which it is shown.
Often the background in my work has, over time, become the foreground. In recent years, I have been creating paper cut work where the shadow is an integral part of the work.
This year for the SSA Annual Exhibition I created a question and answer piece out of clear acrylic – when it is lit, the shadow becomes more prominent than the acrylic. For Cupar Arts Festival this year I am planning to explore this further and create a room full of shadows in the Burgh Chambers.
You’ve participated in the festival before, working with primary school children to ask them about their most important decision. Has working with communities always been an element of your practice?
Working with communities is something that has evolved in my practice, but interestingly I did work as a community arts worker for a few years before I went to Art College, so something has come full circle there.
In my question and answer pieces the important thing for me is that people have a very direct sense of involvement in the work and can literally point to their answer and say “that is my bit”. I also like the fact I can really closely reproduce people’s own handwriting with the laser cutter, again giving a very direct sense of participation.
It’s also about the collective being bigger than the sum of the parts. Having painted for years, won awards and sold my work, I really enjoy stepping back and being a bit more in the background. I have the idea, set the stage, and then the work emerges with other people’s participation. I like the fact I don’t know what the answers will be until I get them.
In this case, I don’t even know if people will understand the question until I start working with them. I get a sense of going into the unknown each time I create a piece, which is very much what I experience when I draw or paint. It’s an important part of the creative process. I worked with children last time and this time I am looking forward to working with a broad cross section of local people of all ages and from all walks of life.
Tell me about the physical process of making your artworks, such as the process of laser cutting. How did you first start using these techniques?
I became interested in laser cutting about 10 years ago because I was hand cutting into my drawings and also starting to work in print. Laser cutting enabled me to create limited edition drawings and cut or engraved prints.
When I bought my own laser cutter I naturally wanted to push the boundaries of what I could do and started exploring working on a large scale and creating socially engaged, site-specific work. I am interested in what happens when we bring new technology together with traditional hand-drawn and written elements.
Your work often poses questions – I was talking to Anthony Schrag, and he said that he sees it as his job to ask questions, not provide answers. Do you see your role in a similar way?
Yes, I would agree with that. I am interested in the fact there is never only one answer to a question and that all answers are equally valid. I hope the viewer of the work will find themselves and/or part of their life experience in the work, but also be prompted to go away and ask themselves what their answer would be. The legacy of the work may therefore continue to exist in conversations, on the train, over dinner, or on a coffee break.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Thank you for your questions. I’m really looking forward to this year’s Cupar Arts Festival, both participating and seeing what the other artists do. It’s great to have been invited to participate again, and there’s a great selection of art here.
Jenny Smith will give a talk about her work and introduce her new project for this year’s festival at a free event on Monday, May 9 at Cupar’s YMCA-YWCA.
Monday, May 9 from 6-8pm. All welcome. FREE.
Cupar YMCA-YWCA, 93 Bonnygate, Cupar KY15 4LG