Talking about materiality, pigments, and organic practice with London and Kent based artist Polly Bennett.
M: Maybe the best way to start this is to ask what you’re working on right now?
P: Sure, I’m currently working on a couple of projects, before lockdown I was going to be doing a residency in June, which I started work for already, and that was based on the weather. The residency was a festival in Kent within these gardens, and the project was based on the weather within them. So I started that, and that’s something I’ve continued with anyway as the residency has been postponed until next year.
The other project I’ve been doing for a while is based on the Thames, and that kind of involves collecting various things and then recording the trace of those things to sort of represent the history of the Thames.
M: Yeah, I’ve seen a lot of the stuff you make is from pigments you’ve found by the river, I think that’s really interesting. What drove you to focus so intensely on using the organic in your work?
P: My practice has been based on the landscape for a couple of years now. Originally I was doing a lot of figures, but when I started the second year of my degree, my work became about the landscape, maybe because I began to really miss the environment I’d been brought up in. I think the void of not having the rural landscape around me came into my work and that was my response to it. Then from that I won a couple of travel awards to go to different environments and respond to them, and I think those travel awards really kickstarted my practice continually being about the landscape, and the organic, and the environments I continually find myself in.
M: I think what I found so intriguing about your work is that- well actually I was writing a paper a few weeks ago and I found out that in medieval times they were really intent on creating maximum representation landscapes, like when they were painting a rock they would use pigment that had come from a rock, or when they were painting a tree they would use plant based pigments, to create this system of reference. I see that a lot in your work, can you speak a little bit about that?
P: About the pigments specifically?
M: Yeah, or I guess the materiality that’s so present.
P: Yes, I definitely like the idea of using the landscape to represent the landscape, and I like the idea that I am collaborating with the landscape. The landscape has already given me thing to utilise, and so the landscape is - I guess it sounds a bit cliché - but my artists palette in a way. I like the idea that the landscape has given me the tools, and it’s not just me making the work, the land itself deserves a lot of the credit.
P: So I guess it was just a natural passage that I started using pigments made from things I was collecting. I’ve always collected things, but it wasn’t until later that I started collecting earth with the intention to grind it and use, and then from then I got into developing lake pigments, which are like dyes from plants and things like that. I think also because of pigments my work has become more abstract. I’m from one of those backgrounds where there was the ‘right type of art’, which is very representational.
Image taken from the Artist's Instagram
M: I guess maybe because you’re already using the pigment from nature itself, which you’ve found and collected, that does the job of the representation, and frees you up a bit more to dabble into the abstract. You said you were always interested in collecting - can you speak a little bit more about that?
P: I guess for as long as I can remember I’ve collected things I’ve found outside. I have a massive collection of dead bees and wasps.
M: No way!
P: Yeah, I’ve got a lot of skeletons and bones and things like that, just lots of things from nature really. I like the idea of order and neatness. I’ve always been interested in museology and the way of displaying things as well, I find that quite important, and that kind of led to an interest in science, so I would say the idea of collecting is very important to my work, because ultimately it’s the things I collect that inspire what I do with them.
M: I find collecting so fascinating. I study Early Modern history and I was reading a lot about the ‘Kunstkammers’, or wonder-chambers during that time, and how they really existed as this space where art and science came together and they created this encyclopaedic space of knowledge.
P: Do you collect for you practice?
M: Recently I collected a bunch of bones I found on the Thames when I went mudlarking, but I wouldn’t say it’s what drives my work really. It’s more the concept of it the interests me, it’s like we’re trying to - well like you said, nature is so structured, and I see it as a sort of attempt to organise and create this microcosm of our world through the things we gather.
P: And that’s exactly what the Wunderkammer’s stood for, isn’t it? It’s this idea of man trying to kind of control, or put sense to the outer world that they really didn’t understand at all.
M: Yes! I think now that everything has gone so digital, nature is starting to regain that power of intriguing us so intensely. I think its really refreshing to see work that is so obviously grounded in the physical. You said your earlier work was very figurative, do you think that focus on physicality and observation of the body has transferred into the work you do now?
P: I think the idea of organic forms has. I’ve always appreciated the body, and I like the body’s connection to nature, especially the alchemist and spiritual side of the actual activity of grinding your own colour. Although my work isn’t representational anymore, I would say that my interest is now how the body spiritually intertwines with the rural, and the landscape. There’s a lot written about the specifics of grinding your pigment, for example theres a certain direction you should grind your pigment in because it’s believed the power goes through your arm into the pigment in a certain way, which is interesting.
M: That’s crazy, I never knew that. Something I find really interesting is the connection between alchemy and modern science, and how a lot of modern scientific principles of organising and structuring knowledge were really born out of artistic practice and experimentation.
I really liked some of the gilded panels you made, can you speak about the process of how you came to making them?
Image taken from the Artist's Website
P: As I graduated I did a decorative arts fellowship, and I chose to learn about gilding, japannery, tromp l’oeil… My final show piece was based on a trip I took to Slovakia where we tracked brown bears. I made a wallpaper installation of the woodlands that we would go through, and I gilded loads of mushrooms and things like that. On the fellowship the pigment process was something else I wanted to develop, I learned about different mediums and how I could use my own pigments with processes like gilding. I love learning different techniques, specifically very traditional things. I wanted to learn very old techniques that have been passed down for centuries, so that was really fun and again it ties in well with my practice. That was in 2019.
M: I want to get more involved with traditional techniques, I think having that consciousness of your material is really important when you’re making work.
P: Having the consciousness makes you appreciate what you’re doing a lot more.
M: I saw that you recently made a pigment out of something inorganic, I think it was a red pigment?
P: Yes, so on the Thames there’s so much industrial waste from glass and lead production. Most industrial waste loses it’s colour when it’s ground, it becomes grey, but sometimes if the colour is strong enough it will retain it when it’s a powder. So yeah, I’ve been collecting loads of different colours of waste and seeing if I can make pigment from them.
M: I think that you could create a really interesting juxtaposition in a piece between the natural and industrial through pigment choice. It’s a very non-overt sort of physicality. I was going to ask if you ever see your work going in a direction that isn’t as physical? Maybe into the digital?
P: I doubt it, just because I like the physicality of things. I like using my hands and feeling things. I mean, I love photography, a lot of my research is in photography form, but I doubt my work is going to go in a - what’s the word? - I don’t see myself using various software programs.
M: Right, I guess that’s a different kind of translation. I ask because a lot of the work I make is about taking nature into the digital, and it produces this effect where it almost bastardises nature, it becomes this really strange, removed, isolated thing. I had a huge aversion to the digital for a while, and my relationship with it is quite complicated. I still have a fairly negative perspective of it although I end up using it frequently in my work, so I can definitely understand that reticence.
On a different note, can you talk a little bit about the Wilderness Collective that you’re part of?
P: Yes, so at the end of my degree, when I graduated in 2018, I was encouraged by the founders of the group to join, and they had just sort of created the collective. So we started in 2018, I think there’s 36 of us currently, and all of us basically celebrate and explore the natural world. We’re explorers, artists in all different mediums, and we do exhibitions and events together to showcase each other’s work. The most recent exhibition we did was Landlines which was at the Royal Geographical Society, and that has since toured in the UK. In terms of a support group, I had just graduated and the Wilderness Collective came at the perfect time. I think I’m the youngest and I can ask for a lot of advice from artists who have been going for along time. There’s a lot of wisdom and knowledge that is super helpful.
M: Travel seems to be really influential on your work, I saw you went to Iceland in 2017. How was that? I went this summer and it felt like an alien scene.
M: Did that experience shape your art?
P: That trip was one of the travel awards that I won, and I chose to go to Iceland because of how contradictory its landscape is. From that I came back, and I actually started painting, which I hadn’t done in years. Iceland is just crazy! It’s so untouched and open, and it’s what I made my degree show on. I made these ‘ice domes’, which were like big versions snow globes, and each dome had a deconstructed painting that went with it. That project was definitely a turning point for me in terms of what my practice looks at. It became more in-depth, and I was really interested in using loads of different materials and portraying the landscape through its weather systems, and topography, and colour, and the base elements of the landscapes. It’s probably one of my favourite projects I’ve ever made really.
Image taken from the Artist's Website
It made me realise that I was interested in creating new worlds from my memories of different landscapes. I like amalgamating different places into one. I don’t really know what that says about what I think about the world now, if I want to make new worlds, but yeah that’s definitely been an ongoing theme since.
M: I like how you’ve managed to bring yourself and your body into your work despite the fact that it’s not at all to do with the physical human body.
P:I find it quite spiritual. It’s quite personal, if someone were to look at my work they wouldn’t know how much my body is put into it. It’s very much what I know. And I don’t really mind that people don't know, being an artist can be very egocentric, and it is very personal.
M: Yes, and it’s always better when things are subtle, they don't have to slap you in the face with their intention.
This was really interesting, thank you for taking the time to have this talk.
P: Thank you!