Si: Hi Ian, and welcome to the exhibition blog!
I have loved your work whenever and wherever I've seen it, so it's a genuine delight to have you onboard for this show...
For the benefit of folk who haven't seen your stuff before, how would you describe your practice?
Ian: I’m really interested in working with images, materials, themes and technologies that are part of everyday modern life. I use my training as a graphic designer to create my work digitally – and manufacture it out of the same industrial materials that are typically found in the urban landscape. The surfaces of my work are filled with iconographies relating to contemporary life, as well as history. I like bringing imagery from the past and present together – and using the connections and contradictions between them as a way to comment upon current events.
Much of the work I’ve been doing recently is inspired by packaging design – and takes the form of large, decorated cardboard sculptures shaped like classical statues or ancient idols. But for this exhibition I was interested to try something a bit different, and make a piece inspired by church architecture. I ended up designing a large triptych, constructed out of Dibond – the same material governments use for street signage. I wanted to capture attention in the way that official signage is intended to do – and speak with that same visual language of authority.
Si: Having seen the plans for that triptych, I'm very excited - I am really looking forward to seeing it in the flesh...
Interestingly, you're one of two Canadian artists involved in this show (Guy Delisle is the other), and one of the key things that your piece for the exhibition references is the issue of migration...
So I'm wondering about your own journey to the uk and - in particular - how you've ended up in Leeds...
Ian: My wife and I originally moved to the UK (from Victoria, Canada) in 2007 so she could undertake a PhD in archaeology at the University of Southampton. It was in Southampton that I first started making art professionally . After showing work in a couple of exhibitions, I joined a studio (Aspace) which helped me meet other artists and become part of a small local community.
In 2012, my wife won a lectureship at the University of York and so we moved up North. I’d recently spoken at a conference hosted by the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, and I contacted the organiser to ask if she had any suggestions for studios in the area. She suggested East Street Arts, which turned out to be an excellent recommendation. Although it’s a bit of a commute from York to Leeds, East Street Arts has proven to be the most amazing studio – not just because of the spaces themselves but due to the community and the organisation itself. It's been great having an excuse to come to Leeds regularly; I love its urban feel and the strength of its arts scene.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it was only in the UK that I started making art in a professional sense. For me there was something about being in a new country that really helped jumpstart my career. Partly I think it had to do with being a ‘stranger in a strange place’ and searching for a community of like-minded people who were able to encourage and support my work. But also I think that when people from different backgrounds intermingle, it can help generate new creative ideas that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. So for me, immigrating to a new country has been an incredibly positive experience as an artist.
Si: I think that your "stranger's" take on nationhood and Englishness is really important within this show; and it's brilliant to get a positive sense of what migration can mean, when so much of the media coverage and the conversation around immigration seems to come from such a negative perspective right now...
Ian: Yes it’s been interesting to see how the issue of migration has become so heated over the 8 years or so since I moved to England – and how it’s become a key topic in many Western countries. In many cases it feels very much like an easy distraction from the real economic issues those countries are facing due to other problems. The irony is that many people who emigrate to other countries feel a need to work very hard, I believe. Personally I feel grateful for the chance to be living in a country with such amazing opportunities as an artist; this makes me work even harder to try and succeed, and to contribute in my own way the national arts scene. Interestingly, many of my commissioned pieces & themed exhibitions have addressed England as a subject – and I do feel that being an outsider gives me a unique perspective on English traditions, myths, and nationhood.
Si: I was talking with someone the other day who reckoned that 'Blake's Jerusalem' is effectively embedded into the English psyche - it's language is part of our national vernacular, and it's become part of our DNA; to the point where folk can happily bellow it out without ever once stopping to consider what it is actually about or what Blake was saying... So it's an anthem that is claimed and sung by the political Left and the Right, by republicans and royalists, and that's certainly part of it's fascination for me...
Did you know anything much about the song before we invited you to make something for the exhibition?
Ian: I must admit that I had to look it up on YouTube – and didn’t recognize the song at all! To me it doesn’t have much resonance compared to ‘God Save the Queen’, which is musically more powerful and memorable in my opinion. So I suppose I found myself gravitating, for this exhibition, towards the actual poem by Blake, rather than the anthem. Over the last few years I’ve found myself increasingly fascinated by Blake’s work – both in terms of his imagery/design, and also his mythology. So when you contacted me and mentioned that the show was about William Blake…I really jumped at the chance to respond to his 'And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time' poem. What began to emerge as a theme, for me, was the issue of migration - and in particular the idea that migration is such a longstanding historical activity. The poem, of course, addresses the possibility that Jesus visited England in his youth – and for me I was struck by the connections between that event & the current waves of people trying to reach Europe and England from the Middle East. I wanted to link contemporary events to the ancient past of Blake’s poem, and maybe even further back. The altarpiece structure helped facilitate this, by dividing the work into distinctive parts and therefore defining clear geographical ‘regions’ within the narrative - similar to how traditional altarpieces might be divided into heaven, earth, and hell.
Si: Well, I have to admit that I am a little bit horrified that you'd never heard (or remembered hearing) 'Jerusalem' before! But then maybe that reflects in me a peculiar sort of English insularity! And it certainly illustrates why your involvement in this show - and the insights that you bring to it - are so valuable... :0)
Ian: Thanks Si! I definitely hope that my work can provide a different perspective of what England means to those originating from other lands – hopefully that comes through in my piece, in addition to the other themes I address in the work.
Si: Looking ahead, what are you working on next? Any exhibitions or events that we should be seeking out?
Ian: I’ve currently got a series of sculptures on exhibit at Leeds City Museum – pieces I created during my Leverhulme Trust residency with Leeds Museums and Galleries in response to their First World War collection.
I’m also working on my first public art commission – a large steel sculpture for the Harehills area. It’s been quite an exciting and eye-opening experience – so it’ll be very rewarding to see it finally built, hopefully sometime this summer! I’ll be posting about it on my website, Instagram and Twitter accounts – along with other projects underway…so please stay tuned!