Thanks to Craig Kerrecoe. 25.6.2013
OUTSIDE THE BOX
Craig Kerrecoe travels to a medieval longhouse in Llanelltyd, in the Snowdonia region of North Wales, to visit the studio of new Ovenden Contemporary member, the Artist Sonja Benskin Mesher.
I wonder if the prospect of being interviewed by me must have been mildly troubling for Sonja Benskin Mesher- when I arrive at her studio in Llanelltyd, she confesses to me that she feels an urge to crawl inside a box. I don’t think I have that affect on most people, normally? I hope not.
I should probably smile politely and make a start on the interview but, intrigued, I ask her why she feels this urge.
“I used to sit in one when I was a child. I liked the feel of it. I felt safe. Now it’s just a thing in my head, an imaginary box I suppose. I like boxes. I like putting things in boxes.”
“The box in your head- is it a special kind of box?”
“Oh, no- just a brown cardboard box.”
I’m no Psychologist but I like the symbolism of this idea. I wonder if Sonja is hiding in these boxes of hers.
“No, I’m not hiding. It’s more to do with having ‘quiet time’ before I work. In my box I am with my thoughts, my concerns, memories and music.”
“Is art a box that you climb into?”
“Well, yes, I guess it is. I never thought of it like that”
“Are you compartmentalizing?”
“Yes, I suppose so. If I am going to paint or draw, I have to get away from all the other business.”
“What ‘business’? Do you mean life in general? Is that why your paintings are abstract?”
“My paintings are about life really. Each one has a story to tell. Not all my work is abstract.”
I’ve never been to North Wales before. My maternal Grandfather, Evan, was born and raised in Barry in South Wales and my mother was born nearby before the family moved to Kent when she was a child. We returned a couple of times when I was a child so I feel that I know South Wales quite well, but this was my first time in the north. I can say that it’s utterly beautiful and impressively brutal.
Llanelltyd is within the Snowdonia National Park, surrounded by mountains, lakes and rivers. It’s a breathtaking landscape to live and work in and must be an constant source of inspiration for Artists like Sonja.
The studio is a large, shed-like wooden building at the bottom of Sonja’s garden. It’s painted a blue-green colour and is raised off the ground like a caravan, as if it might someday sprout wheels and go off on an adventure all of it’s own. Inside, the studio is decorated to be comfortable and practical with the obligatory white walls and easy-clean laminated floor. There’s reasonable light from several sources but the daylight in Snowdonia can be impressively gloomy when it wants to be.
As you’d expect, there are examples of Sonja’s paintings all around the room with work-in-progress and empty canvases stacked at one end. It’s everything you’d expect of an Artist’s Studio and it seems like a space that Sonja enjoys spending time in. I continue our discussion…
“No, that’s true- not all your work is abstract. Your sketches are quite different aren’t they. So you’re not trying to escape from life in general- you’re telling your story?”
“Well, I guess so… and other peoples stories too. I had an exhibition in Swansea some time back. It was called ‘Other People’s Lives’. Those sketches are about being a child. Kids stand on things, boxes and chairs and things. It makes them bigger.”
“Ah, I see. What did the title ‘Other People’s Lives’ mean?”
“Life is like watching sets of films, some of which I get featured in, some I don’t.”
I find that quite an intriguing comment. So Sonja is one of life’s observers, rather than a participant. I ask if she is able to detach herself from these films, even though she sometimes features in them.
“I can now, yes, but it’s odd. I guess its something we learn to do- to be able to cope, to manage.”
“Does the detachment help with the work?”
“No, not at all really. The work can be very emotional.”
“You used the word cope. We all have coping mechanisms. To be able to step back from everything and see it all play out in front of us sounds like a pretty useful ability.”
Sonja nods and looks away, as if she’s lost interest in the thread of our conversation. There’s a pause. She looks like she needs a box again…
“As children, do we stand on things in order to cope with being small?”
“Yes. I think you are right.”
She turns back to me, nodding- her interest returned.
“I liked being small, but you can see more higher up.” She adds.
“Is that all it was about? Perspective? Nothing to do with recognition?”
“I guess so. I still stand on things so I can see more.”
I wonder if there is some specific childhood memory of standing on something to gain height.
“A major experience for me was when my teacher stood me on a chair, dressed in my mothers satin nightie which I thought was an angel’s outfit and I sang ‘Adeste Fideles’ to my class. I was about seven years old and standing on the chair gave me confidence!
On reflection, I think I would have been mortified at the prospect of such an experience but Sonja was empowered by it. Standing on a chair imbued the seven year old Sonja to feel confidence. So, we’ve established that art is a box. Is it also a chair?
Sonja pauses again. “I don’t know. Maybe. I suppose it is a platform for me to be able to say things without having to be there and to say them to people I do not know.”
“Art is a form of communication after all…”
“Yes. I am satisfied when someone ‘gets’ what is said.”
“What are you trying to communicate?”
“That’s a very difficult question to answer.” She pauses. “I paint and draw because I feel that I am unable to communicate my point using words.”
“You don’t like talking about the work?”
“No. I like doing the work, getting it out there, but I dislike being out there myself. Private Views are hard work for me. I do them because it’s part of the job but I get no joy from it.”
Sonja interrupts herself to tell me about an Artist friend of hers who had a Private View where a celebrity stood on a chair, in order to launch the exhibition. She is animated as though she enjoys telling me the story. I sense a certain envy…
“Oh, I would so love someone to do that for me. I should know I had ‘made’ it then!!”
I smile in approval of her story. Her admission that she would like a celebrity to stand on a chair and open an exhibition for her is somewhat surprising to me. Is it really important for Sonja to feel as though she has made it? Is recognition that important to her?
“Yes it would be good for my own self esteem. But it doesn’t bother me if folk don’t like what I do.”
So, what is success?
“Is that enough?”
“Contentment is good. And good health of course.”
“I think you may be a Psychiatrist!”, she replies, somewhat sternly.
Sonja offers me coffee which I gladly accept. She returns quickly with two piping hot mugs of black coffee, just the way I like it. I’m not an experienced interviewer so I decide not to press the subject of success and happiness any further for fear that I might upset the proceedings. I change direction accordingly…
“Do you plan your paintings in advance?”
“Plan in advance? No. I have an idea or a concern in mind but it all evolves. Me and the paint, the paint and I.”
“How does the process work then?”
“The work process starts with research, observation, thought and memory. I do quite a lot of research and sketching and studies, and so it begins.”
“What does your research entail?”
“Well, just about everything- travelling, looking, reading, photographing, collecting, talking, sketching, making, thinking, dreaming, remembering, living, experiencing and all. The research work varies along with the subjects.”
“And where do you go from there?”
“The images start in my sketch book along with notes, cuttings and jottings. I then move onto working on paper, then onto canvas or other larger support. The work goes where it leads me, a kind of conversation between me and the work, but drawing on what is in mind.”
“A kind of diary?”
” Well, no. Its not all you see on the surface- it goes deeper than that. The work goes back many years, what I have seen, experienced, touched and collected throughout the years.”
“Yes. With the painting and drawing I am remembering and trying to make sense of it all. In quieter moments, the illustration work occurs, reflecting on life, remembering childhood and unravelling problems. These two aspects of my work, whilst different in imagery, are sourced from the same inspiration of life & landscape.”
“The illustrations are much more about you- your memories, and much less about the world around you. There must be a certain sense of vulnerability for you regarding this work.”
“Yes, you are right. I don’t exhibit them that much; mostly in London.”
“Why is that?”
“I had a solo exhibition at Museum Of Modern Art in Wales of the Toy Drawings. It was well received but it also freaked some people. I faced a lot of questions regarding the content.”
“Do you understand other people’s reactions to your work? Do you even need to understand their reactions?”
“No I don’t get it. When the work leaves me it’s on a new journey. It’s having a new conversation with the audience.”
“Is that enough?”
” Well, I am glad when they get the point and my effort was not wasted. But then I am just happy when I am doing it, making something, caring about it and letting it go.”
“Is it easy to let them go? Some artists find that bit difficult.”
“The idea is always for them to move on so I can continue working. There was one painting I was sad to see go, and that was a self portrait.
“Do you work on paintings that you have no intention of selling, that are just for you?”
“Funnily enough, yes, recently I have done work that has very personal meanings. They’re not for selling so I have prints made and I sell those instead.”
I get the impression that Sonja would like to get on with some work so I draw the interview to a close. I ask a suitably obvious closing question.
“What are your plans for the future Sonja? Your expectations?
She knows the answer to this one very well and doesn’t hesitate to give it to me.
“I don’t have expectations. I don’t like to be disappointed! Plans of mice and men just get scuppered.”
Sonja raises her eyebrows and pauses for a moment.
“I have dreams- we all have dreams. But I try to take one day at a time. I shall just keep on with the work because that’s what I do. And we’ll see what comes of it all.
“What about that box of yours?
“Ah, the box! Sometimes I wish I was not in a box. But it works for me most of the time.”