Bristol-based art activist Gaby Solly in a heart-to-heart tête-à-tête with STIR, on how women artists often have to start later in life but the journey is rewarding nonetheless.
Georgina Maddox (GM):Tell us about your journey as a visual artist, performer, musician and arts educator. No doubt they are all connected, but do share with us how each of these disciplines tied up together to bring you where you are today.
Gaby Solly (GS): When I left school over 25 years ago, I made a difficult choice to go to university rather than to an art college. I was torn (and still am, somewhat) between a commitment to campaigning for the environment and social justice and following what felt like the more indulgent route of self-discovery as an artist. I spent years working for Friends of the Earth (International) and bringing up a family. I ran community development projects, alongside low-key, craft related personal practice. As my children grew older I was able to find more space to consider what it was I needed to do for my own sense of fulfilment, and following a period of great anxiety and depression, I realised that I had been stifling my creative self and was becoming overwhelmed by the lack of an expressive outlet.
A serendipitous connection made in 2015 meant that I started singing again and began writing and performing my own songs for the first time, as part of a duo – Zendium Moon. At the same time, I produced work for a local, community-based art-trail, called Window Wonderland, which has subsequently spread through the UK across the world. Engaging in both of these channels allowed me to recognise and release the natural ‘artistic flow’ that I had, hitherto, been suppressing.
Aided by a supportive family, I applied for a place at Bristol School of Art. It was tempting to go for the more ‘sensible’ option of studying Graphic Design or Applied Arts, instead I stepped out of my comfort zone and opted for Fine Art, which was definitely the right decision. Two years in and I am focussing on creating conceptual ceramic installations and, importantly, I have given myself permission to ‘be an artist’.
GM: There is great power in public art and intervention at times of unrest. Tell us about your public art interventions and engagement with larger groups.
GS: During the 1990s, I worked at Friends of the Earth, when people-power felt like it was in resurgence and protests against road building sprung up all over Britain. In response to the construction of the Newbury Bypass, which tarmacked over swathes of ancient forest in the South of England, the organisation commissioned artist-curator Clare Patey and over 50 artists (including Christo and Jean-Claude, Werner Herzog and Heathcote Williams) to explore the facts and fantasies surrounding our relationship with the car and its environmental impact – Art Bypass was the result, a powerful mile of ‘road-works’ on a hill overlooking the scene of destruction. I was 24 then, and I think it was the first time that I directly realised the power that art has to develop our understanding of an issue on a totally different level from the status quo.
In 2017, I was helping to run Streets Alive, a grass-roots organisation promoting community building and neighbourliness through street parties. We worked with artist Scott Farlow and Bristol University academics on an action research project called ‘meeting points’ to consider the effects an art intervention might have on the relationships people make between each other and to where they live. Scott’s mobile home gallery was populated by photographs residents had taken; self-portraits on and of their streets. Together we pulled the greenhouse-like gallery on a trolley through the middle of the city, from Easton to Southville. It provided a focus point for street gatherings and catalysed conversations and new connections to be made between neighbours and across Bristol.
Very recently, I become involved with Extinction Rebellion (XR), people across the globe using non-violence to disrupt business as usual, rebelling against the world’s governments for their inaction on the climate emergency and ecological crisis. This ‘do-it-together’ movement has developed a strong visual identity using open-source design to help spread its message far and wide - London’s V&A museum recently acquiring XR objects and pamphlets for their Rapid Response Collection. There are many activist-artists within the international body, with guerrilla art pieces and powerful performances rising up from the streets all over the place, viscerally communicating the urgent threats to our current state of being. I spent two days with the Red Rebel Brigade at Bristol’s Summer Uprising, connecting emotively with other rebels, police officers, obstructed car drivers and the general public. Started by Doug Francisco in my city, there are now red rebel factions springing up across the world, parading in unified slow movements and making mesmerising tableaus as mournful, compassionate interactions - we all share the same blood after all.
GM: What would you say drives your art practice?
GS: I am intrigued by the ephemeral impressions left by existence - purposeful and less so - which I think is why I find the transformative properties of clay and its narrative ability to carry the process marks of making and maker, so captivating. I like my pieces to tell a story, to trigger a sense of wonder in the everyday journeys that we find ourselves on. I am an activist at heart and my background in environmentalism, education and community building means that the need for ‘meaning’ in my art practice runs deep, whilst still keeping my heart open to beauty too, of course!
Last month I had a two-week summer residency at college. Stemming from the idea of messages that we are spoon-fed by the dominant consumerist hegemony of today, I made two series of sculptural porcelain spoons. Someare oversized and not practical to use at all - they are stamped with messages such as ‘GREED IS GOOD’ and ‘ALL YOU CAN EAT’; unglazed and coloured with natural iron oxides they look like bones: others are teaspoon sized and say ‘ENOUGH IS ENOUGH’. Although I want the majority to remain together and will make a couple of simple canteens to display them in, I am thinking about how I may use some of the pieces to aid the Culture Declares, an emergency community of artists and art organisations.
GM: Tell us about your involvement with education and art. Also, earmark the important art projects of the past and tell us your future plans.
GS: The desire of individual children to explore and express their true selves, whilst also yearning to ‘fit in’ and find a sense of belonging, is examined in Held Breath, a collaborative artwork, based around 30 slip-cast porcelain cubes that I have spent most of the last year creating. Each cube represents a member of year six from a local primary school; its size determined by the vital lung capacity of that particular pupil. The shapes conform, arranged in neat rows on two low school tables, yet everyone is identifiable by a child’s initials stamped into the clay. The cubes are similar but different, the method of manufacture means that each one has its own cracks and wobbles, its own idiosyncrasies. Overlaid by a soundtrack of the children breathing, the piece embodies the community of a classroom. Held Breath will feature in the upcoming Catch Your Breath touring exhibition when it arrives in Bristol later this year.
My interest in breath and breathing has been deepened by a lifetime of singing, and centres on its vital role in both our physical and metaphorical life; its unique, transient condition that transforms from being deeply personal into something that we all share with the rest of the world. I have it in mind to make simple shadow films of people breathing and to somehow connect this action to the trees that provide our oxygen.
With one more year of my degree left there is so much learning to still put in - both theory and practice - and I am developing ideas for a new ceramic installation. With Embrace I intend to carve self-inflicted invectives onto clay torsos, which will then be hugged by their real-life model - well that’s rough gist so far, although how exactly they will be made is yet to be determined! And beyond that, who knows? It takes courage to consider what I will do when I finish next year; the thought of being an ‘actual artist’, seems like pie in the sky, but then again, unless I try it I will never know…