Ahead of his upcoming exhibition at the Cavin-Morris Gallery, artist Straiph Wilson talks about his ethereal sculptures that take inspiration from folklore, Scottish nature and alchemy.
When did your interest in art creating begin?
I can clearly remember having one of my paintings exhibited in Osaka Japan when I was only eight years old. This was back in 1980; our school was encouraged to participate in an art exchange programme with Japanese schools with children of a similar age. The painting was called “Jack Frost.” It was my quite naive personification of winter in white paint completely innocent of artistic merit. I was invited to an award ceremony where I met our local Lord Mayor who presented me with a certificate of achievement followed by a group photo of all the other artistic self-starters. I remember the family fuss followed by the pride, a real sense of reaching and curiosity from which I have steadily progressed artistically to where I am now. I’ve developed progressive work that includes sculpture, painting, drawing, sound, film and old Scots poetry.
I recently looked up the legend of Jack Frost and in late 19th century literature he is depicted as a sprite-like character, sometimes appearing as a sinister mischief maker or as a hero. If my artwork rings true then I think that I am the sinister mischief maker rather than the hero.
What is your starting point for each piece?
Materials and methods, I experiment with commercially available clays along with local clay from a farmer’s field. I mix Porcelain with Stoneware, Earthenware with fine bone china, and smooth crank clay with the local earthenware clay I’ve named “Aberfoyle.” The Aberfoyle clay is soft as butter and highly porous, not very vitrified and unpredictable when the various clays are all working against each other during the creation process – I like to think it’s like alchemy. The differences in material properties make some of the individual pieces bloat and transform creating more natural looking pieces akin to real fungi. I make the caps of the fungi by smashing the clay onto the ground to densify the matrix increasing the strength of the finished piece. It’s an interiorization of physical and mental undertaking. One which I hope goes towards the aesthetics of the finished work. Although I have to confess that the idea of using ceramic to develop fungi sculptures was secondary. My initial work in the series was cast in liquidised lead in plaster moulds of local fungi I had harvested. Using lead was more true to the theme of alchemist garden but then I started experiencing the sinister side of lead, feeling the signs of poisoning and decided to switch to ceramics.
Who/what influences your work?
For this recent work I’ve unified a combination of poetic imagination and ethereal ideas based on “Taibh Searachd” the gift of second sight (Gaelic). I live in rural location and I get lot of my inspiration from the nature and the linked Scottish mythologies. My cottage which is also my studio sits on the edge of woodland where the silver birch and old oak trees grow covered in bracket fungus (parasitic decomposing polypore). These polypore’s look like living sculptures clinging onto the tree trunk, absorbed in natures recycling. This visual image of the partnership between the unseen cryptic actions and growth of the parasitic decomposing fungi and the host the tree, had me considering Charles Darwin’s concept of the “Tree of life” a perception that he used towards his proof on his theory of evolution. For a long time I have been fascinated how the tree of life appears as a concept in biology, theology, philosophy, and mythology as to me this illustrates interconnection of all life.
Artistically this visual image provided me with a powerful tool to look at the metaphor for common descent in the evolutionary and spiritual sense. It was a challenge to see if I could develop and merge the image of new religious objects from the ground up by acknowledging the symbolism imposed on fungi in fables and paying tribute to my Celtic identity. The outlandishly chthonic ceramic fungi seemed to be a radical enough for this purpose. My practice also tugs on influences from my long working career as a technician in the field of behavioural ecology and evolutionary biology; this encompasses the study of organic diversity, including its origins, dynamics, maintenance and consequences. This has allowed me an inquisitive foundation to build my own Interpretations upon nature as the observer.
In my youth, I was also initiated into the “old religion”; a witch’s coven. I was taught a polytheism practice of the mysteries and worship of a belief in Celtic deities based around our agrarian culture. Through these experiences I have insight into the contrasting worlds of science and belief. The two distinctive or polar opposite groups practice in zones conventionally seen as mutually exclusive; creating so-called “Zones of inhibition” that in practice and theory should be inaccessible to the other group. It just seems right that my art work should walk the tideline between religious belief, folklore and evolutionary behavioural mechanisms and at times blurring these boundaries. Perhaps this is why I have been fascinated by alchemy. Not so far back in history it was a precursor in the development of modern chemistry while the alchemists were strongly connected to mythology and spiritualism. I think that the spiritual and scientific sides share many common interests as through time both have been interested in the essences of things or the ‘inner structure of existence’.
A few years ago, I came across an image of the fresco, Adam & Eve dated 1291 AD (displayed at Plaincourault Abby, Indre France). The forbidden apple from Adam & Eve is historically depicted as the symbol of knowledge, immortality, temptation, seduction, the fall of man and sin. In this fresco, the apple was replaced with Amantia muscaria (Fly agaric), hinting towards mystical powers held by fungi.
What do you hope the viewer gets from your work?
I hope they see authenticity and that visually they appreciate the work as thought provoking. If one of my pieces opens up a conversation about the subjects that influence my work, I will feel warranted, especially if it’s a common langue on symbolism.
What do you think about the term outsider art? Is there a term that you think works better?
I spent a considerable time trying to define my practice and ideas. It really helped when I moved to the next level in looking for a gallery that would best represent my work. When I came across Cavin-Morris last year it all fell into place. All of a sudden I had a generic name for what I was doing (Outsider Art) and an opportunity to display my work.
I am perhaps an outsider in other ways too and have never tended to belong to any mainstream grouping, so if I could establish my own definition I would actually like to call my work “Chthonic Art”. It’s a term that has been used to describe the spirit of nature within the unconscious earthly impulses of the self, which is ones material self.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve just finished a series of Fungi for “Rebel Clay” A group exhibition at Cavin-Morris from 7th September to 7th October. I’m currently producing larger elaborate ceramic fungi for my solo-exhibition in 2018. The title of the exhibition is “The Alchemist Garden”. The exhibition will run for three weeks during Glasgow international (20th April – 7th May 2018) which is a world-renowned biennial festival of contemporary art. I’m not part of the festival, just capitalising on an opportunity to showcase my work during the festival at Veneer gallery on Argyle Street.
Where do you see your artwork taking you in the future?
I will be uniting up with my brother next year when he is released from prison. He’s served twenty-four years in jail for murdering a man with an axe. Over the years I have been covertly involving him in various art related projects so hopefully together we can produce some new exciting ideas.