Introducing Ophelia

Asia Nowicki talks to Shefali Wardell about the tentacled creature who arrived during lockdown.

SW: My first question is what was your path to all of this, how did you start doing art and what led to Ophelia.

AN: I studied art many years ago. I went to Camberwell and then ended up in John Cass and finished my degree there. Camberwell was too intense as a single parent, and it was a real shame to go from there to the other one because it was a great school, but I needed to go part time so I could parent as well as continue my degree.

After that I had to give myself a break and didn’t touch anything arty for about seven years. About two years ago I thought my kids were old enough for me to jump back on this, so I started melting plastic wine glasses. It was not the most environmentally friendly thing to do, but I did do it in my garden. Okay my neighbours weren’t too happy about it. I made a pigs head at first out of these plastic wine glasses, and it’s just rolled on from there in terms of making creatures. I made three heads with engraved bases and then decided I needed to step it up a little bit and make something more malleable. That was when I remembered how much I used to love working with latex. This was litres and litres, four hundred quid’s worth of bloody latex.

SW: Sorry for a technical question here but, did you use liquid latex or the thicker stuff and did you paint it in thin layers?

AN: Yes, I ran out of surfaces. It was months of pouring out liquid latex onto cling film, acetate, all sorts of surfaces. Then chucking bits of coffee granule and metal to get that honey colour leakage. It was peeling off layers and layers then attaching them with pins. I’m looking at her now…

SW: I can sense her presence.

AN: I’m taking her to Brockwell Park today and can’t wait. It’s just layers upon layers upon layers. The initial frame is chicken wire and wire and then it’s Modroc.

SW: Does that make her quite solid if you’ve got Modroc on top of chicken wire?

AN: She’s heavy. When I put her on top of my car in the road that’s just a few metres but I could feel it. Brockwell Park is a good ten minute walk so it’s definitely all about the beach trolley and I won’t be carrying her. But she is quite malleable and she moves. I’d love to have the opportunity to see which way it would go in terms of exhibiting her in an actual gallery space, because she could be on anything – the floor spread out, or on a plinth or against a wall, on a shelf. I made sure to make her underside visually acceptable as well because I had initially thought about suspending.

SW: Is Ophelia the type of thing you were making when you were at college before?

AN: When I was at college I was obsessed with red and black and I would never move out of those colours ever. People made the very obvious assumption of bondage and sado-masochistic inspiration. It wasn’t the case, but it did have that kind of look to it, so there were a lot of metals and plastic and gloss. So the heads I started making when I jumped back in to art a couple of years ago were still just black. They didn’t have the red in them.

Before it was all about sexual politics and objects took on gender roles and they played with each other, lots of installation according to the space. It has changed. I didn’t make creatures but I made objects.

SW: I was interested in your materials and process when I read your application, such as making things in the kitchen. Also, latex is not an everyday material but it’s also not a super-refined fine-art item. I was interested in why you use those materials – is it purely practical?

AN: In terms of fine art materials, when I was studying I had access to a foundry and all sorts but I don’t have that any more, so I do have to adapt to what I can do. I don’t have a studio so I work in my kitchen and living room. To my kids’ dismay, Ophelia took up the kitchen table for four months.

SW: I think that’s reality though and I don’t know how it is addressed always in fine art. So many artists don’t have a studio and when you study you have so much equipment but afterwards very few people can pay the rent on a studio because the setup is exactly like renting a flat.

AN: I’ve put my name down for an affordable studio but they’re not affordable. For a little square metre of space… I keep getting emails about a studio in Brixton that are all at least £250 to £350 a month.

SW: There’s a rich heritage of artists being in all sorts of situations and getting materials from wherever they can but we do have an idea of artists still working in a studio, which many don’t.

AN: Yes when I do a hashtag in the studio I’m not going to specify what type of studio it is, like the living room or kitchen. It’s essentially my studio.

SW: What is it like at the moment being an artist in London?

AN: Personally for me since the lockdown from the beginning of January I’ve actually been on a complete whirlwind of making, so it’s great, but I know that physical galleries aren’t working well. I’ve been lost in this world and I’m hoping to integrate in to the physical side of things when everything opens.

SW: Are you really making a go of things now with exhibiting?

AN: I really need to make it happen. I did a massage course a year ago then Corona happened, but I think this has all happened for a reason. I was doing alright before and things were really happening. I just need to keep the momentum.

SW: How have you built your Instagram account up to be so successful?

AN: I just bother the fuck out of people. I feel like I spend way to much time on Instagram but I am also always on Curator Space. It’s my favourite out of all of them. I do look on Instagram to see what’s going on with open calls but at the moment Curator Space is the one that works best for me.

It’s been an ongoing story because I always knew that once Ophelia was made that it would spin off in to lots of different things. A friend said “okay so you make the octopus and then what, do you just exhibit it?” I said no, no, no, no this is an alien of the sea. She has nine brains and three hearts, how can you possibly think it’s going to end there? I like the fact there has been this ongoing narrative of her battle with the seagulls and I’ve got a plan for that to continue, and there are lots of little stories going on.

SW: I think as I said the materials reminded me of working in film prosthetics before we had HD and silicone, but have you thought about going in to more of a film direction?

AN: You know you’re not the first person that has asked about that and I haven’t really thought about it but it’s certainly something I wouldn’t dismiss if there was a opportunity.

SW: Tell us about the googles you’ve been making.

AN: As I’ve spent so much time with Ophelia I’ve played with this whole emerging artist label, where I’m becoming her, and so I wanted to extract one piece from her so that I could wear it. That’s where I’m wearing the goggles and I jumped on the car in the same pose that she was on the car.

Then there were the pictures that were through the actual goggles from those three spots, and the enhanced ones that I put on my boobs. I put the bigger eyes on top of her eyes to give her really oversized eyes. If I was more up on the techy side of things… I’m absolutely useless. I remember my interview at Camberwell years ago when I was 19, they were saying that it was a place for makers. They were comparing themselves to Goldsmiths, saying we’re not like Goldsmiths, which is more conceptual, this is about making. I thought yeah this is the place for me but I do wish I could move with the times more and know more about digital.

I wouldn’t want to change to that because I love the physicality of making but I feel like I need to push that side a little bit and marry them together maybe?

SW: Yes I don’t think you have to give up making for digital, which is something people are realising. It was for a little while that it was a new thing but now more people realise it’s just a tool. You could collaborate too?

AN: Yes I’d love to do some collaborations. I’ve met so many people through Instagram I’d love to collaborate with. There’s a possible collaboration in the future with a concrete artist, which would work well if looking at materials.

SW: The other thing you mentioned originally was about being Polish, and it was quite a strong part of your application so I’m wondering why you put that in there?

AN: You know I have different variations of statements. The Polish thing .. my parents are very typically Polish in terms of gender roles and although I have my traditional aspects going on I am not a typical Polish person in the way my parents might think of it. Yet there is a typical crafting element, especially with women, in Polish society that sometimes becomes like therapy, so I think that’s where the Polishnes comes in.

SW: What would you say to someone today who wants to be an artist, maybe someone living today in London that is the most expensive city in the world I think, with all the other pressures. What is your advice for someone who is looking at your work and feels really inspired by it and wants to do something creative?

AN: Keep the momentum and make something every single day. Try and connect with as many artists as possible. It sounds so corny but the tiniest bit of creativity every day, whether it’s a line of something, whether it’s writing something down. Anything. Keep the momentum, keep it going because if it gets too long then you start to overthink things. Submit the fuck out of everything as well.

One thing that used to bother me that doesn’t bother me any more is that you put a proposal in and it doesn’t get accepted, but there are so many other things out there. I used to think nobody wants me and I’m going to give up and go to bed but I don’t care any more. There are places and galleries that would be interested, so don’t let that bring you down.

SW: That’s good advice and quite traditionalist saying make something every day, if you’re a maker then you should be making. But being upset by rejections is the other massive thing to get over. What is your ploy with applying to things?

AN: So for me the amount I’ll spend is £30. Each submission is tailored accordingly and I don’t just paste in the same statement and bio but I tweak it each time. I’ll have a general one set up but I will tweak. I would love to apply for the Other Art Fair but even if you’re lucky enough to get accepted, that’s two grand. You know it’s going to be the best exposure you can get, and it would be totally worth the money, but who can afford that? So, things like that I don’t bother applying to because even if I had a chance to be selected I don’t have that.

SW: Yes I understand that because I make A1 screen prints that I can’t afford to put in to shows because I can’t afford the framing.

So next step for Ophelia is Brockwell Park? And you’re roping in family members?

AN: Yes and I’ve got my baby octopi. Obviously, she’s yearning to be a mama but once an octopus gives birth they die. So she lays her eggs and watches over her eggs and feeds and feeds and starves herself, and out of about 500,000 eggs ten of them survive. Then she dies. She’s decided to hang up her tentacles in order to bring forth life. She’s struggling though. She met the male octopus online but he wasn’t interested so he didn’t match with her, so now it’s my job to try and push this thing with the third and final fertility ritual.

The thing with an octopus is they’re all arse holes, they’re really moody creatures but their sex is incredible. It’s the most intimate thing. I’m trying to push this fertility thing along for Ophelia now May is coming in a spring, tree-dressing ceremony. But the thing that happens with her is that her dream of motherhood doesn't quite work out the way she thinks...


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