I had an informal chat to Michaela Wheater, fellow artist and educator, sitting on a windy bench on Richmond Green in March...
SW: My first question is could you tell me about the process of making your work?
MW: I don't know the answer to that because I don’t do the same thing every time. What I do is I set up something and I like to put it on the mantle piece and just live with it. It’s kind of a work in progress. Or on the floor, on the rug.
Once I’ve got the objects I live with them; they’re not put away. So I’ve got a manikin’s hand that’s holding the dolls – the heads.
SW: So after that you seem to work a lot with drawing and photographing these compositions?
MW: Photographing helps me work through my ideas quicker but I do like to draw to get an understanding of what the object is, and what it feels like.
SW: What I wanted to ask you is what makes you print your work? Most of what I've seen has been resolved by printing. What drew you to that, or was it not a decision?
MW: I did painting at degree level but I’m not a painter. I did A level… I think it was craft at the time, ‘arts and crafts.’ I did printmaking, which was predominantly etching and lithography and I absolutely loved it.
My tutor then suggested I apply to do a degree in printmaking. I didn’t because I thought that if I did fine art I’d have the flexibility. Although in practice once you’d chosen your specialism you stayed there. It was always said there was flexibility but in reality it didn’t seem to happen.
So I did lots of paintings… and they were of severed heads! I didn’t make that link!!
SW: Severed dolls heads, or real severed heads?
MW: Real severed heads… in landscapes and places. They weren’t bloody and gory but heads disconnected from bodies in places. My degree show had two massive drawings and three massive paintings that just had lots of heads.
SW: You’ve seriously never seen that connection before?
MW: No – I’ve never thought that far back. I made my own paints. I went to Cornellisen and got the pigments and made them, and just poured. So there was a randomness to them: Which is perhaps why I like printing, that you can’t totally control everything about it. I can’t because I’m not skilled enough. I’ve got a sense of how things might work, or how I want them to work but actually I like that element of chance.
SW: It’s an interesting way to look at it because I find many people’s approach to printing is that they want the control. Teaching printing I see that a lot more people than not want to get that perfection the first time they do anything, and they get frustrated with themselves because they can’t control it.
MW: See I don't want that. If something works exactly like I want it to the first time round, I lose interest in it.
SW: So you don't like to work like a designer to a brief? I don't know what the official difference between design and art really are. I think the difference has always been really blurred for me but that was one thing for me that was always a difference. Being really process led where each step leads you somewhere else, or designing a thing then making something to look exactly like it.
MW: I took that commission option off Artfinder for similar reasons. I’m not interested in that.
SW: See that’s interesting because I’d do a commission for money… although maybe that’s because I need the work at the moment.
MW: I don't have enough time for me. If I spent time doing something that other people wanted, and not what I wanted, then what happens with all the things that are in my head? I need the time to push things through.
I did do a drypoint etching of Elvis for someone at school. My dad had all the original vinyls of Elvis in the loft and my sister’s partner had been to Graceland with his mum and dad and he’d got all the stuff that he’d still got after his mum and dad died. She wanted a picture for someone she knew who had learning difficulties and she wanted to give him something personal. So he got the stuff from Graceland, and the print.
That's the only commission… well there is actually one other. It was for a councillor and he wanted two chairs facing each other.
SW: It depends what you want to do with your work I suppose. A lot of people accept commissions because it’s a way of making money, but at the moment even though you sell your work it’s not fully the way that you support yourself. Do you ever see that changing?
MW: I don’t think it can because then that's when the compromise comes in.
So I guess the choices I’ve made in life are to make my money elsewhere. So I might try and claw some money back but I don’t think it will ever be money that I am reliant on.
SW: See I think your work is much more homogenous than mine is. I think it’s easier to recognise your work, and you don’t seem to go off at too many tangents. For me, I think that’s what everybody has always told me is commercial. If you do illustration, people often want to see that same style every time.
MW: There is that pressure. I’m already starting to feel it. I started off with dolls heads because it just came naturally, finding that hand. I’d already taken photos of dolls in plastic bags randomly… but what happens when you get bored with dolls?
SW: Yes when I first met you, you were cling film and glasses. It was only about two and a half years ago.
MW: Yes although that was the same thing because it was all about lost and found. So nothing is ever ‘oh I better think of a new idea,’ because it all happens organically.
SW: Yes and in some ways that is the advantage of not trying to make it your living. You’re not putting the pressure on yourself of having to come up with that idea. So are you saying that dolls heads could be something that when they don’t work will just morph into another thing.
MW: Yes there comes a point where you think… well what else can I do with this?
SW: So not to come back to money, but you’re also saying that if someone wants a doll’s head print they should be snapping one up now because they might not be around forever?
MW: Ha ha, yes.
SW: It’s interesting… I agree with you but I also disagree with you. I understand your way of working and I think it’s absolutely right for you but I also think about someone who is younger.
I've actually always worked somehow in the creative industries, although in between other things at times. But I finally got paying day jobs on film sets. Although that wasn't really my passion, which is why I finished it in the end.
And I was making severed heads funnily enough, but out of latex, and severed hands and puss-filled boils… but for me it was a way to earn money from something that I enjoyed more. I knew quite soon in my adult life that I didn't like, say, working in an office. I didn't like that type of thing. So it was design work, and it was creative which made it okay, but what do you say to people who actually do want to make their career as professional artists?
I wonder if it’s unfair that art is so undervalued that it is very hard to make your career as an artist because you are expected to work for free or for a million and one reasons. What advice would you give someone just leaving school? Just do it as a weekend thing?
MW: No. I think the choices that you make early on do matter. I look back and think... if I’d gone somewhere else for uni… I liked where I went as I wanted to be independent and be at the seaside, or somewhere that was different, and I liked the atmosphere when I went there. London seemed big and scary at the time and I’d never really been. But if I did my research and was strategic about it I might have thought about what advantages I could have got from doing a degree show, or foundation in a certain place. Although a massive amount of it is personality.
SW: So what would you tell someone?
MW: I’d tell them to do research.
SW: That’s because you’re a teacher…
MW: Yes. I would say give it a go and do your research.
SW: I think it’s really frustrating actually because there isn’t a right answer to that question. There is no clear path.
MW: What is really frustrating is how many people don’t have support because families see it something that is not a safe career. They are put off before they even start and have to battle continue to it.
SW: Yes I wanted to do creative things then I was at school but I was very academic so streamed out of it, although my family were really supportive. But with the ‘establishment’ way of thinking there was always still a separation in their heads between something creative and a proper career.
So what is going on with your work now? I know you are a member of The Printmaker’s Council, but where is your next show?
MW: I’ve got something in Gallery 54 in Mayfair in May. I actually got the opportunity through Kaos and Kew Studio, and it is with Kew Printmakers.
And I was thinking of entering another one in Spain if I can get four prints I want to together.
SW: Are you doing the Kew Open Studio?
SW: Yes I think I might do it.
So what’s behind us entering these things? Why do you enter these opportunities.
MW: Because if I don’t they’re just going to sit in a drawer.
SW: And you think that is the way to selling them?
MW: No, I think it’s the way to them being seen. I don't expect to sell.
SW: If you don't expect to sell them then why do you need them to be seen?
MW: Because is that not why you do it? Well no, it’s not why you do it, but it’s part of it. Why would they just be sitting in a drawer?