Though hampered by the weather in the South West, college teaching schedules and my ineptitude with an old version of Thunderbird, I managed to have a conversation with Simon Hartless over several weeks this spring. His beautiful paintings are so absorbing and I wanted to know what is behind them.
SW: Like much art your work could be read in a few ways I suppose, but the thing that really appealed to me when I first saw it was the nature of each piece as a painting. To me they are all such strong statements in the defence of painting in the 21st Century! What first drew you to this medium, and have you ever done other things. How do you usually go about making your paintings?
SH: I first began painting aged about 20, around the time I enrolled on an Art Foundation Diploma. I had no previous art experience, as I had not studied it in school. I immediately fell in love with ceramics and the alchemy of the firing processes. I think a lack of confidence in my basic drawing skills meant that painting came to me a little later.
The following few years I studied my degree in Ceramics and Glass at Birmingham Institute of Art and Design. It was here whilst working with blown glass and a variety of ceramic processes that I really began to experiment with surface patterns and mixed media approaches. I took an elective in Painting alongside my main course and that’s really where my love for abstract approaches to image making began.
I have been ‘painting’ now for about 20 years, using a mix of traditional oils, acrylics and pigments combined with ceramic materials such as China Clay, Whiting and a variety of oxides. Quite often, the surfaces are prepared using clays, cement or other materials sourced from the landscape.
I also generally like to use reclaimed wooden panels as a base rather than canvas to give the pieces a solid structural form. In fact I'll paint onto almost anything, like all good art students I was always drawn to rummaging in skips! Due to the nature of the materials I’m using, some of the pieces come together quite quickly in a matter of hours or days (with drying times) although I have several which have taken many months to perfect.
I now very much consider painting to be my main artistic medium although I do work with printmaking techniques and have recently produced a number of circular ceramic pieces. Having the scope to work in a variety of media I find beneficial as ideas can come from a variation of process.
SW: I've seen this crossover with other painters before, being really interested in ceramics and glazes and can see why the more I look at this type of work.
And yes re the rummaging in skips! Although with the current environmental situation, I sometimes wonder if making art from recycled materials should be important / essential to all of us as artists? What do you think about this, and about making work in the context of our times where we have this to consider?
What was it like studying in Birmingham? I know you are based in Cornwall now. How much does your location affect your work?
SH: There is a certain magic with ceramic glazes, a kind of alchemy or an endless experiment that could take several lifetimes to perfect.
There are plenty of examples of artists who use found objects and re-purpose materials but often the notion of bringing environmental issues into the conversation isn’t at the forefront of the idea behind the art. However with climate change currently being a high profile subject for debate I think we are seeing more artists responding directly to this theme.
I think in some ways it’s a tricky subject when you consider the nature of many traditional artists materials. Some pigments and paints for example are not exactly carbon neutral or ecologically manufactured so there is a contradiction in some ways between the method and message.
This is something I struggle with personally, especially when I consider the range of materials I use. There is no mains gas where I live in west Cornwall so most people have open fires or multi fuel burners, we are all burning fossil fuels to keep warm! However, it’s the ashes from these that I use in a lot of my work, so I’m re-purposing a waste product to make my art.
I think my saving grace here is that the work I produce is meant to last, to be enjoyed over a prolonged period of time so hardly comparable to single use plastics or other such damaging products. For the most part my work could be considered abstract but issues surrounding the environment, politics or industrial legacies are implied through the materials I use and the titles of some of the pieces. There is often a narrative but it is open to interpretation.
I had the best time studying and living in Birmingham. I lived there for five years, it’s a real melting pot of cultures, a really fantastic city. I have some good friends from my art school days who made it their home and are still there now with their own families some twenty years later.
My location definitely affects my work, probably more now than at any point in the past. West Cornwall or more precisely West Penwith is a very special place. From the misty moors with Neolithic stone circles to the spectacular coastline and ever-changing weather fronts its easy to see why so many artists have been drawn to this part of the country.
SW: I love the sound of ceramic glazes - have no experience of this other than a bit at school 30+ years ago, and what other people (mainly painters) have told me but it all sounds so wonderful.
I do agree about the importance of recycled materials maybe being something we should all consider by default. Being mostly a printer and drawer it's not something that comes hugely into my practice as I can be very paper based. I do try to be mindful of using sustainable and less toxic items, especially with printmaking, but I'm unlikely to be dragging something out of a skip.
Thinking about it, manufacturers probably need to look in to this. For example, I like to support St Cuthberts Mill, which Britain's only paper mill but I have no idea where the cotton rag comes from or is grown. I've recently been using Khadi paper for some things, which is an Indian initiative originally set up by Mahatma Gandhi, and they use a lot of recycled things in their paper as well as trying to have a more socially conscious business.
A lot more could be done though. Maybe we need to start demanding this, as artists, in the way that many people try not to buy too many takeaway coffee cups or use plastic bags? I'm already obsessed with making print studio equipment with bizarre castoff junk, but a lot of that has come from wanting professional equipment but having zero budget... less from being environmentally aware unfortunately.
While I have been endlessly fascinated with many of the Refresh entries who have taken this really seriously and made beautiful work from a range of recycled materials, I think if companies, studios, institutions took this seriously we might find a way to have more impact as well as being to be able to produce a larger range of work (more visual range). I don't know...?
Ultimately I still want to be able to product the fine-finished images I am used to but with more environmental responsibility. Maybe that's a challenge?
How about some kind of artist's manifesto (in good old 20th Century tradition) where it's stated that the essential code for all artists is from now on we can only use recycled and sustainable materials...
Yes re burning gas in Cornwall, but I think there are some pockets of the world where that would apply and others where it doesn't, (I don't suppose Cornwall itself is big enough to be making the difference) - the rest of us could do a lot better and make up for it really so no guilt needed. I'm always torn because I have all that childhood nostalgia of an open fire. It's a hard situation we've got ourselves in to and I think we're only having to make the tough decisions now because as a world we've let all of this run rampant.
SH: I guess if we as artists demand more environmentally responsible products then possibly we can drive the change. Customers do have the power to influence the market but it won’t happen quickly that’s for sure. It really is a challenge and I know exactly what you mean about the fine finished pieces. If I removed all the toxic stuff from my studio, on the one hand I’d have a lot more room but I’d certainly struggle to create my work without it.
I love the sound of the Khadi paper that’s definitely on the right track. I’ve recently used some great organic pigments for screenprinting with my students, so there are some good products out there if you search for them.
I’ve worked in arts education for over 17 years and funding is a constant struggle, never more so than now. Without wanting to get into too much of a political rant, it is quite obvious that this current government treats the ‘arts’ in a very distinct way, as an elitist commodity and with utter contempt for equality of access. The funding cuts and marginalisation of creative education from primary and secondary curriculums I find deeply disturbing and give a clear signal of intent.
An artist’s manifesto is a great idea and could actually work in some way if we put some thought into it. There’s a good idea here for an exhibition or theme for another competition to get some publicity to it. I’ll have to think about this for a bit longer but this certainly is food for thought.
You’re right, Cornwall isn’t huge population wise but it does get about seven million visitors every year so it can as a county have an influence. Penzance is the UK's first town to achieve the new Surfers Against Sewage, Plastic Free Coastline status, so it proves the appetite for change is there. As far as open fires go though, I like setting fire to things and love the cosy glow so I’m going to have to keep on doing that haha.
SW: I like the transformative element of your work - something burns in to ashes and then is remade in to something else. There's something interesting in that about cycles of life?
Do you know lots of artists in Cornwall. As you said, it's always been quite the place of pilgrimage for artists but do you find that it's possible to build up connections in a place like that? Are there artist communities and networks, or is it the place for the solitary, brooding artist? Anything to tempt the UAL students out of Shoreditch?
Also, what's your studio set up like and do you do anything else to support your art practice in practical terms?
SH: My Anamnesis series is really all about this. In Platonism anamnesis is the recollection of the ideas which the soul had known in a previous existence. If I apply this to the materials I use then the pieces begin to form their own narrative, remembering their past forms or functions. It is something to ponder whilst your eyes survey the surfaces of the pieces, they all have a history hidden within them.
Yes I’ve met a lot of artists down here, some very traditional but also many who are producing some incredibly diverse work and some of whom I’m now good friends with. There is definitely a thriving art scene in West Cornwall with some excellent contemporary art galleries and numerous arts collectives, studio spaces and arts platforms.
If I’m honest it’s been slow going in making connections with regard to promoting my own practice and that’s mainly due to my teaching commitments. If you spend a long week teaching then sometimes going and 'networking' at events and openings isn’t on the agenda and time with my wife and daughter is very important to me.
I’ve worked hard to build a range of art courses and promote my students work but I think after almost nine years down here I’m finally finding a balance!
Tempting UAL students out of Shoreditch? They could get a flight from Heathrow to Newquay, I suppose that would be a start...haha
I live in St Just, the western most town in Britain only a few miles from Lands End and my studio is in my back garden. It’s just a little concrete block shed about 8ft by 12ft but it looks out over the fields of a small valley and if I strain my neck I can see the sea.
My wife has a small kiln in there as well as all my painting mess so it’s quite a busy space. I’d love a bigger studio but this works for me at the moment as much of my work is made late into the night and its only a short crawl to my bed.
As far as supporting my art practice goes, I’ve recently sorted out a website which I’m quite pleased with and I’m slowly planning for a group exhibition of artists I’ve met down here, none of whom currently have gallery representation.
It might end up being in a disused shop, I’m not sure yet. It can be difficult to find the right place and most of my sales over the last few years have come through collaborations with architects and property developers, although I do seem to have had a fair amount of interest on social media, some of which is thanks to you guys and your hard work, which I’m very grateful for.