Shape Arts: In conversation with Lauren Saunders

By 16th March 2020 Blog

The following text has been copied from that posted on the Shape Arts website:

Lauren Saunders was awarded an Emergence Bursary in 2019 by Shape, Disability Arts Online, and a-n. The bursary was created as part of a pilot project aiming to tackle the isolation, low confidence and marginalisation of emerging disabled artists, as well the lack of accessible opportunities in mainstream arts settings. Ahead of her return to Tate Exchange in March, Shape sat down with Lauren to discuss the past year.

What have you been up to for the past year?

So…it’s been a busy one! I showed work in various exhibitions in Hull and beyond, made some new work, and of course there was the Emergence Bursary, which I used to the Royal Drawing School (RDS) last July to do a two-week Drawing Marathon. The purpose being to develop my technical drawing skills and to refresh my practice a little bit. That was a really good – but intense – experience. I’ve wanted to go to RDS for a long time, but actually going has kind of showed me that I don’t want that anymore…

It was great in many ways but in other ways, I found it disappointing. For example – in terms of access, I found it really lacking and not as inclusive as you would hope an institution should be. I wrote a big blog about it. So, my experience there kind of changed things for me in a big way and the things I want to achieve have shifted.

I produced about 200 drawings across the two weeks! I put on a solo exhibition, a self-produced one, which took me longer than anticipated to sort out. I ended up securing a space in an empty retail unit down Humber Street in Hull, and put the exhibition – which I called Drawing Breath – in there. I was also given a microgrant from YVAN to do the show, which topped up the bursary to allow me to get extra materials and pay for promotional stuff. That was in November and it was supposed to be a three-week show… but then a week into it, I got knocked off my bicycle by a car and was in hospital with a broken back. Even though I had friends and volunteers keeping it open for a few days, I essentially lost most of my exhibition time. I’m a bit miffed about that still!

An exhibition space - image shows the two walls of a long room lined with Lauren

Lauren’s exhibition in Humber Street. Image courtesy of the artist.

Around the same time as I heard about the bursary, I was also accepted into the Northern School of Arts and Activism for a pilot project called the Union Programme, run by Heads Together. It’s a year-long coaching and residency programme that’s looking at using art for good and social change. We had five residencies across the year in different Northern cities, and each one had a different focus with different things to experience and learn about. There was about 20 of us in this cohort and they, alongside the organisers, are incredible. Truly inspiring and brilliant, passionate people. That experience really changed the way that I’m looking at and reflecting on things, as well as increasing my confidence in campaigning and using arts as a tool for change.

Crikey! Is that all?

Oh! And of course, there’s The Critical Fish! Jill Howitt (my fellow producer/editor) got funding for the first issue November before last and so, after that, there was six months of really intense working before it came together at the launch of the first issue (Anchovy) in May. It was a really good experience despite being stressful; I learnt a lot from it. I also discovered that although I appreciate and value the arts-writing side of it, I’m very much wanting to focus on developing the participatory, inclusive, collaborative, experimental side of critical writing. Jill’s background is arts academia and she knows her theory, so I think our interests and skills pair really well in developing an arts journal that’s both accessible and critical. The second issue (Brill) came out in November, but I didn’t have much to do with that one because it was the wrong time for me to be hugely involved.

Image courtesy of the artist.

A busy year, then! How do you think it has shaped and evolved your practice as an artist?

The topic of my practice hasn’t necessarily changed. Philosophy is at the root of everything. When I graduated in 2018, I was looking at philosophy and epistemology (the branch of philosophy that explores how we know about things). That morphed into environmental philosophy… now, it’s more about how we interact with the environment and the world, and the impact we have on one another. So, those themes have been present for a long time. And though I’ve always cared a lot about access and inclusivity – whether that’s a disability or socially or economically – doing events at Tate and doing the Audio Description Workshop (organised for Emergence recipients by DAO), as well as meeting other disabled artists, has made me acutely more aware of the whole thing.

I have always been pretty clued up on mental health/invisible disabilities because that’s where I come from but being immobile and being in a back brace from the road collision has given me an experiential glimpse into what others experience, too. And that has developed into something I feel fiercely passionate about: how to present work and make things more inclusive and a bit more participatory, as well as general practicalities and the discrimination people face.

All “prestige” is, is simply an exclusive, self-serving narrative that relies on everyone else agreeing with it.

You mentioned last year’s Tate event, do you feel as though your approach to this year’s workshop is any different?

I think this time I feel more confident. I don’t think I would have had the balls to be able to do stuff throughout day and do a talk and do participatory stuff. Whereas last year it was just giving a talk, which was nerve-wracking (especially for someone like myself with anxiety) but it was manageable. So yeah, it’s a confidence thing, and I think a lot of that is getting to know the other recipients (they’re amazing) and getting to know Shape and DAO (both of which are also awesome) and leaning into those relationships that have been formed. That’s a big thing that I really value from this year because I feel less isolated. The relationships and connections have been brilliant!

Pencil drawing of multiple figures standing around in a circle in different positions. Done onto white paper.

Image courtesy of the artist.

So, what do you have planned for Tate Exchange?

I want to invite people to come in, have a natter, and just build a bit of confidence in drawing and collaging. I think people believe that they “can’t draw” or that they’re not good enough or that it must be representational or accurate… but I reckon that’s absolute crap. I think everybody – if you can write or make a mark of any description using any part of your body – you can draw.

I chose to use collage as a vehicle as I think it’s a lot less intimidating than drawing; it’s cutting and sticking and it’s something I think we’re all quite familiar with – it hasn’t got that kind of stress attached to it. I want people to collage using their own drawings and mine to make a big wall-based ‘thing’ and just see what happens. There’s no goal, apart from to make it massive.

Throughout the day, I also intend to do informal mark-making workshops. Drawing objects in a really loose or interpretive way, like drawing how something might feel, or do non-dominant hand or contour drawings. Those kind of drawing exercises loosen people up and are very often beautiful and interesting in their own right. I’ve done this kind of thing with my students at work and it lets people know that there’s more than one way to skin (or draw?) the proverbial cat.

What relationship do you feel your workshop has to the theme of “Power”?

The workshop is loosely based on the environmental themes present in my work – the power we have over nature and the power it has over us and the imbalance between the two – hinted at by the use of related images and objects I’m providing, like shells.

I think, though, the power comes through more in the participation. There’s the thing about art solely belonging to the individual artist that makes it, and how that is sacrosanct and you can’t touch it – but I just want people to rip up my drawings, mush our drawings together, and take ownership of the work! There’s that diffusion of power that I think is really interesting and challenging, but then there’s also a kind of empowerment in allowing people to behave unlike they “should” in a gallery space. There’s also the personal empowerment of participants in saying, “actually, do you know what, I can draw, and I can take up space.” There are different ways of exploring power, and I’m interested to see how these different interpretations of it play out across the day.

A composite image of Lauren

Image courtesy of the artist.

Has your own relationship with power shifted through the last year, given your experiences with places like the Royal Drawing School?

I fully admit that I’m an overachiever. I don’t know if it’s because it’s been drilled into me that I’d need to work harder to be seen (as a working class woman with a mental health disability), or if it’s just a validation thing, but there’s always been this thing of “aim for the top, aim for the best, for the prestige.” That’s where you’re gonna get respect, be heard, and climb out of hardship. I think that this last year, my perception of what those things are has really altered. All “prestige” is, is simply an exclusive, self-serving narrative that relies on everyone else agreeing with it.

Granted, the quality of things might be higher, but that’s measured by standards “they” set, because these places also position themselves as the “authority” in their field! Going to RDS really opened my eyes to the fact that these places that are supposed to be prestigious and epitomise the art world – they’re behind in so many ways.

It was inaccessible and some of us felt like charcoal-welding aliens. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great experience and the place definitely has its merits, and I met some cool people, but there weren’t many people that I could relate to or identify with. Places of prestige disproportionately represent certain groups of people, and so that needs questioning and, more importantly, actively challenging and dismantling.

What have you got planned for the future?

Last year was a super productive year. But I did get poorly. Once or twice a year, I have a depressive period for a couple of months – and that’s something I’m obviously used to working around – but I think last year it just felt a lot more severe and acute because of the amount and intensity of stuff. I left myself no time to rest and chill, meaning I felt the depression more because I was already burnt out when it came, and I was less able to bounce back because there was no space to.

This year, I’m trying to work out that balance. I think finishing my degree in 2018 was a massive thing for me; it’s taken me ten years because of my head. So, I’m like, “right, I’m ready, ten years behind everybody else, I need to go gung-ho to make up for it.” 2019 was a real year of mania and doing too much as a result, so this year is more about slowing down! But I can guarantee you that by the end of 2020, I’ll have gone back on my word and have overwhelmed myself again!

We’re looking into the third issue of Critical Fish, but with some of the changes I mentioned. I’ve also got a group exhibition coming up with Fruit Factory Network at Humber Street Gallery. That’s something I became a part of last year. We’ve gone to different cities in the North to look at how other artists and organisations create work and opportunities.

An abstract pen drawing of the grooves of some kind of natural material, like a shell.

Image courtesy of the artist.

There’s also a Fruit Factory Network symposium coming up in April – I’m a panelist and on the steering group. Me and Sam Metz, who I nominated for the Tate event, are helping guide the access side of the event. The symposium is about isolation: being isolated in the north and how we can challenge that. A lot of the day’s focus is on regional, locational isolation, but I’ve questioned the role of identity or impairments as well.

Another thing I am looking to do – it’s been on hold for a while because of my back – is a project for which I’ve already approached Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and East Yorkshire Council. I’m interested in how we can use drawing and lines out in the real world to benefit the environment, or otherwise create positive ecological interventions. The project involves drawing into the rocks on the coast because there’s this research from Hull University that shows that when you make marks into rocks, it provides little spaces for things to live in, and so increases biodiversity. It makes the whole environment richer. So, I thought, why can’t we do that as drawings? I’m hoping that project makes leaps and bounds this year.


You can read interviews with the two more Emergence Bursary winners – Letty and Fae – by clicking on their names.

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