Interview with Mollie Balshaw
Expansion installation, 2019
Can you talk a bit about your background and where you’re from?
I’m from Blackburn in the North West of England. Blackburn has a reputation for being a typically rough, working-class northern town, with limited accessibility to the arts. There has been lots of negative and controversial coverage of Blackburn over the last few decades; it gets bad press like many places up north do. I’m the first person in my immediate family to go to university, my grandparents grew up on farms and my parents just went straight into work from a young age. I was taught to work hard by people who really knew what hard work meant, when there was no option other than to knuckle down, not arse about painting like I spend my time doing! My family has always been supportive of me making art though, and I think that’s because all of them are creative in some way, so they understand where I’m coming from with it.
I’ve moved about from place to place in my education and I didn’t end up back in Blackburn until a few years after I’d left school, but when I got back there to study my Foundation year it was only then when everything clicked into place. I think when you’re working class, you’re often not really prepared for some of the extremely subtle mistreatment you receive on the basis of your identity, and honestly it’s taken me until really recently to reflect on some of these things. Being back with people who took me seriously, listened to me, encouraged my ideas and got where I coming from was everything.
Besides this, there’s a hell of a lot of culture in Blackburn that people don’t usually know about or appreciate. Over the last few years in particular, amazing creative projects and people there have worked so hard to inject life into the creative sector up north that deserve more recognition than they get. I love Manchester and I wouldn’t want to be based as an artist anywhere else, but I recognise the imbalance of attention sometimes. It’s logical that people gravitate where the space and opportunities are, but there are things going on in places like Blackburn that bigger cities can learn from I think. The community and energy are superb.
Can you tell us about your practice?
My practice makes use of the capabilities of painting within an expanded field, exploring the painting as an object rather than an image, and challenging restrictive structures often associated with painting practice. I am as interested in deconstruction as reconstruction, questioning the very concept of the structures and surfaces on which paintings exist, and in which painting as a subject exists. Painting is caught up in this push and pull between femininity and masculinity, and what these mean iconically. Identifying as non-binary, I find myself stuck in this whirlwind of tropes, questioning where a painter like me fits amongst the history of painting. As such, my work attempts to be a mediator within this divide.
Signifying gender fluidity is one of the foremost challenges I face in my work. Artists can find ample means of expressing themselves visually in regard to gay identity. The simple counterpoint of depicting two men or two women embracing can easily be used to pictorially signify homosexuality. Unlike the gender fluid individual, the gay community has the benefit of a plethora of easily recognisable visual signifiers. I don’t express my gender identity through body – except by the performative connotations in the work – and so I use abstraction as a way of signifying what I describe as “gender outside of gender”. Gender is an expanded field. Gender is abstract. To me, being queer is to characteristically challenge normalcy, self-determine and redefine a culture which is no longer unified or divided into convenient binaries. Postmodern culture is an ever-mutating system of signs and meanings. Value is fluid. Artists have developed several strategies for negotiating this circumstance - strategies like those employed by queers in relation to the heterosexual world. Everything in my practice considers this contextual backdrop, no matter the process.
How would you explain your processes whilst making? How do you go from idea to finished piece?
A big part of my process is my time spent thinking about it. It sounds mega boring, but that’s really key to how I go from idea to completion. I try to exploit chance a lot in my work, purposefully using tools and materials that I usually can’t quite get full control over. I was always told that a big part of every piece of work is how much information it has to give, and how much it gives away in the first few glances. I want my work to hold people’s attention in an organic way; I’m not really interested in shock value or novelty, and so I want to know that I have given enough away that the work creates an internal conversation instinctively, without being too on the nose. You can’t guarantee you’ll pique everyone’s interest, but I know the work is better off for having that groundwork and objective. Questions mean everything to me because they show engagement and interest; I definitely care more about questions than answers.
When creating “ideas pieces” (my version of a sketchbook I suppose) I’ll usually have short, explosive bursts of activity for anywhere between five to twenty minutes, and then I’ll spend half an hour or longer looking at what I made in those moments and scrutinising them, or I guess just thinking more critically about the decision making process that was taking place underneath. It’s the way I’ve found to get a balance between the fun in the action of making, and the critical thought process that is needed to keep the focus of the work clear. I never make strict plans because I think that magic happens outside of the lines. I’ll lay out a very basic framework, but the finished piece is always unknown until the very moment I get there, which is both exciting and very stressful. Painting in general is a stressful process for me, up until I get to the end of one, and the addictiveness of that emotional journey starts all over again.
DECONSTRUCT - RECONSTRUCT, 2020
Would you say you had a traditional or untraditional route into the arts?
Half and half I reckon. I did art at school and I’ve always loved it, but I haven’t always taken it seriously as a potential career path. That’s partly because of me and partly because of crap teachers. There have been a lot of twists and turns in my journey of eventually ending up doing it. I’ve never really liked education; I plodded my way through some A-Levels in different subjects, and there were a few years there where I abandoned art completely to try and pursue something that I felt (and was told) had better job prospects. Luckily I got steered down this path and ended up doing it in university, and that’s where the traditional part begins I guess. I feel like university (in the UK at least) isn’t providing what I would think of as ‘traditional art education’ though – I’ve never been taught any formal skills in painting for example, everything I know I’ve picked up along the way and taught myself. Not to say that’s good or bad – just an observation. Considering my subject matter, materials and process of making, I don’t think a traditional education would have benefitted me anyway – I think it would have bored me stiff.
Social media, especially Instagram, has been said to have democratised the art-world. From your experience, do you see truth in this?
It’s undeniably made a massive difference to the way the art-world functions, and that’s both good and bad I think. The best part about it is it gives people a voice they’ve maybe never had before, with a captive audience, and the ability to make connections outside of your immediate circles, which wouldn’t have been possible (or at least as accessible) a relatively short time ago. I think accessibility is the key word I would use when thinking about social media in it’s best light, and in that way I think it has absolutely made waves and opened up the art-world to people who are often excluded from it. That’s a really good thing. Nevertheless, its effects aren’t all positive like with anything. The quality of connections being made through social media comes into question, and the habits social media encourages. At the end of the day, social media is a multibillion-dollar industry designed to turn engagement into cash. We must always keep enough distance to be critical of it, even though there are notable positives in its influence. For the individual, it’s nothing more than a tool in my opinion, and how you choose to use it defines everything that you get out of it for better or worse.
The art world has felt inaccessible by many working-class individuals, not only in terms of trying to succeed within it, but also in regard to feeling welcome in galleries and museums. Was art a part of your environment when growing up, or was it something that you engaged with later in life?
I showed interest in making art from an early age and my parents encouraged me, but art as a formal subject and experience it was not a part of my life growing up. It’s very much a private experience I’ve engaged with later in life; I hadn’t even been to an art gallery until I was a teenager. I don’t necessarily feel like I’ve actively been discouraged or excluded, but that this has come about in a more roundabout way.
My parents spent most of their time outside of work looking after me and my younger brother by just making sure we got to and from school every day, had food on the table and a roof over our heads, so engaging with culture was way down on the to do list. They were doing the best they could for us, I don’t feel like I missed out at all, and this isn’t an especially unique story - it’s a pretty standard one I would say! I don’t think any of my friends were making time to go and see art either when they were growing up, it just wasn’t part of our world. Art is a luxury, simple as!
When I think of my experience now, I’m quite grateful I’ve had the space to decide my own feelings about art and explore it at my own pace. I do feel twangs of discomfort in galleries and museums sometimes, but not often. I know I deserve to be there just as much as anybody else, but I will say it would be nice to feel more represented, and that’s why it’s so fulfilling for me to see more working class artists stepping out and proving they are just as good (if not better) artists than those who have had distinct advantages in life.
What do you appreciate about the artworld?
I appreciate the people I’ve met and the experiences I’ve had by being engaged within it; I’ve discovered so much about myself and become better because of that. There are great communities I value being a part of, and projects I would never have had the chance to bring to life without support from those people and organisations.
Conversely, what frustrates you about it?
This is a tough one, because the problems are so vast and for so many reasons it’s hard to know where to start. To condense my answer a bit, I’m going to say flat out that representation and class are everything to do with the problems I have with the artworld. We don’t need galleries to keep giving us the same old, and good representation is everything. I don’t want to de-value commercial, historical and traditional art, but if we’re going to see proper wages in the creative sector and enforce the value of art in a contemporary context, we need to create a better, more sustainable artworld that we all have a chance to succeed in. We need to be promoting living artists of all backgrounds. Archiving the work of marginalised artists and getting their vision out there up front and centre where it should be has to be a priority, and should be taken more seriously. We have to unify against the tired practices that are making succeeding in this industry so difficult; but this would mean organisations who benefit from it would need to give up some of their control. Ultimately we can’t fix these larger problems alone, and that’s why talking about our experiences, and working on projects which place significance on the filling the gaps in the sector and trying to cultivate a better and more inclusive community is so important.
What would you say has been your top experience in your art career?
In 2019 I began co-directing an artist-led initiative called with my partner Rebekah Beasley, and through that before we’d graduated ourselves we founded a graduate art prize specifically for North West based art graduates called - which I’m really proud of. The first show for the class of 18/19 was a massive success, the busiest show the gallery had seen at that point, with interest and visitors from places like Jerwood Arts and Tate Liverpool. The goal with the show was to push back against the wave of graduate opportunities that are so out of touch with what graduates want and need, and to support the graduates on our own doorstep who often aren’t included in more “prestigious” awards. We wanted to deconstruct and ask what the function of a graduate are prize should be, and how we could take steps to make it better. We don’t have a big budget or years of experience, but we understand the position of the graduate right now, and have the ability to personalise the journey more. These things worked in our favour, and I’m really excited for the project to grow and for us to be able to connect with more emerging artists through it.
What is your dream project?
I’m quite keen to make a painting, or series of paintings that are more immersive in their presentation. I’ve wanted to create a show around this idea few years now. It’s a side of my practice that hasn’t had its time or place to be explored as fully yet for a number of reasons. I love making large-scale work, and I like using my baseline interest in painterly techniques and bringing them to life through a more sculptural approach, and creating pieces that function as much as installations as they do as paintings. It’s hard to make people understand how it feels to be outside of conventions that are placed on us from birth, gender is one of the very first things that help people get to know and define us. Colour, texture and the opportunity to participate physically with a piece of work all play their part in enticing you to engage, but once you’re there, the true message needs to punch you in the gut. A show where I have full creative freedom to invite people into my headspace, in a way that does it playfully to ease you into these more complex themes, is a lot of work visually and contextually. The idea is there on paper, but the complications come in when assessing feasibility, money and time like with many projects. I am getting there though, I have the initial building blocks, it’s just a step by step process putting them together.
What do you feel is integral to the work of an artist?
Enquiry. A need to discover, or re-discover or change. With that being said though, I think not being afraid to be silly is just as important. All art is a bit ridiculous. I think embracing experimentation and the joy of knowing you’re doing something a bit weird has been important for me. University gives you crucial academic skills and the ability to talk the talk to give a sense of validity to your actions, but if you take yourself a bit too seriously, I think that’s really detrimental. Snobbery is one of those things I hate most about the artworld, and the artists I love most ones who are down to earth, and appreciate that what they’re doing is simultaneously daft and necessary in different ways.