Interview with Rachel Letchford

Can you talk a bit about your background and where you’re from?


Yes, of course! I’m from Dartford, a working class market town, which sits in the North of Kent and to the South East of the UK. Both of my parents were born into large Dartford families, so I have a real sense of belonging to the place and many of my immediate and extended family still live there. 


Education wasn’t top of the list for my parents and both left school as early as they could to join the working world. My Dads first job was delivering coal (horse and cart style) to the many households of Temple Hill, a local housing estate. My mum worked in the bakers on West Hill, a job which her mum had already lined up in advance of her leaving school. Neither went onto further or higher education. 


My parents divorced when I was young, so me, my mum and my sister moved to a more rural area just out of town. I had an outdoorsy childhood and most of my early teenage years were spent looking after Tanko, my Highland pony. I loved art as a kid and always wanted to draw, particularly when it rained. I liked the art shop in town, the various papers and stationery. However, drawing was not my forte, so discovering photography in my late teens was a revelation. 


My own early experience of education wasn’t that different to my folks. I attended a mixed comprehensive school, which during the 80s was more like the local youth club, I had lots of friends, learnt how to roll fags and left with zero GCSEs. This might sound hopeless, but to be honest, it wasn’t, I had energy and drive and, like my mum, I had secured a full time job at the local newspaper before leaving school. It was here, in my first creative role as ‘paste-up artist’, that I fell in love with layout and design. It was in the days before Apple Mac and InDesign, and it was my job to literally piece the weekly paper into existence, using hot wax and tiny bromide cut-outs.

Installation of Screenplay, 2017

Can you tell us a bit about your practice?

My practice is multidisciplinary, I work with photography, objects, installation and some moving image. I guess the thing that links them all together is a kind of mourning, a looking back at the past, at personal and collective events, memories and images. I tend to re-collect and then re-present things, often things that I have previously experienced or owned. I’m not sure if they’re haunting me, or me them. Either way, through these objects and images I am able to learn something about myself, my community and cultural history.


Would you say you had a traditional or untraditional route into the arts?


Definitely untraditional! 


Having left school, I went directly into work, where I enjoyed some fairly creative roles in publishing and marketing. I had my first son Max at the age of 24 and then Sid at 26. It was when both my boys went off to full-time school that I realised I had been suffering with depression and needed something else. I went back to study, I was 31 at the time, it was an incredible experience that totally changed my life, my values and my future. 


At that time (2004) the level 3 qualification I completed at college was free to anyone, regardless of their age. Today it is a very different story, as for anyone 19+, there is now a fee attached. This makes me so sad and angry, to think that people are written off because of their age and a lack of government funding, it is utterly tragic. 


After college nothing could hold me back, I went straight off to the University of East London to study for a BA in photography. I met the most amazing tutors, looking back it was a very nurturing experience. It was here, through education, that my world really opened up and I became socially mobile. More recently I completed an MA at City & Guilds of London Art School, again, such a welcoming and supportive environment, where I was really able to focus and to understand myself as an artist.

Installation of Screenplay, 2017

What do you listen to when you work?


I generally don’t listen to music when I work – but if I had the radio on it would be Radio 4 and if I had music playing it would probably be Nick Cave…or Aimee Mann.


What would you say has been your top experience in your art career?


Being given the opportunity to teach at the college where I first studied has been the best experience ever. It feels a bit ‘full circle’ – going back to Dartford, to teach a variety of learners from the local area I know so well. We have a fantastic network on social media, and it’s great to see how many go on to complete degrees or get jobs and apprenticeships in the arts.

Please, Turn The Lights off Before You leave, 2019

What is your dream project?


I would like to take some time out to visit and photograph the coldest places on earth – this idea came about after a trip to Iceland, where I made a series of images titled ‘Please, Turn the Lights off Before You Leave’. The landscape in these places is so other-worldy, full of blackholes, craters and waterfalls, I like the starkness and the melancholic light.


What do you feel is integral to the work of an artist?


To be able to work intuitively, I really enjoy not always knowing exactly what I am doing or where my work is going!


What’s the best piece of artistic advice you’ve been given?


“The thing that's important to know is that you never know. You're always sort of feeling your way” - Diane Arbus: Revelations by Diane ArbusDoon Arbus, 2003

You can see more of Rachel's work here


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