Sunday, 5 February 2017

Interview with Tom Verity, The Weight of Things, AirSpace Gallery Graduate Residency

Preparing for his first major solo show, Graduate Resident Tom Verity took time out from his install schedule to speak about his time living and working as an artist in Stoke-on-Trent. After completing his studies at Camberwell College of Art in 2016, Tom relocated to the West Midlands to begin his six month residency. Bringing with him a plethora of ideas fresh from his graduate show, Tom set about developing his interest in the value and positioning of objects and materials through an experimental period, where he explored the structural and tactile worth of found items alongside the malleability of locally sourced clay. His upcoming show, The Weight of Things, places a selection of works produced during his residency in a whitewall context, enabling pieces of all sizes to interact with the exhibition space whilst celebrating their own individual worth. Pickled gherkins, angular ropes and handmade clay forms all encourage the viewer to question the stereotypical uses and sequential assemblage of everyday things.

The Weight of Things, 2017.

: I'd like to start by asking what first drew you to apply to the residency at AirSpace Gallery?
Tom: Both AirSpace and Stoke-on-Trent were new to me when I applied to the residency through Artquest. I was applying for lots of things after graduation, saw this, and thought it would be a good opportunity. It's ideal because it's specifically for graduates so you know that you're not going to be competing against more established artists. I thought I'd just go for it, so I sent off an application, participated in the interview, and moved to Stoke. Sometimes you've just got to take a chance. At the beginning, I didn't know anyone in the city or how it would all work out.

AS: How did you find adjusting to a new city, away from your home in Bristol and university city, London? How did you find the process of finding a place, and carrying on with your practice after art school in a new environment?
Tom: Moving to the city was pretty easy. It's quite hard to find a furnished house here, but we (Tom and fellow resident Jack) managed to find one near the university. After Camberwell, I had a brief stopover in Bristol, so by the time I got here I was ready to start making again. It's great to have a studio where I get to work, and to also have the support of the AirSpace directors, who we meet with once a month. An elected mentor also comes in once every three months and talks to you about your work. It's quite different to university: when you're studying there are people around everyday and you have frequent discussions about your practice. Here, it's much less, and you end up following a set path in your own head rather than lots of people offering you little bits of feedback – which can be both good and bad.

AS: Staying on the subject of having a studio space and supervisory meetings, how did you find the level of support, for example, were the meetings with your mentor Kevin Hunt useful?
Tom: I had really great experience with Kevin, and it was a much better relationship than I've had with any tutor. It felt as though he put in a lot of effort to come to Stoke and to provide me with some constructive feedback – this motivated me to take his suggestions on board. The mentoring has definitely improved the work; each session rebooting it in some way. I just had another meeting on Sunday, and now I'm feeling more confident about the show. It would have looked completely different, I think, if he hadn't helped me, specifically with the curation. I've learnt a lot about creating tension in the space and using it in a way that is beneficial to both the space and the artwork. The gallery at AirSpace is a difficult space to work with in some respects because it has a central pillar as well as a few nooks and crannies. Kevin was good in saying that you don't have to use these situational quirks in a really obvious way. We've created, I think, a really contemporary looking show – perhaps one that you don't see very often in Stoke.

AS: Earlier today, we were talking about how filling a whole space on your own can be a little bit daunting, and to have pieces in development that really use the gallery can be challenging. What was your approach to this?
Tom: Yes, Kevin was really good in telling me to be more confident in the work, because if you're not that confident with it, you can end up filling the space with all of your work. Kevin and I talked about paring it back and not putting everything in. The idea is to let the artwork have space around it and to be confident that it can hold the wall. For example, there's a really small 10cm clay piece in the show that is displayed on about eight metres of wall. It's about saying that this piece is good enough to warrant this wall.

AS: It sounds as though this experience has given you the confidence to curate things in new and experimental ways. This leads into my next question: how has your practice developed since graduating from Camberwell, particularly in these last six months?
Tom: Important changes have occurred concerning my use of clay – it was a material that I wanted to use but didn't know how to work with it. Earlier, I was using clay too much and now, I've learnt how to use it sparingly so that it has more of an impact. Prior to this I was composing found objects together, and so there was no hand crafting involved like there is with clay. A block of clay can become anything and you have to form it – it has infinite possibilities, whereas something like rope goes from point A to B, and you just decide what happens in the middle.

The Weight of Things, 2017.

AS: Clay, like you say, is something very malleable and you have the final say over its shape whereas, for example, a glass bottle is already formed. A lot of your work uses readymade and found items to address the value and positioning of objects. I'm interested to hear how clay combined with these readymade objects continues this thematic pursuit?
Tom: This theme is the core of the work, but it's not overly obvious in the show. In earlier pieces, where I was making clay plinths for items, it was almost too literal. The main idea behind this is that clay – a typically ornamental thing – can been used as a structural item. By placing clay beneath a manmade or machine-made object, I seek to play with the audience's expectation of seeing a handmade item at the top of a pile. It's also about touch: the clay is molded by hand and contains traces of my handprints (something that the machine-made object does not have). In later works, I've tried to experiment with these differences in more subtle ways.
AS: It's questioning the value that people place on ornamental objects, and flipping the norm.
Tom: Yes, for example glass is a material often used to display something else (as a glass vitrine or shelf). In my work it's being displayed on something like a handmade clay shelf. I'm putting more artistic effort into making the support material than the thing that is going to be on display. It's meant to confuse the viewer who becomes more interested in the support structure than the item on show. Whilst the show itself moves away from this, the prominent theme of the difference of touch between clay and the item that the clay supports remains.

AS: Not to stay on the subject of clay for too long, but I wanted to ask about its connection to Stoke-on-Trent's heritage. Was the use of clay a conscious decision when you came to Stoke; did you feel drawn to the city's ceramic history, or was it something that you were interested in before?
Tom: The reason why I used, or continued to use clay in Stoke was because of its availability in the city. There's Potclays down the road, where you can get hundreds of bits of clay, so it's an easy material to get, but I wasn't drawn to the history of it really. I knew that it was a very conscious material of the city 
 it's in everyone's minds – so I knew to be a little bit careful with it. That's why there are much fewer clay or ceramic pieces in the final show.
AS: It's interesting how the work is removed from the city's heritage due to its usage, but then again it's always going to have certain connotations with it, perhaps.
Tom: Yes it will, I think if it's made in the city, it will do, but maybe it's good that I can offer an alternative use for the material. It might get people to think about it in a different way. The majority of artists in the city are ceramic artists, and it might be interesting to have a fine artist giving an opinion on how the material can be used, as a material, away from more traditional processes.

AS: We've spoken about readymade and found objects. Is there anywhere in particular that you look for these items? How do you select your objects?
Tom: A lot of it comes from our house – it's a furnished place filled with things from past tenants – and more comes from the gallery and it's garden, like the rocks. Generally, I try to combine an everyday household object with the malleable clay and a raw material, like stones or wood, so that you have a variety of different materials that can be judged against each other. I select mundane materials that everyone is aware of, but isn't scrutinised in day-to-day life; cups, mugs and little glassware things that aren't highly valued.
AS: In a way, you're elevating these objects.
Tom: Yes, and using them in a secondary way that they're not meant to be used in. So, this glass vase (points to work) has become a structural element rather than an ornamental thing. And there's some pickle jars in the show that I use in a supportive way too, to hold it together – so again, they're being asked to do a different thing to what they're intended to do, which forces you to look at them in a different light.

Pickle Juice, 2017. Trestle Tables, Pickle Jars and Raw Clay.

AS: You've mentioned some of your work in development, but what do you anticipate for your upcoming show? What can audiences expect to see or experience in The Weight of Things?
Tom: I think people should come with an open mind. They're going to see what I've made in the last six months in Stoke-on-Trent, and whilst it may not be directly connected to the city, there are things that have been made during my time here. I've not even been thinking about the end product really.
AS: Well, there isn't always an end product, the work is often in development. Can you describe some of the pieces that are going to be in the show?
Tom: There's a really small piece made out of clay. It's intended to be a specific display holder for disposable cutlery: a knife, fork and spoon. The piece is about spending time doing something for objects that aren't normally held in a high regard; creating a structure for them to be displayed and observed in a new way. It's also humorous as the audience is spending time with objects that don't normally have time spent on them. Another piece in the show features a little clay box filled with stones. The work was experimental when I made it, but on reflection it highlights the touch of both materials: the stone has been worn away over thousands of years to become a pebble, and it's being held inside a box that I've made in half an hour from loosely molded clay. The interplay between a slowly formed object and a very fast, quickly formed object is something that I've found quite interesting.

Packed House, 2017. Painted Clay, Stones.
Souvenir From A Picnic, 2017. Painted Clay, Plastic Cutlery.

AS: Prior to this exhibition, you had an interim show in December. Was the interim helpful and how did you develop the transition from one show to the other?
Tom: It was helpful to hang the work and see what it looks like. From the interim show there are two slightly altered pieces that are going to move into the new show. The interim helped me to see what the work looked like in an exhibition context, and to figure out the parts that I was most interested in. It helped to have a test show, which included making a poster and writing an exhibition text. The mid-term deadline was useful as I had to have pieces finished rather than have them floating about the studio. It's also an opportunity for people to see what you're doing during the residency and open some communication between the public and you. It keeps everyone up to date, including yourself.

AS: Can you describe some of the challenges that you've encountered during the residency, and how you've overcome these?
Tom: I think a lot of the challenges are just general ones, like moving to a new city, not really knowing anybody and meeting new people. The good thing about the residency is that you have the studio, so whatever happens, you've got a place where you can work. Other challenges.. in London, there are thousands of shows that you can go to every weekend, but here, you're a little bit on your own in terms of context. On the other hand, its good that Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester are so close, and you can take day trips to neighboring cities. But there are a lot of people here, and they're all really welcoming.

AS: Having lived in the city for the last six months, what will you take away with you? Do you think you'll stay in Stoke, and what will you take away with you from the residency?
Tom: A lot of it will come from the mentoring that I received from Kevin, that's where I've gained the most during the residency, but I know that I've learnt lots more from just being able to make work. I've definitely developed a lot more as an artist, which is really great to have the opportunity to get the ground running and to stabilise my practice into something that I can be confident in. I've made a few friends, and I'll be staying until March. Then, in June, I'm going to Iceland.

AS: That leads me onto my next question: how do see your work progressing and what do have planned on the horizon next, Iceland sounds exciting?
Tom: In terms of progressing with the work, I'm looking forward to some decompression time, because on the residency I've just been producing as much as I can. I'm looking forward to not having a deadline and to have time to think about the work at a slower pace. I'll take a little break, but not for too long. I'm happy with the work and I've just got to figure out what aspects of it I'm most interested in and how to keep doing it. In June, I'm going to Iceland on a one month residency, something that I've had planned since last summer. From my time at AirSpace, I've definitely learnt about being on a residency and how to be natural with it. You've got to just take it as it comes and try not to overthink the work. Then after that, I don't know what's going to happen, back to England and then, I could live in Bristol or I could move to Liverpool. It feels a little as though I've moved the scary part of graduation to now.

AS: Perhaps, but it has given you the time to continue with your practice and to build a certain confidence that now you feel more prepared to pursue it. What advice can you offer to future graduate residents?
Tom: Similar to what I was saying, don't think too much about it, just come in and let the work happen naturally, don't try to make work that's specifically for the city just because you're here. It's good to live with the other resident, because then you've got one person that you know, and you can move outwards from there. It's great that everyone is interested to meet the annual residents – they know the situation you're in and they're happy to hang out. Hopefully I can come back and talk to the residents to give them advice in person.

AS: Any last words, where does your work go from here, do you think you''ll carry on using clay?
Tom: I will, because I've found a way of using the dry clay with enamel paint that has a nice finish, and I've found the level at which it should be in my work. My practice before the residency was a little bit colder: I was into minimalism, constructivism and strong forms. This is why I brought clay into my work – it acts as a handmade counter element to that harsh minimalist language. It's good to have an element of something that creates a more tension, so that it's not just all strong form, and there is something a little more interesting there.

Tom Verity, The Weight of Things, February 3rd to 11th, AirSpace Gallery.

Tom Verity was born in Bristol and graduated from Camberwell College of Art in 2016. His works have been shortlisted for three major awards (Bloomberg New Contemporaries, Woon Art Prize and the SOLO award) and this, his first solo exhibition, has been supported by a successful GFA Arts Council Application.

The AirSpace Gallery Graduate Residency Scheme, running since 2012, seeks to tackle graduate retention in Stoke-on-Trent and offers new arts graduates an opportunity to bridge the gap between education and a professional arts career. Residents receive a studio space for 6 months, monthly mentoring meetings and full access to the Gallery's facilities.

See more of Tom's work:

Interview conducted by Selina Oakes.

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