Global financial services firm, Morgan Stanley has been working in partnership with Outside In to commission a new print as part of its activities marking 40 years in the UK. This special commission offered one artist exclusive access to preview inspirational work from the British Museum’s upcoming exhibition The American Dream: pop to the present which Morgan Stanley is sponsoring. The successful artist also had access to specialist printmaking facilities at Putney School of Art and Design.
Artist Sarah Carpenter was selected to produce the print for this special commission. Having developed her artwork over a number of weeks, Sarah’s final piece will be unveiled at Morgan Stanley’s London headquarters in May 2017. We caught up with Sarah to find out more about the project.
To start, please can you tell us about your background as an artist and explain your way of working
Background as an artist:
My background in dance choreography and theatre directing naturally led to me taking up photography.
Living in Leytonstone was key to my journey as an artist. I was made to feel at home by the artistic community who encouraged me to produce artwork, and my first photographic exhibition was in the Leytonstone Arts Trail. I soon became further involved in this and it lead to me volunteering at a local gallery called The Stone Space. Before long I was curating shows and eventually became a member of the steering group. It was at this time I started studying Fine Art Photography at Kensington and Chelsea. Although I moved away from Leytonstone a while ago, my East End connections are strong, I still have many friends there and exhibit in the area frequently.
Upon moving into Kent, I decided to stop working in clerical roles, which I wasn’t very good at, and began looking at more creative pursuits that I might be better at. I decided to go back to university and took a postgraduate course in Design for Visual Communication at the London College of Communication (part of the University of the Arts London). I was immediately drawn to the wonderful printmaking facilities there and this immediately fed into my artistic practice.
Way of working:
The element of play is extremely important to my learning and development therefore my process is very much about experimentation. I break down intricate and complex working methodologies to their simplest forms and explore how existing tools can be used in different ways. I then begin to make connections, looking at how the components can be used together in numerous ways. Through this experimentation with different combinations, I gradually begin to rebuild processes until I find a way of working that satisfies me.
I distort viewpoints by taking one thing, reimagining, exploring all of the possibilities it holds and making something new with it. I use images from different contexts and repurpose them in the form of collage, add layers of my own work to existing material and create my own images using photography and printmaking which I proceed to take apart and reassemble. Breaking things down, looking at things from a different perspective and in a different context helps me find something new that I can relate to and begin to understand.
My artwork is about twisting concepts and challenging perceptions of how we view the world. It is about dealing with very difficult emotions and ugly topics by endeavoring to unveil or create something very beautiful in the hope that this might open up dialogue about current affairs and challenging subjects. Indeed, it is a questioning of what constitutes beauty? Does my process of distortion make the subject matter more or less approachable and easier to digest and understand?
What attracted you to the Morgan Stanley commission?
I studied American Theatre Arts at Rose Bruford and found the concept of the ‘American Dream’ fascinating. This period of my life was really important in shaping my thought as an artist. Although many years on, this project could not have come at a more perfect time for me. Just last year I undertook a postgraduate course in Design for Visual Communication at the London College of Communication. The printmaking facilities were incredible and I used every opportunity I had to experiment with traditional printmaking techniques and crafts. It took my art practice in a completely new direction. I was attracted to the current project, as it could provide me with the chance to explore printmaking in more depth and in the most incredible, hands on way with experts in the field. What a fantastic opportunity to work with the British Museum, and what a collection they have at their fingertips!
How did it feel to be selected for this project?
During the selection process I felt sure that it couldn’t be me, I’m just not someone that these things happen to. I feel extremely lucky to be selected and continue to pinch myself every step of the way. It’s not every day you get that close to a Rauschenberg or a Warhol! And to glean such remarkable insight from the co-curator of the exhibition Catherine too! Incredible!
Can you tell us a bit more about the experience of accessing these artworks? Where did you go? What did you see? What insights was Catherine the co-curator able to give you?
I was very fortunate to receive the objects list before it was made public. This meant that I could select works to view in the beautiful print rooms at The British Museum and in their storage areas beyond. The experience was made all the more special as Catherine Daunt (Co-curator of the exhibition) was on hand to discuss the artworks. Catherine is extremely knowledgeable and I couldn’t begin to explain what great insight I gained from her, it was an absolute highlight of the project.
One of my favorite pieces from the show is Robert Longo’s Cindy. The work features an all time favorite photographer: Cindy Sherman. The work really came to life when Catherine was able to explain its background: how Longo was obsessed with the rise of ‘yuppie culture’, how he invited Cindy and other friends dressed up in ‘work’ attire to his rooftop, how he photographed them whilst throwing tennis balls and other objects at them and created these beautiful yet distorted and uncomfortable images. It is then when the works really begin to feel like familiar friends whose stories I have come to know. This makes me feel extremely lucky.
What elements of the The American Dream: pop to the present exhibition prints have you drawn inspiration from?
The exhibition is inspiring on so many levels. In particular, I have felt moved by the artist’s sense of experimentation both with process and materials. When I look at the work I get a real sense of how literally everything can be used in the creative process, which I find really freeing and inspiring!
Tell us about your how you’ve been developing your artwork
Documenting this experience was really important for developing my work. I began using workbooks again having found a comfortable way to do so, by using collage. I also kept a separate sketchbook purely for research about the artists and work from the exhibition. I watched many documentaries which was invaluable for gaining insight into artists processes.
To further understand these processes, I undertook workshops in Gelliplate print, Photopolyer etching, Woodcut monoprinting and Collograph.
Another part of the research stage was looking into materials. I visited GF Smith’s new showroom and John Purcell too in order to get more information about paper.
As a starting point for making the work, I wanted to define several component parts that I could move in and out of the work that also worked as stand alone pieces. My workbooks helped to define what I wanted to say, I then searched for the imagery that might best represent this. I actually used Pinterest for the first time to help organise this and found it a great tool.
It was then preparation time. Getting my imagery ready for screenprinting involved cutting scaling, editing and bitmapping photos, drawing illustrations, developing patterns and creating digital mockups.
It was then studio time. I spent a week in Putney, which was preceded by one-day a week open access sessions at my local studio Intra. During this process, I also developed the studio space in my spare room at home with the addition of plywood and screen clamps.
It has been a challenge finding a way to bring together my photography design and collage practice. I have had to scrutinise my process, but this project has helped solidified my way of working and goals as an artist.
As part of the commission you had access to printing facilities at Putney – how was that experience?
My time at Putney School of Art and Design was great. Charlie and the staff were extremely accommodating and welcoming.
It was amazing to have the whole studio space to myself. There were several huge tables allowing me to have separate spaces for workbooks and visual cues, materials and a work area, which by the end of the week had a set up of four large-scale screens to work from.
Working with Justine Ellis was just wonderful. Not only did she help me physically with pulling prints too large for one person, she also helped me manage my time and taught me good practice. I set us huge challenges and she was there as a facilitator every step of the way. It was a print marathon!!! My first full week of working in my own studio space since leaving education. By the end of the week I felt confident in my practice, confident in my process and able to problem solve. It helped that Justine and I are very much on the same wavelength.
During the week it was also important to return to the brief (remembering that the work is a commission) and explain my decision making to others. This was quite a struggle for me as my process relies on allowing the physical work to take place in a free flow manner without interruption. I usually spend a large period of time researching and making sure that I have all of the right conditions and elements in place, so that I can trust in this to keep the artwork on track during the final ‘doing’ stage. Although it was difficult to break this process, it felt like good practice in expressing myself and it is an important reminder of the multifaceted work involved in being a professional artist.
All in all, it was a wonderful week, and I felt extremely lucky to be given the opportunity that I doubt many people get to experience in their lifetime. It certainly stretched and challenged me, my practice and my process too.
Sarah continues to develop her artwork for this commission. The final piece will be unveiled at Morgan Stanley’s headquarters this May. We will share images of the artwork here on the Outside In blog. Subscribe to the blog to receive regular updates.