Associate Q&As with Cally Trench
I work in a variety of ways depending on what outcome the idea seems to require.
My original playable board games explore social and economic problems in ways that allow the players to empathise and engage without getting caught up in right/wrong arguments. These games are brought to life and completed by the players. They are also fun.
I like making artist’s books because they give the viewer a private moment of contact with someone else’s thoughts. And there is no ban on touching; on the contrary, the book must be held and the pages turned. Many of my books are published by the Institute for Ground-Level Mapping & Exploration and explore less-noticed aspects of the urban environment. An example is ‘WE SHALL MEET AGAIN’, about a handshake motif on gravestones. Many of my books have been shown at artists’ book fairs with AMBruno, a collective of artists that make books.
I also make very short animation films. I am constantly amazed by the simple fact that if images fly past our eyes fast enough we perceive movement. An example is ‘Fossil Fish Film’ (38 secs), which can be seen on YouTube.
Finally, I make detailed pen and ink drawings. My aesthetic and technique here are influenced by 19th-century scientific text-book illustrations.
In terms of background, I started making art when I stopped ‘doing’ art at school. I finally went to art school (BA in Fine Art at Bucks Chilterns University College) once my children got to school age, followed by an MA in Fine Art at Central Saint Martins.
What are you currently working on?
My main project at the moment is a series of ‘Metamorphosis’ drawings. These drawings show hands (and feet) from which feathers are sprouting. The hands and feet are not yet wings, but can never go back to being hands and feet.
Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ is a collection of stories in which human beings are transformed into trees, animals and birds. What does it feel like to be in the process of that transformation? To be halfway between the person that you are ceasing to be and the bird that you are becoming? There is the promise of flight, freedom, an escape to the air, but there is the horrendous loss of human identity and the inevitable separation from all the people that you love.
In these drawings, the hands and feet are life size, and are drawn from life – from my own hands and feet – in pen and ink on watercolour paper.
This is an ongoing project. There are about seventeen drawings so far, and I am working on more. I am becoming more specific about the bird that I am transforming into – a coot or a magpie.
A project that is coming towards completion is my ‘105 Artists’ Hands: Touch Tell Create’ book. This is being published in July by Peculiarity Press, with design by Jane Glennie. I spent two years (2018-2020) meeting artists at exhibitions, in their homes and studios, in parks and online – seeing their latest work, catching up on news, eating and drinking, and, on one occasion, swimming in the sea. The book contains short pieces of writing by all the artists; I invited them to write about their hands, life and work, and they make clear the close and complex relationships of artists’ hands to their hearts, minds and eyes. In addition, there are entertainments, essays, stories, poems, and picture projects – all about hands – by over thirty of the artists. I am very excited about this book!
I am also engaged in a collaborative project with Lydia Julien. Last summer, during lockdown, we started a photographic project: ‘One o’clock on Monday’. A photograph is taken by each of us at the same moment in time each week. Then the two photographs are superimposed on each other to create one work of art that combines both lives. We take it in turns to decide on the theme. The photographs are posted on my website (and intermittently on Instagram), and we are discussing a possible book, film, slide show.
Where do you work? Do you have a studio?
I have a studio in my house. I also work in another room when I need to use my computer (for example, when working on an animation film).
What are your other (work) commitments if any?
I do some teaching and I have a family.
How does your Associate membership benefit you?
Being invited to be an OAFA is wonderful! More generally, as an artist working primarily in isolation in the studio, having the encouragement and company of other artists is really important. I like collaborative ventures with other artists, and I think it is important for artists to support each other. I also believe that Ovada is a great place – both as a venue and as a philosophy.
What are you hoping to achieve over the next year?
I am looking forward to seeing ‘105 Artists’ Hands’ as a physical book. The book launch, which is planned for Space 36 in London in July, will involve readings and performances by some of the artists, as well as tea and cake.
I am also hoping that it will be possible for my most recent board game, ‘Tulip Birds and Daffodil Birds’, to be played by people in public – which has not been possible during the pandemic. It is a game about inequality, and upsets the usual expectation of board games by not having a ‘level playing field’.
Otherwise I am intending to continue with my current projects. I would love to see more people and art. I am hoping for a few hugs.
Tell us a little bit about the work of an artist or arts organisation/collective that you find inspiring?
I am inspired by every artist who keeps going, making their work, undeterred by practical and financial difficulties, finding ways of working in between their other commitments to family, jobs, friends and the wider world. I am inspired by every artist who helps create opportunities for other artists. I am inspired by the artists who run AMBruno, ArtWash, OpenHand OpenSpace, the Rising Sun arts centre, the Heseltine Gallery, FiLiArts, the Thought Foundation, Ovada itself, and every other artist-run group and space, and by the many artists who curate exhibitions and events for other artists.
Describe the last time you felt inspired
I think that the way I work emerges from a mixture of chance encounters (with things or ideas) and specific need. I am currently inspired by a number of things – iron bench ends, rising sea levels, the way that hair changes with age, how dead things are different from living things, the view across a valley from a hillside, the traditional patterns on biscuits, my own skeleton, how a dolls’ house could represent a real history, messages on postcards, objects from the 1960s, and so on. Some of these things will emerge as works of art in one form or another. Many won’t.
What is your opinion of the current art scene in Oxford?
I was more familiar with the Oxford art scene when I lived in Oxford, but it is still a great pleasure to come to Oxford (a convenient train ride) to visit MAO, the Ashmolean, Ovada, and so on.
How do you feel the arts benefit society?
The arts are not separate from society. When we want to know about a society from the past, we look at what artists produced – writing, architecture, music, objects of craft, paintings, sculptures, etc. These define a culture.
More than that, the arts are what makes a society cohere; they unite us – even if in disagreement. Shared culture is what makes a society. We know that we are in a different society when we don’t understand the cultural references and the jokes, we haven’t read the same books, seen the same TV programmes, where we don’t recognise iconic images. At least, this has been my experience when living and working abroad.
In our complex multi-cultural world, the arts are ever more important, both to help us cross boundaries between societies (and to learn to understand and appreciate the unfamiliar), but also to interrogate the assumptions concealed within the society we inhabit.
Art is an amazing combination of the individual and the universal; its power lies in its capacity to make us experience someone else’s point of view, whether that reassures us that we are not alone or opens us up to difference.
You can watch a live ‘In Conversation between Cally Trench and previous OAFA Katie Hellon, on Friday 23rd July, 11am. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line ‘OAFA In Conversation’ by 4pm on 22nd July to receive the link.