In Conversation with Imogen Rigden and Juliet Bankes
Associate Q&A’s with Imogen Rigden
I am based in Oxfordshire but can work wherever I find myself at any time. When not in Oxford I generally stay in the Spey Valley in the Highlands or on a small peninsular in North Finistère called Le Diben. I have very busy times when I am producing work to show, interspersed with thinking and learning periods, which are crucial and which are my favourite times. I am a trained linguist and I have lived and studied in Europe, worked for a good few years in London, before having a family and then a language teaching career in Oxford.
I joined The OVADA Warehouse Art School’s Continuing Practice Course in 2014. This was a massive challenge and a revelation for me and I joyfully threw myself into every opportunity available. After W.A.S. I joined the painting course for a few years and learned a lot from some excellent tutors with many different perspectives, methods and motivations.
My practice can be described as experimental, often rule based and frequently informed by research. My preoccupation is the fragility of human existence in an alienated natural world. I make work which talks of the role of connections and empathy between people and between human and other life forms. It also discusses the danger of ignoring the existence and value of non-human life. My intentions are deeply felt and serious but some of the resulting work asks people to believe things that might not be true. The Urban Heritage series of blue plaques for wild plants is an example of this kind of work. Five blue plaques were installed around Oxford in 2014 by Urban Heritage. One remains after all this time. Wild plants would not be recognised in this way in a normal world but Urban Heritage maintains that they should be honoured for the benefit they bring to human health.
What am I currently working on?
I’m about to lead a couple of sessions on the Experimental Drawing course at OVADA. I love leading these sessions. The people who come to these classes often produce quite stunning work. It’s a privilege to be there and of course my own practice benefits from it.
I’m also currently working towards a solo show at The North Wall Arts Centre, Oxford April 14th to May 1st. entitled Wilderness Bewilderness. Some of the work in this show results from my open call in 2020 for “short written phrases about the natural world in a period of restricted freedom” – called the Look Outside Project.
In the summer and autumn of last year I began learning about natural plant dyes – collecting the plants and using them to dye cotton, wool and paper. These have formed the materials for some of my work in Wilderness Bewilderness. I also learned the basics of Nålebinding – a needle-less technique of working with wool, older than knitting and crochet, employed by the Vikings. This has resulted in a piece of woollen sculpture, oddly entitled “Flora .. 1.5” which will also feature in the show.
When the spring and summer finally arrive I will be back to experimenting with dyes from the plants in my wild garden and beyond.
I also spend time listening to sounds, both from the natural world and the human, and marking them in my sketchbook. I get through sketchbooks at an alarming rate.
Where I work
I used to work at OVADA in studio 4 (where Lisa Bates now works). It was a good place to work. I now have a studio that I’ve nicknamed “The Sliver”, a small oblong space which was once a darkroom, at Wilcote Arts near Finstock. I use this space for messy work, often painting. I am enjoying working out there – there’s a common space and a lot of self contained artists’ studios in a complex of converted barns. The Wilcote artists have varied practices, some commercial and some not. This is a friendly supportive group and there are many brains to pick! The surroundings are very conducive to quiet thinking with walks through the woodlands.
I can work from home – especially in lockdown periods, in a small shed studio in the garden wilderness. I also invade any unused corner of the house where there are books and internet.
None. My art practice takes all my working time.
How does your OVADA Associate membership benefit you?
I feel that I haven’t made the most of it yet. This role as OVADA Associate Feature Artist has brought me more into the fold. I do appreciate having access to the practices of such a wide selection of artists, some of which I know and others that I really look forward to finding out about.
What are you hoping to achieve over the next year?
I want to revisit and extend what I understand about natural plant dyes and inks, and experiment with these in two and three dimensional work. I am learning Scottish Gaelic (which to my ear resembles bird song) and one day I would like to be able to do a residency in a Scottish Gaelic speaking place … Nova Scotia would be wonderful but the Outer Hebrides might be more likely, although this might still be too ambitious for 2021. In general I want to draw more and continue to experiment with drawing from sound – live and recorded. I would also like to do more work which involves the marks made by rain, river and seawater. I think, in a nutshell, that I want to continue learning and to find ways to feed new skills and habits into my practice.
Tell us a little bit about the work of an artist or arts organisation/ collective that you find inspiring
Drawing Projects UK is an organisation formed by Anita Taylor in 2009. They provide access, now online, to a lot of events and classes there and drawing is their focus. They are probably best known for the Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize.
OVADA of course …. this goes without saying. We can never take OVADA for granted. It is unique in this part of the world.
The Oxford Printmakers’ Co-op… run on a shoestring by hugely dedicated volunteers, expert in their printmaking practice. I am not a printmaker but sometimes need to print. I have done a couple of courses with them and keep an Associate Membership and a half-drawer … and I really appreciate their kindness and their patience whenever I turn up with yet another odd request. Under normal circumstances the OPC is a hive of activity and the teaching of skills is extremely good.
Quite tucked away in Altarnun on the edge of Bodmin Moor, there is a gallery called Terre Verte run by my friends, visual artist and and poet Richard Sharland and poet and writer Cathy Galvin. It has become a vibrant hub for visual artists of all kinds, for writers and for poets. The breadth of vision and energy is just brilliant.
I like the look of An Lanntair, in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides.
Describe the last time you felt inspired
I am more likely to be working than not and I need to switch off at times and allow my brain to refresh itself. Periods of enforced isolation or restriction of movement are exactly what I need. I love being on a boat at sea.
I’ve been following the Vendée Globe solo round the world race .. to practise languages and dream about being on the Southern Ocean in the safety of my own home. This must be the ultimate in armchair sport.
What is your opinion of the current art scene in Oxford?
Oxford City has always suffered, I think, from hosting Oxford University with all its benefactors and its wealth. I think that we have never really expected much to happen beyond the University’s reach and that this has sapped the artistic energy that you might find in towns and cities which do not contain such a dominant and renowned institution. The University allows the townspeople access to its galleries and museums. These are wonderful and we are lucky but of course really interesting work is being done by organisations which pay rent – often to the University, and struggle for their continued existence. The fabric of their rented buildings needs constant upkeep. A lot of the work is done voluntarily but they put on ambitious events and provide such opportunities for continued education and experimentation that they deserve far more renown and support than they get just now. Perhaps things will change.
How do you feel the arts benefit society?
I think that these Covid months of lockdown have served to highlight the true value of the arts to a lot of people in this country and elsewhere. Art galleries have become adept in showing work to a wider audience. Ballet is all over the internet … I recently discovered Ballet Black and highly recommend their work. Those who have internet are able to access online opera and theatre. If all this were to be taken away now, would people miss it? The Arts have been underfunded because, generally, people have felt them to be a luxury. If we remember the Covid lessons – the better mental health and brain stimulation from the arts – then perhaps we will value them more and lobby more strongly for their state support.