Artist Stuart Cairns talks to Teleri Lloyd-Jones about his work and inspiration
Firstly, congratulations on winning the inaugural Rose James Memorial Bursary. You’ve used the award to support a new collection of work?
Yes. I wanted to have a year of research, time to get into my practice, to document more. To break those formulas that I’ve got used to. For the first six months I didn’t make that much – I was photographing, collecting and drawing. I felt immensely guilty that I wasn’t in the workshop!
This show presents the new series?
It’s my first attempt to pull it all together. I’m going to have a body of physical work but also the research work that goes alongside it, a couple of hundred drawings and photographs. I want to get across the volume of effort that goes into the pieces; the set of objects is channelling a lot of experience and experimentation.
What do you collect?
I’m a magpie. If I’m in the city I’ll pick up rusty bits of steel, screws or washers. Or I might be by the sea or the forest and I get all these materials and atmospheres and it piles up in my workshop.
In your workshop, where do you start?
Firstly from the things that I collect. Then I use object types – utensils, vessels or tools – to present them in a different way. I try to highlight what I see in discarded things, my own excitement. It’s that attitude I had as a wee boy – finding things that felt like artefacts or remnants, something more than banal.
So you’ve collected things all your life?
We’d go on holiday to Donegal each summer, and I’d collect things on the beach and then use a lot of UHU glue to stick them together. I’d sell them to people in my dad’s office. I grew up in Holywood, ten minutes outside Belfast. I spent a lot of time outdoors. My best friend lived across from a forest and we’d go there to play. I made bows and arrows, swords and huts. I was also into model kits and Lego.
How did your career start?
It was a long time coming. I did an economics degree – I wanted to do art but my father wanted me to become an accountant. I went to university but was still painting and making the odd thing. I worked as a gardener in my summers off and started making clay creatures, selling them. I asked my boss for time off to focus on it and he said he would call his mate, who happened to be a tutor on an art foundation course. A few days later I got an interview. My first week in foundation I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
Were you looking at other artists?
No, it was much more internal. I didn’t get a good grasp of the broader themes of making until foundation. All of a sudden I discovered land artists and ceramists and that was when I first came across crafts. I initially thought I was going to be working in clay but my horizons were blown.
Whose work were you drawn to?
Antoni Tàpies – the materiality of his work was amazing. Derek Jarman’s garden in Dungeness had assemblages and driftwood pieces that really struck a nerve. Jim Dine’s drawings and prints were good. And Andy Goldsworthy was massive, but it did fry my head, I didn’t know what to do with it!
Is walking a large part of your process?
Being outside is important. I always work better when I’ve gone for a walk. If I rush into the studio I tend to make mistakes. It keeps me creatively fed.
Why did you study jewellery and silversmithing?
I would collect bits of hedgerow and find things in skips to make assemblages and tell stories. My tutors recommended jewellery and silversmithing because there was a broad range of materials. There were a lot of skills taught but we could use anything in terms of material. Sculpture didn’t interest me because I didn’t feel concept-driven, I felt material-driven. I wanted to get my hands dirty.
And there you discovered the object types that you return to again and again?
Yes. With silversmithing I liked the object types – vessels and utensils. I thought they were essential objects. I didn’t know what to do with them, but I knew I liked them. Essential forms created out of precious materials. A contradiction perhaps? Preciousness doesn’t register with me. I love working in silver and I love working in steel because of the material, not its value. Something I find on the beach is as precious as a big wodge of silver.
Place and Process is at R-Space Gallery, Lisburn, County Antrim, 9 January to 5 February 2016