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On-site and on show

Laura Ellen Bacon is often watched while she works and has to battle with self-consciousness

In 2011, I saw an exhibition of the work of Stanley Spencer, which included a photograph that I’ve never forgotten. He used to bring a hand-painted sign that very clearly but politely instructed passers-by not to distract him while he finished his painting. I’m rather envious of his nerve.

I’ve often created my work from scratch within tight install periods, with curators, clients and – frequently – the public looking on, so I have to maintain the focus of an eagle. Mostly, I absolutely thrive on the pressure but I’m acutely aware how warping an experience self-consciousness can be. This year has seen me creating work on a city centre façade, visible to circulating tour buses for several weeks; working under the constant gaze of bemused contractors on a huge, tightly run, noisy Danish building site; and working completely out of my comfort zone in someone else’s workshop with someone else’s equipment.

Such experiences continue to sharpen my awareness of the dense ‘fog’ of self-consciousness that for me, can be as constricting to work in as heavy armour or as distracting as flashing lights. In some circumstances, it sharpens my creative vision, ensures that I can’t slip up and strengthens my grip on my concept. However, it also compresses my creative breathing space. It’s an accepted part of my work now but I wonder if I’m alone?

The power of what we create lies in being able to create it – and being able to do that relies on the power of what we create. What I mean by that is that during creation, everything hinges on the confidence that curators, clients (and maybe onlookers) have in you through your previous work. If they’ve never seen a finished work and things are in flux on a new piece, it’s easy to wonder how it’s going to turn out. That is real pressure and much as I find my own ways to push forward, I’ve also come to deeply respect the privacy of studio space and my own zones of comfort. For me, working without privacy exaggerates the delicacy and vulnerability of both the work during construction and my constructive mood. Bravery and conviction exist, but the fog remains. My sense of self may be galvanised when I’m working alone, but when I’m working in view of others I’ll feel my sense of self going cold around me, sinking in the air and ending up around my ankles.

Murmuration, Laura Ellen Bacon, installed at the Holburne Museum, Bath 2015.

Working in view prompts intrigue and intrigue prompts questions. My thought processes during creation (such a personal thing) can be a little influenced by comments or reactions that come forward. Mostly, comments are very supportive and encourage creative energy, but I can confess to being reduced to tears once – it’s not easy sometimes to feel judged upon work that is still in creation. A lot of my works are quite bold and almost muscular in appearance, adhering themselves to host sites with a purposeful ‘life force’ that is quite blinkered to the surroundings, which is the opposite of my character, I think. Having space to think while working is vital. Working thoughts soar high and low, they’re often sublime and strong and sometimes laced with creative aches that are hard to quantify. Sometimes, I wonder if it is assumed that as long as the hands are moving then the work is being built, when actually, for me, good work is fed, through the hands, by way of genuine and constant reflection. 

I have to find my way through each time and do my best to see through the fog. If you’re stuck you may take comfort from close detail and this is where drawing comes into my work. My sketchbook provides total privacy and helps me sustain my ideas away from the self-consciousness that may take hold. Space to think and buoyancy of creativity comes to me in drawing as my invisibility shield.

As long as my working process continues in the way that it does I think the privacy of drawing will protect me from developing an eccentricity that necessitates signage to deter audiences. I do hope that intrigue will always be valued and that good humour will lift me up. On a warm June afternoon this year I recalled Stanley Spencer’s sign and realised that such a sign would have just deprived me of some pleasurable hours I’d just had working on view, happily waving to passers-by on a prominent, city-facing façade – discovering later, that my flies were undone.