Focus Talks with Chris Vervain about her time spent studying with Cecil Collins, the influence of Greek theatre in her life, and learning to channel the creative energy of the universe.
What do you do?
I’m interested in the dance of transformation. Where Paul Klee took his line for a walk, I take mine for a dance and that can lead to all sorts of unexpected results. I have also tried dancing shapes and some of my current work I am doing is inspired by Poussin’s dancing figures in the National Gallery, I spent quite a bit of time there in previous years sketching and making closely observed, accurate drawings on the four dancers and then developing that into abstraction.
Why have you chosen to use ink?
I was privileged enough years ago to be a student of Cecil Collins and some of my ideas really come from that experience. In his class we used to move in a sort of dance, including the models and then get them to stop and hold their pose. We did very quick sketches or studies of that.
Cecil was very much influenced by Eastern thought and materials, so to go to his life drawing classes in the Autumn we had to have quill pens, reed pens, red chalk, and seven different tones of Chinese ink. We had to work very quickly, none of the poses were ever held longer than five minutes. I don’t know if you have ever seen oriental artists with a brush in each hand, each foot and one in the mouth. He never got us to use five, but he would get us to use our feet and hands, occasionally working with brush in the mouth; sometimes he would bring in long garden canes and we would use these from over our shoulders.
What is it about the rapidness of this process that you think is advantageous?
Well this was his way of teaching, since then I have done much longer studies of things, when I was first his student I was very frustrated because my work didn’t look the way that I wanted it to look. I would say, “shall I do an academic drawing class?” and he would gesture the cross over me and say, “heaven forbid, freedom first!”
I can now see the wisdom of that because I have seen other artists get stuck in accuracy. He was really trying to get us to allow the creative energy to flow within us, which he saw as Divine Energy. The artist opening themselves up to the creative energy from the universe. We had to venerate our instruments, sometimes bowing to them, we had to also honour ourselves as we were channels of this creative energy.
The rapidity was about letting go and freeing ourselves for this inspiration. You had to let go. Quite often after one of these classes I’d end up with something that looked like an utter mess and he would say, “Ahh, that has good nous, the energy is flowing there.”
I was his student for about three years and I experienced a great deal of frustration because the work wasn’t accurate, but in one of his summer colour classes I started to feel that line was coming from within me, and I wasn’t frustrated anymore and he said, “You have now found your calligraphy!”
Since then I went to academic drawing classes as well, because I don’t want to be stuck just making a mess, but that early lesson about speed, letting go and not caring about the end result was a very important lesson in freedom. He was right, you can get too precious when there is no motion or energy in the work.
So with this style of art production, some artworks are a mess and some you select for exhibition, how do you know which work is a keeper?
Really it is something I cannot decide immediately, I have to put things aside and come back to them later, then suddenly I see that it is good, or can see what it needs to make it good. You know how it is when you are in the middle of an art work and you take a break and come back the next day and see it in a totally different light, then you see that something is or is not working. So it is really a matter of time, Turner apparently would change his work as it hung on the wall of an exhibition, there is a terrible temptation to keep on working on something forever, but you should know when to leave them.
Going back, when did you first begin studying art, or realising you wanted to be an artist?
Apparently when I was a tot, my mother would put me out on the lawn, I would collect petals and seeds and would be making patterns and designs. She would leave me out under a tree and I remember the branches swaying in the wind. I wasn’t clear in my mind about being a visual artist, but I also felt the need to dance within me.
I have always been a creative person, my visual art has taken me to theatre and improvised dance. I suppose when I was in my late teens I wasn’t sure what to do. I don’t think I was in the best family for recognising the importance of art, and I could have gone to art school at that stage, but I didn’t. I tried to get a "serious" job and I was also making very tiny artworks which I hid away, because I felt insecure about them. Art was something that I couldn’t put to one side; it insisted on happening until I started to do Cecil’s class.
At that time, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to work in visual art or physical theatre. I had started at Hertfordshire College of Art and Design, which later became part of Hertforshire University, and found this wonderful physical theatre class with a woman called Lorna Marshall who had trained in Japan. So I got into Japanese theatre and I realised that in order to practice in that sort of genre you have to be born into it, there are certain families where it is passed on as tradition; it was no good me trying to be a western Japanese theatre practitioner.
I found a book on Oliver Taplin on ancient Greek theatre. I realised that in ancient Greek theatre I could find the dramatic, exciting, passionate poses and could realise these in physical theatre and visual art. I could translate some of what I found exciting in Japanese theatre into a more western art form.
So now, I had these two things going on: the theatre and the visual art, sometimes it seemed like they were in conflict. People in art school would tell me “this is theatre you are doing, it isn’t fine art.”
When I left art school I did quite a bit of theatre and I discovered masks, which brought things back to making again, so for some years I was exploring masks and keeping my visual arts going. Then I got into recreating Greek drama, which involved masks and I was working with professional actors. I started to put on an annual production of Greek drama and the last one we did was in March 2016. It was the best one yet, everyone thought so, the actors, many of whom I have been working with for a number of years, felt that we had taken it as far as it could go.
I realised then that I needed to leave all that for the moment, I am always listening to what the universe’s creative voice is saying to me and it seemed to be putting the theatre to the side for now. I knew we would never better what we had done, in fact it would start to go down hill. There were other personal things too, my dad was alive until two months ago; I was feeling exhausted with all that it was happening.
I thought I would focus more on my visual art and now that I am back in the art I am beginning to understand what it is that I want to do in a way that I never could before. Previously, my artist statement was always hard to contemplate, now it is clear to me.
Chris' latest ink works will be exhibited in Focus LDN's Spring Collection, 28th February - 4th March at The Menier Gallery.