ANNE: You grew up in Redcar, studied mostly in Middlesbrough and have exhibited extensively in and around the town. Something that I feel I should ask everyone who wasn’t already here is… why did you stay? What made it a place you could start off a career as an artist?
Emma Bennett: I did grow up in Redcar and went to Cleveland College of Art & Design (CCAD) to study general art and design. When I was 20, I did a HND at Berkshire College of Art & Design in Maidenhead, which doesn’t exist any more, and went on to study footwear design.
I spent a couple of years in the south, living close to London. I was still interested in art but I never imagined I’d be an artist: it was more about design for me. But I really liked making, using my hands: that was one of my strengths, I’d say.
Then I moved to Leeds. I didn’t want to come back to the North East – you know, you’re young, you don’t want to go straight back home. I wanted to see what opportunities there would be closer to home, but living in Leeds. I stayed there for about eight years, and ended up moving into footwear manufacture, making orthopaedic shoes, and that sustained my creative side. I was pattern-cutting, reworking alterations and closing, which is sewing the uppers together. But then after five years or so, I was ready to move on, so in 2001 I moved back to Middlesbrough — which, coming from Redcar, seemed different. It was somewhere that as a teenager I’d come. I’d go to see bands at the town hall — The Smiths, among others! But I just wanted to explore Middlesbrough, really.
In 2003, I decided to study for a fine art degree part-time, then in 2009 I got a studio, and with that I felt I could say ‘I am now an artist.’ That’s how I viewed it.
ANNE: Did you feel you had to get that qualification in order to be able to say that?
EB: I needed the qualification because although I could do the basics – working drawings and so on – I hadn’t been into fine art at college; more design and graphics. People now tell me that they can tell I like graphic design.
I didn’t really have a solid background in fine art. I think I needed the knowledge, and I loved learning about the schools of artists and movements, from Modernism onwards. That was really how I decided I wanted to be an artist. And I think I had the confidence: I was in my late thirties, and I thought, this is what I want to do. I’d found my thing. And I feel like I’ve really worked hard to get where I am now. It’s still a great struggle, as I think it is for everybody.
ANNE: Just maintaining your practice…
EB: Yes, and covering the costs of a studio if you need one. I prefer to go somewhere to work, and it feels like a job: I treat it as though I’m going to work. In Covid, I worked from home, and it was OK, but I’m glad I’m back in my studio.
I find I might go for six months without any opportunities coming up, but I don’t let that stop my work, which is more about the continuous development of my interests; my language. And then all of a sudden things come up. I don’t really stress now: I just think, something will come up in a few months’ time, and it usually does. Usually a few things together!
I have a philosophy of sorts that I’m not going to make work to sell. I know some people have to do that, but to me that would be a separate practice. My practice, my main concern, is really about developing my ideas around colour, and architecture obviously. Since about 2018, when I went back to do an MA at Teesside, I introduced pattern, and now I use it – mainly in black and white – in my work most of the time.
It takes a long time to realise, these are the things I’m interested in. They come round again, and I repeat myself! I think some people think it’s very boring, and I’ve had comments over the years, more or less along the lines of ‘move on now.’ I’ve had some mentoring, and was advised to work in series, and since that, I’ve continued to do so, and it really works for me.
ANNE: The difference between working to sell and working as you do, is clear the way you characterise it. You’d be knocking out the same things again and again if you were forced to make work to sell, whereas I can see that the alternative is about foregrounding development and ideas. Going back to the question of location, was it something around your practice that made you come back to the North East, or was it just happenstance?
EB: It was a mixture of things. But I was living in West Yorkshire, so I sold my house, and came back and thought, actually, I’m going to go back to CCAD and see if they offer a fine art degree. They did, and the fact they offered it part-time worked for me, because it meant I could still have another job.
I wasn’t very good at first! Although I got a 2.1 for my degree, I didn’t put as much energy into my BA as I did in my MA later on. By then I’d realised that in the last couple of years of my BA I’d improved, and knew that this was what I wanted to do. It was six years of study — a long time! But it was much more affordable, coming back here. The cost of living is much lower, especially compared to the south. It was extortionate — and that was the 90s.
ANNE: Your work is intimately connected with site and place, and invariably circles Modernist architecture — echoing, complementing, interrogating its forms. What drew you to this as a subject?
EB: I always say post-war actually, as where I grew up in Redcar there were many post-war buildings, particularly one which influenced me to make the work for In the Castle of My Skin at MIMA was the library, which had been demolished in 2011. There was a ‘sister’ library in Maidenhead, designed by the same architects, but it wasn’t as good as Redcar’s. I suppose for me it’s about nostalgia, too. I’d spent a lot of time there, so to be able to include that as part of my practice was great.
Coming out of my BA, I had a studio at the old Crafts Centre in the centre of Middlesbrough, over the road from my current studio, and I used to look out of the windows. I could see the bus station and this structure, and I started making paintings around them. They looked Modernist; a bit like the St. Ives School. I’ve always liked Ben Nichholson’s work. I think at the time I was trying to capture a 3D image within a 2D plane.
If I looked right over to the Hills Street Shopping Centre, there was a weird structure which protruded from the front of the centre. It was blue: it’s still there but I think it’s brown or red now. It just caught my eye. I took loads of photographs of it. I don’t know why I didn’t go closer; it was all from my studio window. I started making loads of collages at first, then paintings. I was painting on aluminium, and I know at the time that was a bit of a trend. Gary Hume was doing it; and I was very influenced by Michael Craig-Martin, who was and is one of my favourite artists.
The painting of the structure is called Vent. I don’t know why I loved it. It reminded me of a Modernist structure, even though it wasn’t, because it would be from the 70s or 80s. Then I started looking at the bus station and making studies of that; and a selection of rooftops. These were all out of my studio window, so I wasn’t really going up close to them; just viewing them from afar, taking photographs, and I could look out of my window and see them in the distance while I was making my work. It was quite handy, really! That kept me going for about two years, being interested in just a couple of things.