POLLY SAMSON

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Polly Samson, author, on a necklace.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

PS I chose this because of the person who gave it to me, and the circumstances of them giving it to me, more than the object itself. Of course, I love it anyway. I’d love it wherever it came from, but the bizarre way it came to me has made it my favourite thing. It’s a necklace but I don’t actually wear it. I hang it from the window at the end of my bed so I wake up and see it first thing in the morning, which always gives me a little thrill. It’s made from glass but there are so many facets, the crystals are cut like diamonds and the light that comes through it gets the full spectrum and shines around the room.

GB So tell me how you came to own it.

PS It’s quite a long story. My novel, The Kindness, came from a story connected to my family. My father is from a Jewish family from Hamburg. Most of them got out in the 1930s, some got out through suicide which is bizarrely called ‘rational suicide’ and my family would say that “it was only a couple of aunts who ended up in concentration camps.” But once you start thinking about those women, it really haunts you. My father was very close to his uncle, a man named Heino.

Heino was very happily married to a woman called Olly but unfortunately, they found out that Heino couldn’t have children. Heino’s best friend was a musician who was about to emigrate to America and his last act before he left was to offer his great friend Heino and Olly his sperm. It seemed like a good idea as they were unlikely to see him again so they accepted and Olly became pregnant and their daughter, Lotte was born. In 1936 they knew they had to get out of Germany so they moved to Paris. Within a couple of years of being in Paris, Heino knew they were in danger, so got back in touch with his friend in America, who had become a well-known conductor. He asked for help and Kurt agreed, so Olly and Lotte went ahead to New York while Heino stayed behind to sort out their affairs. He was then arrested and interned. He escaped from the internment camp, was rearrested, re-interned and then escaped again. This time he managed to get to Morocco where he joined the French foreign legion. He was the most unlikely soldier, being something of an aesthete.

He served in Africa for a couple of years, but eventually he made it to America only to find that unfortunately his wife and child had fallen in love with the biological father. Olly only wanted Lotte to have one father and thought she’d be traumatised if Heino reappeared. He never recovered. He actually became a rather successful photographer, who took the only portraits that his friend, Mark Rothko, sat for. He called himself Henry Elkan. But he was unhappy living in America while his wife and daughter were there without him, so he went back to Paris. He worked as a photographer there and when I knew him, he’d come to stay with us about once a year and brought this wonderful glamorous French woman called Anne Frère with him. She had been an actress and had been the first woman to play Anne Frank in a play in Germany, in 1948 or 49. As a small child I hero-worshipped this glamorous woman with these long legs and burningly intelligent eyes. Once when they went back to Paris she made me a doll. I grew up with communist parents and didn’t really have dolls but she knitted me this doll that had the most incredible trousseau; hundreds of outfits, handbags that she’d stitched, ball dresses with little pearls around the hem. I never forgot her.

When I was eleven I was told that Heino had died and that it was from a problem with his heart. I just knew that there was more to it than that so I asked around and went through things in my parents’ room. I couldn’t find out what had happened so years later I brought it up again and my dad said that it was suicide and told me the story of Heino’s daughter and how he had no hope of having another child. Gradually he’d become more depressed over the years and killed himself. That story became The Kindness.

When I’d finished writing the book, I hadn’t really researched Heino. I just knew that he was a nice man who came with his beautiful companion. I discovered that he’d become quite a famous photographer and managed to track down one of his pictures of Mark Rothko and buy it, but I was still frustrated that I didn’t know enough about him. The few living relatives had very scant memories. Heino was born in 1904. My grandmother had become quite blind in her final years so I’d written her address book out in huge letters for her. It came back to me when she died and one day I looked in a box of old things and the address book fell open at the name Anne Frère. As a child you don’t really notice the age of adults so I assumed she’d have been 120 years old by now. But I dialled the number anyway and she answered. I hadn’t realised that she was forty years younger than Heino. It was rather astonishing. I said I wanted to go to Paris to talk to her.

Last year, I went to her flat in Paris. She’s now 82 and standing at the top of her staircase, she still had this incredible elegance and I felt the exact same way I had as a child. We had this connection and hugged as though she was my long-lost mother. I spent the weekend with her and during the course of this weekend we talked a lot about Heino and went back to where he’d lived just outside Paris. It was the first time she’d been back there since she’d discovered his suicide and it brought back all these memories. She talked a lot about how unhappy she’d made him because she was so much younger and wouldn’t commit to him. She told me about his suicide note where he felt that all love had gone and he just felt tired, tired, tired. As we left we looked back and there was this amazing rainbow. We went back to her flat and she said she wanted to give me the necklace that Heino had given her. I asked her to tell me the circumstance of him giving it to her and she said. “Actually it doesn’t put me in a very good light. I surprised him one day when he was wrapping a present. I asked him what it was and he opened the box and showed me this necklace. He said it was for his friend Julia, in Germany. I told him, Julia will not have it! It’s for me!”

GB Now that’s an incredible story. Do you always find beauty in objects that have a story attached to them?

PS Always. I think that must be why I became a writer.

GB So you think that something quite mundane can have a universal beauty once its story has been shared?

PS That’s exactly right. When my children come to clearing out my stuff they’ll want to throw all these things away. I think I’ll have to attach little stories to everything.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

PS It’s the narrative. It’s never just looking at things. It’s the feelings that it evokes.

GB So you think that can supersede even the beauty of nature?

PS Yes, I do.

MOLLIE MILLS

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Mollie Mills, filmmaker, on her sovereign ring.

GB Tell me why you chose this?

MM I bought this ring for £26.99 from Argos in Hackney when I was 13. It’s been on a journey through my adolescence and into early adulthood, reminding me each time I look down at my hands of my youth – an upbringing on an East London council estate. It’s gold plated, chipped and misshapen but has an air of opulence that reminds me of my aspirations then and now. One day, I’ll get a real gold one I’d say.

I once told my boyfriend I’d never get married because there’s no ring more symbolic for my fourth finger than my sovereign.

GB Do you think you’ll find the real gold one as beautiful? It won’t have been on the same journey with you.

MM Probably not. They can live on different fingers – maybe some poncy resemblance between my past and future or something like that.

GB You like this because it reminds you of where you come from. You also make quite hard-hitting social documentaries. Does beauty have an element of the political for you? Or do you like things that are more superficially appealing too?

MM Beautiful aesthetic is always important to me but depth, whether that’s political, social or emotional can change the way I see something altogether and that brings a deeper beauty. A recurring theme in my work is showing a softer, more beautiful side to subcultures that are often portrayed as intimidating or unattractive, by telling their story.

GB Do you think that it’s possible to make anything or anyone look beautiful in a film or picture – though the right lighting and way of shooting it?

MM I think you can show a beautiful side to anything or anyone through telling their story in a particular light. Clever camera work and lighting can change audience perception but only up to a point. My dad used to tell me, “pretty is only ever pretty but ugly can be beautiful.” This is something I come back to a lot when I’m thinking about creating imagery.

GB Do other people find your ring beautiful? Would you make it perfect again if you could?

MM Firstly, I wouldn’t change a thing about it. It is what it is and it’ll continue to look more silver and chipped. Some people find it cheap and garish but to me, it’s wonderful. Aesthetic beauty isn’t universal but I’d like to believe sentiment is.

GB Is this because sentiments like sadness and fear are biological – but you think our reaction to beauty isn’t? Do you think beauty as a concept has been created by us and varies for each individual?

MM Talking in terms of objects and belongings, it’s about taste and that is absolutely individual but revealing background or a concept behind something that people might initially find repulsive can pull on the heartstrings or like you said, play on sadness or fear. My gran had hundreds of these horrific porcelain dogs in her house when I was a child and I only understood, in retrospect, why they were so beautiful when I realised that animals gave her a sense of companionship in her lonely, older years; they were her closest friends. We can all experience compassion and empathy for something upon knowing what it’s really about and that’s a beautiful thing.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

MM I can appreciate good design, sumptuous aesthetic, vivid colour and all the ingredients for something instantly, perceivably beautiful but functionality, feeling and reason is, for me, where true beauty lies.

SARAH HALL

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Sarah Hall, author on ‘Valley’ by Mateusz Fahrenholz.

GB  Tell me why you chose this.

SH ‘Valley’ is on the wall of my living room so I see and think about it every day. It used to hang in an exhibition in a pub where I worked in St Andrews, Scotland, and I became very fond of it. When the artist moved to Poland this particular work was too big for him to transport, so he left it with a friend. Several years later, I tracked it down in Bedford, stowed flat under someone’s bed, due to its unwieldy size. I’d sold my first novel by then, not for a huge amount, but to celebrate I bought Valley. As an artwork, it’s not out-rightly beautiful, one might even describe it as relatively ugly, industrial, penal-looking – the colours are plain, white and dun, the items in the composition are quotidian, and a bit worn. It challenges aesthetic notions, certainly.

GB What is your interpretation of the image? Do you find that others have very different interpretations? Do these have any effect on your own view of its beauty?

SH I find the image almost tragic – the cup on the chain will never reach the tap, though it seems to strain towards it – but other people have found that particular feature humorous. In this way the piece is quite divisive, perhaps even a test of the viewer, the viewer’s temperament maybe. It’s interesting to find that other people’s minds worked so differently, and see other messages. This expands the piece’s quality for me. Surrounding the central window is aged Polish newspaper, some of the text mentions Margaret Thatcher but I can’t read Polish, so I’ve no idea what the articles say. The photograph in the wooden panel on the right is of a forested valley. I know I’m missing some overall meaning, or suggestion, but I like not knowing everything. I say almost a tragic image – the enamel cup is at the end of its reach, but it’s wonderfully plucky and earnest, the chain is pulled taut and might even break. I love that an inanimate object can have such spirit! Don’t give up, cup!

GB Are you generally drawn to works that use symbolism in this way more than figurative art? Is there any connection between that and your use of metaphor in writing?

SH I do like symbolism, yes. Though signs are found in nature, particularly in colour schemes, it’s a peculiarly human trait to use cyphers, to say, this equals that, this stands for that. It also allows messages and information to be passed between cultures and languages, like a reservoir we all drink from. I spent a long time exploring the issue in The Electric Michelangelo, which features a tattoo artist. Tattoos, particularly traditional ones, are fabulous examples of symbols – usually representing good and evil, love and hate. I am interested in the idea of essence and meaning. I’d consider myself to be a realist writer, I do try to fashion realistic landscapes, humanism and scenarios that are or seem convincing (though is this just trompe l’oeil?) but one who also tries to work on symbolic, maybe even metaphysical levels, especially when I’m writing short stories.

GB Do you know the artist personally? If you do, does that affect your view of its beauty?

I’ve met Matt, but only once. He stopped off to see me during his travels in the UK, in order to fix Valley, which had broken in transit from Bedford to Cumbria (plucky cup had come unstuck!). He talked a little bit about his work then and I think he even may have said – though this was a long time ago – that he came down on the side of the composition being funny. He didn’t say too much beyond that. I like his work a lot, the use of salvaged photographs and representations of travel and exile, the ‘boxed’ past scenarios. There’s a tension between the ephemera of human lives, history and remembrance. But I do believe that writing and art, once created, exists beyond the intentions or motivations or even the inspiration of its creator. We interpret widely, according to our own proclivities and beliefs. The very best art challenges our notions – Valley does mine.

GB It’s a very large work. Is the scale of it important?

It’s much larger than a lot of Matt’s work of that period, I think. It does dominate the living room wall, it’s about five feet by three and half feet – hanging it takes some patience and it needs a load bearing wall! The scale works really well, partly because of the newspaper text on the body of the box, you get the sense of columns and broadsheets. The tap and the cup are life-size and this central piece needs space around it as its quite an intense image, and a decent frame. I don’t think it would have worked as a smaller piece.

GB Fahrenholz often puts his work in boxes. Do you think that this makes them more appealing? Other artists such as Duchamp use boxes too, to great effect. Is this a tradition you’re interested in?

SH Yes, I like it. What is it about containment that is satisfying? Perhaps it’s the notion of saving and keeping things, intimacy, heirlooms. Why else did we invent boxes? Of course, with Valley there is a glass panel too – a window – not a lid. We are allowed to see in, we have access. The open box is in a way the most satisfying of offerings.

GB Fahrenholz is of Polish descent but living in Scotland and his works refer to ideas of displacement. You have lived in many different places. Does this affect your feelings about the work?

SH I’ve never written a book about a place I’m currently living in. I need a little distance to give perspective, or distil ideas about a place, and to see it in the context of other places. I spend a long time trying to get my landscapes and settings right, to make them authentic, textured, nuanced, but for some reason I need to be elsewhere to do that. Matt’s work does resonate that way. There are fixed points and also un-moorings.

GB Do you believe in universal beauty?

SH No. How wonderful it is that we don’t all find the same things, the same set of aesthetic proportions for example, beautiful.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

SH Perhaps the sense of elation that ensues. It’s not just visual pleasure or satisfaction. Beauty moves me.

MOLLY PARKIN

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Molly Parkin, Painter and Poet, on her garden.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

MP The garden rescues me all the time. I’ve always loved trees.  When I gave up drinking 28 years ago – that was the hardest thing I ever had to do – that and the death of my mother – the painting came back within four months. When the painting came back I was in Hyde Park and my granny’s voice came to me and said, “This is where you used to do so many paintings when the children were small. You’ve got a fresh start now – pick up a pencil and do a sketch.”

So I did a sketch of all the trees there that I’d painted in the past. I used to sell these paintings in the window of Liberty’s and then Eric Newton of the Guardian picked up on one, which was then housed in the Tate  – so I reached that height just out of my twenties. But that night I’d been to a women’s meeting and it was 7.30pm. I love walking through that part of the park between Bayswater Road and the Embankment where the trees are very large but the sunset was breaking my heart because I was no longer a painter and my granny’s voice said, “You can do it. Just do a little sketch child.”

It was her voice that rescued me when I was in the gutter. I was thin as a rake at that time and undeniably glamorous, but I was pleasuring these meat porters at 5am when the local pub was opening for them. I was still in my gold lamé. They’re simple boys those meat porters and they were lovely. I’d recommend them to anyone. I’d been out for a week and I was exhausted so I lay down in the gutter at the side of the road just for the novelty of it and thought that I was just about as low as you could go. Then my granny’s voice came to me and said, “That’s it, cariad. The party’s over. You just had your last drink.” I was so relieved.

GB What had made you stop painting?

MP It was after I discovered my husband was having an affair. I found his Carlton Tower hotel bill from Christmas Eve. When you have an emotional shock like that you go cold inside as if snow has started falling – and yet your wits are still about you. I called up the Carlton Tower and spoke to the concierge and they said that Mr and Mrs Parkin had spent the day together in the suite and then they’d left for Paris. At the time we lived a few doors away from the Chelsea Arts Club. I bought that house with my painting money. He came back laden with more presents than I had ever seen because they were guilt presents – including a tiny television for the kitchen, which no one had ever heard of then. But of course it was all paid for with my money. So I kicked him out. Infidels always become careless at a certain point. You have to step back and allow Fate to take over, then everything goes your way. But at the time I had all these commissions. I went to my studio on the Monday morning and it was full of huge canvasses, primed and commissioned by people who had paid in advance – and nothing came, as if I was frozen and it lasted for 25 years. That’s how I ended up in the loathsome world of fashion. At Art School, you’re told right at the start of it that if you’re going to be a painter or a sculptor, to prepare yourself to be a waitress for the rest of your life and not to plan for your art to make money for you.

GB When did you first start to love gardens?

MP I was introduced to gardens by my grandfather down in Wales. I used to help him in the garden from the age of four or five. He was also the man who took me to the top of the mountain. It was in a mining valley in South Wales and I suppose you could say that I’m addicted to landscapes. I am an abstract expressionist landscape painter. So from the age of five my grandfather would take me to the top and I’d say, “My little legs can’t do further, Tadci!” He’d say “Just a little bit further now. There’s a prize at the top.” I thought there was a sweetshop there so I went scrambling up and the clouds were just above us. “This is the prize that we were coming to. Look up. This is the nearest that you get to God.” I said, “Is God living up there then?” “Exactly,” he said.

At the top of the mountain my grandfather sowed the seed to the life I would later have by saying, “All this is yours Molly.” I’d say, “What are you saying? What is mine?” He said, “The world is your oyster, little girl, and it’s for you to do with your life whatever you would wish to do.”

That’s the same mountaintop I went to for guidance when my mother was on the brink of dying.  So I’ve always known, in times of trouble, to go to the top of my mountain.

I tried to go back and live there when I was penniless and that’s where I became bankrupt. I knew that I needed further spiritual enlightenment and that creating more wealth wasn’t the answer. Then a friend took me to India. I’d been keeping India for the pudding stage of my life. I have a great belief in Paradise but I also believe you can create your own Paradise here on earth.

GB And when did you first start to love painting?

Every night when I go to bed I say goodnight to my mother and father. I’ve forgiven my father who abused me as a child because it was pointed out to me by an American film director that I’m a Painter because he took me from the earliest age and sat me at the age of five or six in front of the Constables – and the Turner one of the steam train. I’ve seen the Turner film six times now. But if my dad went to spend a penny I ran round to see naked women with fulsome bosoms and bottoms, the Ruben’s nudes. When I was a fashion editor I had to use thin models and I wanted that fulsome sort.

Now I’m older. I look back with such gratitude.  My grandmother lost 11 children. My mother was the only one to survive. She was a very talented musician. She was the organist in our chapel and the beauty of the valley. But she was in and out of psychiatric hospitals. A psychiatrist from America later explained that she was suffering from what my father was doing to me. He said that the wives always know. But at the time I thought it was my fault.

GB And how did you end up here, with your garden?

MP When I was made bankrupt I had to go to the homeless desk in Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall. There I felt real shame because there were all these refugees in the room and I was going to be taking a home from them. There is an awful ethic in this country that if a person doesn’t have money they’re treated like dirt. But I was brought up as painter to imagine I would never have money. I would never treat people differently. I was dressed like an extra in Cleopatra but they didn’t know what was withering inside me. I asked for a place in Chelsea. “Absolutely not!” said the woman behind the desk without even looking up. In the end I was offered this flat because nobody wanted to come to this estate. It was the most violent one in London. Christine Keeler was put here when she was homeless. When they made the film, Scandal, she got some money and moved away from here. It was rife with drug addicts and within a month of me moving here there was a murder of a fourteen-year-old boy in the front there. All the flowers were around. It was perpetrated by a gang member, because he’d been bullying kids for money for drugs. So they killed him with a revolver and they still haven’t found out who did it because they stick together.

I looked back to where my happiest times had been all through my life – when I bought the house in India I had coconut trees. It was a big house at the bottom of the Holy Mountain and people would come from all over the world for the Guru’s teachings. My garden there was unbelievable. I bought many more trees and shrubs so I already knew how to make a garden. I had 35 monkeys in that garden.  I went there for 12 years and received the lessons I was meant to from the ashram. Many birds came to that garden. One was a nightingale. The sounds of music from nature are unbelievable.

GB What was the inspiration for your garden here?

MP When they gave me this ground floor flat it was in the Senior Citizens corridor for the elderly and infirm and it was so frightening with this space outside because everybody could look in. Nobody goes out on their balconies here. They’re refugees and they’re frightened. I thought I’d do what I did in India and planted trees here. One day a leaflet was pushed through my door about a voyage to the Arctic. I love anything to do with water and icebergs and all that so I thought I could paint it. I suggested to the Sunday Telegraph that they send me, as I could illustrate my own article and they jumped at the chance. I was worried about who would water the garden but then I realised that trees don’t need watering so I could have an evergreen garden that would prosper while I travelled. They were only so high and now it’s like Epping Forest! I’ve been here thirteen years now. At times of loss I’ve sat in the garden and it’s where I realised that my painting muse is back for good. So these trees have given me privacy here and enabled me to live on a Council Estate that was dangerous when I came here but is no longer.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

MP Beauty, whether an object or a landscape or a poem , palpably moves you. You’re moved by it. Something shifts around the heart. This is a poem that describes the immense importance of it. It’s called The Bright Field and it’s by the celebrated Welsh poet, RS Thomas.

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receeding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

JAMIE MORGAN

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Jamie Morgan, photographer, on a contact sheet.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

JM As much as I love beauty, I don’t collect beautiful objects, so I couldn’t find many possessions to choose from for this. I tend to pass things on rather than holding on to them. I’m a ‘living in the moment’ kind of person. But this contact sheet means a lot to me emotionally and creatively. Contact sheets are very rarely used nowadays, so that’s a reason it’s become an object of beauty for me. I shoot film still but most people just shoot digitally. This particular contact sheet has been around for over 30 years, so it’s worn and it has the marks on it that I made the week I shot it. Seeing it triggers me back to the way I was feeling on the shoot and the life all around that – the experimentation of my work. This was a moment when I thought I’d created something original, so there’s the mark, the circle around that picture. When I look at all the other pictures, they’re not that good but there’s this one towards the end of the roll. I can remember that moment of realizing, “I’ve got it,” That was what so beautiful about shooting film. You got to know within yourself that you’d got it and then you’d move on. With digital you can just shoot and shoot. With film you have to really be connected with the process of working through the camera, so you know absolutely that you’ve got it. And there it was, this perfect shot and if I hadn’t shot that one I might never have created this iconic image. It’s just bang on, exactly as it should be. It was such a significant part of my life journey – the moment when I had that in my hands and showed it to Ray Petri who got super excited, then took it to Neville Brody at the Face – and everyone agreed it was a great image. The contacts are really precious to me now, like little jewels.

GB Tell me about the day of the shoot and how it was commissioned.

JM Nothing was ever commissioned at the Face. It wasn’t like these days when you have an editor telling you what to do. I had a good relationship with Nick Logan, the publisher, and he would just ask how many pages we needed. We’d say we reckoned we had a twelve-page story and the cover and he would hold those pages and the cover for us without knowing what he was getting until we walked into the office. For me, the concept came primarily from a photographic point of view, from old-school black and white photography. I was looking at people like Ralph Gibson, Man Ray, Cartier-Bresson, the most amazing black and white photography. Vogue at the time was full of weak colour fashion images. I wanted real photographic integrity, so 35 mm black and white, and not just girls, but this mix that became the Buffalo aesthetic; a young boy dressed as an elderly gangster, a twelve year old boy who looked like a beautiful old female Hollywood movie star, Lindsey Thurlow who was a thirty year old woman but looked like a boy. I asked Ray for black and white clothes. It’s the classic Buffalo style; a white polo neck with a black jacket and a hat with ripped newspaper. I’d worked with Ray for two or three years at this point so we knew where we were heading. We always had references, a mood, a feeling in mind but then on the day we’d have to just find the shot. I like that element of not knowing. I think if you know before you walk in, it’s pedestrian.

For the first few years of the Face, it was just a straight up music and street style magazine like i-D, but because of my training as a photographic assistant in fashion coupled with studying reportage, I made a suggestion. I wanted to take the standard outdoor street style shot and mix it up with fashion and shoot it all on a white background like Avedon, turning the street subculture into a fashion story. Nick Logan’s initial response was, “I don’t want to do a fashion magazine.” But he still loved the idea so we said, “Call them style pages!” And Ray said, “Well I’m a stylist then.”  So the fashion editors of the day all became ‘stylists’.

GB So when you’re looking at a contact sheet, searching for that one perfect picture, is beauty a part of that?

JM For me, it’s the most important thing; the form, the light, the graphic, the expression. All of that is beauty for me, even if it’s “savage beauty”, to quote the new McQueen exhibition. It still has to have an aesthetic. I don’t do things that are ugly.

GB I guess with your technical ability, you can take a beautiful picture of anyone?

JM Well I can, because everyone has value. To take a beautiful image, it’s an approach, an intent. I intend to get the best out of somebody in my photographs, even if I’m changing who they are through the shoot. My intention is to create something with beauty, respect, poignancy, emotional value, and that has the possibility of being an iconic image.

GB Can you take a beautiful picture of someone even if you don’t like them?

JM Yes, probably but then my viewing of the picture wouldn’t be the same. I took a picture of Taylor Swift the other day. I had five minutes as part of the fodder press pack and I had no control over anything except the lighting. She looks beautiful in it but it has no resonance for me at all. I have to have a relationship with the photograph for it to be beautiful to me.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

JM I think I answered that with what I said about the integrity with which it was formed. So, all nature, even in it’s most callous form, is perfect and has the right to be called beautiful. And when it comes to beautiful objects, they have to be crafted with intent. Ray Petri taught me a lot about the beauty of objects because he was trained at Sotheby’s. We’d be doing a shoot in Milan and he’d make me steal the porcelain coffee cup or the napkin. Wolfgang Tilmans said that if one thing is of value, everything is of value. I see that, because you can photograph anything and make it beautiful because everything has value if you approach it with integrity and the proper intention.

 

WILL SWEENEY

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Will Sweeney, artist and illustrator, on his old school bag.

GB Tell me about your school bag and why it’s beautiful to you.

WS It’s the bag I had when I was a teenager in Oxford, around the time of my GCSEs, from about the age of 15 – 17; 1988 – 1990. It’s decorated with lots of hand drawn band logos, song lyrics, people’s phone numbers and stoner doodles. I think it’s beautiful to me because it represents a time in my life when I was filled with teenage rage (to quote The Cramps) – energy and the excitement of discovering all sorts of things…music, girls, festivals, drugs, art, comics etc. The world had rapidly got a lot bigger for me in a short space of time.

GB I guess beauty didn’t play a big part in the creation of it? Is it more beautiful in retrospect? How did you hold onto it for so long?

WS Thats probably true, I think the motivation to draw all over it was to express my passion for the music I was listening to and to try and come across as cool and interesting or whatever, as many teenagers do. I guess it’s beautiful to me now because it looks authentic, it’s sort of contrived in a desperate, teenage way, but that in itself has a kind of beauty. Without wanting to be too nostalgic, it’s also beautiful because it directly reminds me of people, places and events from what was generally a very happy time for me. I’m not sure if I originally intended to hold onto it, it was in a box in my mums attic along with loads of NME clippings, letters and other stuff from that time and I found it about 15 years ago, it was a bit of a blast from the past.

GB Tell me about the bands? Do you ever listen to them now? Were the Cramps your favourite – or did they just have the best logo? What’s the soundtrack to your life at the moment?

WS The Cramps were and still are my favourite band, they are a conduit to so many other things that I’m into. They covered lots of obscure rockabilly, garage and early punk stuff that I went on to discover as I grew older. They were also really unique in that they didn’t fit neatly into any one scene or subculture but influenced a wide range of artists and bands. Also their graphics; posters, T-shirts and record sleeves were hugely important for me and are still some of my all time favourite images from rock n’ roll history.
One of the funny things for me about the bag is having Spacemen 3 and Loop alongside The Dead Kennedys and The Cramps; on one hand I would be listening to Spacemen, sitting on a paisley cushion, smoking a badly made joint with my posh mates from the private schools, and then I was also walking around listening to Dead Kennedys on my walkman, hating the government and reading class war. That teenage period is great when many kids discover this huge appetite for wildly contrasting types of music and love all of it, I was a bit of a hippy, a bit of a punk, a bit of a goth.
I still listen to all of the bands on the bag, I dj a bit now and play all sorts; a lot of techno, strange disco, reissues of lost ethnic nik naks, there’s still loads of amazing stuff to discover now.

GB Did you know already that you wanted to be an artist, in 1988?

WS No, I wanted to be a musician, I was in loads of bands and I really wanted to do that full time. My dad is an artist and he gently encouraged me to draw more and to pursue it in school as it was really the only thing I was any good at. It was quite hard work to get into art school for me and once I got into Liverpool I realised I wanted to be better at drawing and creating images and I gave up playing music.

GB You still work with fashion and music. Do you think there are still the same subcultures as when we all liked these bands? They really were an alternative to the mainstream. Do you hope that your work appeals to a subculture or to everyone?

WS I think subcultures still exist but in a very different way. I miss the counterculture we had in the UK when I was growing up, the first time I went to Glastonbury in the late 80’s was mind-blowing, there really was an alternative. I think what happened with rave culture in the early 90’s – the way the government clamped down on it and how the traveller community was systematically persecuted changed the counter culture in the UK in a massive way. Unfortunately, now it seems that youth culture has been commodified and infiltrated by marketing people to such a degree that its difficult for subcultures to really grow and develop in physical locations, but of course they grow in virtual spaces.
I do miss those times but that was the analogue era, we are in the digital age now and everything is different.
I would like my work to appeal to a wide range of people for sure, I don’t want to exist in any kind of fashion bubble.

GB Your own work is beautiful. Do you intend it to be? You present quite dark themes of aliens and hybrids and death – but the overall effect is so visually stunning.

WS Thank you. I think so… I like to imagine alternate worlds, labyrinths and different sets of rules or natural laws, so I suppose there’s an attempt at creating beauty in those things, at the same time everything is rooted in reality and the influences I take from the world around me; learning to draw from reality, the ugly and the beautiful – gives me the building blocks to imagine a different world.

GB Do you see any difference in the way your work is perceived when it’s on a T shirt or in a gallery? Does the context matter?

WS Yes, it’s quite different. T-shirts usually require more immediate, bold ideas to work well and be wearable, whereas in a gallery show I can explore more whimsical, fully rendered ideas. Working for print or clothing is interesting as you never quite know how something is going to turn out and what context it will be seen in – or how popular it will be. Some things resonate a lot more than others. Showing original drawings in a gallery, I have a lot more control over the actual artefact and it there is a more direct connection between the viewer and the artist. Clothing work tends to be more anonymous but this can also be a good thing.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

WS Beauty can be something or someone that is a trigger or a doorway; a glimpse into another world which explodes upon your conscious mind in an instant and fills it with possibilities.

KATIE PUCKRIK

photo

Katie Puckrik, writer and broadcaster, on a blanket her mother made.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

KP I thought about the idea of an object of beauty. It has to look good, and it has to move me. True beauty is a little heartbreaking. The most sublime beauty gives something to you. There are a lot of beautiful things that are cold and untouchable or unreachable – like a beautiful man who won’t look at you. This blanket is something that my mother, Dorothy, made for my father, Augie, many years ago when he was still alive. My mom was a very creative person. She’s still alive but in her final time on this planet, and she’s stopped talking. She doesn’t really interact any more and she certainly doesn’t do all the things she used to do, like making dolls and needlepoint, knitting, crocheting, making clothes for me when I was little. This blanket is a zig-zaggy crochet and she made it very painstakingly because every row is a different colour – indigo, fuchsia, burnt orange, evergreen green. I don’t know the name of the stitch, but it looks a bit like a flame pattern or bargello. And the blanket has tassels on the end, so it’s extremely exciting. Some of the yarn she uses is variegated which is very 70s. When you look at it, it’s just so “WOW!”

This blanket touches me for several reasons. There’s the fact that she made it for my father. My mom and dad didn’t have a very affectionate, loving relationship. My dad was quite withholding, which he regretted by the end of his life, when he finally understood that it wasn’t the way to have love in your life. But they still tried to reach each other and one of the ways my mom was trying to reach out to my dad was by giving him this offering in colours he loved. My mom is very tasteful and her colour choices would be more elegant and refined. Dad used to joke, “the Puckriks were a just bunch of peasants” – his folks were Slovaks from the Carpathian Mountains. He loved bright colours – reds and lots of clashing dissonance, even in his clothes. So she reflected that in the blanket and chose colours that were to his taste rather than hers. So I like that it was an offering to him, trying to bridge something between them.

I also like the fact that it’s a reminder of her somewhat thwarted creative ambitions. She was able to create throughout her life, but I know that before she met my dad, she wanted to be a fashion designer. When she was at university, she got involved with theatre productions and she designed and made the costumes. But she and my dad got together right after World War II, and that was an era in which a woman usually became a homemaker, unless you were prepared to really defy convention. My dad was an Air Force officer and then a diplomat, so we lived all over the world – in Moscow, Berlin, various places in America. So she had an outlet as a diplomat’s wife, which is a job in itself. You’re in charge of throwing these James Bond style, tinkling cocktail-glass parties. I’m moved that her creativity was still able to come out in these domestic ways and that it was inspired by her family. I was like a little doll for her to make clothes for, and when I began to study ballet, she would design and make the costumes.

GB Did you grow up with a view of women as old-fashioned 1950s housewives?

KP For some reason, even though neither of my parents particularly instilled this in me, I always gravitated towards mavericks. When I was thirteen or fourteen I was reading about Frida Kahlo, Peggy Guggenheim, Zelda Fitzgerald, all these rebellious women who were either artists or writers or just extraordinary individuals who flouted convention. I definitely had a cross-pollination with my dad being more outrageous and my mother being more cultured: loving dance, theatre and beauty.

The third reason I love this blanket is for what it is. It’s comforting and warm and soothing. I’m in a big transition in my life, and it comforts me. I was working and living in Los Angeles and I’ve come back to London, which I really feel is my home. I’m picking up the writing and broadcasting work that I was doing here when I first established myself in television in the 90s. Most of my belongings are still in Los Angeles, but I had to bring the blanket with me because it’s home, it’s mother, it’s family, it’s beauty, it’s art. By day it’s draped on a chair, and I can admire it. By night I sleep under it, and it keeps me snug.

GB Did your dad appreciate it? It looks as though so much love has gone into it.

KP He did appreciate it. He always had it on the couch in his study. I wasn’t really sure of the blanket’s significance to him until the year before he died, when I asked if I could have it. He said, “Well, no, your mother made it for me. You can have it later.” He meant when he was gone.

GB Do you believe in universal beauty? I can’t imagine anyone not finding this blanket beautiful, for instance.

KP Everyone loves a kitten! Everyone is down with a sunset. Entire religions were formed around sunsets and sunrises. Everyone loves the moon and the sound of the ocean. You can’t go wrong with nature. But then you start to get into taste and cultural signifiers. Things that seem ordinary in one culture are extraordinary in another.

GB Would that apply even between LA and London?

KP Yes. LA is a factory town. There’s only one business, and that’s show business. It’s about status, and you can see that even in terms of what’s personally attractive: the way people are groomed and have surgery or work on their bodies and faces.

GB Did you prefer to have different things around you in the context of LA?

KP No, in fact I was laughing at myself because I recently moved into my new home here in London, and without thinking about it too much I seem to have recreated a microcosmic version of my LA apartment. I’m like a turtle with a shell that contains my aesthetic wherever I go.

GB Did you inherit much of that taste from your mother?

KP My mom is a DAR: A Daughter of the American Revolution. You can trace her family right back to the American colonies. Her taste dovetailed with that. She always loved early American Colonial style. I don’t share her particular aesthetic, but I sure picked up her love of textiles and handmade things.

GB Does something have to have this emotional quality to it, to be beautiful to you?

KP You can’t always have a personal relationship with beauty. Sometimes you can have an esoteric connection, and sometimes it’s painful, like a poke from something that reminds you of your inferiority, because you’ll never live up to the beauty. It can be sort of sneering at you. But in the case of this blanket, it’s so much more. When I wrap it around myself, it’s almost like my mother and father holding me.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

KP It has to give me pleasure, delight and awe. And there’s mystery. You can’t fully understand beauty. Even with the blanket, I have no idea how my mom made it.

GB I suppose your parents’ relationship held a lot of mystery.

KP You hit the nail on the head.