Amy-Leigh Bird: This Place Where I Stand

No 20 Arts is delighted to present THIS PLACE WHERE I STAND, an exhibition which brings together the work of Amy-Leigh Bird, Shaun Fraser, and Simon Kidd. From the shores of the Thames in London, to the Scottish Highlands and Islands, to Northern Ireland, each artist showcased in this exhibition places themes of identity and elemental links to site at the centre of their work.

Featuring sculptures, paintings, film, and works on paper, the exhibition is accompanied by an immersive soundscape designed in response to the artwork of each artist. Created by LOWT, the soundscape provides a cleansing sensory experience within which to discover the artworks of the three artists.

No20Arts, This Place Where I Stand, Installation Shot, London, 2021

In a new, specially commissioned short essay, Roddy Murray, Head of Visual Arts & Literature at An Lanntair writes:

Amy-Leigh Bird retraces her childhood steps. Trawls, sifts and mud-larks the Thames shoreline for the river’s strewn cargo: its drowned residue, its human detritus. From buttons to bones. It’s a kind of resurrection. A means to reclaim a sense of the personal, the timeless individual, as much as the lost city and the churn of life. Her pristine prints recall the desert’s bonescape. Beyond the bone is the DNA.

Shaun Fraser’s footprint is in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, still ringing with the clamour of the last battle on British soil, still wrangling with the cultural aftermath. His oeuvre is peat, moorland, the blanket bog. A cultural sink that contains and conceals – dissolved and preserved – the history of these desolate, cleared spaces. His work in oil, tar and bitumen reimagines and recreates this temporal, empty yet alive landscape, recreated from its own essence. Its textures, its sullen, relentless, primeval chemistry.

In Northern Ireland, Simon Kidd’s ceramics are a meditation through petrification on the obstinate, petrified past. On degrees of permanence, from the basalt and granite of Sliabh Dónairt and Murlach to the bog of Dregish he references the dug and quarried past. The chipping and scarring of hammer and chisel on rock, the slice of the peat-iron. Stark and delicate, his porcelain pieces testify to memory, to negative space, absence, removal. Like a script etched into stone.”

*Opened in January 2017, No 20 Arts is a centre for contemporary arts. A multi-functional space, the gallery hosts a programme of exhibitions, performances and events that support emerging and established artists working across all media.

Amy-Leigh Bird, Re-Submerged IV,2020, Canaletto paper, 70 x 50cm

Can you tell us about the process of making your work?

I generally begin my creative process with walking: that is where the magic happens.I walk along the foreshore and take the time to look at my surroundings. The foreshore is a treasure trove of London’s history, revealing new aspects of it’s past with every turning tide. For me, I am particularly interested in the bones; not for any specific reason other than the fact that they are beautiful objects, stained, smoothed and marked by the rushing water. After collecting the objects that I want to create prints from, I will clean and photograph them in natural light, drawing out the subtle details of their internal structure.

After this, I will take my digital files to the studio where I create my photopolymer etching plates. I expose my image onto my plate in a UV light boxwhere the lighter areas of my image become more pronounced. Once I have created my plate, developed it in water, and left the plate to harden overnight, then the real fun begins. Etching is an incredibly rewarding process: it takes time, care and skill to execute properly. I start by placing my paper in a bath of water, while I ink up and wipe down to the perfect consistency. The paper will soften just enough to mould around my plate without tearing and gently lift the ink off the surface. The reveal is somewhat special, even after years of experience and confidence with printmaking; you still never quite know how it will turn out. To me, that is some of the most rewarding elements to this lengthy process.

In regards to my sculptural work, I tend to be more flexible and experimental. I take my time collecting as much of one specific material as possible, so that at home I can explore it’s potential. I like to handle my material, using my hands to explore its surface, the strengths and weak points.

How would you define your work in a few words (ideally in 3 words)?

Macabre. Earthy. Nostalgic.

When I use the word macabre, it is not in the traditional sense. I feel like I am using my printmaking and art to take away the harsh violence and unsettling nature about the bones and make them something beautiful.I want to use my work to anchor some of our discarded objects into our perceptions of value and create a discussion about how we can place more value in ordinary and everyday objects. Bones are the foundations in which we can live, walk and survive. Surely we should respect and admire these objects more than we do.

My work is generated from the dirty and unwanted. I take objects from the river, from the soil and from the clay, giving them a new space to be appreciated. In their very nature, these objects are earthy, in their aesthetics, their colour and their shape. There is a literal sense of earthiness in multiple ways that is communicated through my work. But I also consider the metaphorical sense of earthy, as in grounded, to be a central element of my art. I would say my work is very down to earth, in more ways than one.

Nostalgia plays a huge part in why I collect. When I was younger I collected rocks from the beaches I visited with my dad. I loved it. It was an obsession and with every rock I collected, I got another hit of dopamine. It was a great feeling as it was something that I had an element of control over, something that I loved and treasured. Collecting to me is innate, it is a desire to hoard and gather. It is within our genetic make up to do this and when I am collecting on the foreshore, it feels no different to when I collected as a child. Holding onto the things that brought you joy as a child is important. We are all children in growing bodies and the ability to keep playing, even as adults, is integral to our learning and happiness.

You recently collaborated with No20Arts gallery presenting your new group exhibition in London. What kind of new artworks are you showing there?

For this show I have created sculptures, prints and a hanging piece exploring themes of place and nostalgia through the use of found objects.  All of this work uses materials found on the bank of the River Thames.

My favourite piece in the show is my piece ‘Bleak Beauty’, a hanging installation of found bones. I had been thinking about creating a piece like this for a while, but did not have the space or resources to generate it on this scale from home. Being a part of this exhibition provided me with an opportunity to explore new ideas, which has been incredibly rewarding. This has also been the first time that I have been able to show such a large body of work in one space, which I am really proud of. I have been able to stand back and look at my work together in one space and clearly see how I have developed over the last two years.

Amy-Leigh Bird, Bleack Beauty, Found Bones & Fishing Wire, Installation shot

‘This Place Where I Stand’ is your show’s title. How does this name related to your body of work in this show?

Location is incredibly important to me within my work. I tend to draw my inspiration from found materials and that usually binds me with a specific place. Most recently, I have got that inspiration from bones and detritus from the Thames foreshore. When I am on that stretch of land between city and water I feel rewarded and I am compelled to return, meaning, over the years, I have spent a considerable amount of time in one place. When I am on the foreshore, I am not just there to collect objects of interest; I am there to feel the wind on my face, to hear the sound of the tide edging up the beach and to feel the weight of my bag drag heavy. It’s an experience in itself, it’s a space I feel at ease and it’s a place I want to return to. The Thames is the place in which I stand and I want to show the world what it has to offer.

Could you share with us some insights on your artwork series named ‘Topophilia’ (2020)? Is there any particular story or meaning behind these artworks?

Topophilia topos “place” and -philia, “love of”.

The works titled Topophilia do have a specific resonance for me. When I was studying my undergraduate degree in at The Glasgow School of Art I was lost. I was making work about objects that I had found without any real understanding of why it had significance. During a random wonder through the library I stumbled across a book called ‘Topophilia: a Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values’.

Tuan references the scales of human perception. In this he describes how we, as humans, see the bushes and trees, but not the individual leaves or blades, we see sand, but not the individual grains. For me, I see people walk across the Thames everyday not seeing the vast history that lies beneath them, but simply an exposed beach, empty and barren. This first series of prints titled ‘Topophilia’ intend to engage people with the history of this city, with our understanding and connection with objects and our perception of what is valuable. If only we were to take a moment to look, to see, that the beach reveals more than just an empty riverbed, but a treasure trove of our collected experiences.

How do you believe your artworks develop a broader dialogue with the other two artists involved in this exhibition?

As a group, we all show a different representation of landscape with a unique take to each of our chosen places. We are all connected with the land, the places in which we live and inhabit and its raw and effortless beauty. Together, we showcase the importance of place and how much of an impact it has on our lives and that of others. Both Shaun and Simon use material to showcase the ephemeral and changing nature of their landscape, to preserve and showcase its beauty, whilst I take a slightly more literal approach to mine. Aesthetically we work well together, but more significantly, we share an emotional connection, a resonance and shared collective understanding of why it’s important to talk about these spaces.

Is there any particular theme that utterly triggers you to engage your art with?

I am committed to sharing and opening a discussion about our perceptions of value. I want to engage in a dialogue about things that are thrown away, discarded and ignored. I have noticed, from spending a significant amount of time down on the foreshore, that people’s waste is in fact very visible. When we discard something, particularly these days, there is a sense of out of sight, out of mind; that the things we throw away just magically disappear. I would be slightly hypocritical if I was to claim to be some kind of eco warrior or environmentalist, but I am concerned about our environment, especially seeing so much unnecessary waste in our cities and particularly in our water systems. When you are down on the foreshore, there is a clear timeline of peoples’ waste history, bones being of a certain period of time, when abattoirs and the meat industry was more prevalent within the city such as at Smithfield’s Cattle Market. What I find fascinating is how when I am collecting, whether it is bones, teeth, or oyster shells, I will find patches wherea certain material is more condensed. Most recently I found a patch where the oyster shells that had presumably come from Borough market were dumped into the river, still fresh with the meat attached to the shell roof. When you begin to spend more time on the foreshore, you can identify the historical habits of our city and witness it merging with our modern throwaway culture.

Can you mention any artists you, lately or generally, take inspiration from?

Hundreds, all day everyday. I spend a lot of my time on Instagram, sharing my own work and looking at others. I normally answer these types of questions with famous artists, but I would like to take the opportunity to mention some emerging artists that inspire me daily:

  1. Anna Reading
  2. Emma Witter
  3. Rowan Corkill
  4. Charly Blackburn
  5. Sam Hodge
  6. Vanessa Short
  7. Carol Wyss
  8. Ines Fernandez de Cordova 
  9. Ruth Ohlig-Kiesel
  10.  Rob Arnold

The list could go on, but I love all of these artists because of their raw and uninhibited use of material. They take ordinary things from the world and create something beautiful, utilising found material, discarded or unwanted items making them desirable. They all help to develop this dialogue about what we consider valuable, important and beautiful.

Amy-Leigh Bird, Small Amusement, 2020, Arches paper, 55 x 50 cm

What about the place where you work? What’s does your studio space look like?

My studio space is beautiful and I feel very lucky to be a part of an artist community like Thameside. I enjoy nothing more than working at my bench, looking out over the fast moving water and creating prints. Our studio sits directly above the river’s edge, facing north towards the Tate & Lyle’s sugar factory. As you walk in there is a long stretch of windows on the right-hand side, all river facing. The natural light in the space is to die for and helps to keep me calm on days when I am working there. To be able to sit making work about the river’s objects with the river in front of me feels natural and hugely therapeutic. There is something about water that calms me, even when I can’t hear it. Most people see the Thames as something to be feared, disgusting, dirty and dangerous, yet I feel a sense of mutual respect. It passes by and does it thing, whilst I do mine, she provides me with the objects and I tell her story.

What does your dad think about your art?

“ I am gratified by you always having found beauty, interest and value in the broken and discarded, rather than the shiny and new. I also feel validated knowing somebody else who collects (accumulates/hoards) all manner of random shit and “precious things”. Sorry, lovely. It’s probably genetic. I think the most interesting thing about your work is that it seeks to transform or present the grubby, the mundane and the overlooked into things with inherent worth’.

Which are your plans for the near future?

My plans for the near future are to keep going, keep making new work and keep finding inspiration in the world around me. Fingers crossed, this year I will be going to Greece on an artist residency in Hydra. I am very excited to meet new people and to discover a new place. I hope to gather new objects of interest and learn about a new environment to that in which I am currently familiar.

Also, later on in the year I am due to exhibit in Highgate at Avison Gallery. I am in the process of making a huge canvas, which I will screenprint onto. It will be the biggest screenprint I have ever attempted, so I am excited to see how it will turn out.

Additional Images

Amy-Leigh Bird, Thames Painting, 2021, Cotton Canvas & Thames River Debris 122 x 154 cm
No20Arts, This Place Where I Stand, Installation Shot


All Images Courtesy of No20Arts

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