“Making art helps me to make meaning from complexity”
Viv Martin is a prolific artist, whose current work centres around printmaking, she is a veteran of the Open Houses phenomenon, having been one of the founding members of the Fiveways group that began the ever popular Artists Open Houses in Brighton. Her dedication to her art and her determination to keep that work fresh is an inspiration and we are very pleased that she made time to talk to us.
Do you have positive/negative memories of art when you were at school?
Positive, mainly. Early on wasn’t great, though. I was 5 when the headmistress set off a class using thick, water based paints and was called away. Just before she went, she said that any child who got paint on his or her hands would be in serious trouble. I don’t think I heard the last bit as I hadn’t thought of painting my hands, so I very carefully painted my left hand with patterns. When she came back she was cross, but trying not to laugh – but she took me out of the class and told me that I’d been very naughty. So I must have associated doing art with being naughty after that and it did sometimes lead to problems.
I went to a fairly academic girls grammar school, but they did take art seriously. I painted all the scenery for the school plays and banners for the fairs, even printed cloth to make clothes from – so it was good on applied art as well as fine art. They wanted me to go to university, but I chose art college and they all supported me. My art teacher from there is still in touch and comes to my shows quite often, which is great.
What would your school report have said about your art?
It was always excellent and they gave me the school prize for art and another for service to the school – but I was never a prefect! I failed art A level though – as did many people at art college.
Did you go on to further education in art or are you self-taught?
I went to Bath Academy of Art, Corsham, for five years straight from school (I had an extra year because I switched from painting to sculpture), then Goldsmiths to do an art teaching qualification. More recently, I realised that I didn’t understand contemporary art and that I was still working predominantly in my 1960s style. I was lucky to be able to do an MA at Chichester which helped me to find new ways of linking the ideas I wanted to explore. Then workshops with various artists have helped me to learn new techniques that I need and to try different approaches.
What or who has inspired you over the years?
It’s kept changing. Originally, all the ‘western art history’ artists – from Mesopotamia and Egypt through Greek and Roman to the Renaissance. Then the Impressionists, of course, the post-Impressionists and into Modern. In particular, early Egyptian, early and classical Greek, Romanesque artists like Ghislebertus in France, the Pisanos in Italy, then Giotto, Donatello and I lose interest a bit when they get too confident and ‘smooth’. I like the awkwardness of some of Gaugin, Picasso’s post-war ceramics, Monet’s Giverny work and most of Van Gogh. Then I moved into Mondrian, Klee and Kandinsky, but soon looked at people like Keinholdz and his scenarios, like the Beanery and the one where ‘sugar plum fairies danced in his head’. All overtaken by Rauschenberg, who seemed to link painting and sculpture and a sort of story-telling.
Corsham was very ‘west country’ in it’s approach to art, so there was a strong influence from Peter Lanyon and Adrian Heath, who was a tutor and my landlord for years. William Tillyer taught me etching and was quite encouraging of me melting etching plates, until he feared for the blankets on the press! I ‘baby-sat’ for Michael Craig-Martin, but remember more about eating his chocolate cake than about his work. Now when I visit the Pallant it feels a bit as though I’m back at college, because so many were tutors there.
Now I try to do workshops every year or two with different artists, to try new approaches and to challenge or add to my range of work. I’ve been strongly influenced recently by Sandy Sykes and by Ron Pokrasso, both in developing multi-layered monotypes and using text alongside imagery. I’m currently doing a workshop that’s focusing on graphic novels and real-life diaries and I’m trying to work out where I stand in relation to fine art/illustration and visual and text narrative. I’ve had lots of academic books published, but I’d like to make books from my art somehow.
What Artists do you admire?
I admire the prehistoric cave artists for the imagery that links observation with a sign language and a sense of spirituality. I admire Donatello for his inventiveness and risk-taking. I admire most of the ones I’ve already mentioned as having influenced me.
What is your favourite piece of work (yours and someone else)?
My own is always a puzzle, until I’m on the way to the next piece. My current favourites are the prehistoric Venus of Sireuil, Lanyon’s ‘Porthleven’, Serusier’s ‘Talisman’ and Ron Pokrasso’s ‘Egyptian Eve’.
What has been the highlight of your artistic career so far? What are you proud to have achieved?
I’m rather proud of having had Open Studio shows almost every year for about 35 years. I’m proud to have learnt so many techniques and of being able to update my work from time to time.
What have you sacrificed for your art?
Money, time – who hasn’t? I’ve always had so much back from the process and involvement that I’ve never regretted anything I might have done but didn’t – so it’s not really a sacrifice.
What’s the best bit of advice that has been given to you?
Listen to what your work is trying to say to you. Get into a dialogue. Check the pressure on the press!
What advice would you give to an aspiring artist/craftsperson?
Listen to what your work is trying to say to you. Get into a dialogue.
How do you start a piece of work?
Usually by putting bits together and working out how they relate. So the earlier stage is making and collecting together all the relevant bits that I might need for a project – I tend to be working in ‘series’ now, rather than individual works. The ideas come from places mostly, with a mix of imagery, stories, journeys, history, etc. So I gather what I can and make lots of drawings, sometimes making woodcuts or etchings in preparation, sometimes searching through older work that’s become relevant again or just found its ‘time’.
When is it finished?
When it stops telling me it needs to be fixed.
Do you have a mantra, quote or line from a song that best sums up what your art means to you?
Does music help with your creativity? If so what would you choose to listen to whilst working on a piece?
It depends on the work and how I’m feeling. Sometimes it’s country and western, sometimes jazz, sometimes Dylan, sometimes Wagner or Mozart, sometimes sound recordings of birds and insects in Provence.
What is your favourite medium to work with/in?
At the moment, it’s monotype that incorporates collaged drawings, etchings, woodcuts and anything else that I can flatten enough.
Do you have a lucky or favourite something that you use that has been with you forever?
I still have my teddy bear from when I was one – he’s rather old now!
Are you living your dream through your art or do you have one – what do you strive for?
My dream is about making art and continually trying to improve and say things that are worth saying, so I’m living it to the extent that I’m still trying!
Is there anything you avoid with your art?
I tend to avoid making imagery about violence or cruelty and when my subject matter, like ancient Greek inevitably links with battles, I tend to stylise it and use their own imagery.
Thank you Viv for a fascinating insight into your work, it was a real pleasure to visit you in your lovely studio.
If you would like to find out more about Viv and her work please visit her website or her blog.