Our exclusive Q&A with artist Peter Ford…
“…. I am driven to make art objects whilst being fully aware that there is no rational reason to produce more… [But] rationality and reason are not needed when launching into an art venture.”
Peter Ford RE, RWA, is an internationally-renowned artist whose prints and artworks on paper (often his own handmade paper) can be found in public collections around the world, including Tate Britain, the V&A, the Ashmolean Museum, the Portland Museum of Art in Oregon; the Musée de la Publicité in Paris, the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art and Taipei Fine Arts Museum.
Locally, Peter is a key figure in the Bristol art scene. In 1987 he converted the top floor of his south Bristol home into the Off-Centre Gallery and he has curated several exhibitions at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. He was elected an RWA Academician in 2001 and between 2004 and 2013 he curated eight exhibitions for the RWA including Open Print in 2004 and 2009, and Celebrating Paper in 2010. Peter was Vice President from 2008 to 2013.
His solo show in the Acacemician’s Gallery, ‘Out of Order’, runs from 16 July to 18 August, including a Friends’ Talk on 20 July (book your place here). Here’s our Q&A…
When did you realise you were an artist?
I can cite two realisation moments. The first was during my post-National Service year (1957/58) and the continuing two years of teacher training in London. I became obsessed with drawing. Drawing whatever I could that was in front of me. For example lots of cow and horse studies. I grew up in a house on the edge of Hereford and on market days herds of cows would be driven past our house. There were horses in the field at the bottom of the garden. I drew my parents, mother washing up, father gardening, adopted brother reading and my aunt sleeping. Also I drew vegetables, fruit, insects, flowers. It was these sketch books that, after teacher training, would help to get me into Brighton College of Art in ’59/ ’60 after I had qualified as a teacher.
The second and deeper realisation that I might be ‘an artist’ was during my mid-thirties whilst I was in terminal struggles with teaching as a profession. I have some difficulties in describing this phase which was really significant for me but also slightly ridiculous as I look back on it from 50 years later in my life. I was living in a communal household in east Kent. Some of us got into the habit of weekend psychedelic experiments. For me, the main effect of tripping was that it opened the door on a flood of spontaneous and bizarre imagery – opening my ‘doors of perception’ to quote Aldous Huxley’s book title. Whilst ‘off my head’ I would draw or paint through the night totally engrossed by the image in front of me whilst at the same time half-listening to music such as ‘In C’ by Terry Reilly, ‘Stimmung’ by Stockhausen or Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’.
Not everything I made was convoluted and awful. The first time that I submitted work to the RA Summer Exhibition in 1974 one of my accepted works, called ‘All Night on the Tubes’ – provisional title ‘Knees on the Water’- was made during an ‘out of my head’ nocturnal episode. It was sold so maybe it still hangs on a domestic or office wall somewhere. Shortly after that encouraging start I resigned from my full-time teaching position and began to be ‘an artist’.
Why do you make art?
Accepting the idea that some of what I make is art, I keep doing it because I am driven to make art objects whilst being fully aware that there is no rational reason to produce more and I am also aware that I would be much more difficult to live with if I did not continue to use my thoughts and energies in this way. (Rationality and reason are not needed when launching into an art venture.)
What is your usual process for making an artwork?
The majority of my work now involves my handmade recycled paper, either as a surface to print or draw on or to use as a casting material. Paper pulp like clay, has the capacity to replicate other surfaces when pressed onto material such as stone, wood or fish bones, for example. The combinations of different coloured paper pulps in a wet state also allow me to be a kind of neo-painter. It pleased me very much when in the 2018 RWA Autumn Exhibition a paperwork of mine was awarded the Derek Balmer Prize for painting. My ways of manipulating wet pigmented paper pulp could be seen as an eccentric or unusual form of watercolour painting. The only materials involved are cellulose fibres from recycled acid-free paper and natural pigments suspended in water.
Whilst printing from found objects and paper-as-a-medium are my main activities now, between 1977 and the late 1990’s I was making small-to-medium-sized etchings, collagraphs and woodcuts. I began with etching as a miniaturist working on copper plates sometimes no more than 5 x 3 cm in size. Although I have been short-sighted since I was eleven I have good close vision. It is typical of me to look at paintings from very close up and to photograph segments or details rather than the whole piece. In the past and occasionally now I can become engrossed in an etching or drawing and work on it for about two weeks often using magnification. Unless I have been commissioned I like to start on a creative project before I have a clear idea of where I am going, just as one might start cooking by preparing basic items – maybe chopping onions, garlic etc. On the other hand, if sufficiently motivated, I am able to concentrate on a given subject or attempt to make something appropriate for a thematic exhibition.
“…My ways of manipulating wet pigmented paper pulp could be seen as an eccentric or unusual form of watercolour painting…”
Between the autumn of 2016 and the late spring of 2018 my attention was focussed on a very demanding commission from a Chinese art promotion company based in Taiyuan, principal city of Shanxi Province, west of Beijing. The commission required me to make ten etchings or woodcuts based on a selection of historical sites within Shanxi. In order to satisfy the requirements of the company I had to return to a more depictive style. Fortunately the characteristics of ancient Chinese art and architecture allowed me to introduce many examples of pattern-making combined with the stylised forms of flowers, birds and the astonishing mountainous landscape. Also there were weathered surfaces of ancient wood and carved stone that appealed to me. This reference to an earlier figurative style leads naturally on to your next question…
How has your work changed or evolved through your career? Was there a particular turning point?
I hope that my artwork is in a continual state of change. For me exploring and inventing are essential if I am to maintain interest in what I am doing. I am motivated by the question ‘What will happen if…? Although my work falls into groups or sets with similarities I do not like repeating myself. As a consequence I rarely make editions unless I have been commissioned, as above.
Two turning points – 1994 when I decided to make much larger work and was able to do so as a result of a prize which offered me six weeks in an artists’ print workshop in Cumbria where I could make use of a large electrically-powered etching press and the help of a technician. Also in that year I began paper making.
Another moment of significance was two years previously in 1992, when, under the influence of Polish, Ukrainian and Russian artists, I began to make bookplates.
(A bookplate or Ex Libris is an individually designed and printed label to identify the ownership of books. Their history goes back to the time of Dürer). Very strangely the extension of my printmaking into the largely unknown but complicated world of international bookplate making and collecting leads smoothly into your next question.
In recent years you have had a number of exhibitions and residencies in China. How did that come about – and do you feel your work has a particular affinity with Chinese art?
One morning in June 2007 I received a letter with Chinese stamps on it. I read the enclosed message more than once. It was an invitation to take part, together with other European and Chinese artists, in an exhibition of miniature prints and original bookplate designs. The organisers would pay all transport costs to and from eastern China, provide accommodation and food and some sight-seeing trips. I had no anticipation that this invitation would arrive on that day or any day. This was the beginning of my adventures and engagements in China. Since 2007 I have made fourteen visits in response to invitations and opportunities. Initially the focus was on bookplate designs but later the opportunities broadened. I have been able to present four solo exhibitions in Art Museums, to be an artist-in-residence in four locations on the east coast and to work as a printmaking artist in an international print workshop near Hong Kong. Sometimes I have been invited to provide illustrated lectures for students in universities, schools and colleges. Although my involvements with China have reduced I will be taking part in an exhibition in the National Print Museum, Shenzhen in August this year.
A quick answer to the second part of your question would be that Chinese art is extremely diverse – though there is a continuing strong tradition of calligraphy and watercolour painting which continue to be taught in the art academies. Concurrently many Chinese contemporary artists have high reputations internationally and represent the diversity of approaches that are current in the West – installations, performance, photography. Video etc.
You were made an Academician in 2001, and you have curated eight exhibitions at the RWA. What has the RWA meant to you – professionally and personally?
My first response is that this is too big a topic to deal with adequately here. Over a period of nine years, from 2004 to 2013, I was heavily involved with RWA matters. I was Vice President for six of those years and ‘acting’ President for 6 months following a resignation. So there were many meetings to attend – Exhibitions committee, Finance and General Purposes as well as Council. (Much of this prior to the appointment of the Trustees.) Unsurprisingly during this period I had much less time for my own work.
In 2004 I became the co-ordinator of the Open Print Exhibition – one of a series focussed on techniques. The recent sculpture exhibition is a surviving element of that. I worked with energy on the print show because I wanted to demonstrate the power and range of possibilities latent in art on paper. This exhibition was a turning point in my view. I brought in work from abroad – Korea, Japan, Russia, Poland, USA, Canada and elsewhere. My links with international artists were a consequence of my own travelling.
The RWA, with its spacious and elegant galleries, has provided me with a remarkable opportunity to develop myself as an exhibition curator. Just before I was elected I had been working with the City Museum, bringing together the 2001 exhibition ‘Made in Japan – Contemporary Artwork on and with Paper’. With my encouragement the RWA President and colleagues visited that exhibition and were impressed. Subsequently Derek Balmer invited me to organise the first Open Photography exhibition. I am full of memories of this period, mostly positive. Maybe I have said enough in this context. It is good to have the opportunity to associate with many artists and work together with them.
You have a new solo exhibition coming up at the RWA – ‘Out of Order’ (16 July to 18 August, including a Friends’ Talk on 20 July). What can visitors expect from the show?
About half my displayed works involve some kind of printing and two-thirds are on, or are made from, my own paper. On the wall facing the entrance there is some strong colour. On the right side long wall there is a lot of texture but only subdued autumnal colours with the exception of a paperwork called ‘Blue Flame’. This has a remote link with the main exhibition in the upstairs galleries. (I do have some other works which evoke fire or have involved fire in the making. Some of these pieces can be seen at Off-Centre Gallery in south Bristol where there will be a supplementary exhibition at weekends or by arrangement.)
I am also showing a larger paperwork called ‘Urban Archaeology’ which is an amalgam of indented shapes from many pieces of metal, plastic and wire impressed into the paper pulp. A very similar work was included in the 2018 RA Summer Exhibition and this was, appropriately, purchased by an archaeologist.
Amongst very recent works I have included three images printed from Braille sheets. I imagined that the pressure from the heavy steel rollers on my etching press would immediately squash the tiny Braille bumps but that didn’t happen and I have been able to make repeat printings without damaging the material. This is the kind of discovery that energizes and excites me.
Also on show are two collages using insect-eaten paper that I found in a damp corner of my workshop. I think the insects responsible are silverfish. The paper is very fragile. It was challenging to handle and fix these onto another paper of contrasting colour with tiny dabs of a special glue. These two works link up with other creations made in previous years inspired by insects as the basis for pattern design or as ‘collaborators’.
Finally, to the left of the door on the way out I will hang the third of my ‘book stack’ works combining printing from many materials including carved pencil erasers. At this point there is the only traditional painting in the exhibition. This is the trompe l’oeil depiction of a book.
A visitor may also find me in the gallery during the exhibition period using pencil erasers for printing repeat pattern designs on my own coloured paper. This is an important and serious technique for me. It is direct and uncomplicated. Not much apparatus is needed. One of the three works of mine recently acquired by the Yale Center for British Art, Connecticut, is entirely printed from hand-held pencil eraser blocks.
What are you working on now?
In recent weeks a dominant activity has been preparing and completing the framing of the works that I plan to show in my forthcoming RWA exhibition. In between times, when I need some physical activity I make paper in preparation for future projects I have in mind. I am also taking part in an international exhibition in Friesland, North Holland, opening in August and for a second time in December. A large relief printed work that I have sent there is called ‘Surveillance City’. This has already been exhibited in Taipei National Museum, Taiwan and in the National Print Museum of China which, given the theme and the museum’s proximity to Hong Kong, is rather surprising. .
A fairy godmother waves her magic wand and says you can own any artwork in the world. What do you choose?
Rembrandt’s last self-portrait which is in the collection of Kenwood House, Highgate.
You can see more examples of Peter’s work on his website.
Picture top: Peter Ford making a small piece of paper on the terrace in the garden at his home.