Meet the Artist: Hamish Young RWA

Our exclusive Q&A with Academician Hamish Young…

“…Whilst my work is rooted in feelings of loss and abandonment as an adoptee and boarded child, my artworks… are intended to be open to broader interpretations. My intention is that the viewer draws on their own personal associations in experiencing my work that lead to mixed feelings and contradictory ideas.  It is this ambivalence that I am seeking to express…”

Hamish Young RWA is known for his highly personal but ambiguous works that cross the boundaries of sculpture and drawing, and explore liminal, ‘in between’ spaces associated with loss and abandonment from his childhood experiences.

Born in Rotherham in 1972, Hamish studied Sculpture at the Royal College of Art and, now living in Portishead, became a Royal West of England Academician in 2021. He has also worked collaboratively under the name Bateson & Young and his work is held in the Victoria & Albert Museum collection as well as private collections in the UK and Switzerland.

Here’s our Q&A…

When did you realise you were an artist?

When I was studying art at A level at school. I spent many hours in the art studio after hours, making plaster sculptures related to the theme of mother and child. I’d leave a trail of plaster dust footprints from the studio around the school. Like breadcrumbs, they would always lead me back there. The art studio was a place where I felt comfortably lonely.

Why do you make art?

To understand and communicate what I feel about loss, abandonment and attachment.

 Mother and Child. Plaster and bed sheet. 1989.

Your work blurs the boundary between sculpture and drawing, and you have described your work as ‘autoethnographic’ and exploring ‘in between spaces’. Can you elaborate a little on that?

I am using autoethnography as a qualitative research method, using personal experience to extend sociological understanding. I am particularly concerned with adoption, post-adoption and boarding school syndrome.

The intimate and personal nature of autoethnographic approaches leads to challenges, raising questions, in my case, about ethics, culture, families, privilege and relationships. I am careful about what I disclose and mindful of the impact any disclosure might have on my families, particularly as the subject matter is set against a history of secrecy around adoption. Although societal attitudes are, thankfully, now far more open and accepting, that silence lingers.

Autoethnography is more usually undertaken in written form, whereas I use visual allusions and metaphor. Whilst my personal association with my work is routed in feelings of loss and abandonment as an adoptee and boarded child, my artworks and their associations are intended to be open to broader interpretations. My intention is that the viewer draws on their own personal associations in experiencing my work that lead to mixed feelings and contradictory ideas.  It is this ambivalence that I am seeking to express.

I am drawn to ‘in-between’ (liminal or ambivalent) spaces as a metaphor for the feelings I have about being both a part of and apart from two families (my adoptive and birth families; my adoptive and boarded families). There are key parts of each family history that are missing in my experience of being part of each family. Like a traced image, from a distance it appears identical to the original, but there are details missing.

Adoption (Turn No.1). Pencil on Tracing Paper. 2020

My adoptive parents moved to the edge of the Severn Estuary the year I was sent to boarding school. The estuary, with the second largest tidal range in the world, has a lot of ‘in-between’ space that I continue to explore as subject matter. In my drawings of the estuary edge, and more recently the water at the turn of the tide, I seek to pull the viewer into the Romanticism of the landscape, into the abyss where waters and sky merge or land is lost, where clarity and permanence are elusive. Similarly, the marks left behind in the silt, then hidden again by the tides, resonate with my experience of adoption and being sent away. The seaweed too, surviving at the edge of two environments, neither permanently in one or the other, moving from one to the other with the changing tides. I feel an affinity with seaweed.

The process of making these drawings involves tracing from my photographs, then removing the photograph to continue drawing on the tracing. I’ve found this process of tracing reflects family history. Parts of the original image are obscured and have to be imagined to be filled in. I float the tracings in the picture frame so that the drawings become objects, three dimensional and sculptural, beginning to blur the boundary between what is two and three dimensional, what is image and what is object as well as being both simultaneously.

The sculptural device of removing something from one place and placing it in another is familiar via Duchamp. I use this device in my sculptural work, such as replacing the hog hair with pencil leads in a paint brush, to illustrate my adoption and boarded experience. Having explored my experiences with very patient therapists over many years (I am under no illusion that there is much more work to do) I began to understand my trauma response, which for me, is a freeze response. My pencil lead brushes are uncomfortably silent, still; immobilised, almost like a half-breath held.

The leads, like neural pathways, are both connected and disconnected. They are supported in an exposed position, any connection with a surface to make a mark risks the leads shattering. Staying still, not connecting, is safer. For me, as an adoptee and ex-boarder, this speaks of the challenges I have faced (and still do) in forming secure relationships.

Adoption (Untitled No.3). Artist’s brush handle with pencil leads and basting thread. 2020.

As with the drawing brushes, my nests (constructed with thousands of mechanical pencil leads) sit at the boundary of both Sculpture and Drawing, in that ‘in between’, at once apart from and a part

of each genre. Similar to how I am both apart from and a part of two families simultaneously. The nest is also an ‘in between’, a temporary home, a boundary or frame attempting to keep the inside safe from the outside. It crosses two discernible limits. The nest sculptures themselves are also empty, either waiting for an occupant to arrive, or to return. Or perhaps that empty space will just not be filled.

Adoption No.5 (Nest). Pencil leads. 2019

Are there other artists, works or art traditions that have particularly influenced you?

I’ve more recently been drawn to Vija Celmins’ work. Her meticulous monotone processes, often working from found objects or images lead to such intense, yet still pieces. I’m also drawn to how immaculate and organised her studio space looks in her Tate short interview.

There are elements of surrealism, particularly the use of juxtaposition that I feel a deep connection to. There is something simple and yet incredibly complex about taking something from one place and putting it in another. The molecules are the same, but relationships are changed. Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ 1917, with Duchamp changing his name to keep anonymity connects with my early childhood.

Similarly, I feel connected to Richard Wentworth’s photographs of people’s litter (Havana, 2015, Archival Inkjet print, steel nails, wooden frame 58.8 x 48 x 7 cm). He had observed that discarded objects are often placed in spaces where they seem to fit with consideration and care, rather than just thrown on the floor. Creative littering. While that decision making process fascinates me, I often wonder how much of my creative process is just finding a space for something to fit.

Then there is Whistler’s signature. I really love his paintings, but his signature, a butterfly formed from his initials, directly influenced the development of my signature for my artworks. My butterfly is formed from my two sets of initials. My birth name initials, P and H, and my adoptive initials H and Y. The Hs and Y form the wings and the P of my first name, the baby who was put up for adoption, rises out of the wings to form the head.

You are an art teacher as well as an artist. Does your teaching life influence your art, or is it something very separate?

Teaching is something quite separate. And I mean ‘teaching’ rather than ‘teaching art’ because subject expertise is only a part of pedagogy. There isn’t really a dialogue between my art practice and my pedagogy. In my experience, good artists don’t necessarily make good teachers and vice versa. They are very separate skills, each requiring significant learning and practice in their own right. That said I hold core values in approaching the teaching of art, particularly drawing, as a highly skilled, academic subject.

I was incredibly fortunate to be taught by such exceptional artists, tutors and technicians in my time at Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education. I remember arriving at the art school to study sculpture determined to learn a skill. After a taster project in the Foundry, I decided I would make myself an expert in that field. That ultimately led to me studying at the Royal College of Art (RCA) and co-authoring Fine Art Metal Casting: An Illustrated Guide to Mould Making and Lost Wax Processes with Richard Rome who was running the RCA Foundry.

The idea for the book emerged, in the pre-YouTube learning days, when I was teaching undergraduate Foundry modules and was frustrated by an absence of teaching resources that evidenced the lost wax process. Physical demonstration was really the only way to teach what are time consuming processes and the book aimed to make this knowledge more widely accessible.

That belief in a skills-based approach still drives my teaching. If art skills are taught effectively then learners gain a wider creative vocabulary and greater freedom to be able to articulate and communicate their own amazing ideas.

In my art practice, the core skills that I have learnt and continue to hone have enabled me to develop the material vocabulary I need to articulate what I feel.

How has your work changed or evolved through your career? Was there a particular turning point?

The subject matter of my artwork has been the same from when I studied A level, I just didn’t know it when I was 17. It was a bit of a shock when I actually noticed (which was surprisingly recently). I think I’ve got a bit better at articulating it, which, of course, is aided significantly by being conscious of it. There have been a fair few key moments, important conversations with many people over the years, false starts, and false endings when I think about it. All of which have contributed to my work evolving. Here are just a couple of moments:

A visiting lecturer at the Royal College of Art in a tutorial looked at my work and said calmly “It doesn’t do anything for me”. The comment stays with me and has become increasingly relevant. I want my work to have an emotional impact and that’s what I strive for now. I think I’ve got better at that. But, if my work doesn’t do anything for anyone, then it’s not successful.

The most recent turning point was when one of my pencil lead brushes came back by courier from an exhibition damaged. The leads (about four thousands of them) had detached from the brush handle and were in a heap in the box. As I tried to get them out, I noticed that I could almost sculpt and model them. That became the first of my pencil lead nests. There is something about having to adapt to circumstances that connects with me.

Mother and child. Pencil leads and paper. 2019.

You were made an Academician of the RWA in 2021. What did that mean to you?

I was overwhelmed. Those moments in life where we place ourselves in positions of being accepted or rejected, from entering open competitions to applying for jobs or meeting new people brings, for me as an adoptee, a deep association with survival. Being aware of this helps, otherwise I would be unable to face the many rejections I receive annually for the various open calls I enter. Unchecked, I can tend to dwell on the line ‘Unfortunately, on this occasion…’ and really feel quite low. But it does mean those moments of being accepted are really rather special.

I was a foundation art student at Bristol Polytechnic in 1991. To be elected by such an incredible group of peers, 30 years after beginning my formal art training in this city is an honour and I feel incredibly proud.

What I am really happy to have found, though, is such a kind and welcoming group of people at the RWA, from the incredible staff working in the organisation to the Friends of the RWA and the Academicians, who contribute so much.

What are you working on now?

As well as some paper casts of small groupings of limpet shells I am casting thousands of paper shells. I want to make an installation, a space full of paper limpets. I’m still looking for a space to show this when it’s complete.

I’m also working on an ongoing series of pencil drawings of personal objects, such as a postcard that my adoptive mum sent to me in my first few months of boarding school.

Finally, a fairy godmother waves her magic wand and says you can own any artwork in the world. What do you choose?

Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks (about 1491/2-9 and 1506-8). I was fascinated by the compositional rules in the painting when I studied it at A level and I remember when I first visited the Louvre and saw it. I stood in front of the painting for ages, while everyone else seemed to be making a beeline for the Mona Lisa. I recall not wanting to leave.

At that time I would not have been conscious that my adoption might draw me to the image of a mother and child. It wasn’t until later I realised that there are two versions, the one in National Gallery made to replace the one now in the Louvre, or that the work was intended as part of a larger alter piece that included sculptural elements from which it has been separated. I’d choose either one of the paintings, but not both.

Da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks (Louvre version)

You can see more examples of Hamish’s work on his website and follow him on Instagram.

The Friends of the RWA is an independent charity that supports the Royal West of England Academy, Bristol’s first art gallery. 
For just £35 a year Friends can make unlimited visits to RWA exhibitions and enjoy a host of other benefits, as well as making an important contribution to the arts in Bristol and the South West. Find out more and join up here.

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