In the latest of our Viewfinder peer-to-peer interviews, Deborah Caulfield speaks to artist Anne Teahan about re-discovering her voice in a world so dominated by language.
Alternating between drawing, sculpture and installation, Anne Teahan is known in the disability arts world for her fragile paper constructions. In 2007, she explored children’s histories in Tales from the Borders, a collaborative disability history exhibition which toured the South East. Teahan is currently engaged with painting ‘conversations’ from frozen screen grabs of online debates. I caught up with her to discuss her artistic journey.
DC: How did you get started as an artist?
AT: Art was always there, I was always doing it, regardless I think of what happened. As a child I was always doing it. It wasn’t a gallery-going family, but I just did drawing, painting and copying.
DC: When did you get serious about art?
AT: I went to art school at 18. I had no clue about the concept of a career, or the future. I just wanted to keep doing art, with no plan.
DC: It was for pleasure?
AT: For pleasure and self-expression, and I think EH Gombrich's 'art impulse' and 'the need to form' was there.
DC: Tell me about what you're currently working on.
AT: I'm currently painting – I've just finished a series of four paintings which are cropped screengrabs from an online conversation on the Guardian website. I'm quite interested in portraiture and I'm searching for a way of doing it whereby it relates to how we look at things now. And so much of what we look at is in the form of digital faces, digital images. So that's a strand.
It's a series of four faces. I did them looking at a video conversation with the sound turned down, and freezing, I froze the conversation, came in close, cropped close, to isolate the mouth and eyes.
Because of Laryngeal Dystonia, a vocal impairment, I find conversations quite tricky, unless they're one-to-one, I end up watching people just chat – listening, but not participating. And it strikes me, listening to conversations, that people who are vocally fluent – who use words – tend to dominate the media and politics and everything. The paintings are trying to interrupt that.
DC: Is your medium painting, drawing or printmaking?
AT: I've been weaving in and out. I trained as a painter, I draw a lot but then Dystonia began to throttle my voice and I started tearing up drawings and paintings and reforming them into paper vessels. So in that way disability has been a strong influence on the whole thing.
I have started painting again after a long period. I had to stop and start again.
DC: Why did you first start working in this fragmented paper vessel form?
AT: In some ways voice loss was quite productive artistically. Before Laryngeal Dystonia I did work that was more complete. Afterwards I did an MA in drawing at Camberwell after years out of art school and teaching. I was back in art school with my own creative preoccupations and I felt I had to re-form myself as a new person.
So I made drawings, fragmented them and turned them into fragmented paper vessels. It was still me, but I had to find a less robust way of... being. I'd always been drawing and, in drawing, there were always layers...
I'd been drawing in the Imperial War Museum. I saw lots of fragmented vessels and they were fascinating to draw. In all the external politics, the historical events and my own personal upheaval, there was a kind of connection. And although being ill is different to war, I felt the voice had been torn out of me and I was re-learning how to speak. So that form of work echoed that sort of destruction and repair in lots of ways, really.
DC: Was that a transition period?
AT: Well, I was doing it for about four or five years. Then it got too much of, almost a, craft. I had to stop because I was trying too hard to make the things hold their structure without wilting. And I thought, that's the opposite to what I wanted.
DC: Is keeping going a problem for you? Do you ever have times when you can't work?
AT: Yes, that's just an energy thing, a problem to do with Sjogren’s Syndrome (an auto- immune condition.) When my energy goes flat, I just have to accept that.
DC: How do you get through those periods of exhaustion?
AT: Sometimes I take lots of photographs of conversations. I've got lots of conversations from different events.
DC: Stills or video/moving images?
AT: I think a fragment is more expressive than continuous film. And I think painting or drawing makes you look, and I think looking hard at some fragment is more productive.
DC: And enjoyable and absorbing?
AT: Oh yes. I mean I love shape, form and colour. I love the history of art. It's like a big treasure box to dip into.
DC: So, is it your own energy and energy fluctuations that you see as the biggest barrier?
AT: Yes, that does act as a barrier. But I also think the vocal impairment aspect of not being able to network, you know, when people meet up there's a subtlety in communication. I think a lot of things happen in subtle vocal exchanges.
DC: Well, it's a very speech/text based society...
AT: Yes, it is. Though I can write quite fluently. But also, I think aspects of contemporary arts are quite hostile to looking at things. That doesn't work well if you want to translate what you see into colour and shapes. I think that's an issue.
DC: You've talked a little about how your work has evolved, is it still evolving?
AT: At the moment I've got an urge to write and an urge to make visual art. I'm like a donkey, torn between two carrots.
DC: Is it a competition, both needing to be done?
AT: There's a theory you can't have both. I don't know whether that's true. I'll find out.
DC: How do you want your work to make people feel?
AT: I suppose empathy or a kind of resonance between human beings. I would like people to look hard at what it represents. I'd like it to grab people – somehow. I don't like art than can be explained in words. I like it to have an impact above the noise of things. I think a painting of a gesture, or a painting of an open mouth has an impact that a quick moving photograph of people gesturing and talking just doesn't.
DC: It's what you were saying about fragments, isolating a particular thing that could get lost in amongst all this other stuff, you're really homing in on a small part of not just a person's body, but of life?
AT: Exactly, yes. It's a fraction, a fragment of life that often goes under the radar.
DC: So what role do you think the artist should have in society? It sounds like that's what we're talking about, perhaps a bit of a cliché to say opening people's eyes?
AT: Being a bit sensitive on everybody's behalf. Seeing reality afresh, bringing a freshness, the opposite to cliché and sentimentality.
DC: Tell me about a time when art has saved you in some way.
AT: It did actually save me when I got ill, when I completely lost my voice. Art really did help me to know how I felt. Writing saved me every day. I mean, if you work in a mainstream place, you're managing impairment and it's not entirely understood, and you have many instances of frustration. And writing really purges; it gets you through.
DC: What's next for you?
AT: I'm interested in discarded conversations and would like to make images of disabled artists having the conversation about assisted dying. I've trawled and searched online, and there's just one example I can find, which I would like to convert into stills, a painting, a series of paintings. That's my plan. I'd like to focus on unheard voices about the subject in particular, because it scares me that they're not heard.