This series of interviews continues with our new President. We hear what the Group means to her; about art-making and that critical moment she realised “…I didn’t want to be a civil engineer, I just liked looking at photos of dams!”
I grew up on quite a remote farm in the Yorkshire Dales. My grandmothers were artistic in their own way, one of them did amazing embroidery and the other did more craft-based work, but largely fine art was a complete mystery to my family. I was intrigued by art from an early age, I did well in the subject at school and it became quite seductive.
At 16, a school friend and I went on a day trip to London to see Carl Andre’s sculpture colloquially known as The Bricks. The trip was an epic undertaking, so there was obviously something there even at that age. In the mid ‘80s if you did well academically at school you were steered away from art and the minute you start to do that you rule out all sorts of other things. So I ended up doing maths, physics and chemistry A-levels.
Back then, there was a drive to get women into science and engineering, and I attended a course at one of the engineering universities. During a lecture on civil engineering, we were shown beautiful photographs of dams and I thought ‘this is amazing, I want to be a civil engineer!’ 10 years later I worked out that I didn’t want to be a civil engineer, I just liked looking at photos of dams!
I worked long hours on site as an engineer, being sent all over the country and trying to fit in evening classes. When I started to build the Sainsbury’s in Southend, I decided to sign up for two night classes: typing and clay modelling from life. I did my A-level art that way.
At this point, I’d started to advance in my civil engineering career; I was a senior engineer and then a project manager, and running some big sites. The last thing I built was the Sainsburys at New Cross Gate. When I finally handed in my notice in order to take an art foundation course, everyone was totally mystified. It was quite traumatic for a while and a test of resolve.
I can’t really separate the early days of art college from having two children. I was juggling crazy childcare arrangements, as my daughter and son were two and three years old. I had become extremely serious about my studies at that point, and all I wanted to talk about was art! I went straight from my BA at Chelsea to an MA at the Royal College of Art. Here everybody was super-serious and I felt both at home and supremely challenged. I completely loved and embraced it and felt this was where I’m supposed to be. Given the circumstances I was working under, it was a remarkable achievement that I got in at all.
I stubbornly worked through the painting department at both Chelsea and the Royal College but always making films and installations. Back when I was working as a civil engineer, it was always the people and the site life that I found most compelling. So now it’s always the human angle for me, it’s the people who get lost in processes and the end product. I like finding a way to reassert them. It was a merging of the visual and the love of storytelling that really drew me to film.
I do find art-making pretty problematic and not necessarily a comfortable place. I’m really good at being distracted by other things, like admin, and I spend a lot of time at my computer applying for grants and chasing commissions. So my day varies immensely depending on the cycle of work production. If I’m filming it can be really intense, there will be a raft of arrangements that make a film possible or I can be out filming and it can be quite physical as well. Editing can be from dawn to dusk, you really get into it and it comes in waves. Some of it includes chunking through the material wondering why you’re doing it, and then suddenly something starts to happen. But I’d say that’s typical of most art practices in any medium. I don’t always like making art, but I do like the challenge of it. I’ve felt this a lot this last year through lockdown. When life is tough and difficult, art isn’t something I go to for solace. For me, it’s awkward, prickly and difficult. I need the distancing effect of time so I can be more ruthless with it.
I did edit my film ‘Combine’ in lockdown though. Back in 2017 I’d filmed at Ketton Cement works but I didn’t have a plan, and I felt I’d made a right mess of it so the footage just sat there. Then in 2020 there was an open call from Fermynwoods Contemporary Art to rework historic films of the steelworks in Corby. When I pushed the films up against each other, something else came out.
My film ‘Civil’, which is currently at Thelma Hulbert Gallery, takes the past and present definition of Civil from the Institution of Civil Engineers. I’ve woven old photographs taken of people building Derwent Dam, just outside Sheffield, together with footage that I took of the dam overflowing. It was filled with water in about 1913, so it coincides with the formation of The London Group, and also with Thelma Hulbert being born. Lovely parallels. Towards the end of the film water cascades over the dam, superimposed onto a photo of a younger me taken at the Institution of Civil Engineers. I was always being photographed as women were such a rarity at that time; the token woman on the front page of any publication. So I make a guest appearance in my own film.
In many respects, I would say my work revolves around the people and places that are in some way overlooked. Perhaps ‘let’s have a look at this’ would sum up my practice. I have recently been looking at industries that are problematic, questioning what it is like working in an industry that people are very critical of. At the moment I’m working on a commission with artist Alison Carlier and animator Sheryl Jenkins in the North East, involving an ex-mining community. They are wrestling with their sense of identity; what does it mean to be someplace where the industry was completely eradicated in the ‘80s? There’s a whole raft of emotion, intention and responsibility that sits around that, and rumbles along in my work. Issues around working class production – whether it’s manufacturing or primary industries like mining and farming.
The London Group has been another home for me. Hearing members talk about their practice during lockdown, I’ve really loved that. And just being with other artists, seeing their work, and the seriousness and intent that other Group members have. It goes back to how I felt about finally going to art college, and recognising this is where I want to be. Art is quite a lonely business, there’s not a lot of opportunity to talk to other artists about work. Sometimes I find it frustrating that we don’t talk more in The London Group, so maybe there’s scope for us to do that in the future. Art is a place in which to challenge and provoke the world about us. I find that really stimulating. If I can’t find consolation in my own practice I can find it in other people’s! I don’t think art is something you ever really switch off from, or even retire from. We have some older members in The London Group and we’re all working hard, that’s the work of art, of being an artist. It rumbles on alongside our lives and relationships.
What things make me happy? Walking in nature, dancing and cake. I definitely love dancing to really loud music. I get completely caught up and immersed by it. My desert island disc to dance around to would be Get Lucky by Daft Punk.
I sometimes think that destroying all the televisions in the house would be the one thing that would improve my life the most, it does sap a lot of time and I imagine that I’d get more work done. But I really like TV! While I was growing-up, we’d all sit together and watch telly and I still find great comfort in it.
The advice I’d give my younger self is create space to allow yourself to be surprised – and don’t make rubbish rules for yourself!
Amanda Loomes PLG was in conversation with Claire Parrish, 2021
Music link / Daft Punk Get Lucky from Random Access Memories