Eva Coutts talks with Edinburgh-based artist, Stephanie Mann, following a recent collaboration with three women’s groups at the National Gallery of Modern Art.
“Visual art explains things words can’t”, merely moments since Steph had settled onto the seat opposite, she was tossing ideas that had me grappling with things bigger than expected on a numbingly cold January afternoon in Leith.
We meet at The Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop (ESW) where she has a studio space. ESW is also handily home to one of the five Milk cafe’s, which are dotted about some of Edinburgh’s hippest spots, so as we chatted we warmed up with spiced carrot muffins and coffee served by bearded men.
I was here to talk to Steph about a project she’s recently concluded that collaborated with the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the Glasgow Women’s library. Call & Response: Women in Surrealism saw Steph working with women from three women’s groups, Shakti Women’s aid, Sikh Sanjog and Seeing Things.
The workshops ran over a period of six months and focused on the theme of Women in Surrealism. The project spanned such an expanse of themes and techniques that it’s remarkable to realise they were facilitated by such a small team of people, five women to be exact.
“We didn’t think of the project with an end exhibition. Firstly, that’s a lot to ask. But also, thinking of it in human economics, in the end that takes from people. I wanted it to be about giving.”
The workshops varied each session, they involved lots of writing, often as playful exercises to loosen up and led to more, with some women writing poetry and essays.
Steph explained that the women she worked with were from completely diverse backgrounds, many had experienced a lot of trauma and this could be a means to explore some of these difficulties.
“[Working with these women] It was like a river, you can’t really plan for it. You work relationships going this way and that way.” She used her hands and body to weave this way and that, as she talked it was visible to see her scan through those journeys and relationships, sparkling and remembering.
Throughout the workshops they looked at collections and archives; paintings, artefacts, letters, photos and scripts. Giving inspiration on one hand, but also striking stark realisations. Records of female artists are scarce, this begged the question, were there really so few women artists or was it in the recording they were lost?
“History is a record, it’s not fact. It depends who recorded it, it’s their version of reality.” Steph points out with such clarity and foresight.
If we start to dismantle the art world, sadly not just historically, but the art we consume in this present day, we get an idea of just how stark the gender imbalance is. Female artists account for 4% of the National Gallery of Scotland’s collection, and this is not exclusive to Scotland. Some of the world’s biggest commercial galleries have as drastic a disproportion in their collections, creating a knock on effect on the worth and recognition of women’s art. Hirst, Matisse, Dali, Warhol and Pollock. Do any female artists come so readily to mind?
Throughout our discussions, be it finding yourself in Japan in a crazy succession of events and needing to even out with a month in Florence, or in aspects of the project itself, Steph’s awareness of the importance balance plays exudes in sometimes the gentlest of ways.
“Amongst the artefacts we looked at there was a magnificent photo of Lee Miller in Hitler’s bath. She was ferocious, incredible, it made us ask what did she embody? But to use this image might take over. Such like the Tarot cards we found, a lot of the women thought they were really cool, but they would make the entire exhibit about the mystical. Confined by one feature. I endeavoured to achieve some sort of balance.”
‘Confined by one feature’ made its way into other areas of conversation.
“It was also about how they wanted to be perceived, do I want to be an artist? A woman artist? Do I want to be known as ‘a woman artist’?”
Steph has a way of flitting into discussion and questions about her own work and existence in a way that is so tangible, relatable and endearing to listen to.
Some of the women had enjoyed creating things before, needlework and crafts, but this was the first time for many that they could do it in a space where they were being empowered rather than compared.
“I wanted to flatten it all out, all equal, all unique. You have your thing, I have mine, they’re very different. Letting yourself come out is so much more important than the zeitgeist, just be true to yourself and that’s the best you can be.”
For a lass with so much youth and zeal about her, she speaks a damn lot of wisdom, but has the ability to loosen into giggles as she remembers aspects of the project which were a little more unconventional.
“We had this one workshop where we played sounds from the womb and the rainforest, it sounds hippie but it was actually very relaxing! We used ink blocks and collage, I wanted to create an environment that wasn’t overly precious.”
Steph recalled more tender moments too.
“One woman who was very timid had been coming to a few sessions, then one day she was late and I was a bit worried. She said she’d been really ill and had been trying to see a doctor but none were available so she came anyway. Towards the end of the workshop she came to me and her face lit up, ‘this was better than medicine’. I broke down!”
Stephs outlook on the project was for everyone to gain as much as they needed from it.
“It kind of went deep as opposed to broad, it was heavy. Meaningful”
I would guess this sentiment wasn’t exclusive to the project, she seems to have life pretty well figured out.