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Home > A conversation with artist Mark Clay

A conversation with artist Mark Clay 10 1

9th February 2020
A conversation with artist Mark Clay
Broad Canvas

- 7 minute read

Hello readers! It's been a while, but we are glad to be back here having interesting conversations with talented artists. 

This week we bring you our interview with artist Mark Clay where we talk about Mark's methods, inspirations and materials, and his interest in the making and unmaking of objects.


Broad Canvas: Tell us a little about your practice and the mediums you use.

Mark Clay: My practise was very heavily drawing-based, and still is, though I am now branching out beyond that. I find great inspiration in the interactions between the natural and built environments, particularly industrial heritage and the constant sense of change and transformation that happens in the world around us. I spend as much time as I can exploring landscapes and discovering what happens there now - and in the past - so my work has taken me to Anglesey and the Lake District, with plans to explore Portland and Orkney (when the lockdown is over!) At the moment I am strongly drawn back to graphite pencil drawing as an antidote to these strange and uncertain times we live in. 

BC: How are you 'branching out' beyond a drawing-based practise? Is that through new mediums or techniques? 

MC: For a start, I’m pushing out into new techniques such as textiles and use of light. At college I designed a model stage set and lighting for an opera and I love the idea of applying my art in a specific setting like that. 

I’m also increasingly interested in the idea of installations and art being out in the landscape, having recently looked at artists like Robert Smithson, Andy Goldsworthy and others. I’m also a member of “Portable” a new collective of artists in Oxford and we’re very excited about doing some shows and work in 2021 that takes us into new spaces and ways of working. 

All of that will have to wait until the lockdown is finally over, of course. 


BC: Can you describe your practice/artwork using five words?

MC: Exploration, discovery, transformation, storytelling, time!

BC: You’ve put an emphasis on ‘time’ there. How does time play a factor?

MC: It sort of forces its way in on its own when I am working! I find it really interesting to think about how art can reflect on things that are changing around us all the time (quickly or slowly). Perhaps it’s also because I am so interested in history and storytelling, and that sense of “once upon a time…” that we are all instinctively drawn to. Or perhaps I’m just getting older. 

BC: What is your most important artist tool? Is there something you can't live without?

MC: It would have to be my sketchbook. It's the thing I most rely on to capture thoughts, ideas and reflections, to lay the groundwork for creating an artwork, and to help me remember things for future reflection and consideration. Including how far I have come. During my Masters, my sketchbooks transformed into big lever arch files full of documentation and reflection but what they gained in richness they lost in portability. So I’m looking forward to being able to travel with my smaller format sketchbook and just a few pens and pencils again (when I’m allowed!)

BC: I think that’s a really interesting point that a sketchbook is a great tool for reflection. Are you very particular about your sketchbooks? Have you found the perfect one yet? 

MC: Well, I generally use the Seawhite sketchbooks (from Broad Canvas, of course!) though I do get bought others by kind people. I’m not especially particular about them, although there are things in some of them that I am really fond of or excited about. I hate the idea of taking pages out of them, though, because what I most value, I think, is having them as a resource or library to refer back to. It’s amazing how often, when I look back through an old sketchbook, that I see the germ of an idea or piece that I have been working on more recently; or I discover something that I feel more able to do something with after a period of time. It’s encouraging and validating when that happens. And I find that a more reliable way of generating ideas and motivation than simply hoping or waiting for inspiration to strike. 

BC: What or who are your biggest influences or inspirations? 

Artists who deeply inspire me include Paul Nash, Pablo Picasso, Robert Smithson, Lubaina Himid and Tania Kovats. I am also deeply inspired by music, from Bach to Bellowhead. And of the many artists I have been privileged to meet and get to know in Oxford right now, I would also add Sue Side, Zelga Miller and Anne Griffiths. Three homegrown inspirations!

BC: What is your earliest art making memory?

MC: Drawing trains, monsters, castles and spaceships as a boy. I also remember a school art lesson when I designed an album cover for a fictional punk band. It was really dreadful. If you had said to me back then that I would become an artist, I would have laughed my socks off.

BC: We need details Mark, what does a fictional punk band have on their album cover? Please tell me you included a safety pin.

MC: Well... Ahem. The cover was black with luminous green dribbly writing showing the name of the band: Bopping Vomit. (I told you it was dreadful!) No safety pin I’m afraid. Too hard to paint when I was 13! I remember my art teacher being totally underwhelmed by it, and rightly so. 


BC: How did you start making art and why do you continue to do so?

MC: I only started on my own art journey at the age of 45, having had no formal training before then other than a distant O Level in technical drawing (which has come in really useful all these years later). At that time, I had a good but stressful career that was starting to take a heavy toll on me and I knew that I wanted a more creative outlet in my life after 25 years of office work, and a new direction to explore. At the time, I was doing little weekend art activities with my young daughters as a fun, relaxing way of spending time with them but it increasingly turned into a sort of occupational therapy for me and then a real interest that just took an ever greater hold on my imagination. I really didn't know if I had any talent or if this was just a "passing thing", so for a year or so I just drew, doodled and enjoyed myself. But eventually I wanted to push myself further, so I did an Art & Design Diploma at City of Oxford College. It was the best decision I ever made. After that I knew I wanted to keep going, and in 2020 I finished my Masters in Fine Art at Oxford Brookes University. People often say to me "Oh, I could never do anything artistic like that", but I say that you never know what you are capable of until you try.

BC: What is the biggest challenge you face when making your artwork?

MC: Self-doubt. And never being able to remember where I left my pencils. But self-doubt is the worst. To counter it, I try to keep in touch with the joy and the fascination of making art, the friends I have made along the way, and how it fires my interest and imagination. That's what keeps me going.

BC: It seems that self-doubt is something that a lot of artists struggle with.

MC: Equally, though, having doubts can sometimes be a good indicator that you are pushing and challenging yourself. So perhaps in some respects it’s not entirely a bad thing. In moderation of course. 


BC: What is the one artwork by another artist that you wish you had made and why?

MC: I really wish I had made Maus by Art Spiegelman, the only comic book to win the Pulitzer Prize. Through simple, black and white illustration, Spiegelman found a way to talk about the monstrous experiences that his father, a Polish Jew, went through in the Holocaust in a way that confronts awful things safely yet directly, with neither sentiment or anger. It is a breathtaking achievement, and a triumph of the combined power of drawing and storytelling. I have a hankering to write and illustrate my own graphic novel/comic book one day. 

BC: Yes, Maus is a masterpiece, I find myself revisiting it every couple of years. When I go back to it I’m always surprised at the simplicity of it’s rendering. That by no means takes anything away from it, it’s so skillfully done. It was one of the works that brought about the term ‘Graphic-novel’ too and helped to redefine what a comic could be.

MC: Yes it definitely deserves repeated reading. And how amazing is that, though, to do something that actually creates a brand new genre.

BC: Can you tell us about any projects you are working on right now?

MC: I've spent the last year or more studying an abandoned railway line on the island of Anglesey for my Masters, and there is still more to do on this topic when the lockdown is over. Since my MFA I have been enjoying a series of gentle and mindful drawing studies based on visits to Didcot Railway Centre during my Masters research, just for the pleasure of it, but it has given me some real insights and ideas for the future. I am also beginning to work on some ideas inspired by the scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet in 1919, in Scapa Flow (Orkney), a remarkable and sad story that not many know and which I think has a lot of contemporary resonance.

I'm also really honoured to have had a drawing shortlisted for the 2020 Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize. It's been wonderful to be a part of this wonderful celebration of drawing, and given me a real sense of community with other drawing artists through being a part of the touring shows and online talks. (See Mark's talk here)

BC: I’m noticing that you have an interest in heavy machinery, whether locomotives and there means of transit and now this new project surrounding a fleet of ships. Where do you think that interest comes from?

MC: I think what really interests me is things that are imagined, designed, made, used and then discarded, destroyed or lost. All those different ways of making and unmaking (and subject to time - again!)

And I’m acutely aware that we live in a world of machinery, tools, gadgets and equipment, and that interests me, not least because it’s a mystery to most of us. We just take them for granted. Wandering around Didcot Railway Centre for example, looking at the components on the engines or lying about, I often find myself thinking “I wonder what that does” or “What is that bit called?” For me, there is room for imagination and mystery, too, in all those shapes, ideas and objects and I think that is what is showing up in my art.


A big thank you to Mark for talking to us and sharing his artwork and inspirations. 
You can view more of Mark's artwork and see what he's currently working on on his website



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