The Powerfully Delicate Structures of Deirdre Macleod

Echelman's sculpture installed over the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway in downtown Boston, May 2015. Videography by Melissa Henry

The internet is amazing.  The amount of information and knowledge we have easy access to is astounding.  For an artist, having access to all this information means that we have so much more scope for researching an idea or developing a concept.  Access to different ways of thinking and different disciplines like Science, Electronics, Gardening, Sculpture, Photography, is important to creativity.  It is important to explore different ways of understanding the world to allow your artistic work to develop.

Developments in understanding can lead to new art forms and these different art forms and fields of study influence each other.  For example, when designing the Munich Stadium Frei Otto looked to biology and the cell structures of plants.  Janet Echelman’s colourful moving sculptures were influenced by fishing. 

Deirdre Macleod is an artist who has studied a variety of disciplines including; painting, geography and politics.  These seemingly differing subjects find their way into the interlaced structures of her work, creating pieces which are delicate and layered, offering the solid industrial look of scaffolding with the delicate crystalline feel of a snowflake.

After seeing her work glowing on the walls of the Hidden Door Art Festival, we had to know more.  It was a real pleasure talking to Deirdre, who's work is a reflection of her own complexity and depth of thought.

Freep: isometric (2014) pencil on paper, 148cm x 194cm

Freep: isometric (2014)
pencil on paper, 148cm x 194cm

Tell us a bit about your background, you studied in Edinburgh but is that where you grew up too?  Do you come from a creative family? 

I was born in Fife and grew up in central Scotland. I came to Edinburgh in 1991 for post-graduate study and, apart from a few years living and working in the West Midlands and Warwickshire, I’ve lived in Edinburgh since then. There aren’t any artists in my family, but I suspect there is unrealised creative ability there!

 

You didn’t just study painting at Edinburgh, I noticed you also have an MSc in Politics and a BA in Geography, which are quite different subjects from painting.   Tell us a bit about what led you to being an artist and how these other subjects have had an influence on your work.

I chose to study Geography because I was, and still am, interested in how humans relate to, and make use of, the space in which they live, particularly urban space.   But, I’m sure I was also drawn to Geography because it is such a visual discipline. I love maps, field sketches, geological cross-sections and diagrams and, when I was at secondary school, I think it was as much the chance to make line drawings with Rotring mapping pens that appealed as much as the subject matter!  Technical drawing equipment, propelling pencils and diagrammatic  imagery are still really important to my approach to drawing.

Part of the reason that I turned to drawing and painting was because it seemed to offer a more personal way of understanding and expressing my relationship to space and place than the more detached approaches of social science – whether Geography or Politics. Drawing, in its different forms, using a range of materials and supports, provides me with a more personal way of observing and investigating my response to the city. Politics, as an academic discipline, is about aspects of relationships of power. I am aware of spatial power relationships within cities, particularly that between humans on the ground and our built environment, over which we often have very little direct control. This is a theme that influences the work that I am currently making.

After working for about 10 years in public policy analysis and development, I came back to drawing and painting via the summer school programme at Edinburgh College of Art. I was encouraged by summer school tutors to think about studying more seriously and took evening and summer school classes over the next few years to build up a portfolio for my application. I studied part-time, while working and having children, through the College’s part-time degree programme, before transferring into full-time honours study. It was a fantastic chance to get an art education and I’m so glad I did it.

Freep (2014) acrylic rods and acrylic filament, 70cm x 80cm x 90cm

Freep (2014)
acrylic rods and acrylic filament, 70cm x 80cm x 90cm

You mention one of your influences as Piranesi Carceri d’Invenzione etchings.  The influence of these can be seen, particularly in the density of some of your drawings and the perspectives and view points you use.  There is also a likeness to the sculptures of Ben Long.  Can you tell us a bit about what it is about these industrial structural forms that you find most compelling to explore through your drawings?

That’s a good question!  I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit over the past few months. The structures that I’m drawn to are invariably open and delicate, rather than solid. I’m not really interested in completed buildings; I tend to seek out scaffolding towers, steel construction frames and structures that are in the early stages of being built or the final stages of being taken down. These structures have skeletal appearance and are often the bones of a building under construction or deconstruction, or, in the case of scaffolding, a kind of metal exoskeleton for the construction process. What these structures have in common is their openness. With their grid-like and geometric qualities, they seem to draw attention to the urban sky-space, measuring it and enclosing it. As the construction process develops, the open steel frames become solid and the empty space of the air and sky disappears. I find myself re-visiting these sites repeatedly, watching the processes of enclosure and disappearance, almost mourning that  loss.

Looking up from the ground into the city is a key part of what interests me. It’s such an everyday, but universal, urban experience to walk and look up at multistory structures and to feel quite small as a result. I use perspective and viewpoint to try to give a sense of how it feels to look up at these large structures which are under construction and out of reach. I use an oblique perspective in my large-scale drawings, and hang the drawings higher than is conventionally expected, to encourage the viewer to look up at them.

 

Guerrilla Tactics (2013) Acrylic on balsa, 20cm x 28cm x 30cm

Guerrilla Tactics (2013)
Acrylic on balsa, 20cm x 28cm x 30cm

The choices you make on materials to draw on, are very interesting.  Your use of Perspex for example, offers a transparency and layered effect, different to the drawings you do with pencil.  Can you tell us a bit about your preferred mediums, right now, to paint and draw with?

At the moment, I’m using technical drawing propelling pencils, rulers, plastic erasers and smooth, large-scale cartridge paper to create heavily worked graphite surfaces that still retain the definition of individual pencil lines. I’ve also been investigating the possibilities for making smaller drawings on Perspex sheet, both by etching lines and by making graphic line drawings on the Perspex using acrylic paint.

Whilst these sets of materials might seem very different, I find that they have much in common for my work. Both enable me to use a delicate and precise visual language. My drawings are made up of many layers of ruled parallel lines through which I aim to create spatial depth; something that I also seek to achieve through using layers of Perspex in painted 3D constructions.

Importantly, both sets of materials enable me to capture a sense of movement in space and my embodied sense of the city, by which I mean, the way that I experience it through the physical act of walking, climbing, sometimes squeezing past other people, or even occasionally tripping over a step. My drawings aren’t just about what I can see, but what I feel as I encounter the city. With the Perspex pieces as viewers walk around them, the spatial relations between layered component images change; with my pencil drawings, physical movement is expressed in changes in the direction of the ruled lines, which occur as part of the making process as I move around making these large drawings.

 

Skeletal Drawing: sodium vapour (2015) phosphorescent acrylic on masonry, approx. 4m x 9.5m   photo credit: Anneleen Lindsay    www.anneleenphotography.com

Skeletal Drawing: sodium vapour (2015)
phosphorescent acrylic on masonry, approx. 4m x 9.5m  
photo credit: Anneleen Lindsay    www.anneleenphotography.com

We first saw your work at the Hidden Door festival in Edinburgh, given your use of perspex and your interest in structural layering, it was interesting to see you had used light very differently in the Hidden Door space.  The Skeletal Drawings were almost light glowing blueprints on the wall.  Did you deliberately set out to explore structure and light differently, or was this how you reacted to the space you were allocated?  Tell us a bit about your work at Hidden Door.

This year’s Hidden Door Festival in Edinburgh was held in the city’s former street lighting depot, which had lain unused and semi-derelict for a number of years. I love making work that is a response to the site in which the work will be shown, so Hidden Door seemed like an ideal opportunity to experiment with ideas and materials. On the basis of seeing photos and descriptions of the site only, I proposed to make a wall drawing that was pretty much a (very) scaled-up version of the small, Perspex Skeletal Drawings, with the idea that the drawing might be seen from a distance.

However, when I spent time in my allocated space – an  atmospheric, but pretty dingy, barrel-vaulted cellar – I decided to make a semi-abstract drawing that I thought would be more sympathetic to the space and more appropriate to its scale and dimensions. The drawing is, as you suggest, a bit like a blueprint for something that might be under construction, which might replace the existing building, or, which might instead be in the process of being demolished. I wanted the drawing to have an orange glow, partly as a nod to the site’s former role as a street lighting depot, but also to acknowledge the growing obsolescence of sodium vapour street lighting. This year, Edinburgh City Council will replace the current street lights with white LED bulbs, so the orange glow that we’re all so familiar with will soon become a thing of the past. I also like the idea of using a non-fine art material. Phosphorescent paint is sometimes treated as a bit of a pariah medium by artists, but I am convinced that it has a place!

It was a fantastic opportunity to make work for Hidden Door and it tested my physical capabilities and technical knowledge to the full. But, that’s the way I prefer things to be - it’s the way I develop and extend my practice.

 

In 2013 you won the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival prize for your Idiographic Paintings, which were a part of a Neuroscience residency at Edinburgh University and your work can be seen on the walls of the Department of Psychiatry, University of Edinburgh.  Can you tell me a bit about your residency and how your Idiographic Paintings came about?

During our penultimate year of study, students were encouraged to work with organisations and individuals outside art college through a series of external projects. I took up the chance to work with the Neuroscience laboratories at Edinburgh University, one of which is within the Department of Psychiatry.  I think I thought I might get my hands on some interesting diagrams! Over the course of six weeks, I had the chance to find out about brain imaging which is central to contemporary approaches to understanding psychiatric conditions, to observe research meetings and, with their permission, to observe consultations between patients and their clinicians.

I chose to try to represent the spirit and individuality of some of the patients that I met, through a series of abstract paintings based on overlapping forms that I had been working with in my studio. It was a privilege to work with the patients and I really enjoyed the challenge of working out how best to express something of the patient’s experiences and the Department’s work through my own visual language.

One of the clinicians suggested that I enter the paintings for the brochure artwork competition run by the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival. To my surprise, they won and were used as the basis for the brochure and the visual identity for the 2013 Festival. The Department of Psychiatry asked to purchase the paintings that I’d made and they are now on permanent exhibition there.

 

Skeletal Drawings (2015) acrylic on Perspex, multiple pieces in various sizes, each approx. 25cm x 30cm

Skeletal Drawings (2015)
acrylic on Perspex, multiple pieces in various sizes, each approx. 25cm x 30cm

Do you find that the process of creating or making, has any similarities to problem solving, that you’re able to work something out within yourself by the time you finish a piece?

There certainly can be an element of practical problem-solving when I work.  My current interest in sanded Perspex came from trying to find a more robust support for pieces of work that had been mounted unsuccessfully on tracing paper, but I think problem-solving might be too closed a term for what happens when I’m working. 

Often the pieces that I make just don’t work because the image of the piece that I have in my mind, the plan as it were, just isn’t that interesting when I make it. But, if I let myself stay open to possibility as I work, and let my hands lead, rather than my mind, things can begin to happen.  Art is an intellectual pursuit, but it is also a haptic one. Hands can feel and sense things that the eye cannot and I think it’s so important to trust the intelligence embedded in the making process. When I do, often what happens is that I end up somewhere that I didn’t expect, somewhere that is quite surprising, having made something that is often far more visually and intellectually satisfying.

 

What leads you to starting the next piece of work?

Usually it’s an opportunity to make and exhibit new work. I rarely make work without knowing where it’s going to be shown. Site-responsiveness is very important to me. I like the intellectual challenge of working in this way, thinking about the site, its connection to the themes that I work with and working out how best to respond through materials, scale and installation strategies.

Having said that, I’m trying increasingly to make space to experiment with materials, without the pressure of a particular outcome. The Perspex pieces developed from a ‘what if?’ moment when I tried sanding and painting an off-cut of Perspex that had been lying about in my studio. Making space and time to play matters, but, it’s sometimes quite difficult to find.

 

What are you working on at the moment, or, what are you planning on working on next?

Next month, I’ll be showing some work as part of a show of a group of Edinburgh and Border’s-based contemporary artists at Traquair House in the Scottish Borders. Traquair House is the oldest inhabited house in Scotland and has long connections with Jacobite History. Each of the artists involved has been asked to respond to an aspect of the House of their choosing. I am working with a small technical drawing of Traquair House made by Polish soldiers stationed in Scotland during the Second World War.  I’m using this historical drawing to make some small, contemporary 3D constructions which will be placed in different parts of the House.   I’m also working towards a solo show at Gayfield Creative Spaces in Edinburgh which opens on 5 November 2015.

 

Bonus Question: Name 3 books you wouldn’t be without and why.

My three books are all about cities, and how we imagine and experience them. They’re well-worn studio companions:

Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. This is a wonderful fictional conversation between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo in which Marco Polo describes the cities (or is it simply one city?) that he encounters. The imagery is just so vivid.

Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life. This book encourages me to see the cities as a artistic resource – even the simple choice of one particular walking route over another can be a creative act.

George Perec’s Species of Spaces and other Pieces. I love Perec’s interest in what he calls the ‘infra-ordinary’. He deftly shows that the everyday stuff of urban life is fascinating if we look closely and repeatedly. It’s a very moving book.

 

You can see more of Deirdre's work, including her Neuroscience paintings on her website: http://www.deirdre-macleod.com/  

You can also see her work in person at the Curved Stream exhibition, opening on 6 September and running until 30 October 2015 at Traquair House, Innerleithen, Peebleshire. Information on opening times and directions to Traquair House can be found at  http://www.traquair.co.uk/ and  https://www.facebook.com/curvedstreamtraquair