Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?
Ruth Chambers: I grew up in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, a rural area. There were not many distractions and lots of time for making. Creating was part of my everyday existence: landscapes for my toys out of carboard boxes and collage, books and plays about invented characters. I also loved wood-working, sawing wood and banging nails, creating strange structures. I would draw on that green printer paper with the holes down the sides that my Dad would bring home from work. When I was 14 I felt driven to learn how to draw people so I started attending life drawing in Gloucester.
I loved primary school because of the fluidity of the curriculum and ability to respond to a topic through a variety of means; the distinct subjects of secondary school were a bit of a shock in comparison. After attending school in Gloucester, I did an Art Foundation Course in Cheltenham, part of the University of Gloucestershire (sadly, the course closed in 2011 due to lack of funding). I had a wonderful time on the Foundation Course making large scale, collaged oil paintings, sourcing imagery from popular print culture. Afterwards I studied Combined Honours at Durham University: English Literature, History of Art and Philosophy. I went on to study a masters in History of Art and Visual Culture at Oxford University. My dissertation discussed images of the act of reading, and how viewers might relate to depictions of an intense, private, subjective experience. Many of the images I looked at were made when literacy was the preserve of a minority. It is only recently, that I have realised how the themes that I studied in my degrees link to my current work.
After university I moved to London to work at Christie’s Auctioneers as an administrator for a couple of years, first in the furniture warehouse, then in the Old Master Paintings department at the main branch near Piccadilly. It was a privilege to be surrounded by so many amazing artworks every day, however, art business was not for me. I longed to return to making in a serious way, and applied for a job at the Royal College of Art as an administrator in their Jewellery and Metal department. I reasoned that if I wanted to get back to making art, working in an art college was where I needed to be! Although the day was spent at a desk, I could go to evening events and drawing classes there after work. I also organised the applications and receipt of portfolios, which gave me an insight into individuals’ creative starting points, experimentation, materials, processes, and how artists articulated and presented their work. I was able to wander into the studio and talk to the students. Being at the RCA brought me into contact with a community of contemporary artists.
Making art has made me feel more intimately and vividly connected with other artists’ work, in a different way from when I was studying the history of art. I was recently deeply moved by a small drawing of a cat in Indian ink, produced by Bauhaus student E. Kauser in Berlin in 1931. I came across the drawing, made as part of a series studying fur and movement, in a book about Johannes Itten’s teaching methods at the Bauhaus. I felt a strong connection with Kauser and that moment, grappling with the act of attending to and describing, in marks, something they saw before them. The drawing felt vital, as if time had collapsed, like the ink could still be wet. I have had a similar response looking at the work of Eva Hesse.
I live and work in London. I have exhibited with artist-run projects, and group shows including The Jerwood Drawing Prize (2011), RCA Secret (2015, 2016, 2018, 2019), The Discerning Eye (2018) and the Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize (2018). Alongside making my art, I have worked in a variety of jobs alongside my art practice, including as a freelance surface pattern designer and teacher.
RB: Have there been any particular influences to your art practice?
RC: My mother was born in Africa, in Zimbabwe and migrated to London with her mother and sister in the 1960s. Her father still lived in Zimbabwe and I was lucky enough to visit a couple of times as a child. I remember vividly the art works that I saw people making: basket weaving, beading, embroidery and carving, which still ignite excitement and inspire me today.
As a child I would leaf through large World Art survey books. My favourite was Phaidon’s The Art Book. I was also inspired by my aunt, who used to do life drawing and paint in watercolour as a hobby, despite having severe arthritis in her hands. I admired her work and wondered how she conjured these illusions on paper. I can remember marvelling at how she had picked out the highlights on the body in white chalk, making it look three dimensional. Another aunt, Lauren Sagar, is an artist in Manchester and she has always been a champion of my work.
Mick Maslen, who sadly passed away in 2018, was the painting tutor on the foundation course. Mick was a wonderful, generous and wise teacher of drawing and painting who had a huge impact on me as an artist. I often think back to one of his colour theory workshops which explored the transformative effect of colour when placed adjacent to a neutral toned grey of the same tone.
About 8 years after I left the Foundation Course, I was invited back to the campus, along with several other alumni, to make drawings for a book, written by Mick Maslen and Jack Southern: Drawing Projects: An Exploration of the Language of Drawing (Blackdog Publishing, 2011). This intensive period (around a month in total) immersed me in a huge range of approaches to drawing, pushed me out of my comfort zone and expanded my view of what drawing could be. We drew objects using a variety of tools and ways of responding; for example, drawing by touch, translating haptic perception of an object into drawn marks, without looking at the object or the page. These exercises were revolutionary to me and completely changed the way I thought about drawing. It was at this time that I began to see drawing as mark- rather than picture-making, and drawings as records of the act of looking or perceiving rather than records of the object drawn.
A select few inspirations from art history include Abstract Expressionism, Action Painting, Colour Field Painting and Agnes Martin’s grid paintings. The work of Henri Michaux opened my eyes to automatic drawing without necessary reference to an external object, and where one relinquishes a sense of control over the process. Contemporary artists, such as Anna Bariball and Helen Barff, who work with everyday objects and whose work, in my eyes, bridges the gap between drawn object and drawing surface, hovering between drawing and sculpture, have been inspirational in developing my approach. Julie Mehretu has been an inspiration in terms of how she explores the behaviour of marks and gesture in response to underlying layers and drawn structures.
Recently I undertook short courses at the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in Persian miniature painting and Arabesque Design, which gave me an insight into traditional processes, patterns, geometry and symbolism.
RB: What is the underlying focus and vocabulary of your work?
RC: I am drawn to the overlooked and the forgotten; found objects, letters that have gone astray, an unknown person in a photograph, patterns left behind on surfaces revealing traces of human actions. I like to explore their preciousness and use them as a portal for imagining a lost story. My process includes collecting found objects, images and materials.
Much of my work involves an intuitive process of mark-making in dialogue with an object: using objects as drawing tools, or drawing onto the surface of an object, responding to the colours, surface, marks, creases, edges and tears that are already there.
I often employ processes of repetition, and it is important to me that labour, time and attention are visible in the work, a record of human action. I also choose objects to work with that themselves encompass or refer to time in some way. My works often contain a sense of fullness, of covering or obscuring a surface.
There is pleasure and playfulness in grids, geometry and surface pattern. An idea that resonated with my drawing is ‘Psychogeometry’, referred to by David Bachelor, in relation to Anni Albers’ work. He described it as playful pleasure and invention through use of geometric pattern and shape without regard for mathematical exactitude. A ‘simultaneous summoning and subversion of geometric orderliness, system and rule’ (David Bachelor, talk, Anni Albers Conference, UCL, January 2019).
Recently, the history of paper culture has been a big influence, including illuminated manuscripts, book bindings and scrolls. Patterns are used to fill empty spaces and within page borders as protective and amuletic devices. The small size of these objects invites a close, intent, quiet, introspective kind of looking that interests me.
RB: Can you say something about your Envelope Drawings?
RC: Envelopes are containers and carriers of messages that punctuate human lives. They can announce births, deaths, marriages; they contain the possibility of hopes and dreams being fulfilled or quashed. The sender must await a response that may never come. The course of a life may pivot on a message being received safely. They can also carry messages as mundane as a telephone bill or an unwanted junk mail advert.
Torn-open envelopes have fulfilled their function, they are husks, the seed they carried now gone. The message, important at the time, is often lost to history. The stories, requests, news, hopes, yearning, waiting, not-knowing, doubting of the writer can only be imagined.
Envelopes contain marks which bear witness to their own journey to reach us, but also connect us with history much farther back in time, especially as our culture becomes increasingly ‘paperless’. I was amazed to see at the British Museum the clay letters and envelopes used to deliver important royal messages during the reign of Ashurbanipal in Assyria (7th century BC). Literature has a whole host of letters revealing characters’ plans and desires, and as a plot device.
To my Dear Wife, Lottie, May God bless her + the children + keep them all safe until I return again.
(anonymous found postcard, dated February 1917)
I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever.
(Captain Wentworth to Anne Elliott in Persuasion, Jane Austen, 1818)
I wrote to you some time since; not having heard from you I again repeat that your uncle… has left you by his Will a legacy of fifty pounds, which will be paid to you by going to my Attourneys … anytime after the 1st of July next, bring this letter with you…
(letter found in junk shop written by Sarah Davies, dated 1827)
Hold; get you gone, be strong and prosperous
In this resolve: I’ll send a friar with speed
To Mantua, with my letters to thy lord.
(Friar Laurence speaking to Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare)
I have been making drawings on the insides of envelopes since 2011.
I began making them when I was working as an administrator at the RCA. These drawings incarnated at my desk using office materials. I began to notice the patterns on the inside of the envelopes when I opened them up each day. I would often doodle at my desk, and scribble notes on the backs of the envelopes. I began to experiment with drawing on the patterned interiors, which allowed a new mode of mark-making to evolve, responding to the marks already there. Using pencils and biros on the surface created a shimmering, pitted, undulating surface.
Their throw-away quality and already-marked surface made them unintimidating; I couldn’t ‘ruin’ a drawing on an old envelope, unlike on an unblemished sheet of drawing paper. The process was portable and private, made in stolen moments in between work. I was able to draw on them incrementally, a few minutes here and there, then close them up. When I first started making them, the drawings were in some way a small act of defiance and self-assertion, doing something that was not the job I was supposed to be doing.
The envelope drawings explore the notion of ongoing process, which is circumscribed by the edges of the drawing, almost arbitrarily, but could otherwise go on forever. There was a rhythm to the process, the repeated action, moment by moment, extrapolated over time. Working within the grid dictates the range of marks that is possible. It induces a state of flow, and communicates a rhythmic sense of movement from one edge to the other, across the surface in incremental units, as the grid is filled in.
The method created forms and marks that are inherently ‘abstract’ in nature, rather than abstracted from visual information. To me, the filled units contain energy. The envelope drawings also imply, and on their surfaces may be inscribed evidence of – a larger gesture: the envelopes’ path through time and space after being sent.
Life drawing often involved standing back, altering the composition or placement of lines, rubbing out and correcting, looking closer, judging what I had done. However, my more process-led pieces involve subsuming myself in the making more, not standing back to judge or alter, but ploughing on, almost against my better judgement.
A development in the envelope drawings has been to move from drawing on single envelopes to multiple envelopes placed in a grid formation. I have been focusing on hexagonal grids and adopting a more systematic approach, often planning to varying degrees how I will navigate the surface through mark making.
I use gel pens to generate unexpected colour interrelationships and perceptions. The gel pen colours are affected by the colour of the grid lines and the paper, which is cheap and bleached, giving it a cold whiteness. Colour gradients are sometimes created, which also reveal the directional movement and time in the mark-making. There are connections between the one and the whole: formerly discrete units begin to meld into one another. One speaks to the next, as marks and colour move from one into the next envelope.
RB: In terms of the viewer, what are you trying to communicate?
RC: I hope that the drawings manifest the time, attention and energy in their making. I would like the drawings to encourage a particular experience of time and a way of looking, attending-to, opening up a space for contemplation, memory, allowing ‘time travel’ within the viewer’s mind. In the larger scale drawings, I hope that the surface is ever-more enveloping in the experience of looking, that people may ‘lose themselves’ in the colour and mark-making, experience pleasure in the materials. This mindful, active looking speaks to a wider aspect of contemporary life: the private experience of being that is continually infringed, directed, pulled, refracted through various screens, messages and devices.
I would like to make people think about the materiality of communication, in an increasingly digital and paperless culture. The format of messages shapes what we are able to say and how we say it. Today, messages are increasingly dematerialised and immediate: digital, short-form, limited in characters and font. Our mobile phones make us continuously available to others, to receive and respond to messages, which are no longer rooted in a particular time and place, as letters are.
By referring to a message on paper that was once enclosed and is now gone, I hope the drawings will make us think about what will endure and what is transient. The act of remembering is changing. Our devices now ‘remind’ us through images what happened 2, 5, 10 years ago. Our devices and social media accounts are digital ‘keepsake’ boxes, filled with ‘memories’ that may be fed to us and potentially accessed by others.
The envelopes and their patterns shield messages from their unintended recipients. Privacy is an especially important concept today, when the boundaries of our private and public lives are uncertain and being redrawn. Privacy is so often compromised or permeated; details of our movements, intimate moments, movements and thoughts are often in the public domain, or collected as data. There is no container, no shield, no pause to think.
I hope that the drawings create a sense of ambiguity: the separate envelopes swimming in and out of focus within the whole drawing, the underlying grid and the new pattern becoming inextricable. I was thinking about Agnes Martin’s grids, often applying colour in bands. I hope to create a sense of depth and the sense, as I believe she did, that in the experiencing of the work, the viewer is able to access or feel something beyond the materiality of the surface, beyond the visible.
RB: A number of your works involve drawing from life. Why is life drawing important to you?
RC: Drawing from life was a discipline that enabled me to get back into art-making in a serious and rigorous way, and set the context that allowed my current drawing methods to develop. It gave me some broad conventions and methods to test ideas and ask questions in relation to, and introduced me to setting up parameters within which to work.
Life drawing often translates visual perception of a three-dimensional object into marks on a two-dimensional surface. It interested me that the marks may appear somehow natural and ‘like’ what is seen, yet are signs, radically different from the object they depict. A charcoal line on paper may convey the edge, weight, or movement of a body through space. I began to see this translation as a metaphor for art-making; of inhering ideas in material.
Drawing from life and more process-/object-led drawing methods engender, for me, different subjective experiences. Both involve getting deeply involved in a particular approach to subject matter. Transitioning between the two different languages of mark making keeps both experiences vivid and reminds me of the discoveries I have made. When I have been doing one mode for a while I almost have to relearn the other. I think they feed into and contrast against one another.
The crucial difference is that one involves observing or responding to sensory perception of an object and translating that into marks on the page, the other allows me to absorb myself in the surface of an object, or using an object directly on the paper to make marks. I do not have to refer to the external object that I am drawing. The gap between drawing and object drawn, object and perceiving subject is collapsed, whereas in life drawing in particular they feel very physically separate.
RB: There is the idea of dragan, the old English term for drawing – the idea of something that is dragged across a surface, leaving its trace imprinted. There is also the idea of disegno, being about how we project what something could be. One is about the trace of an experience and the other is about the projection of a potential experience, and sometimes it is in between those two things. How do these ideas resonate with your own drawing practice?
RC: In life drawing, we have seen plenty of representations of the human form, so it can be difficult not to project our preconceptions onto the drawing. Drawing can be a tool for forgetting what you think you know about something, forcing you to see it anew, not in the short-hand way that we may see it in the everyday. It highlights perhaps how phenomena need some sort of language (visual or otherwise) before we can understand them, to make sense of the chaos of infinite sensory impressions; in drawing we are creating this language. Mick Maslen had a quote that I think sums up this paradox: ‘Before you are able to draw first you have to learn to see, and you learn to see by drawing’.
With life drawing, I feel like I already possess a certain knowledge (however partial or flawed) that through the drawing process I am trying to forget. With my more process-orientated works, it’s like I have an idea of what I am going to do, however, from the moment of beginning on, I feel I am creating knowledge of a sort, through the process.
I made a body of studies using objects as mark making tools that literally leave a trace on the paper, which definitely connect with the idea of dragan. These works evolved from objects that I had found at a derelict housing estate near where I lived at the time, which was due to be imminently demolished. There were many objects from daily life that had been left behind around the estate that I felt moved by and collected. These included a doily, a part of a lace curtain and a piece of insulation material. These objects suggested a time gone by, things that had once been loved. They also seemed to have a protective function within people’s lives, the doily to protect a surface, the curtain to provide privacy and the insulation material to provide protection from the elements. This is a familiar quality, I have come to realise, in the objects I am drawn to. I began to draw the objects in various ways, through observation and from touch. Increasingly I began to use the objects themselves to make marks: imprinting the doily, which had become stiff after being outside for so long, into kitchen foil, and using spray paint through the doily to draw onto paper. I covered the insulation material surface with the lace curtain and used a scalpel to incise and carve into the insulation material, through the pattern of the lace curtain. It felt important to me that the object should come into contact with the drawn surface to leave a trace, that I spent time with the objects. It felt more intimate and appropriate than drawing them from a distance.
I think drawings often sit between these two concepts; one decides on parameters to work within and allows the drawing to unfold. There is a tension between being lost in the process, losing sense of boundaries of time and self, and then being more analytical in decision making. In some of my envelope drawings I make the decision that I will stop when the surface is filled. Not needing to use my judgement about when to stop allows me to more fully enter a state of flow in the making.
A series of drawings I am currently working on involve finding a personal system of notation for analysing and reflecting on the way I make my envelope drawings: the direction of movement of my body or the drawing tool, colour and time. Some of these I regard as instructional sketches or diagrams for future drawings (a form of disegno), a way of quickly noting down an idea, a bit like a formula, before I forget it.
RB: How has your drawing process changed in the past years?
RC: My view of what drawing can be has expanded and is more fluid and open-ended. It is less about picture-making; more about mark-making.
It is quite difficult to reflect on the process of change now. It felt like I was going through a paradigm shift in my understanding. At the time it felt seismic, however, as the years have gone by it has been assimilated into my world-view; I have begun to take what I know now for granted. But it felt like I had opened a new door for my practice. Drawing from visual perception is now only one in a range of ‘modes’ of mark making available to me.
I began to be aware of the physical gap between myself, the object drawn, and the drawing. There were various ways in which I explored this gap, such as drawing ’blind’, by touching rather than looking at an object. Drawing became mark making, and those marks could be made with anything, onto any surface, and the choice of the tool and the surface could provide meaning, rather than – or as well as – the pictorial language I had so far been exploring. It could be seen as working more sculpturally.
Around the time I was working at the Royal College I went through a period of intensive experimentation with materials and methods of making drawings. This included a series that involved making huge drawings on paper on the floor, crushing up charcoal and moving it around with my hands and whole body, then using photography to explore the ‘topography’ of the drawn surface. I also worked in sketchbooks, almost obsessively, recording ideas and experimenting. My work has changed according to the context in which it is made. At one point I shared a studio and was able to make larger work – something I would love to do in the future – however, now I work at home and the scale and media of my work reflects that.
RB: What projects are you currently working on?
RC: I have a series of research interests that I plan to continue exploring to feed into my practice.
One is the notion of the materiality and lines/shapes of communication: the path of a letter across the world, of the eyes reading a scroll, the swipe of a finger across a screen, the scrolling, spooling social media feed, the cloud or web of digital communications, branching out, repeating, recycling, and spiralling in many directions.
Drawing as a means of attending-to is important to me. At the 2019 Aesthetica Future Now Conference, Cherie Federico spoke of the rapid unprecedented emotional evolution of the human being in the past 20 years, in relation to rapid technological changes and how we consume information. ‘We need to remind ourselves of our humanity’ and not lose ourselves to the device. Our attention has value, both to ourselves and to the capitalist economy; we must protect it from commodification, claim back the moments of attention that make up our lives.
I intend to continue researching patterns and their function, meaning and placement in different cultures and religions. Pattern is often used as a protective device that may be used on a variety of surfaces and objects – clothing, rugs, illuminated manuscripts and buildings, through painting, beading, embroidery, weaving, tattooing – and as an expression of the intangible or Divine. I’m interested in traditional art forms such as rugs and blankets that move from place to place, are used in daily life and which may have a spiritual function transcending their physical form.
All images copyright and courtesy of Ruth Chambers
Get the Full Experience
Read the rest of this article, and view all articles in full from just £10 for 3 months.