Interview with Peter Nash by Sarah Long

Peter Nash is a multi-disciplinary artist currently based in Cork city. He is a studio member of The Backwater Artist Group and Cork Printmakers. Nash’s work is widely exhibited throughout Ireland and the UK and is held in private and public collections in Ireland, the UK and US.

Visit: peternash.org and Instagram @peter__nash

Your work embraces pre-internet sources of knowledge and highlights the fallibility and folly of humans. Does this come from a place of anxiety or from a place of resistance towards the digital world?

Probably a bit of both and also from a place of experience! We’re constantly being sold this new digital technology to improve our lives and iron out the imperfections of humanity. Some of this technology is incredibly useful and enabling, some is at best a shiny distraction and some is actively sinister. Sometimes it can be all of these at once and I find that a fascinating area for research.

I’ve lived through this huge period of technological change. Home computers were only just appearing when I was a child, there were no mobile phones or email. And it is all moving so quickly, it can be really difficult to keep up with the rapid pace of change and to adapt to new ways of communicating and interacting with the world.

Through my work, I’m interested in exploring the dissonance that comes from living through that shift towards the digital era, attempting to understand what we might be losing as well as gaining and also contemplating my own obsolescence as I struggle to keep up.

Can you talk us through your process? I am interested in how you develop your ideas in the studio and how they begin to take shape. Your work can take a variety of different forms, from sculpture, to drawing, to sound and film and I was wondering at what stage in your process you begin to make these decisions?

It depends on the project, but almost everything begins with a drawing as it’s a such a quick way to catch an idea before it’s gone. Sometimes though, I’ll begin by making something three-dimensional and then develop/refine this through drawing.  

The final form an idea takes is then dictated by the process really, whatever is going to work best to get the idea out of my head and into the world. 

As a maker, I find the images that you share of your sketchbooks to be really fascinating and inspiring. Can you tell us more about the role of drawing and sketchbooking in your practice? 

Sketchbooks and drawing have always been really important to my practice. I tend to think through drawing. There is so much information you can get into a diagram, or a map. When I first went to art college it was drilled into us to keep sketchbooks and I have done ever since. I feel very fortunate now to have this personal reference library of images dating back years.

The role of these has changed over time. I began using sketchbooks a lot more like a visual diary; a place to practice drawing, to record experiences, notes and ideas and sometimes a place to escape into, where I could spend hours working on these pages. 

Recently, I tend to spend less time drawing in sketchbooks, and more on loose sheets of paper. I like having the option to put all these loose sheets on the wall of my studio to stand back from to literally see the bigger picture and to start composing new work from this collection of images. 

Galvanic Interruption (2017-2018) Materials: pine, found timber, thread, lace pins, electric motor, timer switch. Dimensions variable. Photo credit: Jed Niezgoda

What I always find immediately charming about your work is that it is very clearly man-made.In Galvanic Interruption, an installation piece that formed part of the exhibition The Paradise of the Heart in Elizabeth Fort in 2018 with Thomas Penc, a chorus of heads carved from wood would chatter their jaws and ‘speak’. Their chins were attached to a motor with a long black string, meaning you could very clearly see the mechanisms at work. Penc is also concerned with the dawning of the digital age in his work but takes a wholly different approach. For example, his exhibition ENDUSER at the Triskel Arts Centre in 2018 involved imagery of strawberries that were entirely computer generated. I think what’s interesting in your work is that you also have this meticulous attention to detail but it is married with a very labour intensive method of design. The output is clearly creations of the mind, a very focused mind, but a human mind. How important is it to you that the viewer understand the process of creating in your work?

Thank you! The process is important to me, and I think it is important that the viewer can see that this piece is (hu)man made. The way I look at it is this; that if something looks like it has been made by a person, then you know that it can be made by a person and I think there is something empowering or at least reassuring in that.

With the work for the Paradise of The Heart show, I really wanted to explore this kind of stubbornness, of a resistance to doing something a particular way just because it might be quicker. For example, a number of people said to me that when they first encountered the piece [Galvanic Interruption], they assumed all of those heads were mass produced plastic. They looked closer and realised they were wooden and then there is this realisation that somebody has made these, so they must have meant something to somebody, for them to spend hours carving away at these bits of timber. 

The labour intensive nature of how you create makes me think of the temporality of your work. With your interest in past knowledge and your scepticism (Do you agree with use of sceptic here?!) towards the digital age, is this way of making a way of speaking about the here and now and the state of limbo we sometimes find ourselves in?

I think sceptic is fair. Cautious even. I am wary of the claims that digital technology will liberate us from mental labour and complex tasks, freeing up our time. But freeing it up to do what? To update our social media, to stream repeats of a TV show we’ve watched already? To clear some space on the hard drive?

When I started out, I didn’t think too much about why I make the way I do. There were certain processes that I used, and they all seemed to take ages! The wood carving for example, is something that I started years ago, initially making chess sets from Christmas trees that had been dumped by the side of the road in January.

I’ve come to realise though, that time is a very valuable part of my process as an artist. Ideas develop organically as I am working and begin to shift and go to different, unexpected places, so I can’t be in a hurry, or I’ll lose that. One of the things I am really trying to get at with my work is to examine the sometimes obsessive nature of study and the solace and escape that can be found in meticulous work. 

When people talk about your work, in particular your I Remember Nothing, I Remember This show at the Garter Lane Arts Center in 2019, the ideas of Samuel Beckett and Waiting for Godot, are mentioned. Does Beckett inform the work and is there other visual research or writings that you find are important to your practice?

A few people mentioned the Beckett connection after that show. I have read Waiting for Godot, and I’m not proud of it, but I’m not very familiar with anything else by Beckett. I take the connection as a huge compliment though, if my work is tapping into some wider cultural reference, then I consider that a success. 

In terms of visual research, I love encyclopedias and reference books. I find so much inspiration in the layouts and the way text and images work together. I have spent endless hours in the reference sections of public libraries looking through books and periodicals, finding images to draw and bits of disconnected information. 

Museums are also important, they can be almost like a three dimensional reference book. I’m especially drawn to the amateur nature of some of these collections; exhibitions that have sprung up from an individual or group’s love of a subject and their willingness to share this with the world. 

Recent books I’ve been reading include The Shallows, and The Glass Cage by Nicholas Carr and How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell. I only just read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck this year, and that was frighteningly relevant. I get a lot of information from radio documentaries and podcasts too; The Digital Human from the BBC is a favourite. I also read a lot of comics; the likes of Joe Sacco, Chris Ware, Jim Woodring, Lynda Barry, and the Drawn and Quarterly books. I read Soft City by Pushwagner a couple of years ago and that has left a lasting impression.

Clare Scott’s review for Circa of that particular show remarks on the black humor, again making connections to Beckett, to be found in your work. There is also a black humor in your film installation in The Paradise of Heart exhibition, when the protagonist’s humanity, his vomit, meets the cool architectural designs he studies. Can you speak about the use of humor in your work?

Humour is a tough one to judge, so I’m glad that people get it. I just try to be honest about my own observations and experience of life, and if there is humour in my work, I think that’s where it comes from

You teach drawing masterclasses at the Glucksman. Is something that you compartmentalise from your practice or do you find it can have a symbiotic relationship?  

There is definitely a symbiotic relationship there. With that class specifically, I have been exploring using sketchbooks, drawing as thinking, processing experiences and communicating. I’ve been sharing with the students how I use drawing in my own practice, which has led me to analyse my own working methods, and also to share some of the techniques from which I benefit so much. I find teaching very rewarding because I get to meet all sorts of people and it is always fascinating to see the many different ways students approach the same task.

I think it’s always interesting the varied paths that artists take in their professional careers. You completed your BA  in Fine Art at Shelfield Hallam University in 2003 and after some time undertook your MA in Art & Process at CIT Crawford College of Art & Design in 2016. How would you describe your experience of art education and can you talk us through the path you took to establish yourself as a professional artist today?

I first went to art college at 16 and studied for two years at Cumbria College of Art and Design in Carlisle. It was very liberating to be free from the rigid structures and social hierarchies of school at that age, and to be in a space with other students and tutors who loved making art.  

After that I did a course in Modelmaking for one year and then went onto study a BA in Fine Art in Sheffield. I struggled on my BA sometimes with the language and theoretical side of things. I’m sure there are times when I wouldn’t be helped either. My own youthful inexperience has a lot to answer for!

After I graduated in 2003, I didn’t have a clue where to start at being a professional artist. I worked in a series of different jobs in factories, warehouses, shops, among many others. The whole time though I was making, studying, keeping sketchbooks, sending off applications, and finally was accepted onto the MA in 2015. 

That MA was the turning point for me. I was fortunate to be in a class with some brilliant artists and very supportive tutors. We were in the Former Government Buildings on Sullivan’s Quay, so were surrounded by practicing artists from Sample Studios and the other groups of artists working in the building. I made some good friends and strong professional relationships during this time, I would have found it much more difficult to establish myself without those connections. 

What do you think are the positive and negative aspects of the Cork Art Scene? 

The best thing is the people! There are so many genuinely brilliant people working in Cork. In terms of artists, technicians, curators, directors, administrators, the people working in different arts institutions and organisations, enabling art to happen. There is so much here and also in Cork county. I’ve always found the Cork Art scene to be very supportive and accessible. Anytime I’m at an opening, or an artist talk, I’ve always felt welcome, and never like I don’t belong in a particular situation. 

If I had to pick out negatives I would have to say the lack of space. We have some amazing studios and galleries here, but it would be great to have space available for more experimental work, especially for students and less established artists to test ideas and to get people together. I think anything that can encourage more collaboration between organisations can only be a good thing too. It’s a much wider societal issue, but Cork is becoming an increasingly expensive place in terms of housing, and I don’t know many people working in the arts who are making piles of money. If we want to keep talent in the city, people have to be able to afford to live and work in it.

How are you finding maintaining your practice given the current Public Health situation?  Are you still making or, given how challenging life has become, are you able to even think about work? 

It has been completely up and down. I’m fortunate enough to be working right now. I’m working on a commission for the Science Foundation Ireland, but it has been difficult. I live in a tiny one-bed flat with my partner Fiona, who is also an artist and college tutor, so she is teaching online too. We both have studios in Cork city, which are closed, due to the restrictions, so we are living just surrounded by materials and work at present. The more progress we make with our work, the more uncomfortable we make our living situation! 

Public health has to be the priority though. I know I am lucky to be working, and everybody has their own struggles through all of this, but the honest answer is that it’s difficult. 

Your work has a socially engaging element. As part of the exhibition See You Tomorrow in 2019 at the Sirius Arts Center in Cobh, you created a little booklet in collaboration with youth groups in the community. How did this part of your practice emerge?

That part of my practice has come about through working with different people and organisations, all of whom have incredible energy to make what they do happen. The first project I got involved with was in 2016, through CCAD’s Creativity & Change programme. Since then I’ve been fortunate enough to work on some fantastic projects, many of which have been facilitated through the Glucksman gallery’s education and community projects.

See You Tomorrow was organised by artists Elizabeth Woods & Kevin Leong, who I met whilst they were artists in residence at the Sirius Arts Centre. They put me in contact with a few different youth groups in Cobh including the YMCA and Cobh Youth Services and over the course of a few months we developed the project together.

There is a recurring motif of hand-holding in your work, what does this gesture symbolise to you?

I never really considered hand-holding to be a recurring motif, but it does appear a few times. I definitely have a fascination with hands which can be found in a number of works. 

I think that hand-holding can be interpreted in different ways, like one of those optical illusions where you see two images in the same picture, but never at the same time. It can be a gesture of trust, love even, or it can be a way of taking somebody somewhere they don’t want to go. How the viewer sees that is up to their own interpretation.

The Future is Not Necessarily Set in Stone 2019. Still from stop-motion animation. Courtesy of the artist.

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