Artist Sam Mitchell has recently returned from her residency as the 2014 William Hodges Fellow in Invercargill. We wanted to hear about her experiences in the South and what effect this type of residency can have on an artist’s practice.
AA: You have recently returned from being the 2014 William Hodges Fellow in Southland. We know residencies come in different shapes and sizes….what did this one look like?
SM: This residency is one of Southland’s greatest kept secrets, and it seems to me the applicants find out through a form of Chinese whispers. I heard of this residency from an artist who also found out about it through another artist friend who had done it. I had never heard of the William Hodges Fellowship, or to be honest, thought about Invercargill.
AA: What attracted you to apply for this opportunity?
SM: I have lived all my life in the north of this country, venturing only as far as Dunedin and only for a short holiday. So the idea of relocating for six months to the very end of New Zealand was an exciting adventure for me, a chance to experience a different aspect of our country. ‘The arsehole of the world’ as Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones called Invercargill.
Residencies, this being my fourth, really make you aware of your strengths and weaknesses associated with your artistic practice. The residencies can be isolating, this in itself can provide the motivation to seek out different ways of working.
AA: Did the new environment change anything in your working style or approach?
SM: Yes, I arrived in Invercargill with the notion of making portraits of locals or historical persons, and ended up doing nothing but ceramics. Which is a process that is slow and relies a lot on technical assistance.
This process was at times frustrating, as you are never really sure the object will fire as you hope, or if the unglaze will be as you hoped. The preparation reminds me of the printmaking process, so many steps needed before the finished product. It was beyond my control which, as an artist who generally has total control, was a learning curve.
Image: Ms. Southland, 2014. Photographed by Rodney Adamson, courtesy Sam Mitchell/ Melanie Roger Gallery.
AA: What was the most valuable aspect of the experience for you?
SM: The people; I was amazed at how the public responded not only to my work, they also made my time in Invercargill full of experiences that I will always remember. I was shown Southland by the locals and this actually made it possible for me to create the ceramics and tell the stories that I discovered while in the residency. I joined the Invercargill Pottery Inc. and also one of the oldest clubs in New Zealand, The Invercargill Club, which didn’t allow women through its doors until 1997. It was established in 1891 and came complete with stag heads, billiard tables, leather chairs, and black and white portraits of all male presidents of the club peering down at you over the bar.
I tasted Bluff Oysters at the Bluff Oyster Festival and got a taste for whisky, as it tastes so much better in a colder climate. I was fully submerged into the culture of this residency and that made the work I created speak to the general public more, as it was their stories.
AA: We know tattoos have played a role in your work. On your travels have you noticed any regional or national consistencies/differences in our approach to tattoos?
SM: I actually left the tattoo element of my work out. My work also relies on stories/fairy tales; these sometimes makeup the elements of the tattoo image I use. This time round I used the stories that I discovered in Invercargill to create narratives that powered the works. Making decorative ceramics based on stories like The Black Swan which is on top of a building in Invercargill in Dee Street. I discovered it was a brothel in the early 1800, the swan was placed on top of the building so that gentleman coming into Invercargill would know where they could go for some….
Invercargill like many small rural townships of New Zealand, has an underbelly, I liken it to the Henry James novel “Turn of the Screw“. Southern Gothic. You question what is real and what is made up.
AA: Lastly, when and where can we see some of your new work?
From September 23 until October 18 Melanie Roger Gallery will have on show all my works from the artist residency in Invercargill.
Images: (above left) Black Swan. (above right) Rural. (Top of page) Rural Women. Photographed by Rodney Adamson, courtesy Sam Mitchell/ Melanie Roger Gallery.