Student stories: In conversation with Susan Askew - The Open College of the Arts
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Student stories: In conversation with Susan Askew

Susan Askew is working towards a BA in Drawing and currently on the Level Two Investigating Drawing unit. I was struck by her response to the ‘narrative’ exercise in Part Two of this unit and want her to share some of her thinking about this with other students. 

You start out with quite clear ideas about what the work you make is concerned with, but you manage to avoid straight forward illustration of those ideas. Can you talk a little bit about your process?

Yes I was clear from the start that I wanted to use the narrative project in the second part of Drawing Two as an opportunity to explore how girls on a night out in the North dress (I’m from the North of England myself). We were asked to choose an item of clothing or object to say something about the character of a person and to consider how choice of medium might impact on the viewer’s perception of character. I have strong feelings about how women present themselves and think that while on the one hand, ‘under-dressing’ might be considered a bit of fun, it also colludes with the objectification and self-objectification of women. I didn’t set out to illustrate anything particularly, but to take this project as an opportunity to explore ideas. I began by looking for images of girls on a night out on the internet. There are of course many such images and I was immediately struck by images of girls out with hardly a stitch on, in Newcastle, in the middle of a snow-storm. My first idea was to explore placing the girls in an even more extreme context to juxtapose their state of ‘undress’ with extreme weather elements. I did some research into snowy woods. At the same time I played with mediums that I felt were useful. In my research images, a lot of gold and glitter is worn, and I experimented with drawing the clothing using enamel, gold leaf, glitter and sequins, and I also ‘painted’ with nail varnish. At this point I decided that the snowy woods I’d had in mind to draw were not sufficiently dark, and began a series of ‘background’ investigations, using some of the techniques such as scratching and scraping from earlier in part two of the module. This led me to the idea of the ‘dark wood’ and the first line of Dante’s Inferno, Canto 1: ‘In the middle of the journey of our lives, I found myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost.’ The inferno then arose as a rich source of inspiration and directed the course the project took – away from the dark wood and toward images of the inferno itself. I feel that I have only just begun this work, but hope that, as a starting point, the juxtaposition of the molten metal with the girls in the foreground raises some intriguing questions. To summarise the process – it didn’t start with a wish to illustrate Dante, but I found that Dante’s words could collide with and inform my interest in the girls.

You’ve mentioned Dante’s Inferno as one of the elements of this work. Do you find that literary sources are particularly useful or fruitful?

Yes, very much so. I did a project on Exploring Drawing Media that was inspired by E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops that I found very exciting. I wasn’t able to finish it on EDM but will come back to it in Drawing Two for the ‘making a book’ project in part four. I’ve also decided that my parallel project will be The Machine Stops: The Prequel. My idea is to start writing the prequel based on what happened BEFORE the machine stops. (in the story, written in 1910, everyone lives underground in a cell in isolation and communicates virtually). What will happen in the prequel is a viral pandemic thirty years earlier…! I’m interested in cross-disciplinary work – literary sources are a great source of inspiration, but it could equally be film – I’ve recently been drawing scenes from films for part five of Drawing Two where we have to draw a changing scene; or it could be music – the instructions for assignment three of Drawing Two are to draw to music. I plan to compose a very short piece of music and try to find a way to visually score it (other than our western scoring system) in a way that others could possibly ‘read’ and perform. It’s seeming pretty impossible currently because scores are so complex, but the idea is inspiring and I have a title (A Safe Distance)! I’m also very inspired by other artists who use literary sources, as well as whose work is interdisciplinary, for example William Blake, Tom Phillips and Jim Shaw.

Tell me a little about the way the different media interact and how that – perhaps – changed the direction of the work.

I like to think about juxtapositions in drawings – it could be rough versus smooth, or shiny versus matt or hard versus soft, for example. In the narrative project I decided fairly early on to use ‘hard’ materials as I said above, like enamel, nail varnish and gold leaf for the clothing. I thought about contrasting these with ‘soft’ materials in the background. Of course enamel and nail varnish and gold leaf also have a high shine, and soft materials are more absorbent and reflect less light. I think this is an interesting contrast. In the sketches for the wood, as well as in the background of the ‘Inferno’ piece, I used charcoal and soft pastels. I think that the support is also important – most of my working drawings are on paper, but I am interested in using copper and I did one experiment on copper, using enamel with a layer of gouache, scratched back, as the ‘background’. This is definitely something to experiment more with in future. There are a couple of media experiments that changed the direction of the work. One really interesting thing that comes to mind is the background for the final larger ‘Inferno’ drawings. I started with PLIKE paper (plastic-like environmentally sustainable paper with a strong white non-absorbent surface) and brushed a layer of blue ink on the upper half and a layer of brown ink on the lower. I then sprayed it with bleach, and it resulted in an amazing ‘cauldron’ of bursting bubbles. I photographed this and blew it up before printing it and doing a photo-transfer onto A2 washi paper as a base for the final image. Generally I very much like using mixed media and finding unusual ways to combine them, in the spirit of ‘what would happen if…’

One thing I like about this whole project is that you’ve gone way beyond the requirements of the course document to get to something with real clout. Can you talk a little about how it felt to keep going? Did avenues keep opening up?

It felt easy to keep going because I was very caught up in the project from the beginning. The way I’m approaching OCA courses is to read through the whole course guide at the start and think about what I might do for every project well in advance. So I knew before I got to the narrative project that I was going to explore the idea of girls on a night out. I decided in advance that I was going to invest more time in this project because it seemed to have a lot of possibilities from the start. Other exercises don’t catch my imagination and I will spend less time on them to give me time for those that do. Certainly the image I got to at the end is like nothing I had in mind from the start, and nor did I start with Dante – the link to Dante occurred quite a bit after the start. I’m getting more confident that if I persevere I will end up somewhere interesting – each new drawing leads to the next one and the idea for it comes while working on the previous one – I just need starting points. I certainly feel with the narrative drawings, as I felt with the Forster project, that I have only just made a start. This is a little frustrating because I have to leave the project and get onto the next part of the course. On the other hand, I feel I’m building a rich bank of preliminary studies and ideas that I’m extremely excited by, that I can return to develop on level six and in my practice after the degree.

You can see the whole exercise on Susan’s blog, here:

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Posted by author: Bryan
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6 thoughts on “Student stories: In conversation with Susan Askew

  • Hi. Sue
    I really like your approach to this exercise and how it has allowed you to really push it on to a different direction. I found it quite a difficult exercise but also very interesting and refreshing as it does explore so many different things including memories, narrative and emotions

    • Hello Steph. Thank you. I’m using very thin copper sheets in A4 and A3 size. . They bend and scratch easily but I’m not too bothered by that. I glue them to card. You could glue to wood. It’s wonderful stuff to work on especially with enamels but soft pastels can work too I find if you dive a layer of clear gesso. Got copper on internet. Can send you link if email me.

  • Brilliant work as always Sue! I love following your progress through the various modules. You have such a strong personal voice.

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