Maggie Smith is a Surface Alumni whose current work Botanical Alchemy is a development of her "fine art background, a love of home and place, and passion for the natural world". We discussed environmental art, the science of being a hippy and the impact sustainability has had on Maggie's life.
You said your current work is inspired by your Fine Arts background, can you tell me more about this?
I did two degrees, my first degree was in Social Sciences but I always carried on doing life drawings and making things and I always wanted to do something more creative so I went back to university as a mature student after I’d worked for a while. I went to Loughborough to do Fine Art, I concentrated on printmaking, when I graduated I actually was making films because at Loughborough it was really experimental. As long as in the first year you followed the prescribed route, after that you were set free. So I did a lot of film making, a lot of photography and I still do that. I ended up teaching and I just really loved teaching textiles… I’d made my own clothes when I was younger and made stuff. My mum taught me on an old fashioned sewing machine she’d given me. There was a chance of getting a redundancy package and completely on a whim, overnight, I thought instead of daydreaming about going back to a creative life, I’d just do it.
Did you find that scary or did you not have time to find that scary?
It should have been scary but it was just really exciting. It was almost like going back 20 years when I’ve got all these opportunities. I’ve gone off down South and visited various hippy groups and people who are involved in eco printing, natural dyeing. I met a really nice woman called babs who is part of Botanical Ink, they work at festivals and where they live is this lovely old, kind of tumble down farm, outside of bath. And there I got really good grounding in foraging, how to use plants to dye silk and that was the first time I thought, actually, I’m going to take this further. I’m not just going to explore using the natural world in my prints, I’m going to seriously consider going whole hog. So, I did buy quite a lot of silk from organic silk makers down South and then I just got addicted more and more to finding ways in which to not use anything that was part of the commercial world so I use silk that’s organic. And it’s so beautiful to work with. I decided I would not go and buy anything that’s not sustainable or I use second hand or pre-used, recycled things and it’s working really well.
Have you grown up with a love of nature?
When I first came to Nottingham, my first student bedsit I had window boxes so I’ve always grown things. I’ve never ever lived anywhere where I haven’t grown things. But now I do it in a much more organic way, I suppose, I try to look at what grows naturally and I’m not bothered about forcing nature to go against itself, I go with it more. So yeah, it has completely changed the way I see the world and it’s made me realise I can live with less. The more I live with less, the further I go. It goes hand in hand really, it’s the whole practice of life.
Do you hope your work will inspire people to look into a more sustainable lifestyle?
I was more concerned with how you could remove that ‘hippy’ image of it being a bit messy, and a bit tatty and I thought, well, the fabrics are so beautiful when you’ve made them that these fabrics almost need this space to kind of, show off a little bit. So that’s why my prints are really minimal and my stitches are really minimal because I want the fabrics to be the really important part of the work. Up to now I’ve been less bothered about directly influencing people. I’ve sort of got this idea that if you very quietly do it, if people look at the work and they like it and then they discover that actually, it’s recycled, it’s dyed with stuff from the garden, or onion skins from the kitchen... That actually you can have something that is aesthetically really beautiful, and can be quite contemporary looking but behind it all, is a really hippy concept. I like the idea of surprising people. I think that’s really important is that it works visually.
What drew you to Social Sciences?
I wanted university life more than I ever thought about why I was really going quite honestly. It was not at all a mature decision, (laughs) I was 18 and wanted to leave home.
I don’t regret the way round I did it though because where I’ve studied social sciences, I’ve got a really good context for fine arts. I’m quite interested in what’s happening behind the work that you see. So for example, I’m quite interested in how younger people, people who are now going to university are much more global, I suppose, in how they see the world. That’s why it was lovely go to visit these communal places in the South and I found these people in their twenties and thirties leading really alternative lives really quietly and just getting on with it and thinking up new ways they could earn a living without damaging anything, without damaging the planet and it’s just really lovely.
I imagine, especially with a sustainable approach, it must be quite time consuming?
It really, really is. It’s not at all rushed. Something else I’m quite conscious of with these pieces, because I made these pieces for [Surface Dwellers], all those pillars I make are subtle. They don’t have any synthetic quality to them, so they all work brilliantly together, they can all be placed together but if they’re going to be in a show or a gallery where you have acrylic, harder colours or kind of street art designs, they would really look quite pale. So I chose colours I knew would be quite strong, so even though they’re quite gentle and the palate is quite gentle, I think they’re really strong colours. They’re the colours that can stand up to the sunlight. I wanted the fabrics to really shine and sing and that’s something that I did learn going up and down the country meeting people who were hand dying; how to work with fabrics where you’re not using really harsh methods so I don’t use really harsh temperatures. I watch everything with a thermometer. If you notice with the silk pieces, they have a really metallic shine to them, and that’s the original lustre of the silk, as soon as you get them too hot, you lose that so it is an incredibly slow process.
I think that comes back to what you said, that people have this very hippy image of it but it’s also very scientific
It’s very scientific. To get that consistency of colour, you can’t get exactly the same shade each time, and that’s the exciting bit, but there’s so many bits I can control. You know, the evenness, I can dye fabric very, very evenly. I can keep the qualities of the fabric intact, even down to the screenprinting process, I use organic screen wash. As much as possible, anything used in the process is environmentally friendly. I used water based ink so when they’re flushed away, they’re not going to harm anything.
You’re still in contact with Surface since leaving, what makes you stay involved?
What I really like about Surface, is that you have all these volunteers that sort of squirrel away behind the surface that you don’t really see. You don’t realise the vastness of it until there’s a show on. It’s really lovely. It’s really nice. And also, there’s an energy from having quite a lot of young people around. People who have just graduated or who are still studying whatever they’re doing and I also like the fact it’s not just artists who get involved. It’s all sorts of people with all sorts of backgrounds that come together.
Do you use social media much to promote?
I do! I have an instagram account and when I took [art] on full time, I got rid of all the pictures of my dog (laugh) and focused on just my artwork. I keep my website going, but I’m not really very good at self promoting and that’s something i have to push myself to do. I tend to work quietly.
I’ve also got a blog on my website. I did a creative writing course at WEA, with Dave Woods. I’ve always loved reading and I’ve always admired people who were good with words and on that course… It made me realise that actually, I could write. He was really good at giving you self belief. He used really simple techniques to get people writing which worked really well. It was excellent.
What interested you in creative writing?
When I was really little, I used to make these newspapers, I’d sew them together on this old sewing machine I had. I could only make one at a time. I’d sell them and then take them back and pass them on to someone else. It was all in my family. I have always loved words and language and they really do go, you know, if you think about the context of film, and anything really, language is so important. Spoken language, unspoken language, it just goes hand in hand.
I wouldn’t have even entertained doing a blog on my website if all those years ago I hadn’t taken a creative writing course. I’d got them in separate boxes, I’d probably have thought someone else would have to do the writing for me but actually, the words I use are related to the work I do. They’re not separate. They’re part of the same thing.
Do you still do things like to make your own clothes?
I sort of adapt things. I’m not scared to get something and adapt it. Last weekend, we went to a car boot and got masses of clothes. I’ll always be scavenging. I think now, I’m less bothered about having stuff. I’m quite happy if people give me things or i find it in a car boot or a second hand shop but it doesn’t have any significance for me. I’m less bothered.
Do you think you’ve just become more practical?
Definitely. I’ve also been quite a hermit for a year so it’s quite nice when i go out now i think oh, I can get dressed up. It’s quite nice to wear something sparkly! I’ve got in the habit of being scruffy because I go to a studio, or i’m walking the dog or gardening and I’ve just had a year where i haven’t really gone out that much.
Is there a reason or just how it happened?
It’s just how it happened. It’s such a huge life change, giving up being part of the system. I felt like a really quiet rebel. I don’t earn money in the conventional way, I forage, I constantly think of how to recycle things or how to make things with very little money. I’ve just been doing my own path but now I do feel I’m ready to go to other people’s shows again and go out more and connect with people
Written by Lucinda Martin at Surface Gallery