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Meet the Artist - Lucy Irvine

In this blog, T Projects Director Victoria Jones interviews artist Lucy Irvine, who T Projects commissioned to create a public artwork for the Victoriana luxury apartments, Queens Road, Melbourne. We will talk through the high and lows, pros and cons of public art commissioning, working through COVID challenges and so much more…

Victoria: Hi Lucy, can you start by describing the project and how you came to be selected for this commission?

Lucy: I was approached by T Projects as one of a number of artists shortlisted for the project. It was a particularly interesting to have the artists involved before the construction of the building. We were working from plans and imagining what the space would be like as a starting point for that initial design concept. From those early design concepts and interview with the client, I was selected for the commission.

Victoria: So, can you talk us through what happens when you are approached by a public art curator/art consultant in this sort of situation, what's required? Lucy: After the client was shown a long list of artists, I was shortlisted to respond to the project brief written by T Projects. The brief communicated the needs and ambitions of the developer, JD Group and the architects, Rothelowman. The site for the artwork was a long section of wall at the entrance of the new apartments, outside but undercover. It is common for the brief to ask for a placemaking rationale in the work – a way of connecting, contributing, or enhancing the building’s sense of place. In this instance, and more unusually, the client had specific topographic imagery that related to Albert Park and that had also influenced the building’s design which they wanted to see echoed in the artwork. I considered whether this was a limitation or not. To develop my concept, I asked myself another set of questions: "What would this project enable for me in terms of exploring new materials? Trying new processes, and what kind of direction with this project enable my own practice to take and develop further?"

I was keen to take my weaving with industrial materials into working in sculptural relief. I decided to see how far I could riff off that topographic imagery with the woven line. I reflected on the different forms of weaving that I've done to date and that part of my ambition, at the moment, is to look at ways of including my weaving within the actual architecture of buildings. This is how I decided on precast concrete. While this relief sculpture is made of series of precast concrete series of panels, it's effectively a proof of concept of how I could hand-weave components, that could then become architectural features, effectively part of the skin of the city in the future. Considering the scale of the site I worked with the fabricator to determine how big each panel could be. This involved understanding both the casting and install process. With all these pieces of information I had a good compositional, textural problem to solve through prototyping in the second stage of the design process, but for that initial design concept I just needed to provide a drawing, indicative images for materials, aesthetic precedence from my past work and an overarching rationale for the project. The interview was a great opportunity to get to know the developer and the architect. I had just installed a major public artwork in Sydney and was very much buoyed by that and excited about future possibilities, which I think came across during the meeting.

Victoria: Can you describe this particular artwork, the scale of it, and how it was made?

Lucy: This is a series of seven highly textured precast concrete panels. Each is 1.2 meters wide and 2.2 meters high. So, each of them is really quite sizable! Also, each of those seven panels is unique. They were originally cast from seven woven panels set with wooden frames. First there was the weaving, from which a silicon mould was made, the concrete was then poured into the silicon mould and removed after completely set.

For the weaving I used a range of different kinds of industrial cordage and rope coiled using cable ties. Whilst the woven lines depict one cohesive image, the edges of each panel have their own material quality – the weaving meets the edge and loops back on itself bulging at the boundary before doubling back. One of the really exciting parts of the process was to begin to explore a range of different colours in the concrete. This provided a subtle shift of warmth and tone through the three colours chosen, it made me think of concrete in a new way. The colours also played a huge part in the overall composition and holding the scale of the work. The detail of the weaving needed another level of definition. These were great lessons for working in relief in the future. I am always concerned finding the right scale for a site. For a public artwork to be something that people will walk past on a daily basis. Having something that has the right impact but also has a level of detail so that even if you're walking past on a daily basis, it might still catch the light differently. In that flickering glance there might still be another detail they hadn't noticed before and so that it becomes an active, accumulative part of the place somehow: the work keeps giving.

Victoria: Was is this the first time that you had worked with a team to assist you in the creation of an artwork? Can you tell us a little bit more about how that played out? Lucy: I’d worked with a team once before but this was the first time that I've had a team of people working directly with materials that I've been much more familiar with for a longer period of time. In comparison to woven sculptural works I have made myself; this relief was much less complex. It was a great way to test setting aesthetic and technical parameters and to think about how these could be applied to more complex forms and processes. In Canberra, I had four or five people working for me. Interestingly, it was a combination of alumni from the Sculpture Workshop at the ANU School of Art and Design, and current students from the Textiles Workshop, where I teach. I found I had to use slightly different language to describe the process depending on what people’s skill set or understanding was.

Because of the pandemic situation at the point at which I absolutely needed to weave the seven panels, I didn't have access to the workshop facilities in ANU School of Art and Design because everything was closed. I had to very quickly find another space to work in. This resulted in a short residency of just over 2 weeks at Belconnen Art Centre. They were able to accommodate me in a new as yet unoccupied cafe space which remained empty due to COVID – and so the Café Residency was born! That support from Belco Arts was amazing. The way I then used the space was extraordinary. Given the circumstances, what I actually did was both continue my full-time teaching load and make the work in the space at the same time. There were points at which I was in the corner teaching online and would then peek over the top of my computer and watch two or three people weaving away on the panels. That proximity to the work whilst multitasking and being able to have something continue to progress without me at points, was a really interesting, and new experience. Not necessarily sustainable for extended periods of time, but given the kind of need to adapt to the COVID conditions, a pretty amazing opportunity to be able to have those roles, demands and deadlines coexist.

Victoria: How easy do you find it to let go of that complete control of what's happening? When you bring other people in, you obviously do have to have a new level of flexibility. Lucy: I think this was a really good project to test that in. Because the final work was going to be cast in concrete, and so one step removed from the physicality of the weaving, it helped me feel freer with this. Also, the relative simplicity of the relief, as opposed to a more complex form, was a great place to start. We were working within much stricter pictorial guidelines than I would normally have. So, there was a series of parameters there that made it much more comfortable just to let people go and see what would happen. Normally, what happens when I'm making by myself is that the final form of the thing very much emerges through the process and there isn't to the same level, a predetermined design or drawing as there was in this project. In that instance, I would find it much harder to relinquish the control of decision-making. As we worked, I observed each workers skills and the style of their weaving. I then started to move people to different parts of the panels so that the work remained cohesive. Now that I've had that experience and I've also got a small team of people that I would love to have working for me again. A future project could involves testing the boundaries of that kind of choreography as a more deliberate method.

Victoria: That's creating an incredibly valuable experience for students or more emerging artists to be part of an artist’s team. How did they find that? Did they find that worthwhile and informative process experience?

Lucy: Yes, it was. I think it was also pretty intense, given that we only had space for a certain period of time. When it came to the crunch time for needing to post these things down to Melbourne, we were working big big days, but it was fun. I I'm used to working into the wee small hours by myself. To have a group of people working with me and to have that sense of momentum was really magic. I think that for students to be part of that was important. You know one of the things that's really quite hard when you're a student is to commit to finishing something: calling an artwork finished and then sending it out into the world. To be part of a big project and to see each of these panels completed. Just to see that kind of push to make and finish something. To experience what is possible. I think that's one of the most valuable things to be part of. To see that there's a system in place, there's a rationale in place, and that at points to just needing to trust that those things are going to take you to the endpoint. I think for students, being exposed to someone else's and overall vision, but also the commitment needed to realise it.

Victoria: There's so much more to a team of people can create, than one person could create on their own. Lucy: Totally. It also becomes part of keeping an art practice sustainable. So that I still have hands that work in 10 years’ time, and eyes that work in 10 years’ time. I have to think about diversifying how I go about making work and having teams of good people that I can also keep learning.

Victoria: So we've spoken about the creation of the work and then from that, there was a further fabrication process that happened to the artwork that was created by yourself and a team of creative assistants in Canberra. That was then shipped up to Melbourne where it was cast into concrete. Are there any lessons you learned from that process? Lucy: I think having a really clear line of communication on what is expected, establishing the right kind of trust, and having a clear contract in place, so people know what they're responsible for. Again, we were working under really intense circumstances because this was an artwork that had to get made during a pandemic. I felt a huge pressure, particularly in the early stages, because throughout those first lockdowns in Melbourne, the construction industry didn't seem to stop. So, the fact that the completed public artwork a required part of the final sign-off of a new building was quite scary at points. Once five of the seven woven panels had arrived in Melbourne and the fabricator had plenty to do in starting to make the silicon moulds, I felt some of that pressure recede.

Working with a fabricator between two cities would have its challenges at the best of times, but for most of this project I couldn't travel to Melbourne. Once the woven panels arrived for casting there were months on end during which work could only happen in dribs and drabs or could only be done by one person at a time due to COVID restrictions and social distancing.

Aside from these additional challenges. I think being able to find people you can work with, who are up for the process of problem-solving with you is so important. I get excited about working through the bits that aren't known yet when the working relationship feels safe and full of possibility. I think it's also really important as an artist to not feel the pressure to have to know all the answers yourself. That's the great part of working with people who have expertise and knowledge that you don't have.

If the trust, commitment and excitement was there, I wouldn't have any problems with working between two cities or even two countries in the future. It was good experience needing to do things via Zoom, emails and phone calls. I would like to develop those skills further to extend the who, where and why of collaboration. The pandemic has allowed us to re-examine how much travel and face-to-face contact we need, again this makes for more sustainable practices. Having said that I need tangible, literal and material touch points: getting samples of cast concrete in the post helped hugely with this project as I often need to get my hands on something to get my head around it! I also missed not being able to be part of the Melbourne team. I would have learnt so much being part of the silicon mould making phase and seeing the huge concrete panels come out of those moulds would have been heart-stopping stuff.

Victoria: Can you tell us from an artist's perspective, who else you need in order to deliver a public artwork? It's not just the art consultant/curator and the artist. There's a number of other people from draftsman to visualizers, to engineers. Can you talk a little bit about the wider team of people that are needed. Lucy: A key stage is getting sign-off from an engineer. Being able to work with a good engineer and trying to get that input at the right time, so that there is not an extensive amount of compromise or redesign is really important. On this project the fabricator worked closely with the engineer but on other projects that has been a more direct relationship.

I have a friend who very kindly did some of the architectural renders for me during the second design stage, when I wanted to give the client a range of different options. As I said before, the fact that I didn't have access to my usual workspace, made me reliant on other parts of the Canberra arts community. To turn that limitation into an opportunity was down to the support of Belco Arts.

I think working closely with a fabricator can be fantastic. I also see increasing scope in working directly with different parts of the industry as well. In the project that I'm currently developing, I'm working with Andromeda Industries out in Moonbi in Tamworth, and I'm learning about the incredible woven steel cables that they produce. So given my interest in industrial materials, I’m aiming to make more connections with industrial producers with the hope it could lead to innovative application and adaption of materials and processes.

From another perspective on the delivery of an artwork there is the immense personal support required to make deadlines, make food – keep life going. Who’s looking after your child, who’s helping you get from A-B or telling you that you have to sleep. You become increasingly aware of the whole ecology of connections that allow you to make the thing. Particularly at that point when you're working towards a deadline. Victoria: It definitely is. I always feel with these projects, it's a whole network of people that make it happen. People often think even for our role, I almost feel like a sort of dating agency that links up clients with artists. From our perspective, it's really important to remain involved and to support both sides, so that the relationship remains mutually respectful and the process is as smooth as possible. Lucy: It became very, very clear that your (curator’s) role of being aware of the needs of all sides, keeping a keen eye on the timeline and understanding the best forms of communication: was invaluable in an unofficial way. It is more effective if the curator can remain an official part of the project after the artist selection. Having the art consultant as the first port of call throughout is hugely helpful when the information is dispersed. When you're working with the developer, the builder, their various assistants: the number of people cc'd into emails can become confusing.

Victoria: We know we always try and encourage clients to go that route but sometimes, obviously, they just feel like they want to work directly with the artist. I feel strongly that we need to be involved all the way through just so that we can smooth the process but also protect artists from a whole range of things that can happen. There really are a number of things that can go wrong. Lucy: I think it makes a huge difference to know that you're not just there advocating for yourself. In meetings there is already a lot of scope for miscommunication, because you're bringing very different expertise to the table. You're working directly with the builder and the client, and the agenda of each person at that meeting is not necessarily the same: the importance of the artwork for everyone in that meeting, is not necessarily the same. So to actually have the consultant/curator there just means you've also got someone in your corner. It also really helps for that reflection on professional practice afterwards. Like, "How did that meeting go? Do you think I could have communicated something differently? Or maybe next time. What we'll do is we'll start with this", otherwise, it can be a bit lonely.

Victoria: We've discussed the need for strong, clear communication and positive relationships. The number of people including the client the curator, etc. Can you just expand on that a little bit? Lucy: At the time of this project and with all the COVID curveballs, there was too much to juggle and some hard lessons learned. The need for good, clear, and regular communication, realistic and continually reassessed planning, not procrastinating, getting on top of problems as quickly as possible are big ones. Making sure that you don't lose tabs of what's going on, even if you're at a distance. Making sure that you feel as up to date with information as you can be so you can make confident decisions about what happens next as possible.

Never feel uncomfortable about needing to ask for further information or further clarification or avoiding difficult questions. Needing to understand that that's all part of a really good working relationship. I have to learn about not worrying about being polite as long as I am respectful, listening and professional. Victoria: What would you say is your biggest lesson learned from this commission?

Lucy: I think it's fair to say - have clear subcontracts in place. So that when people are working under extraordinary circumstances, there is still clear expectations that need to be met.

During stress points in a project, particularly under pandemic conditions, you feel the need to respond quickly rather than wisely. So when the first solution is put in front of you and there is a sense of relief, it is hard not to just jump on it and run with it. Whereas, I actually think that sometimes it's worth going, "Okay. That's great. That's one solution, let’s take the time to weigh that up with some comparison to other ones.” I think it takes experience to know when to work quickly and when it pays to slow things down to make sure things are not out with your ken or control.

Victoria: What's next for you?

Lucy: I’ve already mentioned the aspirations to make closer connections with architects and industry. On a smaller scale and more immediately, now I've got these silicone moulds which I’m hoping for a lot of mileage from! Seriously though, I find the moulds so evocative. I'm not going to remake the work as a whole, but I can now play with different kinds of casting methods. For example, I've already made new work in bronze as the signature work for this year’s Design Canberra festival.

And to enable other aspirations – academic collaborations, placemaking, continuing the joy of teaching – I have a small PhD to finish! Most of all though, learning from the last couple of years, the biggest impetus is to do meaningful work, to get wiser and to make sure the really good things -loved ones/food/sleep- are given the time and attention they deserve.

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