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Meet the Artist - Lucy Irvine

Artist Lucy Irvine, placing artworks onto a white wall
Artist Lucy Irvine, photo credit Lean Timms

Artist Lucy Irvine, photo credit Lean Timms

In this journal article we are talking to 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 talking me through what happens when you are approached by a public art curator for this type of commission - what's required? Lucy: I was invited to respond to the brief written by T Projects, which reflected the ambitions of the developer, JD Group and architects, Rothelowman, who wanted the work to reflect the local topography of Albert Park. They had some specific imagery of the area that they wanted to me to respond to.

On one hand, creatively and conceptually this could be over prescriptive and limiting but on the other I started thinking about what new materials and processes this could become an opportunity for.

One of my ambitions is to incorporate my sculptural weaving within the actual architecture of buildings. While this artwork consists of precast concrete series of panels, it's effectively a proof of concept of how I could hand-weave components that could then become parts of architecture: part of the skin and form of the city in the future.

Photograph of a wall based low relief public art commission by Artist Lucy Irvine, Victoriana Apartments, Queens Road, Melbourne
Public art commission by Artist Lucy Irvine, Victoriana Apartments, Queens Road, Melbourne. Photo credit Simon Strong

Public art commission by Artist Lucy Irvine, Victoriana Apartments, Queens Road, Melbourne. Photo credit Simon Strong

Victoria: Can you describe this particular artwork, the scale of it, and how it was made? Lucy: The artwork is a series of seven precast concrete panels that were installed at the entry of a new apartment complex on Queens Road in Melbourne. Each of these panels is 1.2 meters wide and 2.2 meters high – so large and heavy. Each of those seven panels is unique, they were cast from 7 original handwoven panel. In this work I extended my use of industrially produced materials and coil hand-weaving. These panels were made by setting the work within wooden frames using a range of different kinds of cordage and rope attached with cable ties. The lengths of rope, the woven line becoming a topographical line in response to the source map of the local area.

One of the really exciting parts of the process was to begin to explore a range of different colours in concrete. There is a subtle shift of three different colours in the work. It was nice for me to work in relief, and really think about the composition across the 7 panels. Continually returning to how the work would satisfyingly sit at the right scale for the site and offer a point of interest for people who would walk past on a daily basis. Victoria: Was 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 have worked with a team of people and a fabricator a couple of times before. In weaving the panels for this project, however, this the first-time using materials that very much familiar to me and so I really had to translate more closely how I think as I am weaving. I worked with a team of four people working with me, mainly current Textiles students from the ANU School of Art & Design. I needed to be able to communicate the material system to follow, the aesthetics we were looking for and when to deviate from the rules to let unexpected, dynamic things happen.

Because of the Covid 19 pandemic I didn't have access to the workshop facilities in ANU School of Art and Design as everything was closed. I had to very quickly find another space to work in. I also had to continue my full-time teaching online and create the artwork at the same time. There were points where I was in the corner teaching online and then peek over the top of my computer to watch two or three people working on the artwork! That level of proximity to the work, the multitasking and being able to have something continue to progress without me at points, was a really interesting, and new experience for me.

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 that level of flexibility. Lucy: I think this was a really good project to test that in, partly because the final work was going to be cast in concrete. So, it's just one step removed from the physicality of the weaving and working in relief rather than an entire three-dimensional form was less complex to achieve. We were working within much stricter pictorial guidelines than I would normally have in the making of my work. 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 my work 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 that kind of decision-making because there's a lot more nuance involved in it. So, this was a really good project to see what would happen by setting a series of rules, having some guidelines and to see what would happen if I did let people go. Perhaps in the future, 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. Maybe the next project involves testing the boundaries of that more as a deliberate part of making the work. Victoria: So, we've spoken about the creation of the work, the fabrication process by yourself and your team of creative assistants in Canberra. The panels were 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 for 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 and specific circumstances because this was an artwork that had to get made during a pandemic. Particularly in the early stages even despite the lockdowns in Melbourne, the construction industry didn't seem to stop, so the thought that the public artwork is part of that final sign-off of a new building was quite scary at points. The thought of me holding up this big project... Working with a fabricator in another city would have its challenges at the best of times, there were points at which I couldn't travel to Melbourne. There were months on end at when work could only happen in dribs and drabs or could only be done by one person at a time due to social distancing requirements. It was important to find people you can work with, who are up for the process of problem-solving. Despite being relief casts, there was still a lot of problem-solving involved!

I value the problem-solving and working through the bits that aren't known yet as you go. 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 part of working with a team of people who are assisting you but also working with the team of people who have expertise and knowledge that you don't have. You need to have a good working relationship for all that stuff to happen. I wouldn't have any problems with working between two cities in the future. To be honest, the experience of needing to do things via Zoom and emails and phone calls has made me keen to develop those skills further, perhaps working between countries in the future.

I'm quite literal and material with my approach, so getting your hands on actual samples is always good. I did get bits of concrete sent to me in the post - it helped to see what the colour was, to touch and hold the texture and weight. So, being able to have that long-distance communication and every so often, get your hands on something to help imagine what things will look like really helps. Victoria: Can you tell us a little bit about how to navigate an artwork being fabricated elsewhere? Lucy: It has its challenges, but it also its benefits. I’ve learnt a lot through the successes and failures in the process. I think the pandemic has taught us that we don't always have to zip around from one place to another all the time in order to go to conferences, exhibitions, work with people etc. Obviously, it's wonderful to do things in real space and real-time and share that, but I think we can re-examine how much travel and face-to-face we need in certain points. If we develop our online communication skills that I think some exciting possibilities could come out of that. Victoria: In a way, although the world was closing down in many respects at that time, it was opening up to those remote possibilities. Lucy: I think that for me being based in Canberra, it is important to be able to continue thinking about what the possibilities are across Australia and beyond. 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: Yes. An important threshold point is getting sign-off from an engineer. Being able to work with a good engineer and get their input early on is really important.

I have a friend who very kindly did some of the architectural renders for me at that second design phase of the project, when we 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, I was reliant on other parts of the Canberra arts community to be able to create opportunities for a space to work. I reached out to Belco Arts who were able to host me as an artist-in-residence, otherwise it would have been a struggle to find studio space in those circumstances. Working directly with a fabricator is fantastic, I think increasing about working directly with different parts of industrial production as well. In the project that I'm currently involved in, I'm working with Andromeda Industries out in Moonbi in Tamworth and testing the creative potential of the woven steel cables that they produce.

The other side of project delivery involves childcare and juggling other work commitments. There are people directly involved in the project, and then 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: I always feel with these projects, it's a whole network of people that make it happen. People often think even for my role, I almost feel like a sort of dating agency that links up clients with artists. From my 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 both sides and the kind of timeline and communication of both sides, was invaluable. Particularly when at the other end, you're working with the developer, the builder, and the number of people cc'd into emails, but there's only one respondent. It just becomes a little bit confusing whereas having the art consultant as the first port of call and that's where the information gets dispersed from would help hugely. It makes a huge difference to know that you're not just there advocating for yourself. Particularly being in meetings where there might be a lot of scope for miscommunication because of the range of very different expertise and expectations at 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 means you've got someone in your corner. It also really helps for that reflection on professional practice afterward. 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: What would you say is your biggest lesson learned from this commission? Lucy: Have clear subcontracts in place, so that when people are working under extraordinary circumstances, there is still clear expectations that need to be met. It's really easy to feel like you have to respond to particular time pressures. So, when the first solution comes together, there is a risk of jumping on it in relief. Whereas sometimes it's worth going, "Okay. That's great. That's one solution. That's one potential person to work with or one approach. What are the other options?" More time for consideration, reflection, regrouping and being able to stand your ground – knowing that it will make for better results.

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 from this project 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 artwork 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.Olivia: Can you give us a brief overview of your public art experience/engagement to date?

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