Alex Butler and Andy Ash are married with 3 children. They are both artists who have recently returned to their practice after a difficult time for them as a couple. They are both happy to discuss this very personal journey that has seen them re-connect with each other as well as their desire to make sense of themselves through their art. They have literally re-built their home and domestic setting to bring the family back together.
We start off sitting at the family dining table.
Abi: So, I’m really interested in how artists that work from home either use or try and separate themselves from the domestic in their work. Particularly you, Alex as I know that your childhood and children are an important part of your work.
Alex: I really can’t remember what its like to make work without children. But they inform the work, yes. They remind me of my childhood, they remind me of the past, they remind me of journeys, they remind me of the sublime every single day.
I realised when they were little that looking after small children is mostly incredibly dull, with little stabs of the sublime.
For example, sometimes I’m cooking pasta and I find myself leaning against the counter really thinking. Then I have to rush upstairs before anyone stops me and write it down. The studio is where I actually make my work. But the ideas happen here – when I’m talking to the children in the kitchen. Andy built me this kitchen.
Andy: I did. It’s all recycled from old Victorian floorboards that I found in a skip.
Abi: Really? That’s impressive. But you don’t just get up one morning and decide to build a kitchen?
Alex: No, its part of a bigger picture. Our relationship was at an all time low. Andy had a nervous breakdown and out of that, he built me this kitchen. He didn’t consult me at all, and he has built me the exact kitchen space that was in my head. And now, I’m so happy here and it is a creative space.
Andy: Yes it was about creating a space where we could talk. Because we were finding the kids were dominating all spaces in the house. Mainly around the social areas, so we thought if we had somewhere that we could sit and talk but also do things in. But still be connected and close to them, because we also found that if we escaped, the kids followed you. But we found that if you were nearby, they were quite happy. And that was the only way we could find space.
Alex: Because we realized we didn’t have any time on our own. All the spaces in the house had the children there, in the bedroom they were always in there, and their stuff was in there – their slippers and their books. They’re in your bed, eating. And that was every single space.
Andy: We’re not saying we want to have formal boundaries.
Alex: But they’re everywhere!!!!
Abi: Yes, it’s the same with us. So when did this all happen?
Andy: About a year ago. It took a month to build from beginning to end.
Alex: But that’s because Andy was ill, and he didn’t want to go out. He didn’t want to do anything. But he did that. And it was creative as well.
Andy: And it was transformative and it was about the domestic. The kitchen that was here was horrible, and although it was relatively new, it just didn’t suit us.
Alex: No, and because it all worked and we didn’t have any money, we just put up with it. But we were so miserable in here, and now we really use this space. And there is also the piece of work that Andy made on his 50th birthday.
Andy: I wanted to make something that was about our journey and reflecting. But also about us and our space and how our relationship and this space is such an integral part of our day-to-day.
Alex: Also, it’s about how you needed to come back together as a person isn’t it?
Andy: Yes, so although there are 9 different entities, they all collaborate and work as a whole. Whereas for many years that wasn’t the case. There was a dislocation. So this was about working at bringing those fragments together. And although it’s also quite aesthetically pleasing, it’s also practical.
Its reflective, it brings light into the darks metaphorically and literally.
Abi: So it becomes an installation? A purpose built space to make you feel a certain way?
Andy: Definitely. For me it was a practical way for me to try and make sense of things – but also, to move forward.
Alex: Yes and you had this big realisation that you were an artist and wanted to start making things again. I think it happened very instinctively. I was absolutely delighted. I loathed that kitchen from the moment we moved in, but we didn’t have the cash to do anything about it. And Andy can make stuff, and because he was signed off work he had the time to make something. So I loved it, but I also loved the fact that he made something that was completely recycled and it was exactly like something that was in my head. It was like he could see inside my head.
Abi: So in a way, it helped to reconnect you again? Because what you wanted was essentially the same thing?
Alex: And it rooted him back to this space – because Andy had been working away a lot and now it became his as well, not just for the girls and me.
Andy: Yes I didn’t decide to do the bathroom. It was a conscious act to reconnect with a space that I’d felt disconnected from for so long. Because I was working away a lot - when I came home Alex dominated this area. The kids dominated every area, and there didn’t seem there was a place for me. The only space I had was my office, which we’ve now converted into the studio, because there was so much resentment of me having an office.
Alex: And me not having a studio.
Abi: Especially, I should imagine, as it was empty because you weren’t here?
Alex: Exactly, it was a space I could use.
So then we decided to get rid of the office because we decided that we needed to make art more than we needed to do some paperwork.
Abi: So the kitchen was the start of the journey?
Andy: Yes the kitchen was definitely the start of us looking at how we use our home. Originally we thought about getting a studio away from the house to share. But then we decided it wasn’t sensible to remove ourselves. And when I was making stuff for the Brighton Festival I did most of the making on this kitchen table and saw how it influenced the kids. So that was really creative and I saw there was this opportunity to make together.
Alex: Which was about coming back into the family again.
Andy: Yes I found it really quite interesting being at home and making. But also combining these multiple facets of self or aspects of your reality. So I thought it was a much better idea to make a space in the house that we could use creatively.
Alex: Absolutely, we couldn’t afford a studio. Why are we finding more satellites?
We need to be at home. All of us. Together.
Abi: How has it influenced your art Alex, having Andy here?
Alex: Well I just had that crashing realisation that I needed to make work. It was just over a year ago and all the colour suddenly turned up on everything. I had art mania. I couldn’t stop. I was in revelry of ideas. I just kept writing them down. I can’t believe I didn’t make art for so long. Except that I know other women artists have said to me it’s because your youngest child is seven. Apparently that’s a thing. When you’re youngest child is seven, there is apparently enough distance between you and that child to be able to look in a different direction. And it really feels true.
When I first held my eldest child in my arms, I remember looking at her and thinking I will never make a piece of art again.
Because I couldn’t stop staring at her. And I haven’t really looked away for 13 years. But suddenly I have looked away, and it’s good for them, and its good for me.
Abi: It is fascinating how the two of you have dovetailed timing wise. Now you support each other.
Alex: We came to realise that instead of resenting each other, we asked each other what is it we really want to do and it was to make art. Andy never really talked about making art and I didn’t realise he was extremely depressed.
Andy: I was spending time looking at other peoples art. Going to private views and talking to students about their art. Then it was a sudden realisation that I was generating all these ideas that were being used for other things. But now that they could be used for self – without being selfish. It is very exciting, because it’s a new chapter isn’t it? And like anything, it has to be something that works for all of us. Because you can’t exist on your own in a family, or else there will be tensions. It has brought us closer together and closer as a family, because everything makes more sense now. There is less tension and resentment and everything is truer. It has a cleanness about it as opposed to a greyness or grubbiness.
Abi: That’s a lovely image.
Andy: Why try and resolve things that are outside of your day to day reality? That’s why I’ve been doing a lot of work around dyslexia, depression and dislocation.
Abi: But doesn’t that go back to that question of why we haven’t made art for twenty years. Is it because you have to find something that feels genuine to talk about and that often comes with age? I really struggled at Art College, because I had nothing to talk about.
Alex: I really enjoyed Art College and had a really productive time. But I made all these rules for myself. I would only make work which was about truth and the sublime, and that I thought could be useful to people. I was brought up a Catholic, so I used to believe in one absolute truth and one absolute God. But now I realize there isn’t one absolute truth. So fuck it. I’m just going to make what I want, and there aren’t any external rules. Now I don’t care if it’s relevant to other people. I don’t care if it’s useful. I’m not trying to make public information videos - I want to make art – and that is what age has done for me. It doesn’t even occur to me to put my art through my filter. Its much more liberating and I feel much more confident about saying I’m an artist now.
And as for two artists being in the house together, I’m all for giving an impromptu tutorial after a gin and tonic.
Andy: We’ve had some very difficult conversations because Alex is not very good at taking criticism.
Alex: That is true.
Andy: We have helped each other though haven’t we?
Alex: I’m really proud of the work Andy put in the Artist's Open Houses in May because it was the first work that he’d made that made him feel vulnerable and it was the most beautiful work I’d seen him make.
Andy: I know, and it was also about making connections with others. Which I think is perhaps what I’ve done with humour in the past. Whereas now I don’t need to use the humour.
Alex: No you’re just trying to be honest aren’t you? Whereas I didn’t think he took art seriously because his work used to be quite jokey. And I’m all about the sublime and VERY serious. I used to think what is the point of making art if you’re just going to make a stupid joke. But now I realise he didn’t want to make art about things that made him feel vulnerable. I’ve always been really serious about my art and I do feel it’s a really serious business - maybe too serious. But I was trying to make work about the big themes, about belief and death and love. Because what else is there? And I’m still trying to make work about those things, but with not quite so much of a heavy hand.
Abi: Yes that lightness of touch is always a good thing, whatever your medium.
Alex: Yes I’m still after the sublime, but not put it through all my filters. Because I used to put it through so many filters there was no work at the end. It had gone through every filter and failed, so you’ve just completely broken it and might as well put it in the bin.
Abi: I totally get that.
Andy: Which is interesting, because Alex is clear about her outcome. Whereas I have no idea what I want to achieve. It’s the journey, whereas Alex seems to be more direct. For me the interesting thing isn’t the end, it’s the thinking and what I’m discovering. Obviously I will have outcomes, but they’re not necessary finished things.
Alex: Yes I have an idea and then I have to make it very quickly or I get bored. So everything I make is done really badly. I don’t mind if it’s badly lit, got shaky camera and no lighting because it just want to do it there and then. Or by the time I’ve set it up – it’s gone.
Abi: Your filter has kicked in?
Alex: Yes, so the first piece I made since I started making work again after 13 years was really quick. The lighting was really bad, but it was just a moment. I didn’t care. I got something and what I captured I’m really, really happy with.
Alex: Things were really shit and I said to Andy, I’m so sorry but I have to do it. I realised that if I couldn’t make art about this situation then I couldn’t make art about anything. So I’m really glad I pushed us and it was the start of something.
(At this stage we move from the kitchen towards the stairs and Alex points to a ‘brain’.)
Alex: This is the piece that I’m most proud of Andy for doing. That’s his brain.
Andy: Yes, my brain. I tried to contrast this smoke fired surface with the gold and the delicacy of the ceramic. The areas where depression and creativity happens. It really interests me that surrounding creativity is this dark abyss. There are grey areas and pure areas. So I played around with those relationships and thinking.
Abi: And there is the gold again. Which is sublime and also about alchemy.
Andy: Yes definitely. And there is something nice about gold because it catches the light.
Plus there is something quite nice about thinking about your brain as a beautiful object. But I like playing with the contrasting materials. Between this one, resin with a piece of gold set inside and also aluminium.
(we now enter the studio, upstairs)
Abi: So Alex, this is a lovely space. Did you segregate it like this? Where is the line of masking tape across the floor?
Alex: It’s there more or less! I wanted Andy to work in here. So I set it up, I painted it and I’ve given Andy a space.
I would have done it. But my urgency wouldn’t have been as great as your urgency.
Alex: I’m SO happy in here. And there is no admin.
Andy: It had a desk and my files and became a dumping ground basically. And I resented the fact it became a dumping ground.
Andy: But now we use it for art. So at the moment, as well as my brain, I’m also thinking about perception from different viewpoints. I’ve been thinking about how we frame things and how we see things. These are my glasses over the last 15 years, which led me to collect other people’s glasses. I also like the metaphor of a lens. And these magnified retinas I find rather beautiful.
Abi: There is also something about reflection again isn’t there and thinking about how others see you? And how we filter information about each other?
Andy: Definitely. And I also made a film, which is a bit of a revelation for me. I’d made little vignettes before but not done anything with them. Interestingly they’ve been about reflection as well. I had an MRI scan of my brain and strung the images all together.
Abi: Alex, tell me about the juxtaposition of the crucifix with the crow.
Alex: Religion and the crucifix is an enduring theme. When I was growing up, our home was very simple. But we had the crucifix and we also had a Dali print of the crucifixion. Apart from being at home, the only other place we went to was church. So I was always looking at Jesus on the cross and thinking this was the most sublime and beautiful thing ever.
Abi: So on the one hand you have this visually quite sparce home and then on the other the dramatic visual language of Catholicism?
Alex: Yes we loved it!
Abi: To enter into that environment must have been incredibly powerful and influential?
Alex: It was. I was in a state of revelry most of my childhood.
We come from very similar religious backgrounds, but I didn’t embrace it at all. I never bought into it. Interesting how we both have similar histories, but have dealt with it quite differently.
Alex: Belief and religion has always been very important in my work and Andy has always understood that coming from a similar background. It is very easy for people to laugh or scoff at religion but he didn’t.
Abi: So talking about your latest work, which is collaboration with your sister. Do you think that has come out of your renewed relationship with Andy because now you’re more open generally to talking about your work?
Alex: Well it came about because one of my sisters, Sam has ‘Fevered Sleep’ which is an internationally renowned theatre company and for ages I’d been hoping that she would ask me to work with her. But she never did and in the end I just asked. And it’s been wonderful to work with my sister.
We’ve made this piece of work about fostering. Because my family fostered and I had this idea come to me in the kitchen about the song of the foster mother. And what happens to these songs when the child goes.
There will be performance and also a sound piece that is made up of all the voices of these foster mothers.
Abi – so is the work about your mother, as well as the child?
Alex: Yes, I think it is a piece of work about my mother, or rather our mother. Because why would you foster when you have 7 children of your own. And a lot of fostering can be about trying to fill up with what you didn’t have when you were a child.
I had this idea that we’d have the family table, but when it’s upturned it becomes a ship cresting over waves. And it’s about how you can stay on board, about how can you keep the group together.
Andy: Its very timely isn’t it? I think boats at the moment and families and boats is very timely with what is happening in the Mediterranean.
Abi: Yes it’s all about families and keeping everyone safely together.