In October 2018, Tilly Scantlebury interviewed visual artist, illustrator and blogger Bethany Burgoyne. Bethany’s work unravels the ways that we relate to ourselves and to each other, seeking to create both a visual and verbal language that allows us to communicate better. The interview traces Bethany’s practice, from her initial engagement with the female form, her work in Jordan and Iraq, to her creation of the cover for this year’s issue of immediations, the mixed media collage ‘Fancy a chat?’.
Bethany was encouraged to be creative. Her grandmother and great aunt were artists, and her parents always told her ‘to occupy [her] time’, so Bethany filled that time with art. I asked Bethany if she is surprised at where her work has ended up. ‘I don’t think I am. The thing I’m surprised about is how I made the journey much longer than it needed to be.’ So I wanted to start at the beginning of this long journey that Bethany describes, to trace its path to the place where we find our cover art, ‘Fancy a chat?’.
Bethany reflected on the work she made early on in her career, while studying art formally at London’s City and Guilds. ‘The work I was making when I was seventeen was predominantly about the female image, and that fascination continued to be a focus of my degree work, and a preoccupation of my practice ever since. I used Tinder as my research project in my third year. Looking at the way that men and women present themselves to other people, with the hope of seducing them. And I’m not excluded from this, we’re all part of it. There was a reason I was on Tinder myself. So I took men’s faces from the app and put them on top of female bodies, making them enormously large. The women’s bodies were obscured, some with hanging breasts, but retaining a grotesque sexiness. None of them sold, so I stored the works in my aunt’s house. She’s a vicar. The poor woman, these massive weird bodies taking up space in her house.’
A month after finishing her degree, Bethany volunteered in Jordan and Iraq for four months with aptART, an organisation that works with marginalized children, seeking to empower them through art. ‘I left university wanting to see how art could be used in a positive way, to use art to benefit others.’ I ask Bethany if that’s how she still thinks now. ‘Although it was a hugely educational and humbling experience that allowed me to really develop, I’ve decided that’s not the route for me. Instead, I’m now using art in order to think through ways of understanding myself within our social system. Because I’m not an activist, so I need to be aware of my role.’ This tension between art and activism is one that Bethany has not yet reached a conclusion about. ‘Can my art make a change? Or am I just aestheticising a bigger problem?’
In 2016 Bethany made ‘Homage to my Sisters’, a series of digital drawings created in response to her experience of having an abortion, as well as her sister’s pregnancy. ‘After coming back from Jordan and volunteering at a centre for vulnerable women, I then assisted children with severe learning difficulties. During that work I became pregnant. I chose to have an abortion, and I was secure in my decision, but I came up against real barriers as to who I felt I could tell. I was stifled in my truth. It felt like it was all my fault, although of course it wasn’t. It felt like I had to struggle in silence. But then my art came into play, and I started making more work than I had done in months. It was a big turning point for me. There are things in my life that I have felt suffocated by, but they find their way into my art.’
Two headless bodies face each other at opposite ends of the picture plane. One belly bulges impressively, the varying tones of fleshy pink exaggerating both the size and weight of the stomach. A heavy breast sits on top of its rounded contours. Two green leaves sprout from the naval, gesturing to the life that lives inside it. The other body is grey and emaciated, its ribs and hips jutting inward rather than outward, as if demonstrating a body on the brink of collapsing in on itself. ‘I had someone in front of me who I loved very dearly who was so happy to be pregnant. Birth and life and pregnancy should be a joy, and it’s something I want to support and celebrate. But the experience of having an abortion took something out of me. I felt very grey. It felt like I was rejecting something that my body wanted to do. Although there was also hope in it too, through looking at my sister.’
Another drawing from the series figures a body in frontal view; large breasts sitting on top of an even larger belly. The stomach opens horizontally, and a long tongue slips out of it. Three teeth are visible within the stomach-mouth, ready to ingest whatever the tongue catches. The combination of the bloated stomach and the hungry mouth evokes the physical cravings experienced during pregnancy. More than this, the mouth completes the digital drawing as a double image of a face, with pink nipples acting as eyes. The belly and swollen breasts look out at the viewer, mirroring the gaze that fixes upon the pregnant form, speaking to the way women’s bodies are consumed and seen by other people. ‘It’s aggressive, like the things that eat away at us.’
The series was Bethany’s first time using a digital drawing technique, made by scanning graphite sketches and then using Photoshop to outline and colour. ‘I think it came down to a lack of confidence, actually. I’d done a lot of drawing and sketching, but I didn’t feel confident in making paintings. And I think not having them on the wall but instead making this on a laptop was important. You can close the lid of your computer, you can put it in a folder and hide it.’
Rather than being hidden, the series was exhibited. ‘It was through this process of making and then ultimately showing the work that gave me the confidence to talk about my experience. And it was absurd. 1 in 4 women that I ended up speaking to, my friends and women I knew, had also had an abortion. I’d gone six months not talking about this, only to realise it’s something so many of us have gone through. It made me think: we’ve normalised something, but are we actually coping with it? After that I knew that all I wanted to do was to just talk to women, to encourage us to have a new vocabulary that we can communicate better with.’
‘Sassy Stories’ is a platform that Bethany created in order to start having these kinds of conversations – an online blog where she interviews other women about the things that matter to them. Among the women featured are a peace activist, a yoga instructor, a teacher, a chef, as well as poets, musicians and artists. ‘How can we relate to one another? It’s a comfort to share an experience, even a different experience.’ The first person that Bethany interviewed for ‘Sassy Stories’ was Ali Mann, who has since become a collaborator. ‘We talked about sex and it took me away from thinking negatively about my body, and to think more positively about what my body might be able to really do.’ Bethany attributes the silencing effect she felt after having an abortion, and the eventual conversations she started to have with other women in her life, as being the motivation behind ‘Sassy Stories’. ‘I can talk more comfortably now, but there is still so much I’m holding in and incapable of discussing. Feeling that in myself really accentuates how much there is still to do, and keeps me pushing forward. But we close ourselves off, we judge, we put up barriers. We don’t properly communicate. We hold ourselves in our own tribes. We’re constantly focussed on our tribe. Anything that is unknown to us scares us. But we have so much to gain by looking outwards.’
Bethany cites artists such as Tracey Emin, Cindy Sherman, Grayson Perry, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Jenny Saville as being important influences to her practice. Pop culture, social media and the pressures which come with them have also played a big part in her research. ‘How can I take something that everyone looks at on a daily basis and twist it, and make people see things differently?’ At this juncture, Bethany feels as though she might be articulating the earlier questions she posed to herself, that of the role of art, and perhaps more importantly, her role as an artist. ‘Where do these pressures come from? And why do we feel trapped in our silences? That’s almost a starting place to a much bigger point that I’m approaching, that comes out in the cover art, “Fancy a chat?”’
The piece was made whilst traveling with only one backpack, challenging Bethany to work with materials that she could use on the move: found objects, readymades, things deemed worthless. These fragments from her surroundings gave her comfort whilst travelling alone. ‘I could see them all becoming characters in front of me, I humanised them.’ Pine cones, shells, leaves, twigs, tree sap – ‘I gave these objects a relationship to each other, giving them a new language, and using them as a tool to tell narratives. And how can I tell other people’s stories? I can’t. But by using these materials and abstracting them, I feel able to approach topics of conversation that might be more difficult otherwise.’ The finished piece is a still from a stop-motion animation series, made by photographing these found objects and sitting them on a lightbox. Bethany arranged and rearranged them, figuring out their relationships to each other. ‘It was quite intuitive. I’d start making these stories, and I began to think of them like family. And the worth of things and relationships occupied me, what we value and what we treasure.’
I asked Bethany about the way that ‘Fancy a chat?’ uses a visual framing device. ‘This series is about two figures, a patient and a therapist.’ Both of these personas sit within the light blue rectangle, as if about to start a conversation. The shell-like object floats above them in white space, perhaps looking down at them, or even listening in. Does the frame help to cement the relationship between the ‘characters’ that Bethany has brought to life? Or does the frame mediate what we see, or what we ought to be focusing on? ‘I have this constant thought about how we live our life through the screen, and playing with that idea of the frame.’ We then wondered that perhaps having been turned into the cover art, the journal of immediations is now the frame for the piece.
Talking with Bethany, not just during this interview but throughout my interactions with her over email and the phone, it’s abundantly clear how warm and open she is, and how the support that she wants to give is absolutely crucial to her practice as an artist. ‘Fancy a chat?’ is Bethany’s most explicit call to conversation, but it is an invitation that she’s been extending throughout her career – not just to her audience, but also to herself. ‘I’m part of my own research, my own process, I am one of these women, and everything I talk about and make, I feel. Sometimes we forget how we are all just people.’