Carmen Mills, Artist in Residence at the Royal Commission
David Thomas, head of Public Services interviews Carmen Mills about her passion for art and archaeology at the Commission’s tenth Digital Past conference held in Aberystwyth’s Arts Centre in February 2018.
DT: Can you tell us a bit about your background?
CM: I hadn’t intended to do art, but then in my late forties I was ill, with ME, and I had the best part of 10 years out of circulation. When I was better and could get out again. I found reading a struggle, and writing a struggle. I couldn’t write, but I found I could draw. So, my son suggested I go to college and do a foundation course in Art and Design, and they automatically put you onto a Degree course. I hadn’t thought to do a degree, but before I knew it I was doing a degree in Fine Art and loved it! So, then I came to Aberystwyth in 2013 to do my MA, and I’ve stayed on since to do my PhD studies. I was inspired really from the second year of my BA when I went on a guided tour of Fylingdales Moor, which is just north of Scarborough, where I used to live. There had been a big fire there over the summer and a lot of the heather and gorse had been burnt away and all these stones with Neolithic rock carvings had been exposed which hadn’t been seen before. There was a lot of excitement in the area, and I went on a guided walk with an archaeologist looking for these, and I was completely bowled over with the experience of being there, seeing the rock, feeling the rock, and I could put my hand where someone else’s hand had been 6,000 years before. That just blew me away and ever since then archaeology and archaeological input has been the starting point for my work.
DT: Do you think perhaps as an artist you had a different response from that of an archaeologist?
CM: I think very much so. In some senses there is a lot in common between archaeology and art in that it it’s very material, it’s very hands-on, and you’re interested in how things actually feel and the properties of things. But then there’s a divergence in that an artist has got the freedom to take that and then see it from their own point of view. There’s a lot of dovetailing that can go on between the two disciplines.
DT: When you came to work at the Commission, what was it about the Commission that particularly fired your imagination?
CM: I first got involved when Penny [Penny Icke, Information Services Manager at the Commission] invited me to come and take part in an Explore Your Archives event and I realised what a huge amount of material the National Monuments Record of Wales has here in Aberystwyth. Absolutely amazing records, maps and data – you know better than me the range of data – but I had no idea there was such a repository. I think it’s such a valuable resource it really made me feel the importance of preserving the heritage that we have. And one of the things I really admire about the Commission is that it’s an ongoing, it’s evolving, it’s a growing archive. So things are going into it which are at present news, if you like, but which, one day, will be of archaeological interest and thanks to the foresight gone into collecting that material now, I think that’s a very vibrant part of the existence of the Commission, and I want to support it.
DT: We have got a range of different things in the archive. Some of it is what you would call art, and then there’s the majority of the collection, which is a mixture of photographs, text records, and drawings. Are you more interested in one more than the other?
CM: No, I’m not only interested in just the visuals, I’m interested in facts. I like to absorb facts. I like to think of myself as having a large pot in my head. You have to have a cartoon brain to see this. I have a large pot in my head and into that pot I put everything I’m interested in. So that’s images, it’s text, it’s talking to people, watching films, video clips, learning from YouTube. Everything goes in, and then I find that things come out. I then make work, and somehow these things have synthesised in some way, but without that input there isn’t work. I can’t tell how it works – I just know that the more input the better. And I’ve always been interested in reading about things, and learning about things; so although I’m not trying to be an archaeologist, I am very interested in reading about archaeology, particularly early man, the Prehistoric side of things.
DT: So, there’s a personal interest being funnelled into your art?
CM: Because in the end that’s what art is. It’s a case of digging down into who you are as an individual, and then working out how this can come out in a visual form because the preoccupations that you have as an individual matter, and your perspective on the way in which you look at life, through your own preoccupations, they matter, and as an artist it purely means that you have a penchant, a leaning to make visual things which communicate that.
DT: Do you work in any particular medium?
CM: I have tried all kinds of things, and I’m just coming to the conclusion that I think my practice is probably driven by drawing more than anything else. So I paint, but I would see a lot of those paintings as drawings, rather than actual paintings. I make a lot of collages, I work with collagraph. I see all those things as being a way of developing drawing. To me drawing is the most important aspect of my practice.
DT: What do you think your outputs will be from being artist in residence? Your developing ideas – have you got any idea which direction they are going to go yet?
CM: Well, I’m gathering basic material. I have started a series of early drawings for the U-Boat project, prompted by one of their images, which was, I think, a sonar image of the sea floor where there’s just a hint. You can’t see the object, but there is a hint that there is something there. And of course, this is a very archaeological thing, isn’t it? Feeling that there is something there, and you need to find out, you need to get down through the layers to find out what it is. So, I’ve started a set of simple drawings to do with that. And another project, which is the CHERISH project, has some wonderful LiDAR imagery coming through which are actually beautiful as they are. I haven’t started yet, but I have an idea for a set of drawings taking the main lines from them, and developing, and seeing where it goes, basically. Once I make a starting point, I’ll be able to talk about that.
DT: You’re interested in the current projects. Is that going to be your main focus for your work, or are you going to be looking at the wider collections?
CM: I’ve started off with those two projects, partly because I’ve been excited by the thought of coming in fairly close to the beginning of them, and I’ve caught the excitement from both teams, who are working on them. And that in itself is very inspiring. I think the work of the Commission as a whole is always going to be a backdrop to all that. And I may be staying with the Commission for up to a year and after that, even if I’m not formally with the Commission, I would still make work in relation to it because I think it is such a rich resource, a rich source of ideas.
DT: As you’re developing this work, have you got an idea about what the final outcomes would be, and how will they be presented to people?
CM: No idea at all. I wouldn’t even think about that at the moment. I would just allow things to go in, and seep through, and then when I start making work properly I’ll have a better idea.
DT: As we go through that process, we’re thinking about how best we’re going to be able to use your art that you created, how we use it within our engagement work, how we use it show the ways people can come to our collections completely differently, and it’s very interesting to look at the creative response to what we’re doing. That’s what we’re looking forward to most.
DT: How did you start?
CM: I went on a guided tour of the archive stores, and it’s largely lots of shelves, and it made a big impression on me. I didn’t realise that, and I spent a large part of the day making lots of little drawings, but then they developed. I then worked them up, and I’ve brought some A3 drawings with me, which I’m going to put on the noticeboard. Finished drawings which are specifically archaeological, but which come purely from that.
DT: I think you can immediately associate that with an archive – channels of information, and the order.
CM: And the way I made the drawings was to use the perma-trace to start with, and with my set of archaeological tools, I went over the drawing on the perma-trace with these tools, which impressed the support paper, and then I brought the impression out with graphite, so the process is actually bringing something to the surface, making something visible that wasn’t visible before.
DT: So, the archaeological technique, as well as giving you the ideas of what to do, is giving you the techniques of how to do it as well?
CM: Yes, I’m using those techniques, and seeing what happens, and what can be done with them, and this is one place where I think it’s worked. And you get the idea of something that’s hidden. You can see part of it, and you want to know, you want to push that blank away and see how the rest of it goes. So, I’ve developed a set of drawings, as part of the ‘Archive’ series. So that’s all been inspired by the Royal Commission. It’s been a very inspiring place to be.
DT: There have been other artists who have looked at archaeology for inspiration. Are you very aware of that? Are you using that as an inspiration?
CM: No, I’m not. Partly because after I went to see these bits of rock art I realised there was a dig going on just outside Scarborough, which is Star Carr, and I didn’t realise at the time, just how famous that was. And I went along, and I made contact with the team – they’re now called the Post Glacial team of the Archaeology Department at the University of York. So, I had quite a bit of contact with the folks at York, in that department, and I feel that I’m not following artists that have used archaeology in their work. I’m more following archaeologists, and seeing how I can make a working response. Bearing in mind that I’m an abstract artist, I’m not seeking to represent, I’m not seeking to go into producing detail that archaeologists have already produced. I trying to work with, and I’m interested in evoking this idea of the archaeological imagination so that when people come and see things that sets it off in them. Brings about a response to them, which is part of their own archaeological imagination. And I think that’s important because the more that we can get people engaged with that, the more that there’s going to be a desire to preserve heritage, not to allow people to destroy it and wipe it out, but to preserve it. And along with that, in my mind, comes the thought that it’s easier to empathise with people who are different from you, from a different culture, from a different background, if you have this sense awakened in you that the past holds things that are extremely valuable for us now, and I think that’s one of the them. So for example, we hear about the plight of the refugees in Europe, and that war in Syria has now been going on for seven years, and we’re all getting tired of seeing the reports, and hearing the news. Something needs to happen so that we don’t lose our sense of empathy with those who are refugees, and for those who are then out of that situation are then part of the human trafficking situation which is appalling, and I think that a way to encourage positive valuing of human life is to be able to look back at civilisations of the past, and make connections that way.