Fragments, fragility and the voices of the unheard – Anne Teahan

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In the latest of our Viewfinder peer-to-peer interviews, Deborah Caulfield speaks to artist Anne Teahan about re-discovering her voice in a world so dominated by language.

A section of a painting Anne Teahan's painting 'Guardian Combat'. It is a depiction of two frozen stills of an online debate on the Guardian website. Acrylic on canvas.

A section of Anne Teahan’s Guardian Combat.

Alternating between drawing, sculpture and installation, Anne Teahan is known in the disability arts world for her fragile paper constructions. In 2007, she explored children’s histories in Tales from the Borders, a collaborative disability history exhibition which toured the South East. Teahan is currently engaged with painting ‘conversations’ from frozen screen grabs of online debates. I caught up with her to discuss her artistic journey.

Deborah Caulfield:    How did you get started as an artist?

Anne Teahan:    Art was always there, I was always doing it, regardless I think of what happened. As a child I was always doing it.  It wasn’t a gallery-going family, but I just did drawing, painting and copying.

DC:    When did you get serious about art?

AT:    I went to art school at 18. I had no clue about the concept of a career, or the future. I just wanted to keep doing art, with no plan.

DC:    It was for pleasure?

AT:    For pleasure and self-expression, and I think EH Gombrich’s  ‘art impulse’ and ‘the need to form’ was there.

DC:    Tell me about what you’re currently working on.

AT:    I’m currently painting – I’ve just finished a series of four paintings which are cropped screengrabs from an online conversation on the Guardian website. I’m quite interested in portraiture and I’m searching for a way of doing it whereby it relates to how we look at things now. And so much of what we look at is in the form of digital faces, digital images. So that’s a strand.

It’s a series of four faces. I did them looking at a video conversation with the sound turned down, and freezing, I froze the conversation, came in close, cropped close, to isolate the mouth and eyes.

Because of Laryngeal Dystonia, a vocal impairment, I find conversations quite tricky, unless they’re one-to-one, I end up watching people just chat – listening, but not participating. And it strikes me, listening to conversations, that people who are vocally fluent – who use words – tend to dominate the media and politics and everything. The paintings are trying to interrupt that.

DC:    Is your medium painting, drawing or printmaking?

AT:    I’ve been weaving in and out. I trained as a painter, I draw a lot but then Dystonia began to throttle my voice and I started tearing up drawings and paintings and reforming them into paper vessels. So in that way disability has been a strong influence on the whole thing. I have started painting again after a long period. I had to stop and start again.

DC:    Why did you first start working in this fragmented paper vessel form?

AT:    In some ways voice loss was quite productive artistically. Before Laryngeal Dystonia I did work that was more complete. Afterwards I did an MA in drawing at Camberwell after years out of art school and teaching. I was back in art school with my own creative preoccupations and I felt I had to re-form myself as a new person.

So I made drawings, fragmented them and turned them into fragmented paper vessels. It was still me, but I had to find a less robust way of… being. I’d always been drawing and, in drawing, there were always layers…

I’d been drawing in the Imperial War Museum. I saw lots of fragmented vessels and they were fascinating to draw. In all the external politics, the historical events and my own personal upheaval, there was a kind of connection. And although being ill is different to war, I felt the voice had been torn out of me and I was re-learning how to speak. So that form of work echoed that sort of destruction and repair in lots of ways, really.

DC:    Was that a transition period?

AT:    Well, I was doing it for about four or five years. Then it got too much of, almost a, craft. I had to stop because I was trying too hard to make the things hold their structure without wilting. And I thought, that’s the opposite to what I wanted.

DC:    Is keeping going a problem for you? Do you ever have times when you can’t work?

AT:    Yes, that’s just an energy thing, a problem to do with Sjogren’s Syndrome (an auto- immune condition.) When my energy goes flat, I just have to accept that.

DC:    How do you get through those periods of exhaustion?

AT:    Sometimes I take lots of photographs of conversations. I’ve got lots of conversations from different events.

DC:    Stills or video/moving images?

AT:    I think a fragment is more expressive than continuous film. And I think painting or drawing makes you look, and I think looking hard at some fragment is more productive.

DC:    And enjoyable and absorbing?

AT:    Oh yes. I mean I love shape, form and colour. I love the history of art. It’s like a big treasure box to dip into.

A photograph of Nuclear Family by Anne Teahan depicting 5 pairs of paper shoes made from torn drawings on cartridge paper, wall-mounted on a grey painted rectangle. An installation from ‘After Hiroshima’ an exhibition at Brunei Gallery SOAS commemorating the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Nuclear Family by Anne Teahan.