Biddy Hodgkinson is one of the talented artists whose work is currently on display in Pathway to Abstraction, at Agora Gallery. Her work deals with themes of decay and degeneration, using a unique process involving applying acids and other destructive industrial substances to organic matter to create surprisingly beautiful, haunting images.
At the moment she is the very first Artist in Residence at Lincoln Cathedral, UK, to work in abstract art. The cathedral dates back to medieval times, with a rich history and a reputation for being a particularly beautiful example of its kind.
Lucky Biddy has been provided with a beautiful studio high up in the east transept, and is developing a fresh series of work there that will be shown in a chapel of the cathedral at Easter 2015. This remarkable experience has inspired her on many levels, and it all came about because she responded positively to interest in her art and was able to explain what makes her art special. Want to know more? Read on!
This Artist In Residence at Lincoln Cathedral program sounds like a wonderful opportunity. How were you chosen for it?
I was asked to dinner by a friend who was serving the area as “High Sherriff” – I know that that might sound a bit ‘Robin Hood’ outside the UK, but this is an honour bestowed on the individual by the Queen – each county in the UK has its own High Sherriff who fulfils certain responsibilities on behalf of the Crown in their area. Anyway, my friend invited me to a dinner at his home and his wife sat me next to the Precentor of Lincoln Cathedral – the Precentor knew I was an artist and began asking me questions about my practice. I explained that my work explores our lack of a culture of death in the West (as I see it) – and he was very interested and agreed that it is an area we no longer have much discussion about.
He asked me if I would be interested in applying to hold the position of resident artist of the cathedral. I think he felt it would be a risk as in the past the artists in this particular role have made images of the cathedral from various views, or the people who work there – so my art would represent a departure from this comfort zone. On the other hand, those artists hadn’t had many sales and he felt a change of style might evoke more interest. So I applied and eventually, after six months, I was chosen.
How do you feel you have benefited from being the first Artist in Residence at Lincoln Cathedral?
It has been challenging to try to accommodate or imagine the audience – so instead of just making something the way I usually do, inspired by a thought, a poem, a piece of music or whatever it is that makes me create a piece, I have adopted a different method. I have really tried to focus around the link to my style and the connection I can make to the building, its history, and the connection to colour in particular.
Actually it has been a massive headache but that passes when an idea forms and I feel I can move forward with it. It’s been a very challenging project – I am only half way and I am still struggling with the enormity of it. I think what keeps me going is when I’m looking up at the massive mountain which I’m trying to climb and realise there is some distance behind me – you don’t realise until you take a moment to breathe that you’ve climbed higher than you think!
Could you describe what it feels like to be working in such an unusual location?
I cannot actually make my style of work in the building because I use a lot of toxic chemicals and have to work alone and in mask and goggles, I also need water and my studio in the cathedral is up a large spiral staircase – so I just go there to draw and contemplate. It is incredibly humbling and – I believe this is the purpose of such buildings – I find that it makes me feel like a small speck and encourages me to contemplate what my place in the scheme of things might be. Practically speaking, it’s also very cold! Since you can really feel the winter there, I wrap up warm and just wander around the main body of this incredible building.
They are building up to the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, which will take place next year – incidentally, the famous document is currently on tour in New York – and I think this will create more interest in Lincoln as people are reminded of how important the Magna Carta is, as one of the fundamental stepping stones to modern democracy, and want to view the document. The Lincoln Magna Carta is one of only four in existence and is housed within the Cathedral.
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Your work deals with themes of decay, the beauty to be found in death, and our modern culture’s disinclination to consider these ideas. Do you feel this program resonates with that topic?
I do feel that – as I said, more and more we are failing to address the inevitable. Yet in this atmosphere, it somehow seems natural to discuss it. I have found such stimulating conversationalists in the building – one of the duty cannons is a retired doctor and we’ve had some very interesting chats. And just being in the building makes me question my mortality. I wonder if people who don’t have any faith in anything feel this way when they visit such places?
Has your work been affected by the Residency?
My work has indeed been affected and at the moment I’m not doing any other work – my exhibition starts on Easter Monday 2015 and I have decided to make much bigger pieces than I’ve ever done before to accommodate the scale of the chapter house where I am exhibiting. It’s an intimidating project in some ways, and I haven’t actually started on the canvasses themselves yet, I’ve just been doing test pieces.
I have been using the history of the colour of the paint used to paint Mary/Madonna/Christ’s Mother and what they made it from as a starting point for my first test piece – which goes on show very soon. I hope it will provoke some interest!
What advice could you offer to other artists, based on your experience being the first Artist in Residence at Lincoln Cathedral?
There are a couple of things. Firstly, the importance of opening up to people about your art, whatever the scenario. There was no way I could have imagined such an opportunity coming out of a dinner party – but I had a receptive listener and so I was able to share my enthusiasm for my work, and let it develop into a discussion. Secondly, I would say, don’t be afraid to see yourself in new places, even if it’s not an environment you’d typically pick to work in. The change can be fruitful.
So would you advise other artists to try out new and unusual locations as studios?
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