Aimee Nelson: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

Aimee Nelson Interview

By Conor O’Neill

Picture of the artist courtesy of Jordan Hutchings

All other images courtesy of Aimee Nelson

Belfast born, Aimee Nelson, is an emerging talent in the Northern Irish art scene and for a 23-year-old has quite an impressive CV to her name. The winner of the 2019 Royal Ulster Acedemy’s The Mullen Gallery Award for Best Sculpture, she was also shortlisted for the Woon Foundation Sculpture and Painting Award in the same year. Nelson has exhibited in studios here in Northern Ireland and across the Irish Sea in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne’s Gallery North.

Fresh out of Belfast’s School of Art, Nelson is one of two students chosen to be the college’s Artist in Residence scheme. With a shared exhibition on the horizon, and her first solo exhibition due in September, CultureCrush NI caught up with the artist for a natter on all things from artistic movements, influences, NASA and cans of shit. I refuse to apologise for the profanity; read on and find out why.

aimee profile

You mentioned in our earlier email exchange you knew you were going to be an artist from a young age, can you elaborate, were you always doodling and colouring in?

“I guess I did doodle a lot, I was the child who watched Art Attack religiously, if anyone remembers that? Art was I really thought about and it’s amazing that I had a supportive family who also have an interest in art; we would go to exhibitions, they’ve really supported me to right where I am now.”

aimee sculpture one

Formal training at art school, obviously you’ve got to know the rules to break them, do you think such training helps or stifles an artist in the long run?

“The only advice I would give to anyone thinking about art college is that ‘you get out what you put in’. There’s so much that I learnt from that’s beneficial. What I found most beneficial is the amount of information and advice you get from your tutors and from being part of a community of artists.”

And your evolution as an artist? I know you’re a sculptor and have a keen interest in lens type media, but did you start off with figurative, landscapes, portraits etc. or have you always been drawn to the experimental type of art?

aimee lightbulb blue

“Mixed media has always interested me. I love making video work, photography and working as a sculptor. A kind of turning point for me was when I started to experiment with light as a material. There’s a bit of backstory to that; my mum is an optician and has optometry business, so I got to use these materials that were accessible to me. I was using the eye and lenses and exploring perceptions within my art, so that’s how that evolved.”

Is it all modern techniques or does the old school darkroom still have its place?

“I love using traditional methods along with the experimental photographic techniques. It’s great to make a photograph from artificial light or sunlight.”

I was reading up on one of your major influences, American artist, James Turrell. What so excites you about his work?

“He’s always an artist I research, and I always take a lot from his work. He explores similar themes as myself and I find it fascinating. He’s not just into the scientific principles of light, but also the philosophical, which I love. I also appreciate his connection with the viewer, that’s something I try to explore in my own work. How you use light as a material to manipulate an audience or change the way they view or experience the artwork. That’s a powerful thing. Turrell uses the physical presence of light in his artwork and the combination of art and science, fundamentally his work is just light filled space and it is amazing what you can do.”

You also mentioned Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, I’m aware of the Bauhaus movement, what are your opinions on movements or scenes? Sometimes I think any movement or scene, whether it be art or music, fashion etc. can consume itself. Do you think as a whole they’re beneficial or self-destructive?

“Movements are really important, and that’s something I only really grasped through my time studying art history and theory during the fine art course. I think art wouldn’t be art today if it wasn’t through these movements. Today’s contemporary artists, like myself, find inspiration from artists like Turrell for example, he’s part of the Light and Space Movement. I think contemporary art is so vast and artists are finding new ways of making art and thinking about art. These movements and groups of people are constantly evolving, and I find that quite exciting to see what is going to come next.”

You’ve achieved many accolades, what do you think of them? Do you take them with a pinch of salt?

“I didn’t expect any of that what-so-ever. A lot of those experiences and opportunities given to me were as a result of my degree show. I’m both shocked and thankful that someone found an interest in my work. As an emerging artist it’s lovely to know people support you, plus, it gives you that foot-in-the-door. It can be quite scary coming out of art school and not knowing what to do. Among success comes a lot of rejections, but that drives me to work even harder.”

aimee sculpture two

You’re currently Artist in Residence at the School of Art, how did that come about, was there an application/interview process?

“The Artist in Residence is a program that has been developing in quite a few universities and colleges. I did have to go through an application process, but of course, your tutors know you. The program is awarded to final year students and is usually given to one or two students that are chosen within each of the different departments or courses with the Belfast School of Art. It’s a year-long residency and it’s during the academic year after you graduate. It’s an amazing opportunity. It gives me a studio to work in, although that’s currently been disrupted due to Covid-19, and I’m given access to materials and workshop facilities. It also allows you to do a bit of teaching as well.
“The program has helped me as an artist. As an emerging artist, many graduates find it difficult to negotiate life outside university, which can be pretty daunting, so it’s nice to have the Artist in Residence post for that year of transition.”

Aimee lightbulb dark

In the email you sent me you stated: “In my own work through sculpture and lens-based media I explore the relationship between art and science and technology. I think artists and scientists are not unalike, we ask questions, I think that’s what engages me the most as an artist. I’m fascinated by art and its ability to change our perception, the way we think and how we negotiate and experience the world.”

I would like to draw you on your comparison between art and science. As I said in the emailed reply, science in my opinion is based on empirical, tested and retested and peer reviewed logic; again in my opinion, art is much more subjective. Can you elaborate?

“I know exactly what you mean. I’m quite excited by the whole idea of how science and art converge together. I find that scientists and artists attempt to understand and describe the world around us, but not only do they do that but they ascent these new concepts and technologies and work from there. I also think their work ethic is very similar. The obvious example of art and science merging would be Leonardo de Vinci, he’s one of the artists who have made that scientific contribution and I think that’s becoming more and more evident today when you think of the technology and how that’s involved in contemporary art.

“More artists and scientists are collaborating. I was researching something recently and I found out that NASA has an Artist in Residence program, which I think is amazing. Artists have this unique tool to communicate; it’s also about using art to explain these scientific issues. It’s also about engaging audiences by using art to ask questions and engage a broader audience in the conversation. Art can communicate in ways which data can’t.”

aimee sculpture three

What are your thoughts on the integrity of art in and of itself and its place in the market? People say, ‘put your money into bricks and mortar, or put your money into art’. Do you think the monetary side of art muddles the integrity? I mean, how for example, do you price a piece?

“it’s difficult for an emerging artist to negotiate the market. I think it’s interesting because the art market is changing. When you think about the online audience and consumers, the way people view or experience art is changing also. It comes down to the artists themselves. Some people do exploit the art market and that their choice to make. I make art for the love of making art, money is obviously a bonus and artists do need money to live.

“I had a conversation about this recently on how you price your art, apart from having to make money, it’s also about making art accessible to everyone. I guess it’s about finding that balance and your integrity as an artist and your definition of value has a lot to play in that as well.”

You were supposed to exhibit in a collaborative exhibition called Obvious, what was the theme of that exhibition?

“The theme is simply obvious. Things that are obvious. It’s an interesting one and that’s what the artists responded to. It was supposed to take place in R-Space Gallery in Lisburn and it’s part of a series of exhibitions called the Materials, Messages and Meanings series. There are quite a few artists involved, namely Aoife O’Connor, she is also artist in residence with myself this year, Gary Shaw, Jill Philips, Mr Paper and Pauline Clancy. Although it’s been postponed due to Covid-19, there will be a confirmed date hopefully quite soon.”

You also have the Georgian Gallery solo exhibition coming up in Ards’ Art Centre, is there a theme for that?

“I think it will be continuation of the work from my degree show, work that uses art and plays with perception in a certain way. It will include some existing artworks plus some new pieces. I’m currently working my head around all those things. It’s really exciting as it’s my first solo exhibition. I’m really pleased and the gallery is lovely, the light there is just wonderful.”

And when is that likely to take place?

“September. I haven’t heard anything about a possible postponement, but I have yet to have the date confirmed.”

This next question, I like to call ‘the mortgage question’. I know quite a few friends who have went and studied art. After graduating they went full throttle and after a while ‘real life’ kicked in: relationships, mortgages, children etc. pulled them away from their art. What do you plan to do to avoid the ‘mortgage effect’?

“It’s a funny question and it’s difficult because being an artist is a job, and it’s an amazing job, but I also read and research about art as an escape from everyday life. If I’m not making art, I’m still thinking about making art. These things happen in all professions and to me, that’s okay if life takes over for a while, I think I’ll just roll with the punches and go with it. As ana artist I think we can actually use those moments and things that are happening in life like, kids, relationships etc. as a tool to make art and use as inspiration. Hopefully I will just keep going.”

Aimee ultraviolet

We were talking about the evolution of art and how one movement leads to and pushes forth another. The great renaissance masters such as Botticelli, Michelangelo, Caravaggio and the likes would probably look down on the works of Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso and others, who today are celebrated, and rightly so. What do you think of modern art? Tracey Emin’s My Bed sold for £2.2 million, and I’m not just talking about the New British Artist movement; in the 1960s an artist called Piero Manzoni produced 90 can of his own shit, one of which recently sold for 122,000 euro, do you deem either as art?

“Yes, I do. Anything is art. I think it’s funny because even in this situation, I think the definition of art is so vast and although a lot of people think, ‘oh a can of shit isn’t art’, but I really liked that artwork because I think there’s something about it. He never actually showed it, the audience couldn’t actually prove there was shit in the tin. He actually sold an idea. It’s an interesting example of how people experience art and how people buy into art. It comes down again to your integrity as an artist and again the art market question of definition and value. I would definitely classify that as art.”

So there it is: from childhood doodling to an interest in optics, art college, and cans of shit.

Aimee Nelson: coming to a gallery near you, soon.

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