Interview - The Invitation, Caroline McGregor and Samantha Stephenson

White Field

  At the opening of their exhibition The Invitation, Caroline McGregor and Samantha Stephenson of collaborative duo White Field sat down with the Arts Centre’s Elissa Emerson to talk about their 2018 residency in Muswellbrook, their experiences as collaborators, and their new exhibition. Here’s what they had to share. Elissa: What motivated you to apply to become a Muswellbrook Artist in Residence and what were you hoping to gain from a residency in Muswellbrook? Caroline: Sam and I had done an amazing residency in Italy prior to coming here. We had so enjoyed the work we had done and had so enjoyed working together collaboratively that we wanted to see if we could bring the same sort of energy to residencies in Australia. What we’d done in Italy was respond to the environment and we wanted to see how it would translate here. Sam: However it had to be just a little bit further removed from places we knew so we could see it with fresh eyes. Elissa: So that was one of the reasons why Muswellbrook seemed a good fit? What were your first impressions of the area when you first arrived? Sam: I think one of the first impressions was how dry it was for the time of year, aside from the heat, just seeing how dry the dirt was. Caroline: And how dusty it was. It was surprising to us I think. The residency we had done in Italy had been very lush and green and flowers everywhere. We sort of had this idea that we could work with nature here in Muswellbrook and then we realised because of how dry it was… Sam: A lot of the trees and shrubs and bushes and things that would usually be in bloom weren’t, so it did challenge us to look at our work a little differently. We did bring in new material to the place which wasn’t our initial intention, but I guess we were just working with the restrictions. Elissa: And how did you feel about that? In what ways did that change what you were trying to say within the residency? Caroline: Some of what we talk about isn’t necessarily about what is there but the potential of what could be and so I think the flowers acted as that. And to be honest, I mean sometimes I see the flowers almost like a little blessing, it’s like bring love into a place. Sam: And balancing the areas we were in as well. Elissa: Do you still feel you achieved what you set out to, but perhaps just in a different way? Caroline: I think we had found the residency in Italy so easy in some ways and coming here it did challenge us to look at a place differently and to think about our work differently. But that’s the thing with art, you’re always challenged to approach things differently and that’s what makes it exciting. I think the challenge was really good for us, and to be honest I think the work that came out of it was better than what I expected. Sam: And for quite a short time frame too. Elissa: Did it force you to adapt and redirect your work? Caroline: Some of the work only really generated in the time afterwards. We did all this work and photographs when we were here… Sam: And a lot of things that also didn’t work out. Elissa: When I visited you in the field you were experimenting working with different coloured rubbish. Have some of the things you didn’t capture, that didn’t work out, still mean something and you’ve incorporated them into the exhibition? Caroline: In a different way, absolutely. I think that was what happened a lot. A lot of that stuff we kind of mulled over and it turned into something else, things that maybe we had dismissed, that we hadn’t really considered. Sam: I guess with that time it was nice to start to make the connections between all these different, what seemed like, inconsequential moments. Things that may have felt like they were coming from completely different ideas were actually all part of the same thing, just manifesting a little bit differently. Elissa: And so, how do you feel the Muswellbrook residency prepared you for the residency that followed at Hill End? Caroline: I think what it did is it allowed us to go with an open mind, whereas we hadn’t really approached this one with an open mind. We kind of had a preconceived idea, without thinking that we really did… we did. And then, I think when we went to Hill End we kind of went well let’s scrap everything, we’ll just come in open and see what happens. Elissa: Tell us a bit about your individual practices as artists and how you formed a collaboration. Sam: I predominantly work in sculpture and mainly with steel, doing smaller works and larger outdoor works. Caroline: When Sam and I met up I was also doing sculpture at NAS. I also worked in steel and timber, but I tend to now, like Sam, do a bit of everything, paint and draw and sculpture. The thing about Sam and I is we recognised when we were at university that we are both really drawn to the same ideas. Even though our practices are a little bit different it’s the ideas that move us that are the same. Sam: At that point we shared a studio so we were in close proximity, talking a lot, and our work started to mirror the same sort of ideas when working with spaces. Caroline: I think what we are both really interested in are places of contemplation – what makes you quiet, what moves you. We kept thinking we’d actually like to work together and see what else we could do and that is why we did our first residency. We recognise we are both quite romantic in the idea that we are drawn to beauty. We are also moved by the big ideas and the big questions. Sam: It underpins our work. Elissa: Where do you see your collaboration going in the future? Sam: Considering how it’s unfolding at the moment I don’t think we can say where it’s going. It’s going to depend on the next place we visit. The possibilities it may hold. Caroline: I think we’d like to continue doing some residencies in Australia in different places and then try to pull it all together ultimately. But it’s really exciting for us, every single time we do work we are faced with new challenges and we grow so much. Collaborating is such an interesting experience because being an artist is quite selfish. When you’re doing your own work you only really have to defend your decisions to yourself. Sam: And problem solve your own problems. Caroline: But with collaborating you’re really forced to touch base all the time. Sam: It forces us to articulate our ideas. We sometimes get on each other’s nerves, it’s bound to happen. Caroline: But what’s really nice is that we trust each other and like each other enough to get past those little lows and to keep going. I think the most important thing is that we trust each other’s vision. I think that collaborating with Sam is one of things that has grown me, not only as an artist but as a person too. I really like that. Elissa: We’ve touched on it already, but how did you approach translating your residency into an exhibition? Sam: We had a bit of time between the residency and the exhibition which gave us a chance to look over our images and bounce a few ideas around as well as to clarify what it was that we did, what our initial intensions might have been and how they changed, and also what future we could see for the work and possibilities for an indoor space. A challenge working out in nature and with ephemeral material is often it doesn’t last. That was an advantage I guess in this case, moving the work inside meant that it could be something stable. Caroline: Also how we could bring what we were doing outside indoors and have it hold its meaning, which was a challenge. All of the works are based on ideas we had during the residency. Elissa: I feel like the three installations, they capture a little piece of Muswellbrook. Sam: I think we are interested in the everyday aspect of a place, that you see and move past but often don’t really take notice or just dismiss as banal. Elissa: What do you hope visitors to the exhibition take away with them? Caroline: I would say I hope they can look and feel something. Sam: That it can generate sensation or a feeling. Caroline: I am hoping they can walk away and look at their environment in a new way, that they’ll find beauty and maybe be challenged by some of the things too. What I’d love to be able to do, and I do think we’ve achieved it with this exhibition, is to ask big questions in a beautiful way and hopefully people will think about that when they leave. Sam: Each person may take something different from each piece but hopefully it’s open enough that they can find something. For more information please email Elissa at the Arts Centre or call 02 6549 3800.