I spoke with Donna – a Contemporary multidisciplinary artist based in Aberdeen, who I discovered through her solo exhibition in Parx Cafe in Aberdeen. We met at Jojo’s Coffee Shop for coffee and some delicious cakes and talked about her love of collages, trying new things, her amazing job as part of the Grampian Hospitals Art Trust as well as her new project working on Light the North. Find her on Instagram and Website.
Sara – Have you started with collages when you were in university?
Donna – No, I studied printmaking. When I started Gray’s School of Art, I had no idea what I wanted to do. It was an elimination process. You try everything in your first year. I enjoyed painting and drawing, and then I got introduced to printmaking and it just clicked.
It is so interesting to make works on paper, especially using images from beautiful books – curiosities and objects. I think objects are so powerful and tangible and have a connection to us. My current work is about this, it could be fabric, it could be music, perfumes, or a book that kind of triggers personal identity. The binding book I made was all very reflective and autobiographical. I didn’t intentionally go in with that idea of it being biographical but in that particular one, I really went for it.
But it also kept the mystery, I wouldn’t want to spell it out to everyone. Everyone has different life experiences that influence their understanding and interpretation of certain things, so they can see different things in my work.
I looked on your website and, on Instagram, and what popped out for me is the February collage challenge you’ve been participating in. It looks so fun, every day something different. Do you prepare for it before or as the challenge goes?
Yes, Februllage. It is a month-long collage challenge where every day you get a word as a prompt, and you’re encouraged to create something relating to that word and upload it to Instagram. I did it in the first year on a whim, it came up on Instagram and I realised that I’ve never done anything, where I was challenged by a prompt that was not my own. The prompts are online a few weeks before the challenge, but I don’t like to look or prepare before. I like to get on with it, sit with it on the day and create something. I like the discipline of it. What I find useful is being one day ahead, so if I’m struggling or if I’m busy I’m prepared for the next day. I end up staying up all night sometimes. It is so great as it’s just after January – which is a horrible month in the middle of winter and it’s good to have something that gives you a creative push.
I’ll do an intense February – make lots of work, be really creative and then I need a break from it, but I do come back to it and work on the collages more with the luxury of time. I go back and change things I didn’t like or do a different variation.
This is how Parx Cafe came about. After doing one Februllage I thought I need to build a body of work for an exhibition and start putting my work out again. I contacted them because I have been to other exhibitions before. I got a date, but COVID and lockdown hit, so I got another date for the exhibition. And because of that, I had another Februllage. So, I had time to revisit the previous years and work with a writer friend, Emily, collaborating on the book called ‘Myths’ exhibited. We didn’t have control over the words – she wrote something prompted by the word, and I created an artwork from the same prompt.
I was wondering about this. Do you usually do digital collages for the challenge?
It depends on what idea pops in my head and the initial idea about the word. Often when the collage is finished, I go back, and I’ll do a print of it or construct it or do whatever I feel it needs. Because you’re limited with time, you just have to do it – it gets you over the hurdle of over-thinking or feeling too precious about it.
I agree with this, challenges are a good way to get us started and not overthink or put something off.
I like how you never know what you get in your collages. There are small details and ordinary objects included, which makes you rethink the whole picture – why is it there, what does it mean because it’s just an ordinary object but surrounded by totally different concepts.
This is where the props come in – you get a little insight into the thought process behind it. For me, it’s about pushing boundaries, and those words push me to think of things I never would have before. My art is always changing, I feel it should be as I move forward, things come at you and change your perspective.
So, trying new things as a way to get out of your comfort zone is how you come up with new ways of creating? Are you also influenced by mood as well (topic, media used or techniques)?
Yeah, sometimes even looking at the same thing and just trying to deliver it in a different way – could be just the surface or the background not flat but a textile or 3D object. I am really into touch with the texture of things and things that are out of scale or just ‘not right’ that you question because of their play on perspective.
I think with the Mask piece that I did, I definitely played with texture and different sizes.
I really loved that picture.
I miss that one. I have been thinking about it ever since. I made it quite quickly and it sold at the exhibition. The image behind it was a photograph of a traditional Northeast wedding and the idea is that you are in your finest clothes, you’re looking your best and then these very traditional ceremonial masks are added that are all from different parts of the world, from different cultures with different ceremonial meanings.
Yeah, the whole exhibition felt ethnographical, like anthropology and history influenced the way certain objects were put together. It also felt like different cultures were mixed in with ours, not comparing them but meshed together.
I really enjoyed making those masks, I used images from a really old book that focused on masks from around the world. The prompt was ‘mask’, so then I started learning about all the different masks, then questions came up of why we wear masks (this was pre-Covid for us). Now everyone wears masks, so gives it a different meaning again.
Do you make things twice?
No, but what I would do is maybe do different versions of it and it might become a series.
How about when you have something intact like a picture and need to cut them up? I would struggle with it as it is a book for example, but at the same time, it might be cathartic?
I struggle with that. This is where the digital comes in. I find ripping/cutting things out especially difficult. I usually end up scanning or photocopying those images in or I’ll draw from them. I don’t want to interfere with the object’s history or journey.
Do you also work full time along with creating art? How do you fit it all in?
It’s funny talking about it as it is so different now. I work three days at Roxburghe House as part of the Grampian Hospitals Art Trust Artroom project. At Roxbughe, I work as part of the multidisciplinary team in the Day Unit alongside fellow artist, Neal Macdonald and writer, Emily Utter. We introduce art to people who maybe have never done art before. We’re not art therapists, but art can be very beneficial to patients. It’s a nice way to open up possibilities – could be a day to do some colours, see an art piece and a conversation – it’s about opening out so that everybody can try art. I believe that everyone is capable of doing art – it’s about finding your niche. This role is like a studio buddy to people. Over the years it’s been wonderful. It’s really strange trying to do the same project virtually, but we are making it work the best we can.
It is an amazing project. I have never heard anything like this before.
Yeah, there are lots of great art-in-hospital projects. We started the project at Roxburghe twelve years ago. It’s taken a wee while to adapt to the current way of working, just like everything at the moment.
I met a wonderful woman called Anne Moore at my degree show who worked for the Grampian Hospitals Art Trust and got to chatting and later, she asked if I would be interested in volunteering for the Trust, and then later on the role I’m in now became available. I had no idea what to expect as I had no experience previously and I went in without knowing what I was meant to be doing, but I absolutely loved it.
Have the people you worked with shaped your ideas and practices that you were supporting them with?
Absolutely and not just art, but life. I think that’s what we’re all here to do to learn from each other and give support.
Are you working with people in the hospital only a few times or is it long term?
At the moment, the day unit is running virtually for twelve weeks. We do a talk to introduce ourselves to everybody at an open session, but we do one-to-ones as well.
How is it emotionally?
A lot of people say/ask this because they make assumptions about palliative care, and obviously it can be really challenging an emotional some days. But the great parts overpower it. When you see people find their spark and passion it is the best feeling as you see them breaking through their fear and becoming artists themselves.
The actual act of making art and the time you spend doing it is really important. It can be so beneficial in so many ways.
Even though people may have limitations and losses, we are offering them a different way of thinking and a creative way to express themselves.
It feels like a way of thinking switching from a disability to abilities and you help shift their narrative and view?
Yes. It’s amazing when you look through the work that’s done there are no two alike.
So, you like working with people, I can see that you absolutely love it.
Oh yes, I love it. I’ve really missed it – working with people face to face and the dynamic of a group of people being creative together.
Pretty sure as an adult we are struggling so much because there is no time for being creative. Art and creative time would help people being interested and keep their imagination flowing as well as help with mental health.
It ticks all the boxes, yes – art could help with all of those things when you get past the anxiety of doing it.
I think a lot of people took up art over lockdown because they had that extra time. And you just look at things differently because of the time you have.
So other than the hospital, are you working on any other project at the moment?
I’ve been collaborating with Neal and Emily on an NHS Tribute sculpture that was commissioned in response to Covid and will be featured as part of CLAN’s ‘Light the North’ public art trail. It was really nice to get back together to work on something. There were a series of Zoom workshops that we ran in February with staff called ‘Postcards and Playlists’, and everyone sent their art and writing to us to be used as inspiration for the final sculpture design. In the end, the lighthouse will be auctioned off to raise money for Clan Cancer Support.
This is something you worked all together with people on zoom and now putting those works on to the sculpture?
Yes, we wanted to showcase their experiences during lockdown both as key workers but also as parents, partners, friends, etc. We all know about the rainbows and lovely messages people were sending to the hospitals, doctors, nurses and any medical and key workers, so we thought we would flip this on its head and have key workers and medical staff writing back to people about what helped them.
Some people wrote to their younger selves, to people who passed away, famous people they have never met. It was really cool to see these cards – some were funny, some emotional, and you could just tell that they have gone through a lot and they’re exhausted.
It was interesting, and a really good part was that nobody knew each other, but there was this connection based on shared experience.
And the music side of it was also interesting. We asked people to share songs that help them to get motivated, help them sleep or to get out.
We are really pleased with the final result and we hope Staff get a lot from it as well.