When does the emotional become physical? When does the physical become emotional?
It’s a circle going round and round.
– Louise Bourgeois
This is a reflective response to two staged encounters with artist Heather Peak during her Artlab residency in Preston. The first was an online meeting on Thursday 2 February with the aim of connecting and hearing about her ideas for the residency, and the directions these ideas might go. An hour before the meeting I felt twinges of anxiety, a deep nervousness about what to expect. Who is Heather? What is she like? Will we get on? Will I connect with her work, or her ideas?
The call began and we instantly settled into what felt like a safe, reciprocal exchange, sharing stories of our lived experience. Both Heather and I understand ourselves as neurodiverse, and whilst our diagnoses might differ, there is a great synergy in the ways in which we understood our being in the world. Over the hour and a half, we explored our internal landscapes, arranging different intervals of personal experience and thought. Our otherwise internal and private mental processes were shared, exposing our insecurities.
As our conversation returned to Heather’s practice, she introduced me to some of the departure points she had been working on, offering me insights into her artistic process and vision. She began by explaining her relationship with drawing, a daily exercise that allows her to explore how it feels to be in the world. A daily ritual that acts as a process of thinking; one that is meditative, mechanistic and creates a space to explore the purity and intensity of drawing as a singular task. As a medium, drawing offers an intimate and open field for imaginative elaboration, in which concepts and ideas can be dynamic and evolving. Uninhibited by the obligation to create a finished and independent object, drawing for Heather became a way to encapsulate the internal expression of being autistic, and the mix of the overwhelm and joy brought about by different sensory experiences.
Driven by an interest in what these internal feelings might look like, Heather produced a vast body of drawings that became an indispensable part of her work. Made up of different compositions and evolving states, these drawings act as a sort of structure for thinking and communicating that exist in various speeds and directions. At first glance, they appear erratic and nonsensical, but on closer inspection they are deeply complex, amplifying the complicated entangled relations between thoughts, processes, objects and ideas within the mind of someone living with neurodiversity. With careful observation, the detail of a drawing reveals the entangled intricacies that are characteristic of a neurodiverse mind, as if holding before your eyes an image of everything that has ever happened, everything that is and ever will be, all the time. They give physical form to something deeply internal, creating a tangible and almost manageable reality for the abstracted feelings and emotions that arise from being out of step with the world.
My second encounter was an in-person visit to Artlab Contemporary Print Studio, a research hub for knowledge exchange, experimentation and development housed within the University of Central Lancashire. The studio is led by researchers Tracy Hill and Magda Stawarska-Beavan and supported by a team of specialist research technicians who promote the ethos of developing printmaking as a fine art, research-based discipline. Upon arrival, we headed into the shared research space and Heather showed me the different drawings she had produced during the residency, and explained the ways in which the drawings, and the research around them, had evolved. As we flicked through the different works, I was struck by how they were almost notational, creating experimental compositions, or rather a system of symbols, that began to form a visual vocabulary with which Heather’s lived experience of the world could be articulated. In this way, the imagery operates as a kind of personal language capable of building and holding space for her introspective world view.
Although the drawings are diverse in their graphic and material presentation, with visuals overlapping and interacting, there is a repetition of simple shapes such as circles and triangles. The recurring motifs serve to bring attention to synesthesia, a condition that causes involuntary interplay between the senses resulting in experiences like tasting shapes, and thinking in colours. These shapes are formed from energetic scribble-like lines that seem to represent a performative sway between a sense of utter control and boundless freedom, and an attempt at containing, but equally releasing, the chaos of an internal world.
Bringing attention to that which is usually unseen is a theme that weaves throughout the different works; offering intimate acts of noticing that serve to destabilise and transform our understanding of the world around us. This residency was a unique space of formalisation for Heather’s observations, and a space for the processing of ideas, perceptions, feelings, images and thoughts. In a bid to extend these observations to print, Heather chose to experiment with stone lithography, with a number of different creative and critical negotiations unfolding between her own lived experience and the ritualistic and repetitive nature of the lithographic process.
Lithography was invented and developed in Germany by Aloys Senefelder in the early nineteenth century while he experimented to find a cheap method of reproducing music scores. Lithographs can have a wide range of qualities; some have the characteristics of drawings, whilst others take on a more painterly dimension with built up layers of colour. While the principle of lithography is simple, the possibilities are complex and endless, with the materials and techniques used in the process offering many new marks and ways of working. In stone lithography, artists work directly on blocks of fine grain lithographic limestone that are akin to paper, providing an array of visual possibilities.
There’s poetry to stone lithography. It’s a rhythm that you observe and take part in, in equal measure. You enter into a cycle of different movements, each contributing to the creation of the image. You grind, push, pull, breathe, wipe, layer, draw, roll, and lift. There’s a rich rewarding physicality to this process that requires slowness, an element that, in my experience, directly contrasts with the neurodiverse mind. This method of printing forces you to slow down and take notice of every part of the process. To get it wrong is to have to begin again, but once mastered the printed images can be replicated, allowing for the creation of multiple compositions that can branch out in any direction.
I spent the afternoon immersed in the work of the studio, watching as the skilled technicians worked with various processes, from stone lithography to screen printing. Despite the different methods going on around me, what struck me was the level of care, patience and trust required by the process. I could see printmaking unfolding as an epistemic procedure, a way of thinking with materials that was steeped in history, yet felt so present as the artists worked to make their contemporary mark.
For Heather, this residency was a space to develop and make public a visual vocabulary that had been so deeply internal for so long, to widen her visual lexicon and think, process and imagine otherwise. When we think about the vocabulary that currently surrounds neurodiversity, it often centres purely on information processing and the functionality of the brain, discussed in such a way as to make people feel less uncomfortable. Rarely does it focus on the emotional side and the feelings associated with this way of being in the world. Through her work, Heather has sought to develop a vocabulary that actively acknowledges and expresses the thoughts and feelings of her internal world, re-orientating a personal, and public understanding of her lived experiences.
Throughout the residency, Heather entered into a constant process of writing and drawing that enabled her to step into her neurodiverse self. During this time, Heather was going through a significant personal shift as she prepared for the taking on of a new role as Artistic Director and CEO of DASH Arts, a disabled-led visual arts organisation that creates opportunities for disabled artists to develop their creative practice. Heather told me about her new role over the phone, and we reflected on the excitement, joy and trepidation that comes with such a life change. During our conversation, she began to reflect on the ways in which the residency had contributed to this next step, recognising the ways in which this opportunity had given her the time, space and support to be fully herself. Creating a personal space to work out her ideas, thoughts and feelings, stretching herself in new ways that were at once exciting and scary. Making the prints contributed to this process of change, with each image part of a process of getting to know the person she is, and enabling a deep self-awareness and agency to emerge. In this space she was free to be totally and unapologetically herself, and in doing so, landed a role that will help to facilitate a positive future, one that I hope will continue to be out of step with the world.
This exploration was informed by a series of conversations with Heather Peak, the fourth in a series of written responses to artist residencies at Artlab Contemporary Printmaking Studio (UCLan), Preston.
Katy Morrison is an independent curator and researcher based in Manchester.
This exploration is supported by Artlab Contemporary Printmaking Studio, at the University of Central Lancashire.