A Modern Day Renaissance Woman: Tracey Moberly

Welsh artist Tracey Moberly is a woman of vast talents. You just have to look at the multiple practices that she uses in her work! working as Tracey’s assistant was one of my first jobs post-college, and the experience influential for me going forward in art. I’m delighted to share with you her insights into her work and practice below.

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Tracey Moberly

Your work has a strong line of community involvement to it. Would you like to talk about that?

Yes, definitely. I’m just finishing one of two residencies in a South Wales Valley village named Fochriw. Fochriw is quite an isolated Welsh Valleys area, initially built up around the coal mining industry. Since the decline of coal mining, there’s little or no industry or manufacture left and unemployment statistics are high. Fochriw is not a place you would pass through, so you would need a reason to go to there. It has many socio-economic problems, but also a fantastic, unique community.

The main aim and brief of the first project Spinning Yarns Weaving Community was to bring the community together and identify role models that would lead, by identifying and assembling a core steering group for the project. The whole project is based on this community. The industrial scars left from this post-industrial village have now knitted themselves back together to its former rural beauty. Sheep from the local farms far outnumber people, they’re left to wander and graze on the oaks of roads and in gardens. I began with teaching the groups how to spin the raw fleece we found on the hedgerows and within the housing, gardens and fields; this followed by teaching them how to dye the wool with natural dye-stuffs such as lichen, madder, onion skins or cochineal beetles.

From there the project developed looking at the people, the communities, in their houses and homes – focusing predominantly on this as the theme running throughout the project.

This then resulted in professional photographic portraits of people inside and outside their houses, almost Grand Budapest Hotel style… Another residency I am doing with the same community, with a particular focus on the school and a craft group is called Hour Eyes. This is a community photographic project: I’m giving set days and times to children and adults to take photos of what they are doing at these moments. It is becoming a cultural heritage archive of this community. The response has been great – 1,200 photographs to date. I am half way through the project and we have just had a preliminary exhibition with the work so far. It’ll culminate in a large outdoor photographic exhibition where I am also cooking my Cushendall Curry with a group involved in the project for the opening – at which the group chefs will be awarded their food hygiene certificates. For the curry we are using locally sourced meat from the nearby farm and a vegan curry. There is a documentary being made on the Hour Eyes project for the Wales Film Festival 2018. The Spinning Yarns Weaving Community project will also result in a final show, with a book/catalogue detailing the journey of the project from start to finish and a lot of artworks- textile banners, sound installation and photography. The first exhibition I did with this project was at the National Portrait Gallery in London. We were invited to create a response to the Picasso Portrait exhibition that had been curated there, which we did in the form of fabric self portraits titled Face-It. The exhibition title was called Everything You Can Imagine is Real in which I was exhibiting some of my own work.

What did you do for Everything You Can Imagine is Real?

Everything You Can Imagine is Real was an exhibition Inspired by the Picasso Portraits exhibition that was current at the National Portrait Gallery in London, and a response to it, curated by Martyn Ware from the band Heaven 17 and Illustrious. I produced a       self-portrait, which I made from the app TriTrace, designed and made for me by

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TriTrace – Self portrait 1 (2017)

Jonathan Moberly (the app can be downloaded for free from the AppStore). The artwork was made in response to Picasso’s cubist portraits, where I developed the female form of the triangle, the upside down triangle the symbolism representing the female form in history. I have a rare condition of enhanced colour vision found predominantly in women and called tetrachromacy. It means that I can distinguish between colours that may appear identical to most -four colour cones instead of the usual three. It is also responsible for colour blindness in male children from the X chromosome.

Tetrachromacy? That’s interesting as an artist – that means you are literally looking at art differently!

Yes, I’ve always wondered why this has never been identified in any art movements throughout history. This is probably because it is predominately a female condition: if it was male, then it would be a household name with people having a fuller understanding of it. It also has massive implications for the arts world specifically through art history. When one of my sons (who is colourblind) and I went to be tested in a North East England hospital research department, I was shown a painting by a red/green colour blind person. The painting was described to me before I looked at it as vibrant red poppies in a luscious green field. When the image was presented to me, I saw a grass landscape which was the colour of old dead straw, instead of the luscious green I had expected and the supposed vibrant red poppies were depicted as small smoother images which were shaped like poppies, but were a slightly darker shading of the straw colour. This opened a huge range of questions to me regarding colour, sight, the reliability of art history and the questions posed within art between male and female. Especially with that of a colour blind male artist to a tetrachromat female.

It further put into context every argument I’d ever had about colour through youth and adulthood; such as if something like a wall was mauve or lilac, or whether the Central Line on the London tube map was red or dark orange. I knew I was seeing colours differently to many other people. Although happy about my own findings and enhanced colour vision, I was more concerned about my children’s colour vision and the implications it has for them and many other colourblind males. I hope to do a project further down the lane based on this with my sons.

Your work is in so many mediums and has many different outcomes – can you talk about your practice?

Although I work in a multitude of different mediums, my work is of the same overall structure and theme which I have been working on since I was seventeen. This is best explained with the term ‘ethnomethodology’, which is a perspective within sociology which focuses on the way people make sense of their everyday world. I call it the chicken wire effect, so I can explain it through a visual structure … If you can imagine a piece of galvanised steel chicken wire, with the artwork metaphorically positioned inside the hexagonal gap in the centre of each section. Each of these hexagonals has six leads or strands leading into forming the next hexagon – where another art work is metaphorically positioned. The six variables or the strands from the hexagon are the options the next artwork has, with the medium and form it takes as a response to the last artwork.

For example, if the art work was a performance, then some of the six strands could lead to (1) a person’s response to the artwork suggesting it, like a painting at a gallery; (2) someone recommending a film based on the subject of the artwork; (3) a suggestion that a ballet may have resembled some of the movement within the performance… Selecting the most logical response of these suggestions, I would follow it up, and this journey and response would create the next artwork. For example if I chose number (3), the ballet that may have resembled some of the movement in the performance, then I could go along to the ballet as a follow-up and be given a number of variables that would produce the next artwork. I could reject the statement in the ballet and continue on the original theme of the artwork, creating and experimenting with more; I could be knocked down en route to the ballet, which would result in me changing focus on the artwork and including the accident. The variables are non-quantifiable, but the links are endless, just as our journey through life is.

I could be inspired by the movement within the performance liking it to my performance and go on to produce a new dance artwork – I try and keep it to six, but the outcomes and new artworks created are infinite. Themes and mediums are always different, but each artwork follows on from the next. Some artworks go off on tangents and others go in twists and turns within the metaphorical chicken wire structure. I change media in response to each artwork, so for example I make bricks that make buildings; or intricately embroider fabric from text messages; or make large mosaic structures; or work in photography and film; or write books, or poetry and so on…

Approaching all mediums in a similar manner, I believe that every form follows a similar structure pattern: for example that using a piece of fleece one spins it into a yarn, then dyes it with a natural plant dyestuff, then knits it into a jumper, is fundamentally the same as cutting a piece of wet clay, firing and colour/glazing it to make bricks, then building a wall out of those bricks. Because I approach all mediums in a similar manner, I can weave them together much like the pieces of wire in the chicken wire – and keep crossing between mediums. Saying that, everything must be organised and planned out: if you have seen my diary, everything is colour-coded because I’m in a different city or town every few days, and it would become very hard to keep track of everything if I didn’t organise it this way. I’m never usually more than four days in the same place. But once something is in in my diary – if changes happen that’s fine, I go with the flow, but it has to be organised in the first instance. With all of my work, it’s pretty much like that even though it might not at first instance seem it!

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Tweet-Me-Up! (2012)

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Tweet-Me-Up! (2012)

whenever I can, I really like doing mass participation projects. Like with one of my projects, Tweet-Me-Up!, I have used a mobile phone and social networking to invite audiences to participate in creating evolving digital exhibitions of photography, art and action – subgenres and              counter-cultures that teeter on the mainstream. Another project I like to do is to make a curry at the openings for projects, and it’s become a bit of an institution. Cooking is such a social experience, and I love to use it as a way for people to engage and socialise, the whole chopping and the talking, making the curry as a group thing. There was a Tunisian artist whose work was all about cooking and tradition: I helped him do this piece a huge meal at Void Gallery in Derry last year – this was linked into a project, and the curry I do for Heart of the Glens Festival, in the Curfew Tower in Cushendall. Every year the title is: ’Stay Here & Make Art’. Artists and writers residencies happen here every year where people go and stay in a Curfew Tower, which is the symbol of the town.

What artists inspire you?

There are or were some artists whom slightly inspired me, specifically when I was doing A’levels at school and foundation level before my degree – Egon and Gustavo Klimt. The main inspiration I got from these were their skill and craftsmanship of life drawing prior to the stylised work they became known for. What inspiration I gained most from artists like this was that if you master a basic medium, then you can transform and develop that medium into your own stylised approach. Movements inspire me more than individuals – I liked Picasso, his peers and that period of art history. My favourite and most inspirational movement is undoubtedly the symbolist movement, incorporating both art and poetry – I am also published poet and write prolifically – it was from this movement I became interested in synesthesia and did a masters thesis on both. One-offs of artists work have inspired me such as Judy Chicago’s car bonnets; again I like how she mastered the craft of car body spraying and then the politics of the art along with the designs she created from the mastering of the craft.

I also feel that if you let yourself get lost into other people’s work you don’t really come out with anything that’s new or original. When I listen to music there isn’t a full album I really like, there may be an individual track from any given album and this is the same with art and artists. I like new fresh things I suppose. I’m not saying that what I do may be perceived as entirely original but it just seems tainted to me if I were to approach a piece of work or a project with someone else’s work in mind. My work such as             Text-Me-Up! where I archived and used all of my text messages from the first that I was ever sent. This is an original piece because I came at it with no notions of other peoples work and was a new piece of technology then. This became a book; a series of exhibitions and developed into my exhibition and installation at Tate Modern           Tweet-Me-Up! and is constantly developing. I lecture on it as history within universities as none of these generations remember life without mobile phones and texting.

Your work has strong social engagement elements have you worked with schools?

Yes, I am currently working as both Creative Agent and Creative Practitioner in Welsh schools based on the new Donaldson Report. I also work closely with schools when I am doing large community engagement projects. Professor Graham Donaldson was commissioned by the Welsh Government to consider new assessment and curriculum arrangements. He identified ‘progression steps’ to provide a more coherent basis for learning, teaching and assessment. I am working alongside a number of agents and practitioners with the Arts Council of Wales on creative learning through the arts as an action plan for Wales. I’m involved in some extremely exciting creative projects. Working with the geography department with the head of geography Nicola Webber in a school in Senghenydd, Caerphilly. The focus was to increase higher levels in maths and english through creativity as a creative practitioner. It became a model project that the Arts Council used to illustrate the programme During the time I was working with this particular year group I’d been invited to Ludwigsburg in Germany which is twinned with Caerphilly to exhibit there in a show called  and it was here the Mayor invited me to create work with the city and refugees in the city. I invited ten of the group I’d been working with at St. Cenydd School in Senghenyddand, their teacher, along with ten pupils of the same age from Novy Jicinin in Czech Republic and fourteen refuges in Germany. Gained funding for it and titled the project Yourope, it involved twelve different nationalities.

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Yourope (2017)

The project we devised was to make up the flags representing the countries that the participants were from so we made twelve flags by taking 10,000 photos of our host city of Ludwigsburg. You can see the work, photos, film and tv coverage in the link http://www.text-me-up.com/arts_residencies/Yourope/ This has now progressed further as the City of Ludwigsburg holds its 300 year anniversary as a city this year where they are up-cycling the flags and making into bags along with postcards and information on the Yourope project for visiting delegates. The flags included Kurdish, Turkish,                Czech Republic, Wales, Syria and Brazil to name but a few. The second project I did in this school is titled Caerphilly Chronicles, it is a project worked on as creative practitioner with Sara Sylvester and Nicola Webber. It is a book based on working with poetry; Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Welsh myths and legends – it focuses on Caerphilly Castle which dominates the town and is the second biggest Castle in the UK, the first being Windsor Castle. The book is titled Caerphilly Chronicles and just available on Amazon and other stores.

I am running projects in two other schools as a Creative Agent; the Creative practitioners here are producing an animation in one school and augmented reality work with fine art in another.

Your practice makes good use of social media and technology with Instagram being used as a tool here and Tweet Me Up! making good use of Twitter?

Because I’m working all the time, I see everything as my work – the internet seems like the most useful platform to be putting stuff up on, really. People think I post my life on Facebook, when in fact it’s all work- and exhibition- related. It’s accessible by anyone: it can reach people who might not be interested in going into a gallery. And I find you can reach people through other interests outside of art that way as well. Here is a link to when I started this in 2005 and titled it Mobilography – this was at the very beginning of mobile phone photography technology!

What work is coming up for you soon?

Oh, I have a lot of things coming up this year. The Spinning Yarns Weaving Community project is coming to an end and I’m putting an exhibition together, with all the photography/soundscapes gathered from those involved (including photos of those involved), their homes and their routines – I’m making a book out that project.              The Hour Eyes exhibition will also be happening in a couple of weeks.

Next week I am going to Hull where I am co-directing two plays with Tam Dean Burn, written by Tenzing Scott Brown (the alter ego of Bill Drummond) as part of                      The Heads Up Festival in Hull – Daffodils and Death Forty Bunches Of Daffodils deals with Bill’s commitment to give away forty bunches of daffodils to forty total strangers each year for the rest of his life. It also celebrates the slow death of photography as a form of documentation, this will be challenging as the play is written about Bill and myself. Totally Wired marks the death of Mark E. Smith; the killing of seven baby blackbirds by Drummond and the Second Coming of Christ in the form of the fish known as the freshwater shark:- The Pike. The last play I co-directed with Tam and wrote with Bill was part of the Hull City of Culture and titled Your Darkest Thought.

At Easter, Bill and I then leave for North Carolina USA where I will be directing two more plays by Tenzing Scott Brown, for the second half of a feature film which will be released in cinemas. March 29th an exhibition titled Power, which I’m doing with Martyn Ware and Sarah Hopkins (Printmaker) launches at the Trafalgar in Sheffield – we want to celebrate the visual and sonic beauty and legacy of the UK steel industry.

I have also started a new project working with bees and beekeepers, as photojournalist and an artist. The BEES project aims to bring together beekeepers from across South East Wales to develop a local/regional Queen Bee breeding programme to work towards sustaining pollinator population and improving ecological resilience in bees. We also want to raise awareness of bees, beekeeping and its importance to biological systems and diversity with organisations, schools and the general public, to encourage and educate new beekeepers. I’m really excited about this project.

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