To Thine Ownself Be True; An Interview with Artist Wendy Rolt
Discussing the tensions within, in society today and in our interior that inspired the latest exhibition from artist Wendy Rolt. As Rolt approaches her first solo exhibition, we discuss how it feels to curate this exhibition: To Thine Ownself Be True. Meeting in her East London studio, surrounded by canvas and wet paint, we discuss those tensions within and the creative force behind her latest exhibition pieces.
Many of these works deal with the problem of duality: the tensions in society today and in our interior response to these. What are the specific tensions that you look at in your work?
This exhibition is an exploration and conversation between our internal and external selves. The works: There are themes of exterior/ interior, thriving/ surviving, wanting/restraining, ethical desires/real responses. How can we learn to hold both in our bodies without rejecting one. This is the experience of living: nothing is just one dimensional, there is often a tension within.
What lead you to decide on this exhibition now?
Why the tensions within as a focus for your work?
There are mixed mediums in some of your works, such as the aluminium prints of MRI’s covered with jackets. What is the statement here?
There are echoes of this dualistic being in the presentation of the feminine in the painting ‘Within, Without’.
She is a complex being with an outer and inner presence and presents us with a query of who she is.
There is the woman people want to see – the high heeled shoes, the lipstick, the looks – she is how we are told a woman should look if she is ´holding it together´. If she is successful, if she is winning. Of course the reality is the interior. The mess inside, a complexity of layers to sort through, but as long as she is holding it together on the exterior, everything is fine. This can be a particularly feminine trait – the appearance of a woman in control jet juggling so much and at what cost? There are frequent references to duality throughout art, literature, philosophy, but in this modern world right now, with such awareness of mental illness and of modern living pushing people to their limits, it seems especially prescient that we are all hanging on by a thread.
This particular painting was also inspired by the fictional character Eleanor Oliphant in the book by Gail Honeymoon, this character represents many of the tensions between what society asks of us and the reality of how we are able to respond to those and the consequences that can occur when we are unable to bring our true self into the picture.
The writings of John O’Donohue on Celtic Wisdom have been a strong influence in your work as well as various poetry. How does your own poetry speak to your painting?
Poetry has been another route towards creating works. Some of my paintings are birthed from the words I have written first. In poetry I have found the joy of being able to ramble and play freely with words and expression without worrying about clarity and understanding. It’s an outlet. My poems are certainly not written for people to read.
You have had a lot of involvement as a volunteer with charities and 10 years ago you set up your own charity that focuses on assisting vulnerable women. The evidence of the traumas and also the rewards of this work are evident in your work. How do you feel these experiences wove into what you feel you needed to express as an artist?
In a position of privilege, which volunteering with charities can often be, I have learnt about my own vulnerabilities, along with the resilience and utter determination of others. Seeing people at their most desperate or vulnerable, with the determination to carry on and choose life is humbling, extraordinary and sometimes extremely emotional. And also walking closely with those when it is too much and everything collapses. The women I work with make me laugh and cry, we share all the of human emotions life has to throw at us as we try to work through the challenges together. But we each have our own path and our own barriers – and in sharing much of life I can’t help but be influenced by this and so it comes through in my art.
You previously worked on large scale landscapes of places that were familiar to you and that you drew comfort from, such as Cornwall. This later departure to abstract and figurative work and, in particular, the theme of tensions seems like a personal transition in not just your work, but your psyche. Is this your progression as an artist or just your journey in life?
It is a transition and a leap of faith from my comfort zone into a deeper place of expression, especially to explore and purge the tensions within. I have stepped away from the concrete nature of painting what is see into figurative and conceptual art as I openly question what I see in society locally and also more broadly and feel the discomfort and hipocrasy in how this relates to beliefs and values. This body of work represents trying to hold these tensions and contradictions while also practicing having a non-dualistic mindset in response. We are nurtured with ideas and values that we believe and hope to be true, and yet what we see around us can breach these comfort zones, normality and faith. Both are real.
Maybe it is embracing our confusion and vulnerability that really makes us whole as humans. Weakness and suffering are part of the human condition that we all experience. There is no shame in it yet that is what is normally feel and what we respond to outwardly, so we hide. We step in and out of our own tensions. Each work in this show stems from the reality of tension, some are deeply personal while others are more ideas based. These can be as a woman dealing with my own feeling towards age and beliefs and desire as well as living an urban capitalist life in the full knowledge of the environmental collapse and knowing I am part of the problem and how do I hold that knowing. The figures I have painted are wrestling with different themes (sometimes shown in having more than one head, one mind) but all are external expressions of my internal and physical being holding tension. And as the themes ripple out they cause the next creative response. I have come to learn from my physical body and my gut and senses and to let these steer my work rather than simply my head. In letting go of understanding my work has become a place of holding truths that should not co-exist yet do, which is what life seems to so often be made of in an honest reality.