Meet: Bethan Lloyd Worthington

Bethan Lloyd Worthington is a creative who spends her time making – ‘objects, drawings, installations’ – she’s not one to draw distinct boundaries: ‘Generally what I do has some relation to place, landscape and archaeology’. Shortlisted for this year’s John Ruskin Prize we sat down with the London based artist in the afterglow of her impressive ceramics residency at the Victoria and Albert Museum to talk work, the Venice Biennale and taking your time.

So how did you end up at the V&A?

The V&A residencies run on an open call. They’re asking for something slightly different each time, so you just have to find the right moment to propose your area of research. The residencies in the ceramics department are a constant, as the studio is built into the collections behind glass.

You’ve now completed your residency, what’s the experience been like? What have you learned and what will you take away?

The public nature of the residency is quite testing, mostly in a good way. I’ve had a lot of conversations about what I’m doing and that has helped to carve out some clarity.

Having six funded months to focus on my work was a luxury. I hope I’ve trained myself to get out of my own way a bit, in that ordinarily I can overthink ideas to the point where I feel no need to actually make them. During the residency period if something occurred to me on the commute, I would try my best to act on it when I arrived at the studio. That, combined with being surrounded by a colossal variety of objects has meant that I’ve increased my knowledge and my palette of techniques. 

What’s it been like running workshops? What’s surprised you most about the process?

I like making some breathing space for people. With the Drawing Materials sessions - where participants were invited to spend 90 minutes focused on drawing raw materials - what was special was the range of professions in the room. We had art historians and artists, but also archaeologists, teachers and a surgeon - they each brought their own knowledge and subtly different interpretations to the tasks.

Was your aesthetic something you were trying to find for a while? How did you get started as an artist?

I don’t know that it’s an aesthetic I’m seeking, particularly. It’s more feeling a way through a set of thoughts, unreliable visions, bits of information and the connections between them, and at the same time working with materials and processes that have some sort of resonance. That said, sometimes when you look back through the work you’ve done you notice some aesthetic repetition and that’s quite a nice feeling, it’s like you’re not just flailing and there is some core or intuition in what you’re doing that underlies the more conscious decisions.

I knew from when I was quite little that I would be an artist, the difficulty comes in the years afterwards when learning what that actually is.

Who inspires you and your work?

Often it’s writers. One of the things I did during the V&A residency was to invite a series of contemporary writers to collaborate. It’s a project that will evolve over the next ten months, but the current group are Luke Turner, Amy Pettifer, Jack Underwood, Lucy Biddle and Megan Nolan - watch this space.

I’ve spent the past week at the Venice Biennale as part of AIR Council. I don’t know that a work has ever made me cry before, but Tremble Tremble - Jesse Jones’ expanded cinema piece for the Irish Pavilion - completely floored me. It was commissioned and curated by Tessa Giblin, who I really admire, and was performed by Olwen Fouéré with sound artist Susan Stenger. It blended witches, the ways in which the law transmits memory over time, an archeological dig of 3.5 million-year-old female specimen, the oppression of women during the 16th century witch trials, the symphysiotomy (a brutal form of caesarean) trials, and the legalisation of abortion in Ireland. It was absolutely darkly spectacular.

I’d also recommend Intuition at Palazzo Fortuny, James Richards representing Wales, and Geta Brătescu representing Romania.

How did studying in Manchester, Norway and the RCA influence your practice?

Manchester was where I did my BA. I had extremely supportive tutors there - towards the end it was like they picked me up and threw me at the show, I’m very grateful for that. The time in Norway was an exchange and the campus there was on a former Viking fort, covered in snow at -29 Degrees C, so it was striking. The work I made there was terrible, but travelling makes you a bit more resilient perhaps.

The RCA was a very intense couple of years, where I started to grasp what it was I was getting at. They have a general principle that in the first year they take you apart and the second they put you together again. That felt about right, and the direction I found is still the one that’s interesting to me.

How does your creative process start once you get an idea? Where do your ideas come from?

Sometimes you know that you have the beginning of something good, and you have to swoop at it before you lose it. But even then, things rarely come to you fully formed. You have to focus and refine, then step back, repeat.

My studio is a bit like a TV detective’s environment, with scraps and notes and tests that get pieced together or disregarded until there is some sort of solution.

Has the internet impacted the way you go about creating, thinking or interacting with your work?

Certainly. I’m 34, so I didn’t use the internet all that frequently until after I’d finished my first degree, now going a single waking hour without it is unusual. It’s a massive waste of time, obviously, but so much of my research process involves meandering about, dowsing for signs and reasons - it makes just as much sense to do that on the internet as in a field, or a gallery, or a library. I use Instagram, I love seeing what other artists and galleries are doing, seems to be the thing that suits us.   

What advice would you give to a young artist starting out today?

When you graduate you’ve probably got about 60 more years to continue the process, so I’d say calm down. That said, 60 years is not that long either, you’ll be more energetic and proactive if you’re following your actual interests instead of the ones you think you ought to have. The most important people to your practice will likely be peers, it’s so much more fun when there is a collaborative and supportive group of people who kind of bring each other up. There are forces in the arts that will make you feel you’re in a competition - sucks to that.

What are you most excited for in 2017?

I’m working towards my first solo exhibition - Shell-lit Siambr - at the Sidney Cooper Gallery, Canterbury in early October. I’m really enjoying developing that with Curator Katie McGown. I also have work shortlisted for the John Ruskin Prize, which opens at The Millennium Gallery in Sheffield on the 20th June.

Words by Thea Havlin