“Growing up surrounded by knowledge and access to art, culture and literature felt very natural. My parents never told me what I could and couldn’t do, but always supported the decisions I made.” Artist Sian Gledhill on a creative upbringing and raising her own son, Otto…
Sian Gledhill lives in north London with her husband and their two-year-old son Otto.
Do you remember your first piece of artwork, as a child?
I am naturally an early riser. As a kid and I remember my mum used to leave a drink, some paper and pencils and would happily draw and write stories until my parents got up. I still have some drawings and stories I had written from this period of my childhood.
What inspired creativity in you when you were growing up?
I remember having quite formative discussions with my parents and have really strong memories of going to museums, art galleries, live music events, and being taken to the cinema. All of these things enabled me to develop a really strong visual literacy and appreciation of looking and seeing from a really early age.
When I was six or seven my family went to France for a summer holiday. We went to The Louvre and later drove down to the Dordogne where we managed to see the paintings in the Lascaux Caves. Discovered in the 1950s, they contain nearly 2000 figures of animals, human figures, and abstract signs. They are considered to date back to 17000 BC.
Not being allowed to watch TV on a regular basis until I was 15 meant we had to find other ways to amuse ourselves
I was taken to see Rachel Whiteread’s House when I was 13. It was colossal and I remember feeling bowled over by the enormity of the sculptural event. It was the first time that I was aware of social spaces being used for art. I had the same feeling seeing Cornelia Parker’s The Maybe at the Serpentine, which featured the actress Tilda Swinton sleeping in a glass box. I think it was one of the first pieces of work that made my hair stand up at the back of my neck.
Were your parents artists?
During my teenage years, my mother went back to college to study Fine Art, at Chelsea and then the Slade. This was at a really informative age for me, between the ages of 12 and 18. A lot of the conversations we had during this time related to art. My sister and I would be off playing somewhere and she’d be upstairs painting in her studio or trying to make things in the garden. We can, and still do, discuss ideas and concepts with her and she’ll understand the process and be able to respond in a supportive way. I will be forever grateful for her generosity of time and exposing us to a wide variety of cultural activities.
What was your childhood home like?
Both my parents have had long careers in education and I think this helped foster a very lively, nurturing and generous environment from an early age. They created a space for a natural, creative and organic discussion. Also, not being allowed to watch TV on a regular basis until I was 15 meant my sister and I had to find other ways to amuse ourselves.
Growing up surrounded by knowledge and access to art, culture and literature felt very natural. My parents never told me what I could or couldn’t do, but always supported the decisions I made. And instilled in me that I could achieve anything I wanted to, if I put my mind to it.
Did school nurture you, artistically?
I was naturally drawn to the creative subjects anyway. At primary school, my head teacher was amazing at introducing creative ways of learning. An ex ballet dancer, she cleared space every week to teach children country dancing. It was a brilliant way of getting children active and I loved it.
What piece of artwork do you remember feeling particularly proud of as a child/teenager?
There are some paintings and drawings that have sentimental value. I was also a prolific writer of poetry and short stories and had some of these published in a collection of poems.
Did you go on to study art?
Yes, I went on to do a Foundation course in Art and Design, a BA in Fine Art at Middlesex and then Fine Art Printmaking at the Royal College of Art.
When did you begin focusing on art as a career?
I always knew that I wanted to be an artist and to work in education somehow. But my career as an artist didn’t really get off the ground until a few years after my BA in Fine Art. It took me a while to build up a portfolio of work and establish a research practice.
Can you describe your work?
My work is closely connected with places and their narratives, engaging with familiar or forgotten landmarks and social histories. I often conduct playful interventions using performance and film to open up new dialogues with a place and its history. I am interested in the moments of collapse that occur within things; a performance, a film, a speech. For me there is a brilliant moment when a performance slips, falls apart or stutters.
Is it difficult to make a living as an artist?
I think it depends on the type of work you want to make as an artist. My ultimate dream would be to earn a living purely from being an artist, but I have always had to supplement my income doing other things. In the last few years I’ve been running workshops for families and young people. I think that this has enriched and informed my practice.
When did children come along, and how has this impacted your practice?
I became a parent in 2014 and my son Otto will be three in October. When I first had Otto I think I was quite naive in thinking that I could work on both at the same time, but I have realised that being a parent and an artist requires the same level of love and dedication. Managing the two is a constant balancing act.
One of the main changes to my life is that I don’t have a lot of spare time. So I have learned to be more focused and economical with it when I have it. Some work can be done quite quickly, but there are other works that take much longer.
One of the lovely things that I have discovered since having children is how in touch with their surroundings, and how aware of everything they are. It has helped me become aware of the smallest details too, which has in turn nurtured my practice.
Where do you look for inspiration now?
I take inspiration from everywhere. Work almost always starts with a walk, which I document through photography and writing. Ideas often churn away, in the studio, in the leaves of my sketchbook, and then slowly find their way out through the things around me. At the moment, I am working on some sound pieces that explore language and communication.
In what ways do you encourage creativity with Otto?
Creativity is a very ephemeral and transient process because it’s not about one thing. It’s a whole collection of tiny little things that when you add them together they become this thing called creativity. I think the key to keeping creativity alive in children is not patronising them and helping to realise their potential in whatever they are doing.
I give Otto the space and time he needs to play by himself. I talk to him a lot about what’s going on, I read to him and also use analogies to help develop his imagination. He has just started to ask questions and is beginning to make leaps in understanding the world around him. When we have days together, I try and make sure we go at his pace rather than mine. This sometimes means that we’ll only see or do one thing, but in that way we’ll have the most wonderful conversations about things.
Since Otto was very little I have also taken him to see galleries and museums. Sometimes it’s something very specific I need to see, other times it’s just for a wander. In a way, it is helping him engage with what I’m doing, but also it helps nurture his visual literacy.
What is your home like now?
Happy, lively, loving, creative and nurturing… and frequently chaotic!
When do you spend time on your artwork?
Since having Otto I now block out specific periods of time to make a piece of work or to edit works. Otto has a lovely childminder who looks after him two days a week and he has just started at nursery. This allows me the space and time I need each week for research and art making.
Going to exhibitions is also a huge part of what I do too, so often a few hours on my own grants me the headspace I need.
I made the first piece of work when my son was five months old. I asked a friend to come with me so that I could film what I needed to and they could coo over the baby
Can you describe your workspace?
I’m often working through several ideas at once and so I have a lot of research out on the walls and on the floor. Current research relates to self-portraiture, the Sound Mirrors on the Dungeness Coast, and various performances that are works-in-progress. I am a magpie for images and constantly collecting ephemera or postcards from the turn of the century. They often end up on my walls to give me something to think about.
Any tips for other creative parents looking to make a living from their work?
In the early days, going to exhibitions and reading things like Cabinet magazine, a quarterly collection of short essays, really helped to keep the mind ticking over. I also kept a sketchbook with me at all times so that I could jot down ideas and thoughts. In hindsight I would also say don’t worry, everything is possible you just have to take your time and keep going. Creating a support network that you can call on for help is invaluable. I made the first piece of work when my son was five months old. I asked a friend to come with me so that I could film what I needed to and they could coo over the baby.
To be able to earn enough money to keep making artwork, to have several shows a year and to find an institution that will support my research. From September, I’ll be teaching Foundation students two days a week, which I’m really looking forward to.