The Artist Spotlight is a series of interviews and fly-on-the-wall films which explore the creative processes of artists and creatives living and working in Scotland.
David Lemm is an artist and illustrator based in Edinburgh. This interview took place in his studio – see the short film below for a taster.
TF: To start us off, can you tell us about how you ended up doing what you’re doing – what has that journey been? Where did you grow up, what did you study, who are your influences?
I grew up in Fife, in Dalgety Bay – a little place between the woods and the river Forth. I used to hang out at the beach and in those woods, and yeah it’s an influence still today when I think back to that. I studied in Dundee, at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, where I studied animation. Then I left and went into making music videos and things, developing my practise. Since then I’ve moved into illustration and print-making.
TF: Did a particular project start that off?
No, I’ve always just been interested in developing my process. I think I’m always kind of restless. I still do animation, it’s just an accumulation of different processes and it’s on a project-by-project basis. The paper cutting came from a desire to get back to making an object with my hands. It feels like a good day’s work when you have something physical to show for it at the end.
TF: Does that kind of physicality help to represent the idea of a project more accurately do you think? More than what you can execute digitally?
Sometimes digital is better. It’s that idea that in a digital environment an image is just a flat thing, but an object, you can hold it. You can experience it physically and that’s really important.
TF: Can you tell us a bit about your Atlas Arts commission for your project, Landshapes?
Atlas are a great organisation up on Skye who commissioned me to come up there to run an animation workshop with a local primary school as part of the BBC Ten Pieces initiative. Later on when they were commissioning artists to go and make a project about Skye they fortunately thought about me, and they asked me to come up with a project about the Cuillin mountain range. I climbed the highest one – which was my first Munro.
TF: Can you tell us about the climb?
It was one day and I went up with a guide. It was simply a case of going up and looking and thinking about the mountain and different ways to map it. I’m quite interested in
place, and the idea of trying to get to somewhere and how you get there. The idea of going up to a mountain to then look back down… I’m kind of adding to the ideas of Nan Shepherd around mountains; I like the idea that it’s not just about getting to the top – the whole mountain makes up the experience of getting there. There’s a particular type of glacial rock that makes up these natural cairns which I found really appealing – they held their own narrative to me. I picked out these of these shapes and tried to create a story around them
TF: What does the little star at the top represent?
It’s meant to represent the pinnacle or the idea of something that’s unachievable. It’s your goal; but it symbolises the sense of achievement or pay-off when you succeed. Sort of like a symbol for the place you get to at the end of a vision quest.
TF: What was the outcome?
A limited edition of 100 prints. You get seven prints and little sticker set so you can make your own cairn.
TF: There’s a recurrence of these muted pastel shades in a lot of your work – where does that come from?
The colours are all based on the A-Z map; green pink and blue and these neutral shades, to reflect that inspiration from diagrams and maps in my work. I’m always looking to reference that and take the language of maps from a variety of places.
TF: Is this colour palette one that you’re particularly drawn to? Would you love to have a riot of colour in another project?
I do think about colour quite a lot. I worked with black and white for a long time so I’m going wild here – this is quite a lot of colour for me. It needs to have a reason for being there.
TF: So what’s been your most challenging project?
The Skye project probably because of the physicality of it. It was a challenge to make 100 editions of hand printed cards too at the Edinburgh Printmakers.
TF: How long did it take you to print them?
A long time! They’re only in two layers of colour but I was printing 8 cards in each one and I was printing the boxes too. The Eigg residency was a challenge too, going to stay in Sweeney’s Bothy in November for two weeks.
TF: Can you tell me about your House of Illustration Residency at the start of last year?
It was six months from October 2015 to March last year. It was sort of a de-construction of my process – using the simplest materials that I could find like paper and wood, to map the surrounding area. I had an exhibition space which I split up into the North, East, South and West walls, and then I split it up into six months and in each month I made one of these maps, which was a record of what I’d seen in that direction. So I did segment geography of the surrounding place.
TF: What was your recording process when you were out and about?
Writing, photographs, drawing. I’d walk around with these tiny little sketchbooks.
TF: That’s lovely that you have those really tangible memories….
Yeah – the sketchbooks are falling apart! It was really nice to walk about like that with them. Because I studied animation I’m always interested in time and the way that things move over time – it’s like a personal biography is recorded in these maps. So that exhibition was the outcome of the residency there.
TF: That’s an interesting way to use the physical space – it’s a different way to think.
I’m really interested in maps and mapping and how we perceive space and understand the world, so it was kind of like putting you into my own personal Google Map. I made a coordinate system, and a little booklet of it all which is a kind of condensed version with some words. I like playing with data and creating this kind of diagrammatic system.
TF: Talking about playing with data, do I see part of a star map on your wall?
It’s a sea chart – it’s just the data though. I take away any indication of land mass: there’s no indication of place, it’s asking the question “what can I make of this debris data?” They’re definers of reality which are now merely bits of print, and also the seas have changed since then. It’s playing with the idea of what’s real. I add layers of interest but it’s not always obvious where. I’m using them and re-appropriating old paper to make new meanings. It’s interesting though that so many places don’t exist on the old maps any more. It kind of brings up the question the truth and what’s real.
TF: Only the astronauts can know…
[Laughs] Yes! Well that’s something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot – the graphic representation – and that’s kind of a big deal and a big part of what I do. When I was on Eigg I was thinking about maps being abstract series of shapes, symbols and motifs, that aim to represent the world and actually it’s through a filter. It’s all come from somewhere else.
TF: Speaking of which, is there a particular thing that gets you in your zone? Or music you listen to?
I suppose I work best at night. From necessity in the past, and now from habit. I have a playlist I do put on in the background with regulars like Tycho, Gwenno, Pictish Trail; I wouldn’t say they’re the catalyst though. I’m researching and sketching so it’s all part of a process – it’s not a magic thing where you’re sitting waiting on the creativity fairy to tap you on the head, it’s all a process.
TF: Would you like to get the House of Illustration pieces into an exhibition space again?
Yes that would be great but I think instead of having it being interactive, with the four walls, I might exhibit it in one big piece – there’s 24 panels in that project. I’ve got a couple of things in the pipeline for it. And I think of it as one piece. It’s an installation really.
TF: Can you tell me about the Unknown Function animation?
It’s from a residency that I did with Strathclyde University and the Chamberlain research group. The researchers were looking into Huntington’s disease – using western blots in the labs. I was responding to that research and experience. They were looking for these missing functions in the Huntington gene. So I took a look at representing those unknown functions. It’s a mix of video and diagrammatic objects that were animated.
TF: Those marks looks like alleles?
Yes – It was taking the visual language that I had witnessed in that space.
TF: How did the researchers respond to that?
They liked it. They really liked the title, Unknown Function, which was actually what they were called, unbeknown to me. It’s really a diagram that doesn’t make sense.
TF: So who’s been your biggest inspiration?
I quite like artists that work in different mediums like Alasdair Gray, Eduardo Paolozzi, Nathalie Du Pasquier, Paul Klee – artists that have different elements to their practice. Peter Blake too. Michel Gondry and Norman McLaren from a moving image perspective – I’m still really inspired by them.
TF: What do you do in your down time, to relax? Do you ever switch off?
No not really… its part of being an artist – inspiration can come from anywhere – be it an urban environment or a walk in the woods or on the beach. I like going to galleries too.
TF: What are you teaching at ECA just now?
I’m in the visual communications department, mainly teaching the students about research methodology as that’s such a huge part the process.
TF: I did a short illustration course at ECA and couldn’t believe how many journals I had to keep…
Yes, I do have a lot of sketchbooks that I keep. Lots of writing and sketching and things that never make it out of here. It’s experiments really.
TF: Any favourite magazines you read to keep up to date with design world?
Elephant magazine, Counterpoint which is Edinburgh-based and I love the concept behind their magazine. It is printed by Out of The Blueprint in Leith and they also printed the LeithLate poster and programme. I like Wrap Magazine too – which features posters which you can use as wrapping paper. Eye magazine and The Smith Journal is lovely too.
TF: So what about new projects?
I’ve recently finished working on a re-brand with The Scouts just now – working with maps and diagrams. I have a lot of ideas for projects coming up though. I’d like to be doing more animation so I’m looking forward to be getting back to that, and more hand-made processes.