Interview with Ellie Davies, Aesthetica Art Prize Shortlisted Artist

Ellie Davies is one of the shortlisted artists in this year’s Aesthetica Art Prize Exhibition, showing at York St Mary’s until 29 May. The artist’s work Stars explores her desire to find some balance between a relationship with the wild places of her youth and a pervasive sense of disconnectedness from the natural world. Mature and ancient forest landscapes are interposed with images captured by the Hubble Telescope. The series considers the fragility of our relationship with the natural world, and the temporal and finite nature of landscape as a human construct. We speak to Davies about her practice to offer an insight into the work shown at York St Mary’s.

A: Your work explores the balance between the wild places of your youth and the way humanity is disconnected from nature. What first inspired you to look at these themes, and to use photography to explore them?
ED: When I was at school I was very interested in sculpture and made all sorts of pieces from metal, clay and found materials.  I even had my own welding kit and made a huge dinosaur skeleton from scrap and old farm junk.  I have always felt a strong need to be making and creating.  Sculpture required long periods of solitude and incredible intensity but photography has given me a way to be creative whilst also exploring my relationship to the world in a wider sense, to be out in the world.

I grew up in the New Forest and spent my childhood playing in the woods, building camps and dams and cycling the forest trails.  The woods was a huge part of my life and my imagination.  Growing older and moving to London created a disconnection between myself and these wild places.  I think this is probably a fairly universal experience for urban dwellers.  Natural places become somewhere for a day trip or a holiday, and we feel this strangeness when we visit.  We are no longer part of the landscape.

I was studying for my MA in Photography at London College of Communication, making work using figures in urban spaces, and exploring the balances of power between the figures, the photographer and the spaces themselves.  It dawned on me that I didn’t need the figures at all because the relationships I was interested in are already present within the dynamic of the camera and the image.  The landscape or the forest in particular is an implied Other.

I think my work all stemmed from this point.  I began to examine my own relationship with the forest spaces, how I might interact within them in different ways and how these relationships might shift in the process.

A: Your shortlisted series Stars unites imagery from mature and ancient forests with visuals captured by the Hubble Telescope. When did this fascination with nature and science begin, and how does art facilitate a connection between the two?
ED: My twin sister is a scientist and I am an artist, my mother is a painter and a landscape gardener and my father was a lawyer, and both were very interested in science. It feels almost preordained that my work should bring these elements together to explore ideas about landscape and the way we experience it.

A: How do you go about selecting source material and locations for new shoots? Have there been any interesting cross-disciplinary collaborations along the way?
ED: I spend a lot of time walking in the woods.  I make lists and notes of ideas which form into sketches and scene drawings.  The locations are usually in my head already from a past walk.  Sometimes  the location itself is the catalyst for the idea.  Either way the idea and the location are intrinsically linked.

I find that working alone is an important part of my practice because it allows me to experience the woods in a quieter and more personal way.  I use a small kit and carry everything on my back.  It often just sit down and listen  for a while before starting work in order to absorb and familiarise myself with the setting and to start to notice the small sounds, the wind, animal and bird life etc. Ironically the solitude and intensity I found overwhelming about sculpture in my youth is now what I crave from my photography.  For this reason I have not collaborated yet but I have had various discussions with film makers and other artists. One day the solution will become clear.

A: What has the exposure from Aesthetica, both in the magazine and as part of the Art Prize, meant to you as a contemporary artist working in the UK?
ED: I felt hugely honoured to join the nine other shortlisted artists as part of the Aesthetica Art Prize, and the exposure in the magazine and as part of the Prize has brought me several interesting opportunities; interest from a US Gallery, contact will a well-known UK based curator and lots of new interest in my work online, on my website and social media.  Its been a wonderful experience working with Aesthetica.

A: In which ways does Stars connect with your wider practice, and what is on the horizon, project-wise, for 2016?
ED: Several broad themes connect all my work; our alienation from the natural world, our changing relationships with the forest and the scarcity of our vanishing wild places. I have been working on new series, Half Light (2016), throughout last autumn and the winter.

The series currently has 13 pieces and I will continue it in the autumn when the rains come again. My UK gallery Crane Kalman Brighton Gallery will be launching the new series at Photo London, 19 – 22 May. I am also looking forward to a solo exhibition, Into The Woods, at their sister London gallery, Crane Kalman Gallery, in Knightsbridge, 21 July – 20 August. The exhibition will show 7 pieces from the new series along with 17 images from Stars, Between the Trees, Smoke and Mirrors and The Gloaming.

1. Ellie Davies, Stars (2014-2015).