Bernadette Behan

Artist of the Month September 2017

Our Artist of the Month for September 2017 is Bernadette Behan.

Bernadette uses found objects to create her abstract photographs, experimenting with light to give them a more mysterious and precious quality. She says: "I love finding the beauty and distinctiveness in the seemingly worthless, ordinary, decaying and torn". 

When and how did your interest in art develop?

I don't remember being especially artistic as a child though my mum said I once sleep walked and when she asked where I was going I said 'I need to paint a picture', so maybe it was bubbling under all along! In my late teens and early 20's I used to mess about with oil paints and my dad used to bring me lumps of firestone home from the kiln he worked at for me to carve with cheap tiny woodcarving tools and hacksaws. I had some desperate need to express something but I had no idea what or how to do it. I eventually went to art college at age 37 after 10 years of working in an office during which time (the main part of my 20's & 30's) was spent quietly but surely battling with the daily, inner burning hell of alcoholism. I looked 'OK' and as if I was 'managing' but felt far from it. I've decided to be open and honest here because this site is about being in a community of artists who have found and feel themselves to be on the outside of the mainstream of life and artworld for many reasons.

What influences your art?

I'm 19 years into sobriety now and looking back art was a necessity for me as part of my trying to make the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual inner revolutions it takes to learn to live again after addiction. People don't see the struggle - you develop a bad habit and if you've got the will power you stop it or just 'be strong', is as far as some people's thinking on it goes. These attitudes frighten me and only help to isolate and marginalise those who grapple with addiction or other mental health issues further. I knew I'd regret it if I didn't 'give art a go' so I went on an art access course and the tutor was wonderfully nurturing and helped quell my terror enough to keep me on the course. At the same time I began to do intensive 10 day silent meditation courses which I think fed my art process quite a lot. I was somehow trying, through my art, to depict my attempts to purge, dissolve, see through, unblock whatever I felt had become congealed, imprisoned and crystallised in my head and heart. I initially made hollowed out figures by moulding semi transluscent, porous materials and putting light behind them. They usually looked like they were simultaneously being born and dying. I was, it seems now, literally depicting the process of my own dying to my old self and regenerating to a new life. I was trying to find some light, peace, freedom in myself. I had an over developed sense of being 'wrong' as a human being though. So many people do have this feeling. It's only over recent years I have begun to see how destructive this feeling is and rather than try and purge myself of 'badness' I need to learn to accept myself as human,  allowing and expressing all the feelings natural to being alive.

What process do you go through when you are creating a piece?

I notice a feeling or sensation or a stuggle going on and I then gather a few bits and pieces from around my flat to play with or will go out looking for a scrap of material with the right feel, colour or texture for the idea I have. Rather than try to illustrate the sensation or idea I loosely construct a little scene in a dark corner of my room. Maybe it'll be about fragility or darkness closing in or light sifting through a sore mind, heart or body part. It can be quite a physical process where I burn or stress or tear the materials to help light diffuse or pierce through it. One piece (Molten) started as my feeling like I was heavy and hot with pain and exhaustion (after my partner died aged 47 and I was in a stage of complicated grief), like a dormant but seething volcano. I shaped some material around a little figure, set it with some sugar water, placed it on a glass table, put sponge crystals on it with splashes of ink and paint, then 'painted it' with light from torches and candles. Sometimes it's more haphazard and vague than that. I just play with the stuff until they show me something I recognise as a sensation or as a reminder that all that looks dark and worthless has some beauty and light in it or vice versa. I like the interplay. I often use rolled up tubes of reflective perspex which can add lots of dimensions through reflections, to the image. There's the idea or feeling, the materials, then the space where something happens in between. Oh, I forgot to mention - I then take a photo of the temporary constructed scene and that becomes the  artwork. The scene gets discarded as it's just a pile of messy stuff without the light. I can take a whole reel of film of one scene from various angles. I like the unknown quantity of not knowing quite what's going to come out until the film is developed because I'm not technically minded at all. I sometimes put a close up lens on but even then it's hit and miss as to the outcome. I don't manipulate digitally or anything, I like the supposed 'objective' observation of the camera on the scene I've created.

Which artists, if any, have you drawn inspiration from? 

Probably more than I realise. When I did more figurative work, Olavi Lannu, Magdalena Abakanowich and Marc Quinn interested me. I remember hearing of an installation by Mona Hatoum called Foreign Bodies where she had several surgical cameras inserted into her body and used the film of that in her artwork. She talks a lot of how we relate to the world through our senses but are often very divorced from our bodies. This often happens as a result of trauma, the attempted dissociation from pain. I was observing sensations in my body a lot as part of the meditation process and having to feel a lot of supressed feelings to heal in recovery (I still am). I think I was, (short of swallowing a camera! ) trying in my way to 'film' internal, emotional processes and mental passageways, a lot of my work looks as if it is looking down a tube of sorts. Other artists' work can hit me and affect me at just the right time, in an almost life-saving way. I came to a new crisis point in 2012 when I was emotionally and mentally burnt out, just utterly exhausted and isolated after keeping going in a far too 'working hard' in myself way after my partner had died in 2005. I came to the end of my inner reserves and had a stay at Maytree Sanctuary for the Suicidal in Finsbury Park (especially for people who are alone and struggling to go on), where the compassion, care and support was incredible. I found a Psychotherapist soon after, (who has been a beautiful support since then,) in Leeds and I used to pop into Leeds gallery before my session each week. A small, odd little painting called The Landscape of the Grail by Cecil Collins hooked me in and became like a friend! It changed from week to week when I looked at it, it was intriguing and so strange. It's kind of like light leaking out of cracks in stone. Sometimes it'd look like mostly stone and the next week it looked like mostly space and light. Such a humble little painting had quite an affect on me. Also this year I fell into a helpless and trapped state of mind for a couple of weeks in January, my mind felt like a pile of smouldering embers, I went down to the nearest gallery to me, Dean Clough in Halifax with the desperate need to know if art can save your life. I had no idea what was on but hoped for something to help me. A fantastic exhibition by an artist I hadn't heard of was on. It was Kate Walters who did beautifully raw, earthy watercolours about the relationship between humans, nature and animals, I felt tearful and grateful for their rawness and beauty. Their subdued colours were so in alignment with how I was feeling.  Maybe art gets into me and then gets into my own work eventually.

Do you have a favourite piece? If so, which one and why?

Maybe 'My Only Refuge' is my favourite. The title came from a saying of the Buddha about being a light unto thyself, goes something like 'Make truth your refuge, there is no other refuge. Make yourself your refuge, there is no other refuge'. this can sound bleak but 'My Only Refuge' is quite a warm and welcoming image for me and I have a poster sized print above my bed. It came from quite a lonely and painful time where I experienced dislocation from rather than connection to certain people at a time when I needed them. It on some level helps remind me to find rest rather than work in myself at difficult times. Giving myself a warm welcome even when I'm feeling difficult stuff is something I am trying to learn. This piece came out of a series I called 'What you need is thinly sliced slivers of clear blue sky' which is something a guru said to me in a dream when I was really struggling mentally. That series of pictures now remind me that I went out and found some beautiful places and pieces of sky to rest and take refuge in when I was feeling 'finished' or burnt out. I can rely on nature to hold me and remind me I belong. 

What do you hope the viewer gets from your work?

I really do think that's up to each individual. I hope they get something they need, some solace or inspiration to make something themselves. Some people have seen cupids, goblins, hero's last farewell (to name but a few friends comments over the years), none of which have been put there by me! I can look at or even catch a glimpse of someone elses art and get a surge of gratitude at the fact that they have taken the time to make it out of some personal authentic need or want. That somehow adds to my courage to keep trying to make something authentic and creative out of my experience of being. It'd be great to help liberate the creative possibilities in others through my art, especially for people who feel they have nothing to say or no right to say how they feel.

What has been the highlight of your artistic career?

I have only joined in a couple of local small exhibitions many years ago. I have never really had the money or know how or confidence to get my work seen on a larger scale or platform. I did however, in honour of my partner (who encouraged me to complete my Visual Arts BA while he was terminally ill), submit a couple of my photos to a Guardian Penguin book cover competition. It tickled me that I got an Honourable Mention (I didn't realise until about a year afterwards), especially as David Bailey was one of the judges. The fact that I have no technical photographic knowledge whatsoever made me feel that there must have been something original and of quality in the image itself. My tutor once said that one of my blown up photos looked like a universe in the process of being born. I think that was a real compliment and fairly accurate description of what I'm doing somehow. I feel like a scientist, incubating and trying to hatch some life form in the corner of my flat at times.

Has being a part of Outside In been beneficial for you? If so, how?

I love been part of Outside In! Just being on the website is a great feeling. My work is seeing daylight instead of gathering dust in a cupboard. I have started trying to find old negatives, some are lost, and get them onto cds now. They've got buried in the rubble of my mind over the years but now there's a reason and platform to share them. I haven't been able to afford even to get films developed at times over the years but I've started to think about getting some new work done, so my creative spark has been refreshed. There's so much wonderful and original work on the site, it feels like I have a treasure chest to dip into when I need help getting unstuck. Some of the stories are so moving too.

What is next for you as an artist?

I have lived in a tower block for 19 years, it's fine in many ways and is my refuge. I have however been very interior and inward looking. Feeling often because I'm on benefits in part, that I'm not entitled to breathe let alone think of living somewhere more beautiful! I went to Wales a couple of years ago camping and someone I hardly knew took me to see Pentre Ifan, an ancient monolith, it was like the Landscape of the Grail painting I mentioned above came to life in front of my eyes. I cried it was so beautiful, bit embarrassing but nevermind. I have been thinking since that I need to look outwards more now for inspiration. I'd like to find a little room, perhaps in Wales, a bit rural or by water with a little workshop/room for creating. The natural world has been my saviour at times, I would like to consciously include it in future work more. 

View Bernadette Behan's Outside In online gallery