Alice Cunnigham is a visual artist living and working in Bristol. Her practice has involved a range of media, including performance, video and mixed media, and over the last few years she has found a real resonance with stone carving and sculpture. Alice invited us at her studio to have a conversation about the connecting thread that ties together her artistic practice and to show us her latest marble sculpture, Recoil, a piece inspired by her feelings about the current environmental crisis.
For people who are not yet familiar with your work – who is Alice Cunningham?
I am a visual artist, mostly making sculpture. Over the last few years, stone carving has become an important part of my practice. My work is inspired by our relationship to our environment. I’m interested in how through an understanding of materiality and form, art and sculpture particularly can be used to communicate difficult, powerful and provocative ideas and emotions that help us navigate and reflect on what it is to be a human in our constantly evolving landscape.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
Every holiday as a child I would sit on the cliffs above the sea in Cornwall for hours on my own watching the sea and people in it.
What about your first memory of art?
My dad regularly leaving paper under my pillow as a surprise for me to use to draw and paint on. Also my primary school art teacher getting us to start every class in silence after a few minutes of our heads in our hands on our desks and the wonderful calm concentrated atmosphere that created before we started drawing.
Your multifaceted practice seems to be underpinned by the themes of community, participation, engagement and social change. Have there been any personal experiences that led you to integrate and explore these themes in your artistic practice?
I’ve always been interested in the power of art as a tool for social change. I think the non-hierarchical, emotive and intuitive ability art has to speak to people is wonderful and unique. I love accessible art and sometimes I struggle with the often-polarised ‘community’ and ‘fine art’ worlds as I don’t think quality needs to be compromised to make something accessible and the exclusivity of some art markets only serves as a commercial tool and in fact limits the scope of art/expression. I’ve worked as a community engagement officer and for humanitarian charities and I try and use my skills and privilege to enable or assist others. I come from a very big family and this has probably led me to live more with a tribe outlook and with some of the Buddhist ideology that we are all inextricably part of the same whole, so it’s ludicrous to not look out for each other.
Originally sited in sculpture, your practice has involved a range of media over the years, including performance, video and mixed media. How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
I would describe myself as a visual artist, mostly producing sculpture. I tend to use whichever material/process best fits the concept, hence in the past working across such a wide range of mediums. I don’t want to be limited to one material or process and I strive to have variation in my practice, however I have found a real resonance with stone carving over the last few years. My work probably still sits between the fine art and public realms. I love to work site specifically, responding to a particular concept or location, I find this a really fruitful way of working as well as a useful way of engaging people in the process as you all have a clear starting point and the whole ‘art making’ process becomes more linear and accessible because of this.
When you look back on what you’ve achieved with your art, can you identify a connecting thread or underlying philosophy that ties together your work?
Responding to and reflecting on the human in our changing environment.
How would you describe the landscape you are functioning in as an artist? Who are your allies and what is your tactic?
It’s a tumultuous landscape for sure but I’m realising just how many passionate allies there are. As a professional artist to earn a living from my work is a balance between responding to invitations, commissions, applications etc. and creating what I want without a specific framework in place for that work. It takes a large amount of faith, perseverance and flexibility and a supportive community who have a more self-initiated, nuanced value system and to question the capitalist idea that expediential acquisition of cash is humans’ main aim on this planet. My tactic is to be true to myself and make work that I think is strong and relevant and continues to resonate with people, and to use my skills to support myself and assist and enable others where possible.
What circuit connects what you’re doing to how you would like to change the world?
If I understand the question correctly, many charities and organisations I’ve worked with including refugee camps, environmental urban and rural projects, sustainable builders, community art, scientific groups, activist organisations, galleries, councils, schools, and universities are all trying to make a positive change that I have enjoyed supporting and learning from. Although it is hard to sustain a career as an artist, one of the benefits is the amazing range of people I get to work with.
What are three questions you don’t have an answer for?
How we are going to solve the environmental catastrophe we are in?
Why people continue to royally screw each other over thinking it makes them stronger rather than seeing the negative impact it has on the whole system they are part of?
What the weather will be like tomorrow?
Who are your favourite contemporary artists?
Alicja Kwade, John Akomfrah, Rachel Maclean, Giuseppe Penone, Rachel Champion, David Nash… So many!
Any words of advice for aspiring artists?
Keep the faith, making art and being creative is vital for a healthy society, it’s important work even though it’s not always highly valued in the society we live in. Do what you love, bring people into it and be generous.
Where can we see your work this year?
In my studio, I’m having an intense period of making fresh work and getting back to my studio practice. Next year I have some shows lined up, join my mailing list through my website to keep up to date.
Finally, what new ideas are obsessing you at the moment and where do you think they will lead you?
I’m really excited about a new large marble sculpture I’ve almost finished. It’s based on the idea of a feeling of Recoil. In relation to how I was feeling about the current environmental crisis, especially after spending six months as an artist in residence at the University of Bristol with climate scientists last year. I felt an acute feeling of wanting to pull away from/disconnect myself from the sinking ship of human behaviour at the same time as feeling really motivated to engage and participate in positive actions that might be part of the solution. The word and sensation of Recoil is interesting as it also relates to the backfiring of a gun, or an equal residual energy to that that is put out-cause and effect. My new sculpture tries to encapsulate this tension, dynamism, soft and strong, directionless but embodied with energy. I look forward to sharing it and hopefully having some interesting discussions around the idea.