Perhaps there are no better words to describe Dail Behennah’s creative universe than those used by Argentine writer Julio Cortázar to convey an image of José Lezama Lima’s flamboyant novel, Paradiso: “This is not a book to read in the way that one reads a book, it is an object with obverse and reverse, weight and density, smell and taste, a center of vibration you will never succeed in knowing intimately unless you approach it with a certain amount of tact, seeking the entrance through osmosis and sympathetic magic.”
Indeed, Dail seems to possess the rare talent of creating a system that uses constructed images or objects to make visible the world of essences we can usually visit only momentarily, a system where lines, light and shadows create silent instances of dislocation from external circumstances, those mysterious passageways into the transitory landscapes of our internal discontinuities. What takes shape and flourishes within Dail’s work seems to carry with it complete certainty, a sense of exuberant truth that take us outside our waking mind for a moment and offers us a glimpse into the fleeting reconciliation with a world of essences we can barely attain, but where we can still experience the deep, sensory confrontation of rhythms and contours.
Dail, what were you like as a child? What did you want to be or become?
I was quiet and shy, always reading. For a long time I wanted to be a show jumper, and later, a historian.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
I remember wearing a dressing gown with ladybird buttons and standing on my bed waiting for the steam train to go past the end of the garden of our house on the edge of Dartmoor. It went slowly as there was a bridge just around the bend; I waved a large white handkerchief and the driver waved back.
What about your first memory of art?
My mother could draw and paint beautifully and she would write and illustrate stories for me and my sisters. In the 1960’s our houses were full of modern Scandinavian furniture and objects so I was exposed to good design very early on. We didn’t have many paintings and I didn’t see much ‘real’ art – I remember the natural history collection in the local museum rather than any paintings – but we had a lot of art books in the house and I looked at those a lot.
How did you get into art? What are the milestones of your journey?
I wasn’t good at art at school but I enjoyed drawing maps and diagrams. Graph paper was particularly appealing. All the women in my family could knit, sew and embroider and so I have made things for as long as I can remember, as have my 2 younger sisters. After university I had boring office jobs and went to evening classes to learn new skills including spinning, weaving and finally basketry. Eventually I enrolled on a City & Guilds Creative Basketry course at the London College of Furniture, held one day a week, where I learned many different sorts of basket-making techniques. When I left there I was very lucky to be given a Crafts Council Setting Up grant, and I felt compelled to work hard in order to justify their faith in me.
The realms of geometry, mathematics and geography constitute your primary creative context. How did you arrive at creating art within this context and why is this context important to you?
My interest in geometry is a purely aesthetic response, and there is not much formal mathematics in my current work – it is mostly logic determined by the structure of the weaving. However, I am now researching more formal maths which can be found within the surfaces I am creating. I began to construct vessels using layers of grids simply because I did not like working with wet willow although I did like the material. I read Geography at University and drew maps, and my vessels are constructed in the way you would build a relief map using the information provided by contour lines. I drew the profile and the contours I wished to achieve on graph paper and then built layer after layer of grids and pinned them together.
Originally sited in basketry, your practice has involved a range of media over the years, including stone, metal and paper...
I was lucky to be considered as a basket-maker at the beginning of my career. It was an exciting time with a lot of talented makers, here and in America and Japan, and the exhibitions I was invited to join gave me an arena in which to be different and develop my own voice. Landscape became visible in my work when we spent a lot of time in Pembrokeshire. The beaches and mountains seeped into my heart and my work. I used found objects such as pebbles, thorns and slate within the grids and then began suspending pebbles in space. In 2015 I had a solo exhibition at Ruthin Craft Centre which was all about that landscape and I wrote an essay about it in the accompanying catalogue. When I was working for the exhibition I was also consciously experimenting to find a new material and a new direction, away from the willow. I tried working with wire, metal and paper and the first of my large paper pieces was a result of this.
I used enamel in a commission for Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery which was the museum that had sparked my interest in Natural History and the environment when I was a child. Even a relatively small museum has many specimens of species which are endangered or extinct and I photographed their labels, checked them against the IUCN Red List and made enamel labels to signify the precious nature of both the specimens and the information that accompanies them. The knowledge held within museums is important because if we don’t know what we have we will not know what we have lost. I suspended over 200 of these labels in a large circle on a landing, with red labels to signify those which are endangered or extinct, floating at or beyond the edge. I also wanted to bring home the fact that extinction doesn’t just happen in rainforests far away but is right here on our doorstep. I made this in 2009 and the situation is even more desperate now.
How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
I struggle to describe what I do or put it into a category. I keep moving my practice forward and I now make for my own pleasure and follow a thread that interests me. I admire people who move between different genres while retaining their identity, such as the Norwegian artist Tone Vigeland who started making jewellery in the 1960’s and now makes sculpture.
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?
In everything I have made light has been the most important element. In my grids it moves around and through the object casting shadows, and in the current paper pieces it flows across the faceted surface. I grew up in the op art era of the 1960’s and I am fascinated by art which changes with your viewpoint and plays tricks with your eyes. I am both a constructivist and a textile artist.
What would you like the viewers to take away from your work?
Light, shadow and a sense of calm, but not stillness.
You live and work in Bristol. As an artist and city-dweller, can you tell us a little bit about your relationship with the city and its people, and how does this relationship influence your artistic practice?
I am proud to be part of such a multicultural and vibrant community. Recently Bristol has also been at the forefront of protests about climate change and was the first city in Britain to declare a climate emergency. This is something I care deeply about. Many people respond to these issues with artistic flair and humour, as well as with a lot of graffiti. On a personal level I value the community of artists at Centrespace Studios where I work. The support of like-minded people has been invaluable and has enabled me to achieve things that I would not have dreamt were possible. My studio is in the heart of the old city, which is steeped in history, and I only have to walk a few yards to be by the water which is regenerating. My favourite thing to do is to take a ferry from the Watershed to the Nova Scotia and that always clears my head.
What are three questions you don’t have an answer for?
Climate change and ecological catastrophe.
Inequality, which seems to be the worst that I can remember.
Housing is so overpriced that life is incredibly hard for young people.
Any words of advice for aspiring artists?
Work hard, be ambitious but not ruthless, and be nice to everyone you come across. You cannot work in a vacuum and I have found chance encounters have led to new opportunities years later.
Where can we see your work this year?
I am currently showing work in an exhibition called ‘Flow’ at Gallery 57 in Arundel, West Sussex which opened on 3 August, and an exhibition of 29 basket-makers at Ruthin Craft Centre in North Wales called ‘Basketry: Function and Ornament’, running from 20 July to 13 October. Centrespace will be holding an Open Studio in October and I will be showing my work there and opening my studio for all to see.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am really interested in the paper structure which I have been working with for a few years. It is a three directional, three dimensional plaited surface and the possibilities are endless. It has encouraged me to do more drawing as I have been excavating the structure to find lines that already exist within it and I will be exhibiting my drawings alongside the work at Gallery 57 this summer.
Finally, what ideas are obsessing you right now and where do you think they will lead you?
I would like to put together all the research and discoveries I have made regarding the structure in a publication. It would not be very technical but it would be an example of how far you can take one idea and the fascinating things that have resulted. Many artists have followed one theme throughout their careers, for example, the grid, and have never felt constrained by this. Because the structure is woven I have become interested in layered drawings and how these may be executed using printing techniques. I think that this will lead to further exploration.