We met with Bristol based printmaker, urban explorer and one third of the Bristol Print Collective, Jemma Gunning, to find out more about her creative practice and journey into printmaking. Specialising in etching and inspired by the work of Michael Goro and Ian Chamberlain, Jemma records and documents transient states of decaying architectural surface layers, inviting the viewer to reflect upon the degeneration of urban landscapes and to experience the city as a living museum.
Jemma received us at her home where she kindly introduced us to Lisa, one of the other talented Bristol Print Collective members, and after sharing with us some of the highlights of her artist residency in Denmark and revealing her particular interest in the old Chocolate Factory building – the former Elizabeth Shaw chocolate factory in Greenbank which is the subject of some of her recent works – Jemma invited us along at the UWE printmaking studio where she kindly demonstrated some of the traditional printing techniques while chatting about her passion for black and white imagery, her involvement with the Bristol Print Collective and her dream of setting up her own studio, a space that would allow her to continue to explore the limitless possibilities of printmaking.
For people who are not yet familiar with your work – who is Jemma Gunning?
I am a Bristol based printmaker specialising in etching. My practice explores the degeneration of urban landscapes where social and historical significances are visible of being lost. Decaying architectural surface layers provide a trace and glimpse of our past history, fuelling my desire to visually record and document these transient states.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
At the age of about 8 my Nan invited one of her friends, an artist, to come and draw with me for an afternoon. This had a significant impact, leaving me feeling inspired and eager to draw what was around me daily. From that moment, I haven't put down a pencil!
How did you get into art? And what sparked your interest in illustration and printmaking?
As a child I was always encouraged to be creative and would often spend weekends making something, whether it was a weird sculpture created from scrap materials or knitting jumpers with my Nan. Being introduced to various art forms from an early age ignited an interest in creative subjects, which I have chosen over academic options throughout my education.
The first time I produced a monoprint was on my BA which sparked an immediate interest in printmaking. I spent three years living in the print studio mainly making monotypes and collagraph prints, experimenting with surface textures. It was the methodological process and the unpredictability of printmaking that I fell in love with.
After university I continued to practice printmaking, exploring other processes and combining techniques. I worked as a print technician at Swindon College and at London Print Studio, exposing myself to the endless possibilities printmaking has to offer. In 2015 I applied to do the Masters in Multidisciplinary Printmaking at UWE; I am now in my final year. This has been the most incredible experience, opening up new avenues to explore and trigger my love for etching. It has allowed me to become fully immersive in my practice, researching into the key themes that weave through my work and expand my skill set.
Your main medium is etching. What made you choose this medium and what do you find fascinating about it?
Using etching supports my vision in the subjects I am depicting. Textures and marks are important to my practice as it helps express what my eye witnesses in the urban landscape. The etching process requires an enforced decay whereby the acid bites into the copper plate, resonating with the natural decay of the structures that I am recording.
The slowness of the process allows me to continually reassess, expand ideas and fully enjoy the methodological approach of intaglio printmaking. Etching is something that cannot be rushed, it takes time and commitment. It’s extremely process driven and attentiveness is essential. There’s a real alchemy to this process which captivates me, one that I am continually learning something new about daily.
Ephemerality, transience and degeneration are some of the key concepts that inform your artistic practice. What is your relationship with time and why is it important for you create work that documents the passage of time?
My fascination of recording the passage of time is evoked with nostalgia and the questions that arise around the lost and forgotten landscapes. Urban exploration and documenting architectural decline reconnects the present day to the past. I increasingly feel this is important and a way of recording our heritage before it is obliterated from our society. Drawing, photographing and producing prints permit the experience of authenticity of place which is lacking in our forever developing, shiny and pre-fabricated landscapes.
What is it that fascinates you about crumbling and abandoned buildings?
Many opportunities exist within the urban landscape for artistic practices. For me the city is a living museum that contains visuals from the past and the present. Bristol has become the building blocks of my practice, focusing on the often overlooked, the transient and the redevelopments that are happening across the city. When I come across an abandoned building I immediately get an overwhelming feeling of excitement. An adventure begins into the unknown. I am anxious of getting caught, if the building is safe, and what or who are the ruin’s inhabitants, will I be alone? This tension is juxtaposed with ruin lust, enjoyment, visual stimulation, motivating me to continue exploring the form. More often than not, the inside of an abandoned building contains just as much enchantment as the outer shell. Rusty pipes, peeling paint, neglected machinery, graffiti, and clues of past and current occupants are all entwined with natural forms reclaiming the land. These dishevelled aesthetics provide inspiration to work from. It’s this thrill and apprehension that inspires me and keeps me going back for more.
How do you go about developing an idea for a new work? How do you prepare for it?
A moment of serendipity is often how a new body of work begins. Meandering around the city in search for abandoned buildings generates new interests and locations to work from. Once I have found a new situation that excites me, I continue to go back and draw the decaying formation and photograph what I find. Research is then carried out at the Bristol Record Office to discover the ruins past life. From my recordings and the documentations I have found, I begin to create a series of monoprints to get a feeling for the neglected building. These then go up on my studio wall along with my sketches and photographs, informing compositional arrangements for new etching plates.
What would you like a viewer to walk away with from your work?
By documenting significant decaying forms, I hope to make society more aware of their direct environment and the history that we are losing from urban expansion and redevelopments. I want people to slow down and properly consider subjects that too many of us would normally walk straight past and ignore.
What is Bristol Print Collective and how are you involved with this project?
Bristol Print Collective was set up by me and two other printmakers in 2016. We met on the MA and discovered that we all had a joy for sharing our skills and passion of printmaking with people. With that in mind, we decided to set up a collective with the aim of getting as many people as possible into printmaking by running pop up DIY workshops across Bristol. We continue to share what we do with many different organisations in the city and further afield, from the Arnolfini, Spike Island, Cato Press, Tobacco Factory and Dockyard Studios. We are continually searching for new venues and partners to work with to create more community collaboration and engagement. If you'd like to be a part of something special then you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bristol seems to be a hugely creative hub. What does it offer you as a printmaker?
There are a huge number of printmakers in Bristol, whether that's due to the MA in printmaking at UWE or that the city is vibrant and attracts creative people. I work at Spike Print Studio as a member technician which provides a strong community of artists who offer support and encouragement for each other. Being part of this vibrant hub offers networking opportunities and the chance to collaborate with a range of talented individuals and artist groups. It’s an exciting place to be.
Where do you go when you want to relax or get inspired in the city?
My two favourite places to go in Bristol are the harbour and Ashton Court. To relax, I love nothing more than to grab a coffee and sit by the water drawing or go for a long walk in the park. To get inspired, I simply have to aimlessly wander around the city and something will grasp my attention and inspire me to make. That’s one of the main reasons I have fallen in love with Bristol, there’s so much visual stimulation.
Who are some of your favourite contemporary artists?
Michael Goro is a massive inspiration of mine. The way he approaches etching is extraordinary and inspiring. He records the urban landscape using various intaglio processes in exciting and unusual ways. Firstly beating the plate with implements like hammers and then severally biting the plate in acid, creates a lively representation of decaying city scenes. His practice is definitely one that has triggered my enthusiasm for etching. My Tutor, Ian Chamberlain has also had a significant impact on the way I document the landscape using etching. The way he utilises intaglio methods in his practice relates directly to the subjects he is recording. His unique processes provide a distinct language that is visually stimulating, pushing myself to discover my own graphical voice in intaglio printmaking.
What was the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
Say yes to every opportunity that comes your way. You never know what may come from the smallest of chances.
What are you working on at the moment?
Currently I am making a new body of work for my degree show in June, responding to the abandoned Elizabeth Shaw’s chocolate factory in Easton. I am experimenting with scale, creating large etchings and stone lithographs. I won’t give too much away… You’ll have to come to the show!
What are your dreams and ambitions for the future?
To one day have my own print studio, where I can share my knowledge and passion for print with the community.
And now a Max Frisch question: What do you need in order to be happy?
Chocolate, tea, ink, paper, family and friends!
Can you recommend us:
A book: Ruins (Documents of Contemporary Art)
A song: Two thousand and seventeen by Four Tet
A film: Loving Vincent
Thank you, Jemma for the eye-opening insight into your printmaking practice.