The moment we stumbled upon Sheridan’s remarkable self-portraiture work, we felt an immediate affinity with her rich and restless imagination and her idiosyncratic and experimental manner of playing with reality. Intrigued by her whimsical worlds imbued with an attendant sense of genuine and audacious femininity, we took a trip to Nailsworth and met with Sheridan at her home to find out more about her fascinating journey. Soft-spoken and attentive, Sheridan told us about her circus life and how she mastered the art of hanging by the hair, performing in circuses all over the globe, and opened up about how she decided to turn the camera on herself, her sources of inspiration and the intricacies of her compulsive creative process.
An instinctively gifted artist pursuing her own creative journey in deeply personal and impulsive ways, Sheridan dresses up, performs and poses, going out into the woods to create magical, playful and surreal scenes with the help of her husband, musician Robert Holmes, known for his work with the new wave ‘80s band ‘Til Tuesday. Using dolls, masks, mirrors and other peculiar props, the former circus performer and self proclaimed “punk photographer” brings to life enigmatic characters lurking in the depths of her psyche, and the resultant photographs reveal their maker’s convoluted states of mind and her wondrous desire to transcend the limitations of the self.
There is something fundamentally significant about Sheridan’s work, both in its geographical momentum but also in its intellectual and creative capacity to explore and challenge the meandering ways of shaping, unshaping and reshaping the female identity. Notable for its energy, spontaneity and freedom, Sheridan’s work whispers tales of dreams, of hopes, of joys, of tears, of life, of times past, of things to come and everything in between, and announces the rebellious possibility of simply looking at ourselves and the world around us from a different perspective and to swing from one side of reality to the other as if hanging by a fine thread, almost by the hair.
We ended our time together with a walk in the nearby woods, Sheridan’s playground and creative laboratory, and at some point, speaking quietly and withdrawing slowly on the other side of herself, she gracefully disappeared behind her doll-heads mask and took a few gentle steps among the shadowy trees as if trying to rescue the surrounding reality from the seriousness of its own existence.
For those who are not yet familiar with your work, who is Sheridan Jones?
I am an artist and self-portraitist, I make photographic portraits of myself. I am also mother to a 20 year old son, Caspian, and I am married to musician Robert Holmes. We live in Nailsworth, Gloucestershire close to some woodland where I take most of my pictures. We also have a Chihuahua, Bunny the Terrible.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
Chasing fairies at the bottom of our garden when I was around 2 or 3 years old. I remember stumbling through the long meadow grass as a tantalising handful of lissom fairies flew ahead taunting me, just out of reach. I was a little taller than the grass and as I made a concerted attempt to reach up and catch one they flew up and away, laughing at my efforts and I tumbled to the ground. I kept looking for them afterwards but they had gone. And I tried to tell everyone what I had seen, I was little but still remember the sense of the air being thick with magic. I ache to see them again, it is an enduring memory.
You spent half a decade hanging by the hair in Circuses all over the globe. How did you see the world from up there?
The circus folk that I worked with lived hard disciplined lives dedicated to practice and show-time, and it was a privilege for me to meet so many different people from other backgrounds and countries and to travel all over the world. I fell in love with Victor, a Romanian acrobat, and we ran away from a circus in France to be together. He tried to teach me somersaults on a giant trampoline but I miscalculated my landing and dislocated my shoulder and elbow. That didn't put me off, I just needed to find an act which didn't rely on shoulder strength and I was soon learning how to hang by my hair when a Venezuelan artist offered to teach me. I loved circus life from the start, the hours of practice and sewing hundreds of sequins onto costumes late into the night. To hang by your hair you start taking your weight a few seconds at a time and then gradually build it up. I could hang for about 5 minutes, eventually. I come from a family of performers and musicians, my grandfather Leonard was a classical music director and played violin and piano, and my grandmother Mimi and her siblings performed together in a music hall act called “The Seven Bramusas”. So for some time I chose this wonderful life, the touring and the shows, waking up in Hong Kong or Abu Dhabi or just some place new to me in England. It was all a great experience though it was tough when touring with one day stands and having to constantly unpack all of the equipment: the flying trapeze and the nets, the costumes and seats and tent and all the poles and setting up the wagons and caravans and then having to pack it all up again at the end of the night to move on. We'd often get stuck in mud and had to have our caravan pulled out by the circus tractor. Battling sometimes through the sloshing rain wearing clogs, which you could easily slip out of, wearing a little glittery costume and cape and shivering in the back of the tent waiting to go on. It was a good life but harsh at times and after 5 or 6 years it was time to move on and Victor and I went our separate ways.
Tell us about your journey into photography. How did it all start and who or what inspired you to follow this path?
I'm not sure how it started, I had been writing a lot during the time my son was growing up and I had a blog at one point which I really enjoyed. I also used to take a lot of photographs. I was thinking about some sort of performance art and then decided to turn the camera on myself, it was a challenge really, to shake myself up and these images just kept rising up from within. I don't have fixed feelings of how others should view my work. It's really up to them. And I also know that it isn't appealing to all, but this is what is within me and I feel I am simply funnelling out these possible women that I might have been or could have become and who were looking for a chance to exist, if just on paper, as themselves. It feels like a grain of sand at first, something that starts to gather itself and then grow. I really just leapt off the edge in the spirit of not worrying too much and not looking back at my wake. It is a compulsion.
You are a self-proclaimed “punk photographer”. What are your major influences in your style of photography?
Yes, I called myself a “punk-photographer” because I didn't go to art school or have any training, and I feel very much the outsider in that respect. An early influence was Diane Arbus, her work left a deep impression and when I look back now I can see her influence on me. Her ability to empathise and then capture so skilfully those who live on the edge of society is sobering. Another influence is photographer Masahisa Fukase – his work and his life. I recently came across a self-portrait of his that I had never seen before. It is an image of his face covered in pins and needles, there are puncture holes in his skin where he has taken some out, his face is a pin-cushion. I adore this image (actually he didn't stick pins in his face, just in his image, which he then re-photographed but it is still an arresting picture). I am also moved by his personal story, his great tragedy of losing his wife who left him, which in turn led to his breathtaking photographs of ravens. And the terrible irony of spending his last 20 years in a hospital bed, in a coma, after drunkenly falling down some stairs, and his wife returning at last to sit quietly by his bed each month until he died, never regaining consciousness. I am floored by the intensity of his life and of his work. The author and photographer of the Lonely Doll series Dare Wright is another influence. She had an intense relationship with her mother and somehow managed to project her deep loneliness into these odd little tableaux about the life of a doll. Her real life was a strange and sad tale.
Can you talk us through your creative process?
It starts with a picture of myself in my mind. This picture has sometimes been there for years just hanging out in the background. I try to tread gently, they are fragments of forgotten people waiting for recognition. If the image wants to be created in reality it has to become more forceful. That is the start of the process. And the pictures in my mind are like pieces of my personality, or else I am tapping into some great well and they represent all women, I'm not sure. But they often rise up before me becoming clear through the darkness and forcing themselves into reality. There is a sense of urgency, of someone knocking loudly on a door demanding to be let in. Or out. Then I will start to make sketches and wonder if I am mad! I have certain styles that I like to use, I suppose they represent different personality traits: a few of the women are always barefoot, one wears a gold dress and another a plain pale-blue chambray tunic and another is more severe in black and always carries a small black handbag. I have a collection of black handbags and I like the idea that these women carry around a little of their history, of their selves, in their bags. Their baggage. I tend to know which character is going to take part at the very beginning. Sometimes though I don't have a clear understanding of the logistics, the imagination is very clever at filling in the gaps and the reality can be very different from how one imagines it. Robert helps me make the more complicated props, and works out how to string things up in the trees. I don't Photoshop stuff in, we go out into the woods and create little magical or sinister scenes. Once everything is ready for the shot we have to wait for the weather, especially as we both have other work to do and sometimes it can be weeks before we get clear skies or dry ground. We have lived for the whole summer with a giant cardboard castle resting in the house, waiting for the right weather conditions ‒ we finally managed to take the shot a couple of weeks ago. Everything has to be carried out to the woods, and mostly I like to shoot in the woods behind where we live. Working in the woodland has become important, I like the idea of coming upon these women in a shady area or a little opening through the trees, it is their secluded place, where they live, it is a metaphor for my mind. Woods can be scary places, you don't know what you will come across but also there can be nice surprises as well, maybe one day I will find where the fairies went.
What do people say when they see you working in the woods?
We try to shoot only on weekdays when there will be just the occasional dog walker. They usually look a little embarrassed as if they have come across a scene they don't really want to acknowledge. The dogs however will often bark loudly or they will come over, have a good sniff and say hello. I think most people feel uncomfortable and they don't usually comment or start a conversation especially as I am a grown woman and might sometimes be accompanied by a group of dolls dressed in the same outfits.
Why is it important for you to challenge censorship?
I think when I said that, a few years ago, I was really talking about the censorship which can sometimes happen within families. It started as my own journey to try to elbow my way out of my own “assumed identity”. Sometimes you get handed an identity within the family group and if you are not careful you carry this on through life when in reality it is a mask and the real you is hiding within. And that is what I felt, so it was censorship on a personal level. And then as I started to create these images I found that other women were able to relate and that they had their own hidden selves too. It is often easier to live up to someone-else's assumptions (of you) rather than challenging yourself to make changes in your own life. As a feminist though, my strongest feelings are reserved for women who are still ‒ in so many countries and situations or family set-ups ‒ simply unable to fight against a patriarchy, of those in charge. I think about those women, and girls, who suffer dreadfully, all the time, and try to chip away at this, bit by little bit, in my own way. And in a less extreme form the fact that in forward thinking countries there are still women trapped into roles. This is about basic freedom to exist as one wishes, as a woman, in equality with men.
In your photographic work you orchestrate witty and satirical scenes of subversive yet playful theatricality. How would you describe your relationship with reality and the outside world?
Well, I don't really know. I have a big sense of humour, I like to laugh a lot and there is lots of laughing in our household so I am pleased that you can pick up the witty and satirical sides to my work. If you can get something across through humour then everything feels easier, better. The lines often blur between reality and imagination and I like that. I like waking up in the morning and discovering the deep dream I was in has shifted and now I am in another world, and which one is stronger, more valid? I would say both, equally, as we can gain so much knowledge through examining deeper instincts revealed in dreams. Sometimes the outside world makes me anxious and I have to push myself a little harder to connect with others but the more I connect the more I realise that many people are the same. We are all pretty anxious, life gets to you and it can be tough trying to work it all out.
What lives in the depths of your subconscious?
There is something vast in there which is shadowing me. It has immense proportions, a structure which tries to unfold before me, a manifestation of my own internal chaos and which could be capable of rising up and consuming me, if I allowed it. But I am happy to face it. Until of course it runs me over in an effort to get out!
What is the image that pops up in your mind most often?
It is my own image reflected in a dressing table mirror from a bedroom in a house we lived in when I was 8 years old. My mother has left us and I am trying to brush my hair into a ponytail in the familiar and perfect way that she did. I am full of frustration as I am not able to.
Do you see any danger for artistic freedom?
I not only see danger for artistic freedom but I see danger everywhere, at the moment. I fear that the world has become so fractured and hyper-sensitive to any critical analysis that it is in danger of collapsing in on itself. Has the human race run its course? It's hard to remain positive when we view history and see how the pendulum has swung back and forth between political ideals and yet we are still fighting each other like animals. I fear, sometimes, that artistic freedom will be dragged down with everything else.
What is more important to you, having strong beliefs or deconstructing them?
I think I am wired to deconstruct them. I like picking things to pieces and then looking at them again. I am always suspicious of strong beliefs, I think I need a whole lifetime to make that sort of statement. Come and ask me again if I'm lucky enough to live to 100.
Are you chronically restless?
I am high energy though this does tend to have a rough cycle which ends in a slump towards despair at times. But I soon pick up speed again and I suppose you can't have one without the other. I have always been physical, from a child going to ballet and gymnastic classes and then performing with the circus. I like to hurtle around at home and I will often get bruises where I misjudge how close I am to tables and doorways. As a child I was nicknamed as being “clumsy” so I can only imagine I was doing the same racing around then. I like the positive feeling of energy running through my veins, of chasing myself and not stopping until I'm done.
What do you do or where do you go to unwind and get inspired?
I like walking in cities, with my husband, and taking the world in that way. I enjoy seeing tall buildings and brutalist architecture. I like seeing films, photography, music, sculpture and theatre. I like the sea and every year we go to Sausalito, CA to visit my mother-in-law and we go walking in the headlands above the ocean. The sea there is always wild and angry, which is inspiring and appeals.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am in the early stages of working on a short film.
How do you think about the future and how do you see yourself evolving as an artist?
I feel I have limited time as I started on these portraits relatively late in life, though I could never have done them when younger as my work has come out of a life full of experiences before reaching this point. As I said above I am starting to work on a short film, I have also started to draw and paint but this is a long term project and I have at least ten or twenty years ahead, of practice. I would like to make sculpture as well, I would like to explore this aspect.
And now a question from Éric Poindron’s Weird Questionnaire: What does fog make you think of?
Fog makes me fearful of being caught somewhere alone, and in a situation where one doesn't know which angle danger might be coming from. I do not fear the fog within, the unknown characters that lurk in my psyche but I do fear the sort of real situation of walking alone through fog in an area filled with unknown risks. I am a bit of a baby like that. I would rather hang by my hair.
Can you recommend us:
A book: Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America by Theodora Kroeber
A song: Please Send Money by Robert Holmes
A film: A Ghost Story directed by David Lowery