Written by Kieren (he/him), with Andy (he/they) and Samuel (he/they)
Sam and Andy are a pair of artists I got to know through Nocturnal Arts, a creative platform that ran scratch nights, workshops and networking events for performing artists (pre-pandemic). Andy is one of the founders; a brilliant, eloquent and gorgeous person who was very kind about my early spoken word attempts. Sam is their partner: equally brilliant, gorgeous and with a fantastic eye for intimacy and beauty in his photography. He was also very kind about my clumsy posing when he took photos before I performed at Nocturnal.
Sam currently studies at GSA – whatever ‘studying’ at an art school online means – and Andy used to study at the Royal Conservatoire but decided the Performance Arts Course wasn’t for them. They both still make art, but in different ways. Andy has a deep history with religion/spirituality, and a growing present relationship. They contrast massively. Andy’s present is full of wonder, delicacy and freedom; their past is significantly more fraught.
I sat down with (well, Zoom-ed) both Sam and Andy to talk about artistic practice, their work, reconnection, queerness, trauma and vitality. Here’s about a quarter of our conversation (we’re all queens with a lot to say). I wish I could’ve shown you the way they looked at each other while they were talking – not even romantically, but with such joy. Appreciation for the other’s work and their words. By the end of this I had the same grin on my face when any of us was speaking.
CW: brief mentions of abuse, queerphobia, and mental illness
If I were only talking to one of you, how would you describe each other?
S: They’re serious upon first glance, slightly intimidating on a visual level but within [the] first conversation you’ll discover a wonderfully goofy, friendly –
A: *delighted giggle*
S: – perhaps with a cold exterior but very warm, grounded person.
A: And Sam is someone who’s approachable; he thinks a lot, you can see the clockwork going in his brain, but he’s very emotionally aware and switched on.
You’re both creatives – how have you found making, recently?
S: I almost feel guilty saying it but I’ve thrived. I’m a student so that gives me mental stimuli, and this is the first time in my life I’m relying on my creative practice to survive. I can research, create, play, rest.
A: I struggled! I was studying performance art (PA) but didn’t have the energy, so after taking time off I started with something new: sculpture-creating my ‘memento mori’. I struggle making something that isn’t too self-indulgent, I have this preconception that I have to talk about trauma, but making something that’s just beautiful has helped me.
I’m fascinated by Victorian aesthetics. There was a revival then of the occult/hidden, which brought death/witchcraft to the surface and glorified it. That inspired me to make a Victorian cloche with bones, hand-picked and dried flowers –
‘Memento mori’ means ‘remember you will die’, so they’re a reminder of mortality?
S: Yeah, they’re very delicate and time consuming.
A: To me they represent death not being the end; scaring away your fear of the monsters and –
S: Making something scary beautiful?
We’re seeing a revival of those rich aesthetics paired with morbidity now, like dark academia. Why do you think that is?
A: For me it’s a reclamation? From my background it was really frowned upon; magic and witchcraft was something I’ve always been scared of, but also fascinated by. When I left the cult I completely disassociated with spirituality but a friend is a practising witch and talking to her sparked back my interest. This time the beauty was that it came without the restrictions of a religion or denomination.
What about the popularity now?
A: The more we are the better. I don’t really associate with it as they still mimic a religion – ‘this is how you read a horoscope’ – I spent too many years with people telling me how to do things.
Sam, do you ascribe to the same?
S: I see anything that allows someone to rediscover themselves, those around them, or the space around them as a beautiful thing, and I absolutely believe that there are things that go on beyond our current realm of understanding. Humanity as a whole has become disconnected from something that could be spiritual. All that we can see now is patterns but we don’t experience those patterns anymore, we just see similarities.
In what sense?
S: You can see the difference in people who have that stronger connection to nature. We watched a documentary about a tribe that learnt to speak with a honeybird which would direct them to beehives, and they would harvest honey for them both. Imagine being so in touch with nature that you can actually interact with it! Our interaction now is going for a walk. We’re inside it rather than a part of it.
A connection to nature and your subjects really comes through in your work and Andy you assist! Why do you enjoy working together?
A: We often have similar visions which cuts down our communication needs. I like the experimentation when we’re together –
S: We take smart aesthetics as seriously as one another; we fully respect them and have eyes for detail.
A: As artists we try to find things that have a meaning – which is a great way to shape society and communities but sometimes you just want to do things that are beautiful. I think that it makes it more accessible for people that might never engage with art because it’s too ‘deep’. If you force contrived, intense meaning, you cut away from your audience.
S: We both enjoy just making pretty things for the sake of making pretty things. By chance or by intention of being queer, whenever we make anything together, some of that queerness seeps in? Especially if I’m using you [Andy] as a model, it’s typically a romantic, pre-Raphaelite vibe and because you’re you – queer work!
Do you intentionally navigate queerness? Or is that a rubbish question?
A: There’s a beauty in connecting with other queer artists and it’s difficult for a queer person not to make queer art – I understand why they may not want it to be their tagline, as then you’re reduced, but when I use the word ‘queer’, it’s the culture, and it’s me.
I third that. What motivates you both?
A: I’ve been a life model for 4/5 years but when lockdown started I had a massive aversion to cameras. Now that it’s moved online, some groups have taken advantage of models, so I do my own Patreon. I mostly get hired because of my aesthetic: romantic, eccentric, queer –
S: Sometimes you wear a dress –
A: That has helped me make my name but now I can create exactly what I want. I love modelling because you become this god-like creature and that sensation is inebriating, but also terrifying because your vulnerabilities are magnified.
S: It’s a double edged sword.
A: But we create visuals that I would want to watch for an hour.
What else do you turn to, to heal, revive yourselves?
S: I’m a listening person; I look at things for visual research but listening-wise I like ‘Anohni’. We like Pérotin in the morning.
A: I live by myself so choral music fills the room and I watch mindless TV where there’s a component of beauty.
S: …I make or order sushi. Sticky rice just makes me happy on the inside, for at least 15 minutes.
How do you find juggling work with studying?
S: Within the first month of school I got a commission from Vice and then I exhibited at GoMA, so I’ve been juggling my professional and individual work equally for two years now. At this point it’s starting to come naturally but Andy will see when I’m starting to get stressed. I make the work regardless.
A: I moved from PA to massage therapy so things have shifted. For me I live art on a daily basis: the way that I drink my coffee, the way I dress; aesthetics are the core of who I am, so I don’t feel the need to ‘make a piece’ – I just live it. And being involved in Sam’s work is creatively releasing, I get to curate.
S: You get to shape it.
Straying from the present, Andy you mentioned you have history with a cult. Can you speak about that for a little??
A: How long have you got! I was born into a Christian cult, and underneath the surface there was a machine of oppression, abuse, and repression. I spent 26 years of my life there and got to a very dark place, being queer and not being able to express or investigate that and also being told how imperfect I was. You can’t really leave –
S: And your whole family is there, your support system – they’re all there.
A: The outside world was demonised and I had nowhere to go. Eventually I gave myself an ultimatum that I’d either kill myself or I would leave. But I left my nest when I was 20 and emigrated to London, so though I was still engaged in the cult, I wasn’t so tied to that community. It wasn’t as hurtful as it could have been. I left the cult in 2016 and went to therapy and understood that the voice I thought was trying to kill me was actually my real self, who I am today, desperately trying to come out.
What really helped was throwing myself into the arts: I started doing burlesque, because I was like woah, how different can I be to preaching the Bible; being naked on a stage? Let’s go there! Mind you we in the cult – sorry, they – live ‘in’ the world but are completely outside of it, so it was like pop culture, art, what is that? I was a 26-year-old person but mentally I was a teenager. I guess my first show was really self-indulgent but that helped me grow.
From there exploring art, sexuality, gender expression/identity, and then recently reconnecting with my spirituality – I felt guilty! I thought ‘does that mean I have to go back?’ I also had rules I learnt as a kid like ‘don’t do meditation because you’re leaving your mind empty and the demons will enter’ – we laugh about it now – but for me they were true. I couldn’t watch movies because I was terrified that demons would possess my house –
S: And now we want the demons!
A: Yes! But they were legitimate fears. I remember being with this kid whose family took us to see Harry Potter and the amount of guilt I had when I got home Kieren, it was insane. I was sobbing at 10 years old, and that was my life till I was 26.
The hangover must be difficult – like just now you slipped into saying ‘we’ instead of ‘them’.
A: Absolutely, sometimes my brain goes ‘are we on holiday?’, it’s how I was shaped and so undoing all of that is a) impossible: certain traumas will never leave me, and b) constant: I do have to catch myself and know that the cult isn’t my life anymore.
I’ve noticed you keep describing your work as self-indulgent in an instinctively negative tone. Where does that come from?
A: Slightly comes from my past – anything to do with myself I…
S: …You don’t value it. This is a conversation we’ve actually had.
A: I need to ask him [Sam] to help me to not be too much of a giver and remind me that art shouldn’t have to serve some quintessential purpose for humanity. I battle with that a lot.
You’re fighting the good fight! Anything final you want to say to the people?
A: Worry less about what people think. I worry a lot about image and how I’m perceived, but this constant craving for others’ validation – especially as a queer person but I guess POC and working class people feel similar – the beautiful end goal should be to live with self-validation. It’s utopian, but you know – you’re beautiful.
A: And there is a business in beauty and the ‘correct form of beauty’ we’ve been sold – you’re better. My closing words: don’t give up, don’t over-compare, stay open.