The Literary Smorgasbord is primarily about writers, but there’s more than one way to tell a story and for this most recent set of interviews I have invited a handful of visual artists to take part. I met Calum Colvin when we were students at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art. Though he’s long since become a well-established artist, I still get a kick every time I see one of his creations hanging in a gallery.
Your work has a strong narrative feel, with images layered upon images, and stories hidden within stories. How does that process begin?
I suppose there is an element of storytelling in there. I begin with an image, or an idea gleaned from a book, or simply a title. Then there are the ‘objects’ or props which inhabit the set and provide a framework for the picture. It kind of spirals from there!
My work tries to evoke the worlds of the painter, the sculptor and the photographer. The combination of ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ are what interests me and (I believe) constructed photography is a particularly apt way of exploring this. The objects in the photographs are ‘real’, they have their own history which interacts with the narrative of the painted element, which often has it’s own historical resonance (given that it is often a re-interpretation of an existing artwork/painting). I pursue themes and ideas in my photographs that very often relate directly to issues of ‘identity’, fine art practice, popular culture, crypto-political connections, and every variety of arcane symbolism meet in a collision of ideas and associations such that a kind of kaleidoscopic’ vision is created.
Do you have a clear image of how the finished piece will look, or does the picture emerge as you work?
I think the final image is a kind of accommodation between myself and the camera – we reach an impasse, or maybe a truce! The camera lens does not see the world in the same way as the human eye does. I try to make what I have in my mind fit what the camera sees, and we usually meet somewhere in the middle.
Themes of Scottish history and identity run through your work. Was that a conscious decision or natural evolution?
See above. I lived in London for a decade or so from the mid 80s during the Thatcher years, and this certainly made me aware of a growing political gulf in the UK. However I was reminded on a fairly regular basis of my linguistic ‘otherness’. There is a sense of an evolution in these concerns in my work specifically: simply because, like most people, my opinions and views have been shaped by experience of the political climate and by an increasing engagement with Scottish culture over the decades.
How much of yourself do you expose in your work?
Often artists both reveal themselves and hide within their work. In that respect I am no different from the rest, except sometimes I am physically present in the work – although always in the shadows and sometimes in disguise!
Have you ever been deeply into a piece only to realise that it isn’t working?
Not that I’ve been prepared to admit! I am nothing if not persistent!
How do you know when a piece is finished?
When I decide I can’t make it any better, or I run out of time, or puff.
Is there any piece you are particularly happy with?
No. I think the next one might be better.
We first met as art students in Dundee. I have a particularly vivid memory of you, me and Andy Crummy huddled around the fire in Andy’s basement flat, eating slices of cheese from a block of cheap cheddar. Oh, the glamour. I think it was the only thing any of us had to eat that day. You are now a Professor of Fine Art Photography at Dundee University and Andy has created the Great Tapestry of Scotland – changed days indeed. Looking back, what does the journey from student to professor look like?
I don’t think about life journeys and such too much. I tend to be too busy dreaming up the next wheeze. I’m still partial to a bit of cheddar.
What, if any, are the differences between art students then and now?
I think it is all a bit more professional now. Teaching is much more sober and structured, for better or for worse. Interdisciplinarity is encouraged in a way that was never before, and I would like to think I have been a part of that change. Students work very hard, and I am very proud of their achievements at Duncan of Jordanstone, which is now part of the University of Dundee. I went to the same institution at the age of seventeen and see the similarities and transformations most days.
What are you working on at the moment?
As ever, I’m juggling half a dozen or so short term and long term projects. Some of them will go by the wayside, and some will evolve. We’ll see.
I’m definitely making a commission for the British Academy in London. A group portrait of eight Honorary Academicians, past and present. A big job.
What advice would you give the young Calum Colvin?
None. I wouldn’t have listened.
If you could spend a day hanging out with any one person, past or present, who would you choose and why? How would you spend the day?
Robert Burns. A walk in the country, a meal, a drink.
Who would play Calum Colvin in the film of your life?
I’ve no idea. I wouldn’t watch it. Maybe Jacques Tati?
A few short questions to finish. Favourite book:
Poems, chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, by Robert Burns 1786.
Malt Whisky – any. I’ll play the field.
Cheese. Unless it’s Andy’s Cheddar.
It’s a Wonderful Life
Work of art:
Thanks, Calum. It’s been a real pleasure having you on the Smorgasbord.
Burns Country by Calum Colvin
Find out about the Isle Martin Writing Retreats 2018 here.