Conversation with Karin Häll and Camilla Hammarström, poet, art critic at Aftonbladet
CH: Drawing has been a daily practice even before you initiated your artistic education and occupation. What role has it had in your life? Has it changed during the years?
KH: Since the age of three drawing has been a sort of everyday activity. In contrast to toys, which were cluttered throughout the room where I slept, my drawing materials were always neatly organized in one of the kitchen drawers. Easy to find and always close by. Sketching had a place of its own and was more of a daily ritual investigation than my usual play. Paper, crayons and different pencils were refilled constantly in the kitchen drawer without me having to say anything, mostly sketch books from the local supermarket but also some office papers and documents from companies which had been kept for me. I could entertain myself for a long time when drawing and my mother’s intention with the kitchen drawer was probably mainly to get some peace of mind herself. It was important for me to have my world completely to myself and that I could really waste paper and pencils without anyone having opinions about it. The kitchen drawer was a kind of pantry for me, something that was just supposed to be there.
I always wanted to learn more and some events became important milestones. Still I remember the sensation of these door openers: I was five years old and finally figured out how to draw people in profile and realized then how the eye also looked different from sideways. And in primary school I learned perspective drawing by frustratingly drawing the shape of the television again and again.
The interest for drawing remained through my teenage years and as a young adult I continued on various fine art educations by striving in that same way with a wish to understand and to learn. At the same time as I actively saw to developing myself I’ve also parallelly to that just abscent-mindedly let my hand draw freely everywhere there’s been paper around: newspapers, envelopes, slips of paper, receipts, school books and so forth. Which has irritated particularly many elementary teachers. What has changed through the years is that drawing today also functions as a practical platform for ideas and constructions when I contemplate on how I will build sculptures.
CH: Isn’t drawing also a sort of free zone where the result doesn’t matter that much? That takes a certain kind of relaxation. Does it occur by its own accord when you draw?
KH: The actual drawing process consists of two parts. In the first one I work with great ease and completely undemanding. It is a free zone where I turn entirely inwards. I find it extremely easy to just fall into my bubble in a way and it’s a nice and constructive way to start the day. Throughout my life I’ve been told that I’m daydreaming but I don’t see it as dreaming. On the contrary it’s a state where the attentiveness is very sharpened. Taking into account that I overall realise many of my ideas I thereby don’t consider myself a dreamer.
Next to my work chair I usually have a cup of strong coffee, a waste bin, pens & pencils, crayons and notepads. I let my hand and thoughts wander as they desire and I’m completely open to what is revealed on the paper and let the ongoing work commence from there. Sometimes I make a drawing very quickly in only a couple of minutes, sometimes it takes considerably longer time. It can mount up to several hours.
In the second part of the process, however, I strictly examine, rethink and evaluate what has appeared on the paper. I look at the thickness of the lines and how they meet, the composition, the variation of gray scale. I erase, change, add. Everything must have purpose and nothing unnecessary is allowed. It is like a rebus which must be solved. What is the essence and how should it be specifically explained? If the form is too stylish in relation to the content it will end up pretentious and dull. If the content on the other hand has the upper hand it becomes a caricature or pathetic. Form and content must remain in a certain balance. Out of approximately ten drawings I save perhaps three. The rest goes to the bin. Some days I throw away everything. It is extremely exhausting to look at work I consider bad and therefore it is a great relief being able to just crumple the paper and throw it away.
I still see the discarded drawings as a necessary ground work for the things I save. Thanks to them I later manage to repeat some pieces in a new and better way. A good drawing always has a history of several bad ones. If you look at it that way even each quick sketch actually took a very long time to complete. Some half-bad drawings I save to brutally rework later on. Maybe painting over large parts with ink or cutting the paper apart into a completely new form. The two parts of the process wanders in and out of each other. The easy and intuitive always blends with a critical reflection.
CH: One can look at your drawings as a kind of archetypes. The hand as “hand”, the tree as “tree” and so forth. At the same time they own a irrecusable individuality. For example some of the faces look like portraits of persons. How are your thoughts on that? Is it simply a result of you working on formal problems? Or do you strive after a uniqueness in your imagery?
KH: Actually most of what I draw could be perceived as a kind of portrait. My works are often connected to simple symbols, to everyday use objects and situations which represent the so called everyday life. It is a platform that I, in greater projects with sculptures and installation, use to make visible and disassemble the safe and familiar. Everything boils down to shapes, often recognisable such, which are filled with a kind of mood-related substance through the way one draws.
When it comes to the shape of faces however I’m usually more relaxed, really allowing space to that which wants to emerge. Sometimes I’m surprised because the portraits actually resemble different real persons that I’ve seen. I wouldn’t consider myself completely face blind, but I have great difficulty recognizing people, which has led to many embarrassing situations. So even if I lean towards the face blind spectrum it is still as if a visual memory of faces exists, only differently. Unknown faces and people in full-length flicker infront of me more or less constantly, like black and white photographs. It can be images with persons from different eras, environments and cultures. Rows of old tied cottages, the Russian countryside, city buses, always inhabited by persons with a distinct mood. It’s probably situations that I’ve caught from newspapers, tv or in the crowded subway.
I would compare these images with what could happen if you’d been picking berries or clearing a flowerbed an entire day: the phenomenon when the subject of ones intense staring reemerges on the retina just as you relax. I guess my brain has a construction that copes with the impression of faces in a similar way. And maybe a part of these memories is recreated in my portraits without me being aware of it.
CH: How was it that you eventually started making use of your drawing in your work? That you incorporated them together with the sculptures. How was that process?
KH: A couple of years ago I had a physical affliction that I knew would stay for several months. To make that time somewhat useful I wanted to dedicate myself to some kind of project. Since I was extremely tired and spent most of the time laying on the couch I was wondering what activity could bring energy without being demanding. Right away I came to think of the dull classes in school and all the tedious work meetings and how I endured them by drawing on protocols and in books. How I practised, learned more about drawing and felt quite satisfied that I made something meaningful during that time while I also focused and actively participated in some kind of group assignment. Drawing made me a considerably better meeting participant. I could stay more mentally present when I had the chance to shield myself off from some flows of information that felt unnecessary to burden the brain with.
Thereby I started dedicating the period of sickness to listening to different things online while laying on the couch drawing. The entire idea with the drawing was not to have an idea at all. Sometimes I couldn’t even stand having the lights on but drew in the dim light from a pair of candle lights.
In the middle of all this I was offered to participate in a group exhibition with the theme “Psyche”. At first I was going to turn it down, since I was too sick to produce a piece of work. But suddenly I saw that the harvest of my work, the piles of drawings, in front of me was a direct description of a partly subconscious operation in a brain. I participated with the drawings in the exhibition and from there on it felt natural to combine them with objects and sculptures.
CH: How has the insertion of the drawings in your works affected your development as an artist? Has the working process changed?
KH: Nowadays I often view rooms and walls as large paper surfaces and when placing my works I consider darkness, forms and nuances in the same way as when I draw. Sometimes I use long ladders and work with the gallery walls from floor to ceiling. I can scissor parts of drawings I’ve made previously or redraw them right on the spot, add different objects and mould material together that happen to be just around me and which I think fit. At Passagen, Linköping’s Art Gallery, where I recently had a solo exhibition, I let one of the larger walls rise
as a gigantic drawing that took place among the three dimensional works in the room. The presentation process is in itself very much like the drawing process, this thing where you first work very spontaneously and intuitively to then in the next step consider, change and reflect upon.
CH: How was this book given its title?
KH: I noticed that on the uppermost line on quite many artists résumé it is written “Lives and works” followed by the name of a town. Thereafter follows a long anonymous heap of years and names of galleries, scholarship funds and art halls. In that context “Lives and works” stands out because it reveals a living human being that must live and work somewhere. It’s depicted so objectively and down-to-earth. Working means to execute something, it doesn’t have to have anything to do with art. For example I see the activity of my drawing as a trade mark for a person living on the globe with some sort of occupation. “Lives and works” for me is a summary of a temporary human existence.