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Meet the Artist: Alex Pain

Alex Pain lives and works in Nottingham and has a BA in Fine Art from NTU in 2011. He has had solo shows at Nottingham Castle and CUSP in Leicester. His sculpture ‘Tor’ was acquisition-ed by Arts Council England in 2014. Last year Alex featured in a group exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park and showed his ‘Brandishing Stick’ series at Clearview Ltd, London, this summer. He maintains a studio at One Thoresby Street in Nottingham.

Where are you based?

I’ve been in the attic studio at One Thoresby Street for seven years now. The space was empty when a few friends and I decided to rent it and turn it into a communal studio. We’ve got a soundproofed band room, a couple of other digital/tech rooms and a spraybooth. The main space is a workshop which is the bit I use. Studio members come and go and it’s great to see the studio evolve with the people.

Describe your practice for us

I’d say it is somehow both specific and quite broad. Specific in that for three years I’ve been working on a single series of artworks and I consider only those to be my artworks. Broad in the sense that I’ve also made furniture, lighting, jewellery and other more commercially minded ventures. I consider all that to be part of my practice however as the transferable skills means there is a relationship between them. People are talking about ‘makers’ alternatively to just ‘artists’, I think I’m one of those.

How long have you been practising and by what route did you come to your practice?

A pretty straight forward one as far as education is concerned. I always prioritised art over every other subject and so found myself on a Fine Art BA at NTU. After graduation and starting the studio I had a run of good luck with a couple of solo shows and things. I then took a break for a couple of years as I didn’t like the way I was making art anymore. During that gap I made other things like the aforementioned furniture etc. This was a valuable time for me as I just began to relax and let go of conceptual pressure. I learnt a few new skills and it all gave me the impetus to start making artworks again when I was ready.

Your early work demonstrated a strong architectural influence, your more recent work design and craftsmanship. Are you naturally interested in discipline or is it a means to an end?

I think of myself as quite undisciplined actually, I’m rubbish at time management and I’m really forgetful. Sometimes I get distracted easily in the studio and start making too many things at once. On the other hand, if I know what I’m doing and I have everything with me I can find myself sanding something for three days straight and not get bored. My artwork (old and new) probably looks quite designed and precise. In reality I rarely have a plan, I’m not good at drawing an idea out into 2d form and working from sketches. I just begin and things change during the making process, I usually make quick aesthetic decisions and don’t dwell on the implications. For me that’s a sure way to kill a creative streak. I trust my instincts essentially. It’s funny that the finished product gives the impression of careful planning, that’s probably the fault of a labour intensive making process.

Tell us about ‘The Brandishing Sticks’. They allude to something practical, something with tradition or history, but ultimately are beautiful objects, studies in material. What’s is your motivation for making them?

It began during that period where I wasn’t making artworks, I was still experimenting with techniques and materials however and I wanted to try stacked leather handle making. It’s a knife handle making technique where you compress leather discs on top of each other like the rings of a worm. I used that process to make a long stick from leather and buffalo horn and took the shape from the curvature of ergonomically designed handles. The first one was that of an axe handle. Since that first one I’ve gone on to make six more, all taking cue from different ergonomic features. They get quite strange and look like they have an unknown purpose. I was reading at the time about early human tool use and the cognative effect that had on human evolution. People who hold the sticks feel an instinctual sense of power and I love seeing people interact with them, there’s something primal there, mixed with a kind of material desire and appreciation of a strange craftsmanship.

How do you choose your materials?

I like to attempt some new technique everytime I make something, it’s a quick way to learn and improve my skills and keep me interested. So when choosing materials I either pick something I haven’t used before or use something I have in a new way. I find a lot of my materials and I hoard quite a bit of rubbish, just in case I might want it down the line. I tend to think of materials as either warm or cold, quite literally to the touch since these sticks are meant to be held. A contrast there is quite nice, metal is cold, wood is warm for example. Similarly I separate materials by matt or gloss. Metal might have a shine compared to some textured wood but wood can also be polished and metal dulled by some process. So I like to mix and match those attributes unexpectedly.

What is the most interesting or inspiring thing you have seen or been to recently, and why?

I was on holiday in the Scottish Highlands climbing Munros, on the way up one mountain the rock path had a strong concentration of mica, a shiny silicate mineral that forms tiny cystalline formations. In the sunshine the result was that I was walking on a sparkling golden path. Moments like this are the times when I start to have a lot of ideas. I made the climb harder for myself as I kept filling my backpack with rocks. On the way down we passed through a peat bog where I came across a gnarled and sun bleached tree root that had been petrified. I hope to combine the two materials in the next Brandishing Stick. It will still have ergonomic features but will be the first stick to also have a strong sense of place and time for me.

Which other artists’ work do you admire, and why?

I don’t regularly keep up with any other artist’s practice. I work as an art technician so I do see a lot of artwork, but the relationship to it is different to that of a regular gallery visitor. I did really enjoy meeting Richard Slee a few years ago when I installed his exhibition. His artwork was simple, witty and beautifully made and he made decisions decisively knowing exactly how we wanted his artwork to be seen and without a shred of self doubt. I don’t know if that came with age or just how he was but I admired both his artworks and his whole approach.


Where can we see your work?

On my website and on Instagram.


Alex was interviewed in September 2018.

All images are courtesy of the artist, with images 1 to 6 being courtesy of the artist and Finbar Prior.

Photography: Matt Woodham