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Welcome: An Artistic Odyssey Reflecting Society and Identity - A Conversation with Philip Vaughan-Williams

Join us as we embark on a captivating discussion with this visionary artist, as he shares their insights and experiences while celebrating the 20-year milestone of the 'Welcome' project. Witness the power of transitory installations that leave an indelible mark on both the artist and their audience, inviting us all to ponder the complexities of our shared human experience.

27 July 2023

Joana Alarcão

Step into the captivating world of Philip Vaughan-Williams, a seasoned visual artist with over two decades of artistic practice. When looking at his practice it transcends traditional boundaries, encompassing a rich array of 3D artworks, artist books, micro zines, postcards, digital photographs, drawings, and mixed media assemblages. Each piece creates a rich discourse around society, identity, and the landscapes that we inhabit.

Deeply engaged with the historical context of Mail Art involvement and preservation, Williams also demonstrates exceptional skill in constructing immersive installations and thought-provoking performance works. These artistic endeavours explore parallel themes while incorporating compelling political critique and introspective contemplations on notions of identity.

At the heart of Williams's artistic journey lies the ongoing series titled 'Welcome,' originating in 2004 with the creation of sand flags adorning a UK beach. Alongside this evocative installation, the word 'Welcome' was etched in the sand, challenging the negative mass media portrayal of refugees and immigrants arriving in the UK. Remarkably, this poignant project endures to this day, gracing beaches across the UK and retaining its relevance in the present socio-political climate.

Throughout the last two decades, your artistic journey has been focused on materials. Could you provide us with a concise overview of your journey and the steps you took to become the artist you are today?

Since childhood I have enjoyed putting materials together, making things that are useful or attractive. As an adult, I am simply doing what I have always done, though as an adult communication is the driving factor rather than making for the sake of practicality. With studying the visual and applied arts my practice was informed with an appreciation of varying materials, how they interconnect, their inherent qualities and utilising them to communicate concepts. The meanings that material choice provides add depth to a piece of work. In my 20’s my work explored both concept and materials through book arts and installation, utilising specific spaces to frame and extend the conversations that I wished to hold through the artworks that I would make. More recently I have been making stand alone objects as well as photographic images, shifting the mediums I use as I express my reactions to an ever-changing world.

Considering the diverse range of mediums you engage with, such as 3D artworks, artist books, micro zines, postcards, digital photographs, drawings, and mixed media assemblages, do you find yourself drawn to a particular medium? If so, could you elaborate on what attracts you to it?

My work tends to be eclectic and not follow a strict visual aesthetic or identity, this is something I enjoy, I feel it reflects different elements of personality and the varying layers that make up an individual. Utilising different mediums that are available to communicate an idea in the most appropriate way provides visual freedom. For example, making a painting is not always the most effective way of communicating an idea, sometimes a piece of writing, a drawing, a diagram or a photograph can do the job with greater effect. That being said, metal, wood, and bitumen often can be found as a central part of the pallet of materials that I have chosen to express myself throughout my career. 

Photographs have also been employed as a means to document work. With the explosion of online blogging/photo sharing, I have utilised photographs to both document works, and be the work itself. I am currently excited by making ‘immediate images’ to be displayed in online settings so that they gain no physicality, existing purely as an image on a digital display, that may be glanced upon for a moment. As images, they have the capacity to be shared and duplicated freely multiple times as well as being stored indefinitely.

I react to the world around me, sometimes embracing and sometimes rejecting. Making digital images is immediate and inclusive and accessible, I enjoy the image staying in the digital realm, though in contrast enjoy making tactile works, particularly postcards, books and zines as a way of reacting against digital media, these items can all exist quite happily in a digital form in today's online world, yet I still choose to produce them as tangible, physical objects

Welcome May 2023 by Philip Vaughan-Williams. Image courtesy of Philip Vaughan-Williams

How do you establish a connection between your material research and your conceptual research? Do you follow a specific method or approach when creating your artworks?

I have no specific process that is followed when creating a piece of work, I don’t feel that life always follows a single process, more that with multiple inputs from different sources, life evolves, changes path and takes detours at every junction. 

I have a tendency to react to situations, ponder over an idea, and then start making notes and scribbling in notebooks. Often a number of plans for pieces of work will be drawn down and written about, including notes about materials and media that I feel would have appropriateness to expressing what it is I want to communicate. Putting concept and material together for me is no different than putting two pieces of wood together, one complimenting or starting a dialogue with the other.

On occasions certain ideas for works come to the surface and are realised, in many of these situations I look at the subject matter that sparks my imagination, there may be elements that I perceive to have a sense of either toxicity or purity to them. Materials for me come from this, for example, a comment I may wish to make on a political situation that I feel uncomfortable with may incorporate materials that have a certain degree of toxicity to them.

Can you guide us through the exploration of tensions between the ephemeral and permanence in your work? How do you capture and express this dynamic?

Flags typically represent countries, while societies are constantly changing, there is a sense of permanence in how we perceive a country. Sand flags however are disposable ephemera of a childhood summer holiday, popped onto a sand castle, enjoyed, possibly photographed and then lost to the sea, or discarded. Hundreds of sand flags, all the same, each one pristine as the next and replicated at any time, provide the opportunity for them to individually be ephemeral; to wear, be damaged and discarded, however, with replacement, the work itself continues on, having a duration, similar to a colony of bees.

I have long enjoyed drawing, inspired in my teens by the drawings of Rembrandt on a trip to London. These drawings had a sense of immediacy, capturing a moment, but with a value being placed upon them, had been frozen, locked and preserved. For me, drawing is so often disposable, yet has the power to immortalise through what is observed and captured. The same act of drawing can be made in the sand, a naive scribble of a child on a beach that lasts a moment, before elements within a perceived permanent landscape shift and they are washed away.

Drawing with immediacy, using marks that make words, is essentially what I have been doing for many years. Words that are spoken, exist for a moment, yet their meaning can lodge and last a lifetime in our minds, as the drawn word exists until it is washed away by an incoming tide or driving wind, leaving all but a trace memory, or in the case of the drawings I make in sand, a photographic image produced to be preserved.

Welcome by Philip Vaughan-Williams. Image courtesy of Philip Vaughan-Williams

Your work has been described as having political undertones. How do you infuse political concepts into your art, and what is your approach to incorporating political themes into your creative process?

I challenge anyone who declares that they have no interest in politics, everything we do is politically connected and cannot be avoided. I have always had strong opinions on societal goings-on. My work has made comments on agriculture ( I live in a rural agricultural environment) expressing distaste at our monoculture approach to food farming, but also highlighting some of the beauty that this intense process can create, I like this conflict and contradiction, the poetic beauty set against a distaste for the same subject matter. I believe that there is always more than one way of looking at anything and that sometimes we should challenge ourselves and look at what we see through someone else’s eyes. Disruption is the tool that saves us from complacency.

With the UK being involved in global conflict throughout my life, I have been concerned with the idea of government propaganda promoting a message, and have responded to this by making a series of t-shirts, stamps and postcard images that spread simple messages in response to global situations.

Of late I have been interested in the imagery seen on placards at protests that I have attended (specifically anti-Brexit as well as Pride marches). Crude-painted slogans, images and messages being painted on readily available materials, to spread the word, or perpetuate an agenda or idea in a democratic way (made by professional artists or persons not defining themselves as an artist alike)

In essence, I get angry or animated about certain issues and feel compelled to understand them, form and then express an opinion, the creative process is a vital tool for understanding, challenging or accepting the politics of our time.

We are intrigued by your ongoing series titled Welcome. Could you provide some insights into the concept and inspiration behind this series?

In my teens, I studied Human Geography, where I was introduced to the concept of population ceilings. I was informed of how countries have population ceilings that are governed by resources, yet exceed these ceilings. This phenomenon is possible due to that people themselves are resources and resourceful entities. I was fortunate to also be schooled on the history of the UK, that as a country we have grown and flourished due to the various waves of different populations coming to our shores over the country's evolution.

As I progressed into working life, I found myself teaching the English language to people who had made their way to the UK, the most incredible potential was being realised by the individuals that I assisted. Simultaneously I was horrified at seeing some of the inward-looking, ‘island mentality’ articles in the media regarding immigration, this simply was not justifiable or defensible given my understanding and experience. I felt compelled to make a comment about the situation and so thought about the essence of what was happening. 

When you go to a new place, you may gain a sense of welcoming or not being welcome. This seemed to me to be common to us as human beings, something that we can all identify with. The environment of hostility that I was witnessing in the media was something that I wished to challenge, to present something that was fundamentally not hostile and innocent, more so welcoming and embracing. Childhood sand flags fitted this, with emblems of nations removed and the colour white representing the notion of peace, a simple message could be communicated, representing the voices of many who were at odds with what mass media was presenting.

Welcome by Philip Vaughan-Williams. Image courtesy of Philip Vaughan-Williams

Could you elaborate on the impact and reception of this series, and how it continues to resonate in today's socio-political landscape?

The topic of immigration continues to be something that is in the UK media, in recent years politicised and weaponised to a degree that I could not have comprehended when I first started the ‘Welcome’ series some 20 years ago. I have felt compelled through this time to continue writing ‘Welcome’ on beaches, and of late to remake the sand flags to tour and be documented around the UK coast wherever I travel. The concept of being welcoming for me is more than ever important (particularly post-Brexit) to express in a deeply polarised society. There is a need now, more than ever to be visibly welcoming to the people making their way here.

My ‘Welcome’ Sand flags and writing in the sand have been documented but never displayed in a gallery setting, for me, their importance is to be out there, being said and stumbled upon by the unsuspecting, who may be reassured of the message, or have an opinion challenged by their presence, the impact of the work is uncharted and undocumented, ephemeral, as each of our short-lived lives are.

How do you see the role of political art in today's contemporary art landscape? In what ways does political art contribute to shaping public discourse and engaging with current socio-political issues?

Political works continue to have importance within our society, and the adage of ‘art imitating life’ continues to be the case. While artworks may not always be directly political, they speak of their time and social context, offering an insight into the collective mindset (hive mind) of a society. 

I have been interested to witness images produced by individuals as well as collectives, who are keen to express and further a political idea (often in opposition to popularist opinion or political leaning). Images that are produced and disseminated online, being used to communicate an opinion, raise a question or challenge a wide-held view, can often be affirming to the viewer of their own beliefs and opinions and political tendencies, but also offer a means through sharing to have and show an allegiance to a cause or belief. Political art, may for an artist, be about raising a conversation, expressing belief, yet out in the public domain can take on a life of its own and become an integral visual part of a wider social conversation.

In your experience, how has the landscape of the UK art scene evolved in recent years in terms of inclusivity, diversity, and representation?

Art therapy has been something I have been aware of through the numerous contacts I have made throughout my entire career. On leaving art education, art therapy was something I was exposed to as an activity within an LGBT social group but was not an activity that featured on a regular basis. During the pandemic, I became aware of a Community Interest Company, run to explore the ground where creativity meets masculinity and mental health. Since then I have been made aware of how creativity and artistic expression has become a key activity through workshops and events for regional Pride events, set up and integrated into wider programmes of events that support communities to explore mental health issues, identity and political views in a creative and positive way. The integration of art as an activity that can be accessed by all members of the community is something I find extremely exciting. Having taught drawing, where people have expressed that they ‘can’t draw’ and challenged this, I am keen to promote and delighted to see that our marginal communities are embracing art and that art is being used as an engagement tool that allows anyone to be able to expressively create a work of art.

Lastly, we would love to hear your recommendations. Could you share any podcasts, books, or artists that you believe would be valuable for artists who are exploring political themes in their work?

My awakening to art containing a political message was on visiting an exhibition of paintings by Derek Jarman. A film-maker who was surrounded by much controversy due to the content of his work. The paintings that I witnessed excited me, themes that I related to through my own identity were stark, blunt and had a visual impact that I had not been exposed to before. Simple words were used to convey meaning, with an overall visual that provoked an emotional response.

Banksy has seen great fame in recent years, with his simple messages, that are well placed, both conceptually as well as geographically. His work makes challenges to the establishment and allows us to ask questions about the status quo. As a society it is of huge importance that we keep questioning ourselves to hold ourselves to account, Banksy certainly does this in an impactful and meaningful way while also allowing us to have an affection for the images that are produced, which in turn makes his work more approachable and penetrable for the masses.

Banners, placards and protests are not often seen as works of art, however, the group Led by Donkeys has been a source of visual delight, they blur the line between political art and political campaign. 

Finally, a song that is a constant ‘ear worm’, ‘Open your Arms’ by Editors, is for me a reminder, through words put to music, of what I have been trying to express through my adult life. ‘Open your arms and welcome, people to your town’. I believe that if we do not, we not only fail our humanity but are doomed by history.

Cover Image:

Welcome by Philip Vaughan-Williams. Image courtesy of Philip Vaughan-Williams

A UK based Visual Artist with over 20 years of practice. Work is primary concerned with materials, and manifests as 3D artworks, artist books, micro zines, postcards, digital photographs, drawings and mixed media assemblages, that often make comment on society, identity and the geography that is inhabited.
A history of Mail Art participation and archiving as well as making installation and performance work on similar themes as well as political comment and identity. Work also explores the tensions between the ephemeral and permanence.

The ongoing series of 'Welcome' was initially conceived in 2004, with a series of sand flags made to produce an installation on a UK beach. To coincide with the work the word 'Welcome' was written in the sand along the beach at regular intervals. The project formed as a response to the negative mass media response to refugees and immigrants to the UK. This written work (Welcome) has continued to the present day on beaches across the UK and today is as relevant as ever. In May 2023 a new version of the 'Welcome flags' was produced and will be toured around UK beaches in 2023 /24 as a transitory installation to mark 20 years of the projects conception.

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