Johanna Flanagan has an exhibition of work in the Tighnabruaich Gallery titled The Book of Secrets, which will be there for the duration of October.
Known to many as The Pale Rook, Johanna is a textile artist fascinated with dolls and storytelling, which heavily comes across in her pieces, and she spoke with The Fountain about her processes, her intuitive practice, the inspiration behind the name and other projects brewing alongside this stunning exhibition.
TF: Your work is in Tighnabruaich Gallery where it is exhibiting for the month of October. You must be excited?
I am really happy to be working with that particular gallery. I think they’ve been really great with me and very ambitious about what they want. At the same time they are giving me free reign and I’ve just had a lot of respect for the other shows they’ve had. For such a rural gallery they seem to have very challenging successful shows, it’s not the roaming in the gloaming wee rural gallery type stuff that you would expect from that part of the world, the clichéd idea of a Scottish gallery, so yes it is great to be going there.
TF: And you are known in the art world as The Pale Rook. What inspired this name?
There are a few things. At the time I was still teaching and also working in costume and fashion so I wanted a secret name as I didn’t know that this would take off. It was purely something I was drawn to do and I had no idea whether anyone else would be interested in it so I chose that name. It was a way for me to hide my identity.
Regarding the name itself it sprung from a few things. The image that I had stuck in my head was the white rook from Gormenghast because it is one of my favourite literary characters. Gertrude from Gormenghast has this white bird that is kind of her eyes and ears for the rest of the castle and he goes out and comes back to tell her about what’s going on. I just loved that image of this huge, red-haired woman sitting in a dark room with this white bird flying in and out, and it stuck so that’s where The Pale Rook came from.
TF: It’s a very distinctive style of work that you create from what I’ve seen, it’s rather gothic. How would you personally describe it?
I tend to work very intuitively, I don’t sit and gather images and create Pinterest boards with an idea of the look that I am going for. I work with unpredictable processes so a lot of the time the look of a piece comes from a response in me to a process. Say for example I take a piece of work and I dye it in vegetable dye and that will create a strange pattern, and I burn it and that will create something random.
It’s like those things psychologists use when they have this ink splutter images and you ask someone to see what’s in it, well I do that with dye and burning and the types of processes I work with. I will stare at it for ages until I see the face or until I see the character and that comes out. I think it bypasses any drive to make something specific. Instead of thinking I want to create this image and project this idea of myself, it’s come straight from the subconscious. It is something that appeals to the subconscious I think as that is the place that it comes from in me.
TF: Have you applied this approach to this collection that is for this exhibition? Is it a themed collection or a curated works that is sitting in the gallery?
It is under the title of The Book of Secrets and I think this came from the idea of the intuitive response than a response to a theme. I think it is an acknowledgement to a point of time I have come to. Three years ago, I decided to start creating this work. Two years ago, it went viral repeatedly and there was a demand for it before I really understood what it was or why I was doing it. This show is the first time I have been able to create a sort of still point in that and reflect on what it is I am doing. It is not a retrospective, it is more of a taking stock of what it is I am saying and what it is I need to say and why I am choosing the dolls to do it.
TF: You are also doing a “Meet the Artist” whilst you are there. Are you going to be an artist in residence for the duration?
Well the gallery has a space off to the side of that which will be a studio for the time that I am there. So I will be working there and because of the time of year I will be gathering plant materials and things that I can be making dyes out of and then processing those dyes there. It will be a residency in the sense that I will be creating work whilst I am there as a response to the time and place that I am in. I am also teaching workshops whilst I am there as well, one of which is sold out.
TF: You have this exhibition but there is no doubt an abundance of other projects for The Pale Rook. What else are you up to?
The other project that I am working on in October is that I am working with a filmmaker called Sven Miller and a composer called Graeme Miller. (Actually Graeme has recorded a soundtrack for this show which is just astonishing. Actually I heard it for the first time the other day and it is just incredible.) The three of us are going to be working together with a German artist, Wilhelm Singer, and we are creating a very large installation which will hopefully be exhibited in Edinburgh next year. For that project again I will be working with textiles and burning-type processes and that will be large-scale. It will be nice to go from something that is so intricate and personal, which is me with a piece of cloth, to collaborating with other artists in a huge space as well.
The Book of Secrets is available for all to see at the Tighnabruaich Gallery, Argyll & Bute, until 31st October.