Today we’re joined by Sophia Gardiner. Sophia is a versatile and fascinating artist. She’s a multi-disciplinary artist who works in a variety of media and is most fond of sculpture and installation. She’s a dedicated activist who fights for a number of causes, all incredibly admirable. Hell yeah! Her art is fascinating and varied, as one would expect, but it’s obviously created with a fiery enthusiasm. My thanks to her for taking the time to participate in this interview.
Please, tell us about your art.
I’m multi-disciplinary, I try all different kinds of styles and try different things. Sometimes the idea will direct what medium I use, and sometimes I might just want to do something with some goldleaf paint I found in a shed, or make a sculpture out of a piece of a broken guitar I find at Castlefield docks, or make a collage with lots of saints clipped out of an Orthodox calendar I find in an abandoned mental hospital in Romania.
Although there are some mediums are I prefer over others, like I’m particularly fond of sculpture and installation, I try to explore and experiment as much as I can because you can sometimes surprise yourself.
I’m also a human rights activist, I’ve worked a lot with refugees, asylum seekers and migrant rights groups so naturally, a lot of that comes through in my work. When you work with these kinds of groups, it’s not just about immigration and anti-racism, there’s so many issues underneath that. If you work with refugees, you’re also dealing with anti-war issues, women’s rights, fighting domestic abuse, FGM, LGBT+ persecution, exploitation in the workplace. You’re helping people who are fleeing natural disasters, dictatorships, poverty, it’s all a part of it.
Most of the work that I’ve done around the subject of asylum and immigration, I created it with intent to educate and inform people who are more ignorant of what is going on for asylum-seekers, and also primarily, to annoy bigots. It can really annoy racists when you use art to share stories that humanize their scapegoats.
Other times, it’s just about having fun, putting stuff together because it seems right that way, and celebrating something you found, a place you’ve been, a dream you had, visuals you just conjured- things like that which are not charged politically or socially in any way.
I’ve exhibited internationally, and I’m taking part in an exhibition this March for International Woman’s Day in London from the 7th March called STOPJECTIFY that’s being curated by Jess De Wahls.
What inspires you?
Stories I hear, news articles, people I meet, places I go, weather patterns, it’s all there. You might see something just lying in the street and think, ‘oh, that looks like something, I’ll take it with me and make it into a thing’.
Music helps too with the stuff I produce, generally because I find I work so much better if I have music on, but also because it can help you imagine more and it gives you the energy to keep working at something.
Sometimes it’s just all about playing and sometimes art is more serious and can be an important way of helping us share a better understanding of what’s going on… Or just to simply find new and interesting ways to complain about what’s happening.
I find that my best work is often the stuff I do in anger. I read about something that happened or is happening or someone says something that upsets people, so I produce something in response to that. I find it can be quite therapeutic. I can diffuse a lot of anger or feel a lot less depressed if I answer back to what is happening creatively.
What got you interested in your field? Have you always wanted to be an artist?
I’m from a Northern working class background, born in a town where people seemed to have a very one dimensional perception of art and what art is or can be, and that artists were very much a historical thing. Unless you’re L.S. Lowry, or a children’s illustrator, artists didn’t really exist in that way for them.
All my family as far as I know worked in factories, but my dad is a painter, so in our house growing up, there were tins of acrylics and pastels everywhere, and my dad would mostly do pictures of Manchester United players and sell them around the pubs near Old Trafford- in fact we got excited recently when one of his paintings appeared in a shot of this documentary called ‘Class of ’92’. But my dad also collected a lot of art books as well, so unlike most kids around my area, I had a much wider knowledge about artists and the art world much earlier on.
But I would by no means say I’m a good painter, my dad is a much better painter than I am and it always frustrated me how I was never as good at drawing as he was. But I always loved making sculptures, I would build little houses out of sticks in the garden and I was taught to sew by my nan, so I would always make my own stuff from old fabric. I could make my own toys no problem and her friend gave me a sewing machine and taught me how to use it so I became pretty good at that too.
I did always want to be an artist, despite general opposition, just because I really enjoyed creating things. I was never academically gifted like my sister, so when I made things, people were really astonished and amazed by how a child could make that. I can remember showing my dad- I’d made like this whole weird outfit for a doll out of an old cardigan, and he just stared at it and looked up at my mam and said ‘We’ve gotta do something about this! We can’t let this go!’ So when affirmed that I wanted to go to art school, he really backed me up. Everyone was saying I would never get a job out of it, maybe I should get a ‘proper degree’, but I didn’t want to do anything else.
Manchester School of Art. I can remember after one particularly bad tutorial where my tutor was very critical about all my work, I can remember all my fellow students were really sympathetic and everything, but I’d had an epiphany, and realised that I’m by no means a great artist. I’d been one of the best so far in my schools, in my college and so on, but here, of course I wasn’t the best! Here were artists from all around the world, and I was nothing compared to them. All that time I’d thought that I wanted to do art because I was ‘good’ at it, and because I was successful with it. I learnt then that I wasn’t as good as I’d always thought, and probably wasn’t going to be as successful as we’d all want to be, but it didn’t matter, because that wasn’t what made me want to be an artist. It was because I was happy doing art, even if my tutors weren’t very impressed with what I did and probably the wider world didn’t, I still felt happy. So totally worth getting into all that debt for.
That was how I finally knew that this was right. I never won any awards or prizes like so many of the others did, I didn’t get the top marks and I haven’t been as successful as some of my former colleagues have since then, but I’m still happy so long as I can keep doing art.
Do you have any kind of special or unique signature, symbol, or feature you include in your work that you’d be willing to reveal?
No, in fact I often feel annoyed with myself that I don’t seem to even have a particular ‘style’ or one method that belongs to me. My projects are all so different you can’t really tell they’re by the same person and I feel like none of my paintings are the same in the way that you could look at them and know it was me who did them both, they could be from anyone.
I think the only thing that applies to maybe, is what I call my ‘amateur cartography’, which are maps I make, but they’re not actually effective maps, I’m terrible at reading or drawing maps myself, but I love looking at them and my cartography is just, in a way, celebrating all the styles and aspects of what a map has, and aren’t supposed to be taken seriously.
I usually (but not always) include this big, obnoxious looking red ‘X’ on them, sometimes for no apparent reason. I usually use red cable tape for that.
What advice would you give young aspiring artists?
Unless you come from a successfully creative background to start with, people are probably not going to take you seriously. You will pressured to demote your art to a hobby and get a ‘proper’ job, or a more financially stable career. Especially if you’re from a poor background, you will struggle. You will be fishing for scraps of tracing paper out of the bins in the printing room, you will be stealing glue sticks from work, you will nearly lacerate your hand on a faulty sewing machine from the seventies, you will have a war with scrap-collectors for the rusted gate dumped at the end of the street, you will have no more room in your house to hold your sculptures, so you will have to bury them in the garden like murder weapons or burn them like sacrifices at Islington Mill’s ‘Art Burn’ event.
You will have to empty your bank account just to be able to take part in an exhibition, you will be unable to enter SO many perfect residencies, shows and other brilliant opportunities because there’s no way you can afford that entry fee. You won’t ever be able to afford that studio space, and if you can, you have no time to use it because you’re working in a job you hate to get the money in the first place. You will fight with your family, you will fall out with relatives who think you’re looking down on them because you don’t want to work in a call centre forever, you may have to go for some days without eating, you will constantly have to battle for recognition and validation.
In the face of these overwhelming odds against artists, I advise you this: keep going. Despite all opposition, please don’t give it up. Anything you can do in a day that’s creative keeps the embers glowing. Also, it helps to have other creative allies who can help keep up the morale. I’m so lucky that some of my best friends are also artists, and despite what they told some of us at university, we are NOT in competition, we are a community, so we share what we know, we share our thoughts, our struggles and we are open about everything we are going through, we share and read each other’s applications, if one of us gets picked for a show and the other doesn’t, it doesn’t matter because we’re all struggling so you’re still happy, and we all know how it feels to be on either end of the scenario because we’re honest about how we feel.
But I promise you all, even though it’s really hard to live like this, it’s totally worth it, if you see where the alternative gets you. I’ve met so many older people who tell me that they started out wanting to be an artist, actor, writer, but just lost themselves to a ‘proper job’ and a ‘real career’, and stayed stuck like that for thirty years. You do not want to end up like that, because it doesn’t matter how ‘stable’ their lives are, they’ve lost themselves to the system and the world has lost another artist.
And speaking as someone who was raised as the child of a struggling artist, I promise you, if you find yourself with a child and feel like you now have to get that proper job and give up on art all together to provide for them, that’s a wonderful sacrifice. But I myself couldn’t help but feel guilty that someone would have to surrender to that forever for my own sake. Kids want to see their parents happy too, and if my dad didn’t keep painting, I probably wouldn’t be an artist now, answering these questions. Struggling artists with kids are well mighty, I can tell you.
One more thing I would say is you have to be stubborn and persistent. Being successful and being in loads of exhibitions and selling lots of pieces isn’t what makes you an artist, making ART is what makes you an artist. If you get recognised and people buy your stuff and someday, make a living out of it, great! But it’s harder for some of us and it doesn’t mean you’re not on the right path just because the system thinks that most artists are worthless.
If you feel happy as you make that piece, write that fanzine, sing that song, then this is where you belong. Even if you’ve never been in an exhibit, still tell people ‘I’m an artist’ if that’s what you feel. It’s just like saying ‘I’m asexual’, the more you say it, the stronger you’ll feel about being yourself.
Where on the spectrum do you identify?
Aromantic Asexual because I’ve never been interested in having a relationship, I’ve never tried having one. I’ve always just been happy with my friends, and have some of the most amazing friends.
Have you encountered any kind of ace prejudice or ignorance in your field? If so, how do you handle it?
I think in artistic communities, where things like sex and relationships are much less of a taboo subject, it might take people by surprise, and that you’re expected to be a bit more savvy and open about sexuality.
When I studied art at university, I remember encountering a lot of bafflement and doubt from my colleagues, but I think asexuality was still a bit new to the world I guess, so it was probably a bit fresh in people’s minds and I used to get a lot of questions. Although I didn’t feel like I had much to say on the subject, and I didn’t want my own experience to dominate what they perceived asexuality to be about, so I don’t know if I did such a great job of it.
I get the feeling that these days that universities and arts groups are more aware about spectrums and I noticed as well that there’s a lot more awareness of Transgender rights and lot less uncertainty, probably because of what’s happened in the world since then, and people are coming a lot more aware of who we all are and how we express that and generally becoming a lot more visible.
The best way to handle any ignorance is just to keep sharing the knowledge, keep telling each other’s stories- I always say stories are a very powerful method of sharing information, and just to keep listening to each other.
And also I would say, humour definitely helps. If someone asks you a really ignorant question or says something that you find a bit offensive, disarm them with humour. They hate that.
What’s the most common misconception about asexuality that you’ve encountered?
One misconception that sometimes troubles me is the belief that you have to try sex to know if you’re asexual or not. This worries me because I wonder how many asexuals may feel pressured to try it on that basis to validate their identity and may end up in what could be very traumatic scenarios where their consent is compromised. I’ve never had sex in my life, and I feel absolutely fine as I am, but I’m lucky to have friends who are very open to understanding my own experience and my own feelings, and growing up, I didn’t have peer pressure or anything as a teenager or at school because I was a social outcast anyway, but I know that this is only my experience that not every asexual shares, so they might encounter more problems like this.
I have found that the line- the one where if someone asks how you know if you’ve never tried it, and you just ask ‘have you ever done it with another man?’ (if they’re a man) proves to be mostly successful. I’ve found it doesn’t always work on women though. So many women appear to have gone through what they call a ‘lesbian phase’, I’m told it’s considered more acceptable in this heteronormative society while gay men’s relationships are considered more of an affront to ones masculinity for some reason. Although one day, when I was discussing the notion of lodging with a Portuguese professor friend, he asked me ‘You would be a good roommate, yes? No wild parties, no boys staying over?’ I assured him that on the latter point, he had nothing to fear for I am asexual. He’d never heard of it and asked how I knew without trying it and I asked him ‘How do you know you’re not gay unless you’ve had it off with another bloke?’ and he just replied ‘well you know… I’ve had my moments’ (we had two young asylum seekers in the room with us at the moment who were quite astonished by all this talk coming from one of their mentors and an academic professional).
Other misconceptions… I had a hard time with my mam for a while. She literally thought there was something wrong with me. She seems to be a lot more understanding about it now, but I know she still wants me to have a boyfriend and be ‘normal’. It upsets me though, if I ever mention a man at all who I might have met in my daily life, she’s instantly like ‘ooh! How old are they? What do they do? Where do you know them from? What do they look like? Do you think they love ya? I’m just askin’! They might do!’
I’ve also had to deal with a few communities for whom anything outside straight or gay is as yet unheard of. There is a family for example who kind of adopted me into their clan some years ago, and, they have a fairly traditional outlook on life, they obviously have grown up without knowing much about the spectrum of human sexuality. I love them dearly, but all my attempts to explain asexuality to them haven’t been successful.
One of the ‘mătușile’ is just adamant that I must be a lesbian and when she sees me just yells ‘Ah! Sofia Bulanjika este aici!’ But as I’m getting older, some of them are a bit concerned that if I don’t get married soon, I will end up an old maid and no one will want me and who will look after me when I’m old? They tell the young girls, if you don’t get married before you’re nineteen, you’ll end up all alone like Sofia! They’re wonderful though, they’re so good to me. You just have to let some people get used to the idea I think. I always tell them stories about my gay friends, pan friends, bi friends, and they do ask questions and although they might get a bit confused, they’re never hostile.
What advice would you give to any asexual individuals out there who might be struggling with their orientation?
Well, I’m still struggling with my orientation and I’m nearly 25, but I’m much better at giving advice than taking it. I don’t talk about my orientation a lot, and I know that we’re all very different people so I wouldn’t want my experience to colour the rest of us, but I can only tell you what I know from my own perspective.
I’m sure you’ve all heard about how you’re not broken, you are who you are and don’t be ashamed and so on. So, I think what I want to tell asexuals is- and remember this is just my experience, so it probably doesn’t resonate with everyone, but if it helps… One of the hard things about being asexual that I’m only recently coming to terms with, is those important friendships that you will lose because you don’t want to engage in ‘physical intimacy’.
Now this may seem really stupid, and it is probably. On the surface you’d think, well, if someone only wants to be my friend to have sex with me that’s their problem, why should I feel bad about it? Forget them! But I’m only just learning that things aren’t always that simple.
You could meet people, wonderful people. They talk to you about art, music, football and everything you love. They listen to you, and you are fascinated by what they tell you, you’re excited every time they open their mouths, you feel incredibly flattered that this person would talk to you of all people! This person thinks that anything you have to say is interesting?! You feel a little lighter every time they walk in the room, and you feel so honoured when they introduce you to everyone as their friend. If they hold your hand or sit with their arm around you, you might not think that’s a big deal because you do that with your friends all the time. If they hug you hello, they hug you goodbye, nothing wrong with that, you’d do the same with your close friends as well. You might stay over at their house, maybe even in their room, okay, what’s the big deal? You’ve shared one mattress with a family of five before now, so what’s weird about that? You’ll get really pissed off when people ask if you’re going out, for god’s sake! Why can’t we just be friends?! Why do you people always assume that just because you’re hanging out all the time that there’s something going on?!
Then, one day, maybe that person makes a move on you. Maybe out of the blue, they suddenly try to kiss you in the corner of the pub, or start trying to touch you as you’re stood watching the opening act or just turn around as you’re on your way to grab some falafel and admit that they’ve liked you all along. Or maybe they’ve been making more subtle passes and calling you various epithets… or not so subtle passes even, but you ignored it or made a joke out of it in the hope that you could change the course of where this is going before they got any more ideas, but now you can’t even pretend it’s not obvious till finally all your tricks and diversions are exhausted and you have to tell them that you were serious before when you said you were happy being single and you don’t want to have sex ever, really, you’re asexual… yes, you’re sure. And inevitably, they’ll probably turn away and desert your whole friendship.
People will side with that person if you tell them. They’ll say, ‘awww, they must be so confused, why did you do that to them? Why did you lead them on like that?!’ These people will not understand because heteronormativity has really undervalued the power of friendships. I’d like to tell you that you will see that people like this are not worth your time and they’re not worth troubling yourself about if they consider sex more important than being your friend, and although that truth stands, you probably won’t feel like that is the case at the time, (but I really hope you do).
Instead you will probably feel completely worthless. One minute you felt flattered that you were worth spending so much time with, especially from the opinion of someone you admire and adore, and just because you can’t have sex with them, now you feel like nothing. You may wish you were ‘normal’, you may, as I have, find yourself crying on a hotel roof in Pisa as you accept that they probably hate you now and will likely never speak to you again, and if they do, they probably won’t want to hang out with you as you did. And you too, will not be so free and open with them as you were, lest it again be mistaken for a romantic objective.
Logically, you know you should feel insulted and angry with that person, and you know that they are in the wrong, not you, but feelings don’t work the way they’re supposed to. You will probably end up feeling more angry with yourself for not being born ‘normal’, or for being born female and thus cursed to walk the earth being seen only as a potential romantic subplot for everywhere you walk into. Maybe you will forgive them because you also want to be forgiven for not being ‘normal’, and because you didn’t make it more obvious that you didn’t like them in that way, perhaps, so maybe it is your fault after all (but like I say, I hope you don’t feel like that).
If this is the case, it will help to have the support of your friends who accept you, and even if you don’t really talk about these kinds of things with your friends, some of them can surprise you in a good way. I’m so lucky to have friends who are willing to understand my own feelings instead of projecting how they would feel onto my experience, (and you do the same for others when for whatever reason they are feeling broken- even heteros have problems just like this remember). If you don’t have these friends in your own life, I’m sure you can reach out to other people on the wide world of web. I myself have never met another asexual in person- it’d be cool if I did and one day I hope to, but in the meantime we can share these experiences and give each other support in the virtual.
Then, hopefully, your feelings will finally catch up with logic and you will feel lighter again, and know that OK, people have severe lapses of judgement sometimes and fall for people they shouldn’t, but true friendships will come out the other side still intact.
Also, I’ll say, if you want to try sex, you try sex, it doesn’t invalidate you. Just listen to your feelings and if you’re scared, then don’t. Even if everyone says ‘yeh, don’t worry, everyone’s nervous at first!’ if you’re scared, don’t let anyone make you do anything you don’t want to do. If they care about you, they won’t want to make you feel uncomfortable or do anything to hurt you, don’t let anyone give you that whole ‘if you love me you’ll do it’ crap.
Finally, where can people find out more about your work?
You can find out about everything at http://www.sophiagardiner.com/
Thank you, Sophia, for participating in this interview and this project. It’s very much appreciated.