Isolation Interview with Billy Smith Morris

Updated: Sep 7, 2020

We sent Billy a disposable camera and a list of questions to see what he'd been up to during lockdown...

Photos by Billy Smith Morris

S: Are you finding any time to make new work at the moment?

BSM: I’m staying at my parents while I can’t go into the studios; there’s probably less hours in the day for me to make work at the moment because there’s a dog to walk and family to sit about with, but I’m still cramming in as much working time as possible. I’ve made a few things for Matthew Burrows’ artist support pledge, and I’ve managed to start a few works that I’ve been meaning to get going with for ages - I think stepping away from my normal studio lifted any sort of mental block I was having about those projects.

S: Where are you working from as you can no longer work from the RA?

BSM: My dad built himself a studio for pottery where the old garage was when they moved into their house, so I’ve overtaken that with my partner. It’s set up for ceramics, so naturally the stuff I’ve been making has been leaning more in that direction, but I’ve also been keeping up with making mosaics at the same time.

S: Have you found a new routine to get you into the flow of making work at home?

BSM: My day tends to start about the same time as it would when I’m in London. Occasionally I join my mum’s online pilates class in the morning, which has varying levels of intensity depending on which day of the week it is, then we walk the dog, and then I can start working. It’s the most exercise I’ve done in years. I’m usually fiddling about in the studio for most of the day, and in the evening I work on a cross stitch project I’m doing in front of the telly.

S: Is there anything that you are missing during isolation that has surprised you?

BSM: I really thought I wasn’t missing anything at all, I’m not an extroverted person and felt very easy with being in lockdown. Having said that, when I went up to London the other day to start packing to move house, I really enjoyed walking around and there being so many things to stare at. I’m excited to be able to go to museums again, and to see what other people are making in the School's studios. I also always really enjoyed getting the packed commuter train to school; I liked feeling anonymous in a big mass of people, although I don’t think we’ll be getting back to that any time soon.

S: You are currently studying a MA at the Royal Academy. How has your work changed or developed since starting there? Has this progress been affected by lockdown?

BSM: I’m really excited by how my work’s coming along since I’ve been at the RA - I’ve started making furniture sculptures, which I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I’m thinking a lot more about the combination of objects and mediums to tell stories or make poems, and taking more time to consider what I want the work to be saying and what it actually is saying. I’ve not managed to control the sprawling nature of my work, e.g. working on one piece at a time, or making work along the same theme, but am starting to think this isn’t important to me.

S: Ceramic mosaic has been your chosen medium recently. Where did this idea develop from? Can you tell us a bit about what it is like to work with and the processes involved?

BSM: I was thinking about the rural churches I grew up around, making a banner of the Garden of Gethsemane out of felt, and an episode of Jam and Jerusalem where Eileen makes the crucifixion out of teasels - I like this collision of the homemade and the all- powerful, and mosaics seemed to do this really nicely. I felt like I only ever saw them in photos of grand Roman baths, or outside primary schools. The thought to start working with them seemed to come out of the blue though - I just thought it would be a fun thing to make, and so I designed an artwork for the medium. I learned how to make them by watching tutorials on YouTube by mums in middle America making space scenes for their kids or ‘Bless this House’ signs for their kitchen. It’s a really nice medium to work with - the actual creative part is over and done within about ten minutes, I use very simple images and my biggest pen, and from there it’s just colouring in with tiles. It seemed very simple to me, but I’ve definitely got better at it technically as I’ve gone on - I’m more careful about the shape and spacing of my tiles. I could get quite nerdy about it all I’m sure.

S: Are there any artists or teachers in particular who have had an impact on you and your practice?

BSM: Jeb Haward was my foundation tutor at Sussex Coast College in Hastings, he’s a really great painter and was a fantastic tutor. He was the first person I’d studied with that instilled the idea that it was really up to me to do whatever I wanted to with my work, and pushed me in ways that I never would have gone if left to my own devices. I remember presenting my first sculpture to him very proudly, a set of three human scale cocoons I’d made out of my mum's old blankets and curtains. He said they were very nice, but that I should film myself kicking them to bits, which I did. I’m still not sure what kind of Freudian depths that was probing, but it certainly loosened me up.

S: What narratives or ideas have you been exploring in your work recently?

BSM: I’m making work about a lot of different things. I’m working on a furniture sculpture about meticulous control of your personal environment, a sort of celebration of eradication of anything that could cause distress. I think the vase I just finished - ‘My Wife and Son Disappeared in Mysterious Circumstances’ is looking at what happens if one of the things in that meticulously constructed, safe world slips out of place. I’m just finishing a mosaic called ‘The Happy Hunter’ showing a man in a big hat, blowing his horn, with two dogs running loyally at his sides. I think it’s a pretty base level examination of power and exerting control, but sometimes displaying things in as simple a way as possible can lead to them being more open and less didactic than if I’d tried to make a nuanced work initially.

S: What do you listen to when you work?

BSM: I’ve been listening to ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’ by Reni Eddo-Lodge and ‘White Supremacy and Me’ by Layla Saad for a reading group among the first years at the RA. I’ve also just started a podcast called ‘Wind of Change’ by Patrick Radden Keefe which is a really good CIA, Cold War conspiracy documentary series. I like listening to very high energy music while I’m working, maybe to offset how slow my processes are - I’ve had Show Me the Body’s album ‘Corpus I’ on repeat. My friend Liv just sent me Mez’s ‘Babylon Can’t Roll’ EP as part of the Bandcamp Drive 4 Black Artists project she’s set up, so I’ve had that on a lot as well.

S: What collaborations, if any, have been most successful in your work? If you haven’t had any yet, who are would you most like to work with?

BSM: I did a show with my friend Will Bartlett as part of Deptford X Festival a couple of years ago - I’d never really collaborated with anyone before and it definitely sparked ideas that I never would have had working on my own. It’s hard to say about future collaboration work, I’m definitely not closed off to the idea entirely, but it’s difficult to imagine because I am often completely solitary for days at a time when I’m making my stuff, particularly the mosaics, and I really enjoy that time alone.

S: Thinking of your work outside of the gallery, where would you most like to work or who with? Be it a residency, company or space to exhibit in?

BSM: I’ve just been working with my brother and my partner - going against what I just said about collaborating - to design a building for an open call by Grizedale; we haven’t heard back about it yet, but it was worthwhile as a completely new experience for me. I designed large scale mosaic pieces for each face of the building, like remixed versions of the beams mosaics that I’ve been working on in the last year. I’ve also made a few garments for various artworks in the past, and would love to push this further, collaborating with a person or brand who makes clothes would be wonderful. I always said when I made garments as artworks that if I ever sold them I would insist that the person wore it, rather than displayed it; we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it I suppose.

S: What has inspired you most recently? Be it a film, book, quote or person.

BSM: I think about Bugsy Malone all the time, and it's slowly starting to creep into my work. I’m working on the digital drawing for a large knitted work called ‘Fat Sam’s Grand Slam’, which essentially just explodes the plot of the film onto one plane. I don’t think there’s a film that’s had a bigger impact on how I think about my work than Bugsy Malone. I love how utopian and dystopian it is in equal measure; showing all of the violence, sexism and oppression of contemporary life, but at the same time ending with this impossibly lovey number that comes out of nowhere, out of the biggest not-really-bloodbath in the whole film. It’s an extremely uncanny and engaging thing.

S: And most importantly what is your favourite sandwich?

BSM: I make mad sandwiches but they require a lot of ingredients, they end up looking like Scooby Doo sandwiches, but when I need to get something when I’m out I would ideally go for a really good French-style ham baguette.

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