Isolation Interview with Jack Brown

During Lockdown 3.0 in the UK we interviewed some of our artists to see how they were getting on and how the pandemic has affected their practice.

We sent Jack Brown a camera, a list of questions and invited him to give us an insight into his daily life in the studio.

SEAM: Do you have a daily routine in the studio? Has this changed since the national


Jack Brown: ‘In the studio’ is an interesting phrase and carries with it outdated ideas of where and when artists can be productive, or where and when art works can be produced.

Having said that, the word ‘studio’ is still useful as a marker of the time and space within which an artist is beginning stuff, making things, testing ideas, playing around, failing, rebuilding, prototyping etc.

So, there are periods of time when I’m ‘in the studio’ - being hyper aware of the world around me, or the objects/situations in front of me, but this can happen in a range of spaces and places.

I have a few spaces at home for the production of work; a studio, a cellar and a shed. I’m in the middle of my Fine Art MA at the Manchester School of Art, so there have been pockets of time spent in the workshops there fabricating new works. If I’m working on a public project, I could be working with other people, or maybe co-constructing works with school pupils. I have a space at Paradise Works in Salford which I use predominately to hang and show my work. A lot of my work is found, realised, made or placed in the public realm, so quite a bit of my ‘studio time’ happens outdoors.

The lockdown has changed where and to some extend how I work. I’ve had to suspend my MA and I’ve not been to Paradise Works since the first lockdown. So I’m only working where I can safely; at home, in quiet public spaces and on-line.

There are some cyclical routines that take place over the course of a year or so; I’m constantly compiling notes on ideas for new works; titles, outlines, instructions or starting points.

For example I’ve had the phrase ‘cat’s eyes’ stuck up in my studio for a year now. I’m not sure if it will become a work, but I like the duality of the phrase, its references to the magical and the mundane.

SEAM: Can you tell us what you are working on at the moment?

JB: I’ve recently been commissioned by The University of Salford Art Collection to make three major new works for their permanent collection. One of the works is going to be a 3 metre by 3 metre wall hung relief. The commission 'Rediscovering Salford' invited four artists to respond to Salford’s park spaces and help the public re-imagine these spaces as creative spaces.

While exploring Salford’s parks and avoiding the public (Covid) I started to follow 'desire lines' - a small linear dent in the grass, a hole in the fence, a track through the brambles.

This strategy pushed me away from the public parts of these public spaces and onto the peripheries, round the back, into the bushes, coming across dens, drinking spots, animal tracks, rope swings, dead ends, lost footballs and seclusion.

I spent a few months exploring these spaces, thinking, experimenting. Eventually I found two things that seemed to unlock a myriad of ideas and references when I put them together. Having collected a few objects (twigs, lighters, stones etc) from the hidden spaces of Salford’s parks, I started to press these objects into floral foam (the green blocks of foam used for domestic flower arranging). The foam held surprisingly detailed imprints of the objects. I got hold of some larger sheets of floral foam and started to make compositions/arrangements with my collection of objects.

I’ve since collected a sizeable haul of objects from Salford’s parks and am using them to make the final wall hung relief, across twelve 90 x 120 cm panels.

Collected objects include twigs, shells, vodka bottles, a burnt emptied wallet, branches, a pen, a bicycle pedal, lego bricks, stones, seed pods, what remained of a dog’s football, laughing gas canisters, sections of bark, a lighter and a house key.

The work and its use of floral foam references when we bring nature into our

domestic spaces via flower arranging. Its painting like dimensions allow references to be drawn from high art, from formal abstraction, while the floral foam pulls us back to ideas of low art, craft and hobbies. The works overall size becomes a nod to the scale of paintings that once hung in the Manors of Salford (around which many of Salford parks were originally built).

There is also a reference to the death of an object or artwork (these floral foam panel are often used in funeral displays) as it enters a collection, as it moves from the real world to a suspended none place.

Community portraits is a new series of paintings I’m working on at the moment. It’s an idea that’s been on one of my lists for a while ‘those photos of someone who has been drawn on when they are passed out at a party’.

I like the idea of a group of adults colluding to make a collaborative drawing (an aggression against the portrait’s sitter) and how that jars with ideas of community art hence the title ‘community portrait’.

I’m re-making the images as paintings. I initially worked in monotone as a way of warming up, of testing out the images, but love the way the absence of colour cools down the image.

I also like the action of remaking the original gestural marks. Taking the pen marks made on the drunk persons face and repainting them, retracing and reanimating that action for a moment, before it become still again as an image.

Once the original images have been repainted, I feel they become calmer less violent, something akin to a death mask.

SEAM: Your work includes observations of human nature and highlighting the

mundane. How did this become a source of inspiration? And are these themes

present in any projects you are working on at the moment?

JB: The little things, the detail has always interested me. Since childhood I’ve picked things up, put things in my pocket for later. The mundane, the ‘everyday’ happens every day, so there is a lot of it. Its right there under my nose and seems to work well as a source for my work.

I would go for ‘human trace’ over ‘human nature’... There are elements of trace across almost all of my works.

My ‘Found note silk Hankies’ series comes at trace in a number of ways. There is the trace of a person in their handwriting, the trace of a person in what was on the list, what was the task ‘in hand’ and finally there is the trace of the artists; where was I when I found the note, did it get selected and added to my collection, did I choose to make it into a hankie.

My community portrait series vibrate with human trace, in particular that of the drawn or painted line. There are the lines drawn by a group of people on the portrait’s sitter, then there is the person who took the photo and posted it online, there is my digital trace as a search for and find the image online. Finally I re-paint those original lines, adding the trace of my hand to the work.

SEAM: Your work takes form in many different mediums. Is there a process that helps

you decide what medium for each work or is it quite intuitive?

JB: As I’ve mentioned, there is normally an idea or a starting point for a work,

the chosen medium is really important as its often how the initial idea, object or input is altered. I come to the choice of medium by testing things out, recycling bits of old works, going through boxes of bits and bobs at my studio or in the loft. I also look at what mediums other artists have used before, what tropes or style might be re-used and subverted. Sometimes the initial idea calls for a new medium, one I’ve not worked in before, and I go about learning how to use that medium.

SEAM: I have seen some of your soap sculptures on Instagram - can you tell us more about


JB: They are an ongoing/incomplete project. In a nutshell it is making soaps that resemble big public artworks you might find in a sculpture park or civic square, then placing them in public toilets across Manchester to be used, worn down and eventually washed away by the public.

I began placing them in public toilets at the start of 2020, so they became really interesting public interventions as the pandemic became part of our collective consciousness. I paused the project as we went into lockdown and am left with photographs of the soaps in situ.

SEAM: Some of your work is performative and takes place in the public realm. Such

as, ‘the grease mark left by a passengers hair on a bus window’. How do the

public react when you are making these types of work? Or does their reaction

become part of it?

JB: Its probably better to frame this activity as ‘a member of the public, doing something in the public realm’ as opposed to a performative action.

As I’ve mentioned, my practice happens in an expanded notion of ‘the studio’. This expansion or opening-out also means my practice is more visible. So, I see me working on a bus to collect the grease marks left by a passenger’s hair as less performative and more incidental, similar to hearing someone humming along to their headphones or witnessing a kid drop his lolly pop. Also, while collecting the hair prints (a fingerprint brush and powdered charcoal take a very detailed impression of the grease pattern on the bus window) I avoid busy buses, stay away from other people, stick to the top desk, so I’m being as ‘non-performative’ as a can.

SEAM: Do you have a favourite medium to work with?

JB: No. I do try and add to or refresh the medium I can us, but I don’t have a favourite.

I’m free to work how I want.

SEAM: Is there one artist in particular who inspires you?

JB: I’ve been going back over the work of Francis Alys. I’m reappraising the bravery of his work, thinking about prevalent white male narratives and reflect upon my own manoeuvres in public space. So, I wouldn’t call it inspirational, its more that his work guides mine.

SEAM: 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?

JB: I’d like to continue to tread the line between public and private, studio and gallery, to nudge and push at social and hieratical boundaries. There is a work I’d love to make, a series of videos titled ‘people falling asleep whilst watching a play’... so maybe the National Theatre.

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