Isolation Interview with Tessa Silva
Updated: Mar 5
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 effected their practice.
We sent Tessa Silva a camera, a list of questions and invited her to give us an insight into her daily life in the studio.
SEAM: Can you tell me about the process involved in making your sculptures? What are the steps?
Tessa Silva: I keep my specific process under wraps as it has taken years of experimentation to fine tune the material. However the basic principle is to utilize the proteins (called casein) in the milk, and then dry them out to form a hard mass. It's a lot like traditional cheese-making processes; separating the curds from the whey, wrapping in fabric such as cheesecloth, and setting into moulds. One of the differences between my material and actual cheese is that I have extracted all of the moisture, so it's almost like cheese frozen in time.
SEAM: Has the pandemic affected your working practices and thinking ?
Tessa Silva: The past year has forced us to scrutinise our culture of waste and abuse, and in the case of Covid-19, our handling of animals. Zoonotic diseases are born from the totally apathetic relationship that non indigenous societies have developed around food, animals, materials. Our consumption of milk, for example, has been so abstracted from its source. I'm doing my best to make work that encourages conversations about all of this.
SEAM: In which direction do you see your work going in the future?
Tessa Silva: Last year I finally reached the stage in my practise where the majority of testing and sampling came to an end. Anyone working with a novel material can sympathise with how much patience it takes to perfect your process. I'm now beginning to scale up my work and introduce more colour.
SEAM: Could you tell me about some of your inspiration and influences?
Tessa Silva: Visual inspiration includes slugs and grubs, udders, fat, lumps and bumps, tree trunks and roots, twisted things and swollen things, smooth curves, feminine shapes, dead and decaying things, things that are ugly and beautiful.
SEAM: From where did your idea to make sculptures using milk initiate?
Tessa Silva: It all began with some research on pre-industrial 'plastics'. I came across photos of a commercial material made from milk powder and thought I'd try to recreate it. It was a disgusting disaster, but something about the material appealed to me. It became obvious to me that this material wasn't appropriate for mass or even batch-production. It has immeasurable value (which is ironic considering the low price of milk). Milk represents on the one hand the nurturing relationship between mother and child, between human and animal, it is depicted by the Gods and has rich and powerful mythological associations. On the other hand it represents the commodification of females, the atrocities of industrial farming, and has been historically connected to colonialism. It is a fraught and widely debated raw material, but I aim for each of my artworks to embody the tension, the femininity, and power of milk.
SEAM: At what stage did you begin adding chalk into your process and what was the reason for this?
Tessa Silva: I began using chalk in my process a couple of years ago, after doing more research into milk uses throughout history. In the 1500's in the UK, chalk and milk was used as a flooring material. One of the existing chalk and milk floors that I'm aware of is in the Great Hall of the Alfriston Clergy House (the first building to be acquired by the National Trust). The floor has a beautiful green hue due to mould growing on the milk over the years.
SEAM: You studied at the Royal College of Art. How did your study there influence the ideas you went on to pursue?
Tessa Silva: I really didn't enjoy studying at the RCA, but am aware of what a privilege it was. In educational institutions there is so much pressure to tick boxes in order to graduate, I found that some of my creative freedom got squashed. However, my time there did train me to be responsible in my working methodHow do you achieve the coloured finishes to your sculptures? - if choosing to put more 'stuff' into the world, it would have to be meaningful, would have to be well sourced, and be something that I'm happy to be accountable for.
SEAM: 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?
Tessa Silva: I'm currently working on building a palette of food-based natural dyes that have historical links to milk, such as calendula, which is a flower that was used to give cheese its orange colour.
SEAM: Do you collect art yourself? Is there anything new in your home you would like to tell us about? Does your studio smell in the process and have you developed a tolerance?
Tessa Silva: Yes it can smell - I have to try to keep things squeaky clean. The studio is part professional kitchen, part messy workshop. When processes go wrong and mould starts growing, the smell can be bad, but as I learn from the materials wants and needs I also learn how to control it.
SEAM: How durable is waste-milk as a material ?
Tessa Silva: The life-span of the milk pieces really depends on the owner. If the material is kept in a dry place, where it cannot build up any moisture, it should effectively last forever and could be passed from generation to generation. However, if exposed to the elements, it would eventually decay. It is definitely not a material intended for commercial use, not only due to its temperamental characteristics, but due to the ethical implications of widely using an animal product. It is a living material, one that demands care and attention.