For a while in 1994, every night, the cleaners at Leeds Art Gallery would look upon the works of Sheila Gaffney and despair.
“Hey!” says Sheila, when we remind her of Wunderkammer; Linda Schwab working in the Ziff Gallery among the permanent collection, and Sheila in the Models Room. “That was the twentieth century!”
Sheila’s work in Wunderkammer was itself a kind of investigation of the past. The Models Room accommodated the city’s collection of sculpture models and maquettes, and was rearranged by Sheila to accommodate three new bubblegum pink wax-and-table-leg sculptures of her own. The whole lot was sealed in the room, and viewed through a window, and there wasn’t a plan.
“It was like there was no one in charge for a bit,” says Sheila. “It was done quite bodily. Rather than say, ‘That’s something from 1760 there, and I’m having 1976 here,’ we just got into a neglected space at a particular moment, put our conservation gloves on and said, ‘Yeah! Let’s move this and move that.’
“I think intuition is a misused word, because it doesn’t mean there wasn’t intelligence working there. But I didn’t have to specify any plans up front. Instead I could start moving things and ask myself, what will the sensation of this be?
“It was a good moment when they let an artist in who was saying, ‘I’m going to think about history and my place in it, in this very haptic, spatial, sculptural way.'”
The haptic, the touch, was all Sheila’s to experience; viewers behind glass could look but not touch. But they could feel, and feel like feeling more. And that was why, every night, the cleaners would mutter and moan as they cleaned the glass of the fingerprints of people who had pressed and leaned to see everything in the room.
The Fine Art degree course at Leeds College of Art is run by Sheila from a thin-walled oasis in the grip of the co-working studio spaces on the ground floor; the wall clock ticks as if goading Sheila and her stacked tableful of printed out spreadsheets and budgets and timetables with its placid counting of the seconds to when all that stuff is needed. At times while we talk Sheila lifts the spread of papers from the table as one, like a basin of soap suds to be thrown out the window; another time she takes a small sculpted bronze figure and plants it square atop the paperwork as if to emphasise, ‘This is what I do.’ Sculpture isn’t much different from teaching, but the paperwork of teaching doesn’t make for much of a plinth, and the statue slides slowly down the spreadsheet slope.
“My work has never suited the Leeds market at all,” says Sheila. Nonetheless, Sheila has worked in Leeds since the early nineties, primarily as a sculptor, with questions about what gets sculpted and why. “Gaffney is a life modeller,” says the introduction to her recent show at Leeds College of Art, Class Forms; “But it is the definition of life that is critical in this instance.” Writing about Sheila’s work in 2012, Garry Barker said that, “Artists create worlds that others can inhabit in their minds,” but Sheila’s art explores the earlier parts of the process, working out how those worlds came to inhabit the artist’s mind in the first place.
“Gaffney imagines her subjects into embodied form rather than interrogating or studying them, in order to entice a haptic universal recognition from the viewer,” wrote Barker; or, to put it another way, Sheila makes sculptures and displays them to ask the audience: ‘I imagined this and then I made it; now does anybody know what it’s doing here?’
Sheila has found the language of the sculptor – modelling, object, dialogue – paralleled in the psychoanalytical writing of Christopher Bollas, where it explains concepts like ‘the imagined unthought known’ and ’embodied dreaming’ that have transferred back over into her art, and her PhD in progress. The first stands for all the things you know but don’t remember learning; the second is what happens when that inner consciousness begins to take shape before you. Those are some of the ideas, anyway: “But it’s going to take me 80,000 words to prove them.”
Proof and explanations don’t come easily when your art deals with the work of the imagination, and when all available effort has been taken up by the work itself.
“After my last show someone asked what press I got, and I said, ‘Do you know, I didn’t do anything, because I felt really tight for time and I just wanted to make the work.’ After it’s made, I usually just want to go in a darkened room for the next bit.
“I think I’ve really moved into the position that, with the work that I do, I want there to be a muscular engagement, a sort of gasp in the viewer; and whatever my driver in making it is, whatever my need and determination to work it out, I’ve accepted that other people will read it from whoever they are.
“I’m not a designer. I’m not putting something together to solve a problem. Is it even fashionable to make sculpture? I don’t know. But it’s the best way for me to express myself. And therefore I share that privilege with the students. There are fifty of them right now hacking away in the studios, working in the medium they feel they want to work in. What they’ll be in the future, I don’t know. But I think art is a fundamental part of being human and a really important way to teach people to take ownership of themselves in the world.”
Sheila has worked at, for, with and through Leeds College of Art for 25 years. Fourteen years were spent running a degree programme for part-time students, that started, “When I realised that the art world did quite exclude you if you were pushing a pushchair around, or you’re supposed to be at home giving everybody tea when the openings happen”; and the last seven spent developing the Fine Art degree for undergraduates.
“We’re seven years old,” says Sheila. “But you won’t think that when you walk around. We take 100 students a year, and they’re getting into places like the Royal College and the Slade to do post graduate qualifications. It’s as if we’ve always been here, but actually it’s been a busy seven years of standing up and saying, ‘Come to Leeds and do Fine Art.’ We’ve fought our way up, with our key point of difference here that we are a specialist art school.
“If you want to turn up for three hours of lectures a week and work the rest of the time in libraries, this is not the course for you. If you want to come to art school and work in studios together, with dialogue going across between the students, up and down, staff to student, across through the staff; to experience the real studio atmosphere and the learning through making that is distinctly special about the art school, come here.”
A difficulty of giving an art education is in trying to pass on to others something you don’t remember learning yourself; putting into words something you didn’t fully understand when it happened in your own making. You’re trying to teach people things you know but can’t explain.
“That’s the secret I didn’t want to share with you!” says Sheila. “I’m good at art because I practice it. It isn’t called art practice for nothing.
“Part of me spends a lot of time in solitude, because I want to get on with figuring out something I can’t verbally articulate, through making and doing. And it’s quite important to ground me. But when I’ve just done something I don’t always know then what it is.
“With a lot of contemporary art, it’s presented to us that people know what it’s about, and then they tell us, and we go and have a look at it. It’s not always that cut and dried. Some artists do really know their agenda and materialise it; some do their thinking through the making, and then part of showing it is to stand back and listen to it.
“I’ve had to learn in my craft of teaching that it’s not always that way for students. We have to devise situations to make sure they’re all comfortable in their differences, but to also get the work out of them so that we can start to see what it is and move it on.
“So I’ve ended up working here quietly for a long time – more noisily in this role – and using my knowledge as a sculptor. The college is presented to me, and this is the element with which I’m going to build this place that everybody comes in and out of. I mean, I didn’t invent the art college, but I’ve muscled my way along all the structures and the rules to make this place feel like I think it should feel.
“This is one big discrete participatory sculpture for me. But if I said that in a job interview they’d think I was crazy. But actually, this is where imagination is really important. I think it’s vital. You’ve got to have an imagination, you’ve got to be able to conceptualise something and then move that conception into whatever your output is – sculpture, photographs, words.”
Or degree courses; spreadsheets and budgets and timetables. Or loan books or bank ledgers; or database entry forms, or staff rotas, or brick walls; in any form of employment the imagination plays a vital part. A bricklayer’s imagination completes a wall before the first brick is laid; but we are too trapped by reverence and fear for inspiration and genius to believe the same faculties that produce a work of art also produce a supermarket’s annual report. ‘I just made it up’ is not something you want to hear from an accountant, but how else were the figures translated from Excel to the page, if they weren’t first imagined there?
‘I was thinking about something else’ is another not-so-great line for the boss, but it’s likely that in about 90% of workplaces, 90% of the minds that are getting 90% of the work done are thinking, 90% of the time, about something else. Because that’s what works.
“There are days when you can’t see the wood for the trees,” says Sheila. “And you just have to go home and watch a film. Or a boxset. And then come back and go – ‘Here are the answers.’ You didn’t do the right or logical things on the way, but you took yourself out of facing the problem, went on an adventure.
“That’s how it’s fine that I only live at the top of a three storey house, because I’m sitting on the bottom floor amongst all this art stuff, and I’m thinking about myself in the world and reconciling it. It’s part of work, it’s not just crazy. It’s very satisfying. It’s the best place to think.
“I think as a sculptor. I think I think as a sculptor. I could pretend I understand everything” – the paperwork is again placed at risk – “but I go away, I find an imaginative form for it, and then I draw it out somewhere. It won’t mean anything to anyone, but that’s at least me drawing what is happening. And then I can turn it into the sort of format that everybody actually would like to see.
“Even if we’ve had people round for dinner, I’ve drawn the menu. What’s it going to look like on the table? If I’m packing to go on holiday, I draw the outfits to see what will fit in the case. And that’s a set of drawings that should actually end up in a gallery.”
“I’m actually thinking I might run a club,” says Sheila. “A club where I set a situation up and say, it’s not a formal part of the curriculum, but if on a Thursday night you want to learn modelling skills with me for two hours, that’s what we’re going to do. And I’m going to learn it again too.
“Of course when I was a student, I wanted to throw out all that my teachers taught me, and be part of the moment, not part of the past. Then you reach the point where you think: that was actually a really fascinating skill to do. I might do it again.”
Art is a place where skills and sensibilities meet, and touring the studios with Sheila, we see her carrying that process to success. At the end of a detailed explanation for her visitors of the problems a student is having adapting her work for the end of year show, the student herself speaks up: “Actually, I’ve had an idea.”
Sheila achieves with her students the same effect that an artist or curator strives to create in an exhibition. “You want somebody to see it how you see it,” says Sheila. “We do a lot of work on exhibitions with students, not just because it’s a key part of learning professional practice, but because it’s a key part of passing knowledge on.
“We take students to Free Range in London to showcase their work, and they see us arranging pieces, going, ‘No. No. That – no.’ They’re like – ‘Can I put mine up? I’m ready.’ ‘No! Come here. Do you see what I see?’
“It looks really pretentious, and people think it’s ludicrous, but it’s actually the craft of getting the impact in the gallery, of getting the rightness. And I’ve seen graduates doing shows and whatever grief they gave me and my staff in that process, they’ve got it. The skill is passed on.”
The skill, and the way of being; the enabling of the future life of an artist. It might not click right away; Sheila saw that often enough when teaching part- time students, many of whom were trying again. The graduation ceremony is not a magic moment of becoming an artist. Instead, what Sheila talks about is creating in the students a “graduateness”; an understanding of what becoming an artist is going to involve.
“There are things we can’t run modules in,” says Sheila. “They don’t suit the modern audited world. ‘What’s this module called?’ Um, it’s called Maybe & If. ‘What’s the book list?’ Er, dunno – there’s nothing written down. ‘When do you teach it?’ Well, it doesn’t only happen on a Thursday afternoon – it has to happen all the time. It’s integrated. It’s their lives we’re dealing with here.”
Out of the office and through the studios; the sculpture workshops, the painters’ rooms. Like at the city’s Art Gallery in 1994, it’s another intervention, but with Sheila’s own fingerprints smeared across it, indistinguishable from those of her students. “I think maybe this is why I don’t like talking about my work anymore,” she tells us over her shoulder, leading the way in the corridor. “I think this is what I should have said to you before. Because this is where I do all my talking; it’s the students that I tell.”
First published in TCT