Let’s start from the early days. Where did your printmaking journey begin?
My home environment nurtured my drive to be creative – my Dad was a keen amateur photographer with his own darkroom at home, and my Mum was always dressmaking and loved to paint too. I loved to draw, paint, sew and watch my Dad developing photographs. I didn’t discover printmaking until years later at University studying Fine Art at the University of Hertfordshire as a mature student. Whilst at Hertfordshire I soon spent all my time in the print room experimenting with various techniques. I was particularly drawn to screen printing and photo etching, using old family photographs taken by my Dad and Grandfather as source material.
What are your influences and inspirations?
During later studies at MA level I was strongly influenced by the work of the video artist Bill Viola. His slowed down time pieces such as the Quintet of the Astonished, and Five Angels for the Millenium, are very beautiful and emotionally charged. I have also been influenced by the photographers Sam Taylor Wood, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Francesca Woodman. I have quite eclectic tastes when it comes to visiting exhibitions – I look at painting, installation, ceramics, which all feeds into my work at some level.
Can you tell us a bit about your etching technique and how you incorporate digital photography into your prints?
I start with a digital photograph, selected from hundreds shot during a session with a model in a dance studio. I use an editing programme on my computer, photoshop, to crop, enhance and often add background layers to the image. I convert this to black and white and then a random half tone which I have printed onto a transparent film. If I’ve decided to make a multi-plate etching I generate several different versions of the image each emphasizing either the background or the foreground or some other part. Next comes making the plate or plates in the workshop. First a light-sensitive liquid medium is rolled onto the surface of the plate. Once this has dried the plate is exposed to ultraviolet light with the transparency in place thereby blocking out dark areas in the image. The plate is then developed leaving a ‘ground’ on the plate which replicates the image. The plate is then processed as any other etching, by aquatinting and immersing in acid.
What is your creative process and how you do you begin a piece of work? How do you balance your time across photo shoots, editing images and printing? Do you have your own studio?
I have various strategies for making work. I usually decide on a piece of writing that I want my model to perform as sign language. It may be a prose passage, or poem or a scripture passage. I am also open to suggestions from the model. Sometimes they will have something they want to perform. David Bower and Isolte Avila offered to dance some of their ready choreographed sign dances for me, to which I readily agreed. Chisato Minamimura who has signed for me on several occasions performed extempore sign dance which I found exciting and enjoyed photographing. Occasionally I have worked in a collaborative way with other photographers, and I’ve also worked from video footage of dance, but usually I work from my own photographs.
I try to make the most of the photo shoots by shooting the model in various costumes, and signing different texts. I find two or three hours at a time is a good session length. I hope to produce enough material to last me several months creating new work editing and printmaking. Sometimes I find I can work very quickly at the editing stage and then might take longer making the plates and working out how to print them – getting the colours and layers right. Other times I may spend longer editing – working out how to use the photographs I’ve taken. I do have my own studio with a rochat etching press which I love having all to myself! I make my plates elsewhere, usually at London Print Studio, where they have a good set up for photo etching copper plates.
A lot of your work explores communication through movement. We understand that you work with deaf dancers who perform sequences of sign language or sign dance. How did you develop this interest and can you tell us more about it?
My interest in working with deaf models and dancers arose because of a chance remark of a friend when I was photographing hands. The friend suggested looking at sign language as a natural progression for my work. I began with finger spelling, and then BSL. I happened to have some deaf relatives who became willing first models! Later, when researching on the internet, I came across Sign Dance, and was put in touch with Chisato Minamimura, a deaf dancer and choreographer. Sign dance is an invention that incorporates dance moves with regular sign language. It is a beautiful form of expressive dance allowing a deaf audience to appreciate the meaning behind the dance.
Your work is quite spiritual, exposing emotions. Is it important to you to try to visualise the internal self?
My art practice certainly flows out of my beliefs and yes, it’s important to me to draw attention to the spiritual side of life. I think that art is a very good way of doing that. In 2015 I was commissioned by the arts council to make a body of work for an exhibition of women’s self-portraits. I made a film and some photo etchings with myself as the subject performing sign dance. This work explored my emotions, my insecurities and faith amongst other things. I think it’s something that resonates with many people.
Where does your interest in the Orient stem from?
My family had a collection of oriental objects bought by my grandfather when stationed in Hong Kong in the 1920s and 30s. There was a painted fire screen, embroideries and a cabinet stuffed full of treasures, which I was allowed to explore as a child under supervision. My mother told me stories of her very early childhood when she lived in Hong Kong. A few years ago I was an artist in residence in China at the Guanlan Original Print Base near Shenzhen, which was an amazing experience.
We were very taken with your recent series of Shakespeare based prints, can you tell us a bit more about them?
I decided to make some work based on Shakespeare’s plays in honour of his 400th year anniversary last year. I contacted two deaf actors who had both had experience of working with Shakespeare for the deaf. Nadia Nadarajah has performed a Midsummer Nights Dream in sign language at the Globe. Zoë McWhinney was familiar with a speech by Juliet from a Midsummer Night’s Dream. I worked with each model with an interpreter present, taking lots of still shots and videos of their performance for future reference. For the background I found some photographs I had taken in Verona Cathedral crypt, and of the woods at Hampstead Heath. I have just completed another Juliet work in the series From my Lips, Romeo and Juliet, Act One Scene 5.
What are you currently working on?
I have begun working on a series of smaller works based on scripture verses from John’s gospel and using Zoë McWhinney as the model. They are sign dance with a bit of movement and I’ve taken the images from the video footage. I’m going to etch them on steel rather than copper which gives a lovely plate tone.
More about Margaret Ashman
Margaret Ashman is an experienced printmaker specialising in photo etching. She trained at the Universities of Hertfordshire and Brighton and is also an Oxford graduate. She is currently a member of the Royal Society of Painter Printmakers and is Chairman of the Printmakers Council.
To see more of Margaret’s work click here.