In the Studio with Jennifer Cuthill

Jennifer Cuthill blends dreamlike imagery with imagined cave ecologies through her practice, explores the relationship between geology and the subconscious, as well as the dance between fiction and reality. We met with Jennifer to tell us more about the message behind her works and unexpected sources of inspiration.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist? 

Maybe earlier this year, when I got my first commission after graduating to make a flag for Rhubaba Gallery and Studios in Edinburgh. That made me attach the label to myself a bit. But I still don’t know if I really see myself as an artist, maybe it will be another few years until I start properly describing myself as that.  

Where are you from and what was your upbringing like? How has this impacted your work?

Both of my parents are Scottish and I was born in Edinburgh but then moved to the outskirts of Durham in the North East of England when I was little. I then moved to Holland from the ages of 4-8, near to Rotterdam, and then back to Durham where I lived until I was 18. Durham is only a 10 minute train ride away from Newcastle, so I would always go to The Baltic art gallery when I was growing up, which for sure inspired me and made me fall in love with contemporary art.

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice, artistic work? Was there a pivotal moment when you felt you were on the right track?

When I was little I spent years drawing whole worlds of people and objects made out of paper, which I kept in a big box, and would make up stories with them; it was a bit of an obsession. Coming up with narratives and characters and making these into drawings was my main hobby as a child and I think it probably really helped me to think creatively and use my imagination all the time. Me and my sisters would also spend hours making videos together and I would always be drawing or painting in the living room. Studying fine art in Glasgow was so inspiring to me, mainly because of the friends and people around me and on my course who I am constantly in awe of and whose support I value so much. 

What’s the message of your work? Where do they come from? How would you describe your aesthetic?

I think my aesthetic in terms of painting and printmaking is often quite playful and whimsical. I love medieval painting and the way the people are depicted in such a flat, simple way. There is definitely an element of the surreal in my work as I’ve always liked the dance between fantasy and reality and the way in which myth making can serve to mediate between fact and fiction. I feel like I daydream a lot so have always been interested in how the mundane is webbed with the fantastical, and I love magical realist fiction and genre bending stories such as the writings of Carmen Maria Machado and Haruki Murakami. I guess I’m interested in themes surrounding entanglement- the ways in which humans are entangled with the Earth, and how fantasy is entangled with the real.   

An unexpected source of inspiration?

A couple of years ago I visited a limestone cave in North Yorkshire. It was really surreal and beautiful, making me think of Yves Tanguy paintings and as if I was entering into a private, secretive layer of the Earth. I guess I’m interested in the relationship between private and public worlds, and visiting the cave made me form a relationship between subterranean spaces/geology and the body/the subconscious. It encouraged me to start finding a way to make ethereal, private spaces into tangible objects or images. I like how stories and narratives are embedded into the rocks and swimming around underground, and the idea of the strata of the Earth being an imprint of lives that were lived before us.  

What do you want people to take from your work when they view it? Do you have the audience consciously in mind when you are creating?

I always prefer the process of making to the final image- I would honestly be very happy if nobody ever saw my work but this is obviously not sustainable if you want to be an artist! Art school taught me to scrutinise my work and consider the audience a lot so this has impacted the way I make things now, but I try not to overthink things too much.  

What events in your life have mobilised change in your practise/aesthetic? How has your art evolved? Do you experiment? 

I probably experiment a bit too much! I’m constantly jumping around mediums and trying new things out; I feel like that’s what gives me the most energy. I think being in art school I was aware of having a limited time with a lot of great resources, which is why I experimented a lot with printmaking (as the print studios and technicians were incredible) and film/animation as we had access to an amazing media suite and computers/equipment. Since graduating I have started painting, which feels quite new to me as I hardly touched it when I was at GSA to be honest. I think this is because I was working on a film for degree show and since it got cancelled, I wanted to start something new. I feel like I still have loads to learn in terms of painting but I’m enjoying it a lot! 

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?

Feeling relaxed is probably the main one for me. I’m so bad at working under pressure. Listening to music and podcasts is also really important for me as it makes me get lost in what I’m doing and makes the act of creating super meditative.  

Tell us about the inspiration behind one of your (consignment) works?

A while ago I came across some photos of antique perfume bottles, which I found fascinating! I started researching these more, and in the 18th century they would keep these bottles in boxes known as ‘perfume caves’, which is what inspired ‘The Scent Cave’. I’m interested in the link between scent and memory, and the ways in which smells can evoke an emotive response and trigger a forgotten memory. I like especially how scents can remind you of touch- of people you have been close to or partners or whatever. I think that’s why my paintings often have hands and feet in them; senses evoking senses.  

Something in the future you hope to explore?

I’ve just started a ceramics course, so I guess exploring the possibilities of clay is quite exciting. I’d like to create a series of dream perfume bottles and some flower ‘fossils’ which I’m making for an exhibition in Seoul in October, at Keep in Touch Gallery, curated by Aeji Seo. From researching antique perfume bottles, I’ve also become fascinated by 16th/17th century jewlerry design, and would like to make some wall based ceramics based on these, which I hope will hold small dreamlike drawings, almost like frames carved from cave interiors.