Emma Hart in her studio London

Announced this week as the winner of the Max Mara Art Prize for Women, artist Emma Hart lives and works in London. Recent solo exhibitions include: big MOUTH, Grand Union, Birmingham (2015); Sticky, Austrian Cultural Forum, London (2015); Spread, Art Exchange (2015); Giving It All That, Folkestone Triennial (2014); Dirty Looks, Camden Arts Centre (2013). In 2015 she was awarded a Paul Hamlyn Foundation award for Visual Art. Emma is a lecturer on BA (Hons) Fine Art at Central Saint Martins, UAL.

Emma Hart sculptures

What first inspired you to become an artist?

It really was the other way round, in that I was working in an office as a shipping clerk – I didn’t follow a conventional route into art, I didn’t do Art A-level or a foundation course – and it was more that I was using art to get away from what I was doing as opposed to moving towards something that I really loved. I felt terribly misunderstood in the shipping industry and in the office administration industry. I also worked at a call centre for a long time and it just was very frustrating and disappointing. I had a desire to make things, but it was more that I had ideas going round my head, “what if this could happen?” and I couldn’t express them. Because I hadn’t done any art training I felt very restricted, I didn’t feel I could paint or draw or sculpt. When I was about 21, 22, when it came to really thinking about ‘what am I going to do next?’ art was still too far away from me, I couldn’t quite imagine it,  but what I could imagine was taking photographs, so I went and bought disposable cameras from Boots – digital cameras hadn’t actually been invented – and in my spare time just started to take photographs on them and cobbled together a portfolio and got into a photography course at my local college.

Emma Hart installation

What are you working on at the moment?
It’s been a really busy time the last two years undertaking two major exhibitions at Camden Arts Centre and then the Folkestone Triennial so right now I’m just pausing for thought and enjoying relishing having won the Paul Hamlyn award. But in this year I start on another major commission with Jonathan Baldock and we have a major commission with the De La Warr Pavilion, Peer Gallery and then the Grundy Gallery in Blackpool – we’ve never collaborated before and  we’re going to collaborate for the first time and produce a kind of modern weird take on Punch and Judy. It opens in August at the De La Warr and it’s a really large show. We’ve got some huge sculptures planned.

Emma Hart close up

Tell us about your work

I’m fairly new to ceramics and my approach is to combine ceramics with photography and video. The Folkestone Triennial was only my second major public project with ceramics, so I’m not an expert. I taught myself everything from YouTube! A bit like when I first got on the course to do photography, I taught myself then. I even bought a kiln. Folkestone was a unique opportunity because rather than the work being situated in a gallery it was in an abandoned flat, so that’s a more provocative location than a neutral gallery. It had been lived in and then abandoned, I think due to financial difficulties, so it was really smelly – it was very atmospheric. A lot of my work dwells on the boundaries or thresholds between public and private so I often think about spillages or sweat – a moment of excess when something bursts through our public veneer, how anxiety forces our inner feelings outwards. A domestic property is a good places to dwell on personal doubts or anxieties and how we perform being who we are.

I installed work all over the flat, there was video, which created a crying soundtrack to the whole experience, and I made these metal figures which were holding laptops displaying weird powerpoints about how you might present yourself, and then the rooms were filled with ceramics which set up situations for the viewer to enter in to. Something I’m exploring is how ceramics can go beyond being a vessel and create a situation or scene, so in one room long extended arms offered viewers drinks, so the viewer is drawn in, in a room upstairs the viewer is peered at over the edge of ceramic clipboards and therefore being monitored which hopefully manufactured another set of feelings within the viewer.

Red kites photographed by Mrs Airwolfhound

What are you most passionate about?

The thing for me is that I had a child two years ago and now I’m much more passionate about family life. I am still really passionate about birds, I was a keen birdwatcher, but I’m more likely to see a black bird than a red kite these days.

Which piece of creative work in any discipline do you most love?

I just have been to see the Enrico David show at Hepworth Wakefield and it took my breath away. It is the best show I have ever seen in a long time and I think about it constantly. The work is a heady mix of provocation, beauty, terror, and lust.

Surrey Docks Farm piglets, courtesy Surrey Docks Farm
Where is your favourite London haunt?

Things have changed, it used to be the Wenlock Arms near Old Street but now it’s the city farm in Surrey Quays.

What is your guilty pleasure?
It’s QVC, the shopping channel.

Name a favourite book, song and film

Virginia Woolf To The Lighthouse
Virgina Woolf,  To The Lighthouse

Alison Limerick cover
I’m a bit of an old clubber and my favourite track is Where Love Lives by Alison Limerick 

Uncle Buck poster detail
I hardly ever watch films, but the one I’ve seen the most is Uncle Buck.

What advice would you give to aspiring creatives?
The hardest thing to do, is to do what you want to do,  rather than what you think you should be doing and it’s hard because it’s hard to work out what you really want to do and then it’s hard because you have to have courage to do what you want. My advice is caught up in that really – do what you want to do.

Read more on Emma Hart’s website

Find out more about the Max Mara Art Prize for Women on the Whitechapel Gallery website