Since her teens, author and award-winning photographer Rosie Osborne has been interviewing some of the contemporary art world’s most-respected figures, including such luminaries as the late Sandra Blow. With her first collection of those interviews just published, in the fully-illustrated new coffee table book Free Spirits, we caught up with Rosie to find out more about her fascination with the artists behind the art.
Q. Some of the artists featured in your book rarely give interviews. How did you persuade them to speak with you?
A. It’s funny, because I didn’t realise until years later how unlikely and complicated it actually was to interview some of the artists! I think my age and innocence played a role at the start—when you’re younger, you’re much less self-conscious about who is who. So, as a teenager, I used to contact artists very confidently, asking if I could interview them. I guess the fear of rejection probably gets worse as you grow older! Luckily, the innocent confidence must have worked in a way. If I didn’t get a response, it never disheartened me. I just persevered with the next interview request and kept moving forward.
Q. What are the common traits that artists share that sets them apart from people in other professions?
A. This is one of the lessons that I’ve held most close over the years. An artist called Sax Impey summed it up really well in our interview. Sax has worked in one room for nearly 20 years, often living and sleeping in it too. During our interview, he said, “Like most artists, you give up virtually everything in order to have this particular freedom…your chances of having a house and security, that kind of thing. If you give up an awful lot, it’s important that you don’t then betray that freedom by starting to give way on making exactly what you want to make.” I would say that the common trait is exactly this: making sacrifices in order to have less to start with, so to free up the ‘mind space’ to tap into instinct and creativity. So many of the artists that I met over the years didn’t see their personal growth in terms of the car they owned, their job title, or the clothes they wore. It sounds simple, but it’s actually quite radical in today’s society. Instead, their biggest investment was sacrificing those ‘comforts’ in order to dedicate their life to something else.
Q. Which interview in the book means the most to you on a personal level, and why?
A. The introduction to the book begins with two interviews: one with my mother and one with my father. Both mean a lot to me on a personal level. It made a lot of sense to me to interview both of my parents for the book as their vision of the world had such an influence on me when I was growing up. All of the interviews featured in the book were recorded on audio tape as they were spoken. I then transcribed the answers word for word. When I read my parents’ interviews back now, I can hear their spoken voices very clearly. I like to think that when I read them back in years to come, when they may not be here anymore, I’ll really feel their presence and hear their voices once again.
Q. What criteria did you set in place when deciding which artists to interview?
A. The criteria has always been really straightforward in my mind: I’ve always interviewed artists whose work I really admire. Despite recommendations I received over the years, I never contacted an artist simply because they were renowned or famous. It has always been important to me to really feel something personally about their work in order for me to compose questions and interview them. I see the process of choosing interviewees as being a curating role, in a way. I really put a lot of thought into who I choose to contact and interview.
Q. When did you first come to realise that you had this passion for the world of contemporary art, and what attracted you?
A. My father was an abstract artist and worked from our home. He would often construct collages on our kitchen table, so I’d come down for breakfast as a child and there would be pieces of driftwood from an old boat, some string and collected fish bones, laid out on the table ready to be made into a collage! I used to observe every stage of his collages being made, and took a very early interest in textures and materials. When I got to the age of about 13, I’d ask my father if I could go along with him when he visited other artists’ studios, to see what they looked like. I remember feeling really compelled to experience more of these spaces and to see the stages in with other artworks were made.
Q. What do you think art lovers will get out of reading your book?
A. I tried to show the honesty and intimacy of artists’ studio spaces in my photographs in Free Spirits. I hope that the book offers an opportunity to step behind the usually closed door to the world that happens behind the museum exhibition, or the polished gallery show. I hope that it will be a chance to delve deeper into the story behind the creation and to understand the artist as a human rather than someone who may be untouchable.
Q. Free Spirits took more than 15 years of your life to come to fruition. Are further books planned, and do you think that you will conduct more interviews in the years ahead?
A. For the last few months I’ve been setting up an artists’ residency in my home in St Ives, Cornwall, where artists will be invited for fully sponsored one-month fellowships to paint there. The residency will open this summer. I’m planning on documenting the artists’ time in that one room; how their life and work evolves from the moment they arrive, to the end of their residency. After having written about artists’ studios for all of these years, it’s really intriguing to take the exploration a step further and to actually create a space in which many artists will work for years to come. As for the interviews, I just finished writing one yesterday! I can’t imagine ever stopping writing those. I’d like to think that I’ll go on interviewing forever.
Q. To somebody unfamiliar with contemporary art, which piece would you bring to their attention to stroke their interest, and why?
A. A piece of contemporary art that had an immense impact on me when I was young was ‘La Joie de Vivre’ by Pablo Picasso, painted in 1946. I remember the moment that I first saw it so distinctly. It was at the Picasso Museum in Barcelona…I must have been about 12. The exhibition had been curated so well. First, you walked past Picasso’s early figurative paintings that showed his flawless and meticulous artistic skills. Right at the end, you walked in to the final room to be met with ‘La Joie de Vivre’: a wide canvas filled with stalk-like figures dancing and playing instruments, bursting with childlike innocence and joy. Seeing how Picasso had pared down all of what he had learnt in order to get to that work had such a profound impact on me. Years later, I read a quote by Picasso that I found so in tune with the realisation in that moment, and I think it is what I would share with someone wanting to deepen their understanding of contemporary art. The quote was, “It takes a very long time to become young”.
Free Spirits by Rosie Osborne is available now, priced £30 in hardcover. Visit www.rosieosborne.com