Clare Samuel, Artist
Clare Samuel is a visual artist, writer, and educator originally from Northern Ireland. She holds a BFA from Ryerson and an MFA from Concordia University. Her work has been exhibited and screened internationally and recognized by funding and awards, including the Canadian National Magazine Awards, the Roloff Beny Foundation, and various arts councils. Clare’s images and writing have appeared in publications such as Prefix Photo, BlackFlash, and Border Crossings. She serves on the board of directors at Pleasure Dome and is a founding member of Feminist Photography Network, a nexus for research on the relationship between feminism and lens-based media. Clare lives in Toronto with her pug Stephen, and teaches at Ryerson and OCADU.
Function: Could you speak a bit about your exhibition with Ness Lee, Regarding the Enclosures (January 24–February 29, 2020), curated by Vicky Moufawad-Paul? What inspired your project To Bend and To Shape?
Clare:I had been researching the witch hunts that occurred over several centuries in Europe and its colonies, which historian Silvia Federici frames as a genocide against women, a project to annihilate the power of the feminine (and aged, poor, racialized, disabled) Other. Her argument is that this had to occur for capitalism to succeed in the transition from feudalism.
The photo series is called To Bend and To Shape because the word “witch” comes from the Indo-European root word “‘wic,” meaning to bend or shape, which could refer to materials, reality, or consciousness. I thought about the power it takes to see things differently or change others’ perspectives, as well as how women’s bodies adapt throughout life and in order to create life, and how beauty standards tell us to shape, control, and transform ourselves. I used stories and tropes from these histories, as well as folktales of the time, and contemporary beauty myths (that I think connect to these legacies) as jumping-off points to create these constructed portraits of women. Hair was a recurring theme—for example, the image “To summon hail and thunderstorms” came about because it was believed that witches used cut hair to do this. Obviously, that connected really well to Ness’s work, which essentially fills the gallery space with an ocean of this one figure’s hair.
The curator (Vicky Moufawad-Paul) chose the show title to evoke the land enclosures in the middle ages that heralded the end of public space to live and grow food on (“the commons,” where predominantly women gathered and worked), and the beginning of capitalism, which confined women to the domestic sphere. I think it also connects to other kinds of enclosures, for example, the way one of my figures engulfs her daughter and conceals her face, [the way] the Ness [work] encloses the gallery in this tumbling black hair.
Function: How would you describe your experience as a participant in group shows in comparison to solo shows?
Clare: Both are great! It totally depends on the gallery and the curator how much input you get on which works will be included and how they’ll be installed. It is lovely when you can have that dialogue back and forth, which was the case this time. But sometimes it’s also nice to just hand over the work and see what they do with it.
Function: Much of your work revolves around portraiture. Would you say the people in your images inspire your concepts, or are they a method of illustrating them?
Clare: It starts off as mainly the latter, but often individuals end up adding something to the project, or changing its direction, especially in the early stages.
Function: You balance an extremely multifaceted practice with writing, creating work, exhibiting, and teaching. Would you say this balance is challenging? Is there any advice you have for graduating students looking to achieve a similar balance in their own practices?
Clare: Yes! It is challenging, and I even do other work too, actually. Writing and lecturing about other people’s art can be really stimulating for your own practice. Helping students get excited about their work can make me excited about my own. And eventually you start being able to take your own advice to students—number 1 being “Stop overthinking it and start making!” and number 2 being “Shoot more!”
But I couldn’t honestly recommend this particular balance to graduating students, unless they already have economic stability. All three are very much situated in the “gig economy” that can be very stressful. I’d suggest thinking about how you can support yourself and your art practice with a day job that does have some stability, like in arts administration or as a technical assistant … something that has a better chance of leading to a permanent job with a pension.
Teaching used to be the ideal way to make a living as an artist, but I do think we are witnessing the death of university teaching as a profession. The majority of instructors are precarious contract workers, and it’s hard to build community between faculty, or between students and faculty in that situation—e.g., you’ll contact your old prof for a reference letter and find they don’t work there anymore. For me the experience of attending university was transformative, and it breaks my heart that this is the direction higher education is going. Quality is definitely being affected. And look at the lack of respect for school teachers, too, that we are seeing with the Ford government. I can see their rights and contracts being eroded in the same ways.
I wish students knew and understood more about what’s happening in the restructuring of their universities, because student unions and course unions actually do have tremendous power. Historically, students have often been at the forefront of major social and political change. And the administration does listen to them in a way they don’t to contract faculty. I’ve seen this happen in schools where they’ve demanded more diversity in hiring, for example, and that’s awesome.
Function: As a follow-up, is there any aspect of your practice that you feel dominates? For example, does writing or teaching potentially drain you in regard to your creative practice? Do you have any advice on managing that energy?
Clare: Teaching has dominated a lot, especially early on as I was finding my footing, taking teacher training courses, and so on. And for the reasons mentioned above, the conditions of the job make it draining, despite individual class and student interactions often being very energizing. Like anything, it’s important to grow [in] self-awareness and ask yourself which jobs (or people, activities, social media you follow … ) are draining you and which are nourishing you. It sounds obvious, but it can take ages to really notice or be honest with yourself about these things, because maybe the truth conflicts with who you think you should be.
Function: How do you feel your work has grown over the years? Are you working in a different way now than you thought you would be after graduation?
Clare: I hope it’s got better! It probably has grown and changed; it’s hard to assess from the inside.
Function: Could you tell us about your school experience, and your decision to pursue an MFA from Concordia? What made you decide to go to grad school? Do you feel your experience as a graduate student was different than your undergrad at Ryerson?
Clare: Yes, it was very different. There was a lot more emphasis on dialogue about work in progress with your peers and the faculty. It took my ability to look at and speak about artwork to a whole new level. I also really appreciated how interdisciplinary it was at Concordia. Having come from a very lens-based undergrad, that was really liberating. That might be good advice for students thinking about a Master’s, doing something a bit different than your undergrad. It makes your knowledge base broader, which is a real plus for both employability and artmaking.
Function: Could you tell us about the Feminist Photography Network, and your experience as a founding member there?
Clare: It was founded by myself and Jenn Long, through talks with a couple of Scottish colleagues. We had attended the Fast Forward: Women & Photography conference at the Tate in November 2015, and it was so exciting to be examining the fraught relationship between this medium we all loved and our gender. We initially wanted to host a follow-up conference here in Canada, but that required a large amount of funding and institutional backing that we couldn’t secure. So instead we’ve been concentrating on grassroots and peer-to-peer projects that harness this international dialogue, and can be done with little to no budget. We have a couple of curatorial projects in the works, and we are really focusing on facilitating the production and exhibition of work by women and trans image makers.