An Interview With Florence Sweeney

From her home studio in Tottenham, Florence Sweeney opens up about confronting darker themes in her autobiographical practice and navigating the art world as a female working-class artist in London.

Who is Florence Sweeney?

I find I get stumped by this question. It’s ok not knowing who you are or where you’re going… But it's certain that I’m a 27 year old female, London based artist and my studio is based in my house in Tottenham. My early days started in Belgium, then onto Essex and then regretfully I studied at the Arts University Bournemouth. I’ve been based in London for the last 4 years, which has been a truly fruitful experience.

You’ve had quite an unorthodox past - can you explain a bit about your background and how this has influenced your artistic practice?

I cannot give the whole story away just yet, as it isn’t just my own to share… but yes, the beginning of my life had a darkness that continues to this day. I was fortunate to be taken in by my grandparents, who have shown me tremendous love despite the afflictions I had experienced prior.

My work is autobiographical. I previously reined it back. I felt it was too much, but this led me towards an abstract ambiguity, which I found catharsis in. I am developing my narrative and accepting the darker themes within my work again. I am posing unanswerable questions in a way to find closure, to understand my origins and try to find some clarity on the murders of my family. It’s a lot to be mulling over whilst trying to push forward, but I am striving to understand my roots in order to understand my identity. My mother was also an artist and though I have no memory of her, I have her sketchbooks, watercolour set, photography slides and some of her artist books. Our remaining connection is our ability to create.What I have left of my father are court cases, newspaper articles and his brown eyes.

Often, Artists use their practice as a form of therapy, whether that’s through creating or observing; would you agree that art can be therapeutic?

Completely, as a child experiencing trauma, I would be lost in drawing and from having a speech block, it was a way to express and communicate. There is most definitely a psychology aspect behind most art or what they take away from the experience. It’s an essential part of my research, as I am constantly analysing myself; it deepens my understanding and drives me forward. There is nothing more satisfying than pouring hours into a whim of an idea and seeing the form develop into something far greater: art solidifies the subconscious. 

You had an experience where you exhibited a sculpture after being asked to show a 2D piece that could be sold. What drove you to make this decision and how do you think galleries can be more considerate towards the artists that they exhibit?

I understand that we all need to make money and I’ve been down with that in the past, but I felt that I was being directed down a path that I didn’t want to take. A previous curator told me I was pleasing people too much, which was true. With my narrative, it’s hard to find a voice that is digestible, and social media postulates an impression of you which isn’t necessarily correct. At that certain exhibition, it was liberating to stop hiding behind my abstract paintings. They are essentially deceptive and like a blanket to hide under. But they’re a part of my creative journey and are still important pieces to me.

You said that you take inspiration from certain literature (ie Maggie Nelson); how does writing from Authors such as Nelson, influence your work? 

I am always trying to find answers to questions I’ll never know the answers to, and to which I turn to books. Critical Literature is one of my favourite genres, which delves into history, observation, feminism and philosophy, critical thinkers such as Rebecca Solnit, Jacqueline Rose and Alice Bolin.

Maggie Nelson’s writing has such a close impact, as I haven’t read anything else that is so relatable to me. ‘Red Parts, An Autobiography of a Trial’ was like reading a story about myself, as Nelson describes having ‘Murder Mind’ sifting through the articles of the murder of her aunt - that’s me, with the murders of my mother and step-mother. Nelson has a variety of books that deconstruct the reasoning of brutality, and that’s the real difference when loss is so prominent in your life, due to violence as opposed to a natural death. It questions why people do such wicked things, even the ones that you share the same flesh and blood with.

How would you describe your experience of being a woman in the art world? Are there any gender-related hardships that you have come across?

Yes. I can’t explain just yet. But it seems to have a set of ovaries obligates you to have to clean up after others in certain spaces. And to that, I say I have a pseudo penis and I can’t be doing such menial tasks, soz. 

How has your working class background influenced your work?

Class is a funny thing. I wouldn’t even know what bracket of class I was growing up, but for certain, my grandad worked until he was 81! I had my first job at the age of 13 as a chambermaid and I wouldn’t say we were completely hard up because we had a good work ethic, just a low income. I’m still on a low income and I have to make sacrifices by being able to support myself and a studio-practice, but the hustle is reaaal. My work is quite expensive to fabricate and I find myself doing contortions to make ends meet and it’s bloody tiring! But the sales are starting to pay off and commissions coming in, so the hard work is paying off. Let's just hope that I can sort out my diabolical credit rating and someday be able to afford a Masters!

You moved your studio into your home - what made you make this decision and do you think other artists will be doing the same?

I have been with three different studios in London and one of them has been demolished and the other priced out. There has always been the uncertainty of how long the space you rent is yours and if you are able to afford it. I found myself burning out by working Monday - Friday and going to the studio in the evenings and weekends. Sometimes turning up to the studio isn’t productive when you are tired. My landlady had no problems with me turning one of the rooms into a studio when my friend moved out. It is approximately the same price and my quality of living has improved, time is saved from commuting and not buying food out, but I am able to relax and concentrate in my own space. I had spoken to a couple of other artists who I knew had home studios and they agree that the change was the right decision

So what can we expect for Florence Sweeney in the future?

I have a solo show coming up in October with The Gallery, which is a new space opening in Bow, which will be my first Audio and Moving Image installation which I’m stoked for! In the last few months, I’ve been researching extensively and will be excited to share the newest works soon, bringing forth an unusual narrative in an archaic space. I’m looking forward for people seeing a truthful side of my work.

Edited by Ellie Pennick and Grace Goslin

6th May 2019

Photography by Viola Zichy 

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