After feeling increasingly isolated during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, London-based artist Mary Ramsden began creating visual homages to her loved ones
“I sometimes find the writing that sits alongside art can alienate the viewer rather than encourage and stimulate thought,” says London-based painter Mary Ramsden. “I wanted to draw people into the conversation rather than leaving them out in the cold.”
The artist is talking about Blunt Instrument, a book of her recent paintings featuring texts by nine female writers – including Daisy Lafarge and Rebecca Watson – which launches later this month. The featured art was made during the UK lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, as a response to her feelings of isolation. Ramsden painted those she missed as if they were right there with her, and commissioned writers to respond to themes of reverence, friendship and connection. Blunt Instrument is essentially the story of how the pandemic created a bond between a cast of writers, brought together by a solitary painter.
Ramsden, who studied at Royal Academy Schools in London and is represented by Pilar Corrias (London) and Wentrup (Berlin), has spent her career using paint almost exclusively. In Blunt Instrument, she leans into a range of materials, including wood and metal, which introduce a more sculptural quality. Each piece was created with the intention of capturing the essence of their namesakes – the friends she missed so dearly – though Ramsden is not comfortable with them being labelled abstract portraits. “It feels a bit off for me to call them totally abstract,” she explains. “It felt for me that if the spirit or attitude of a person had a colour or visible materiality, then these would be representational.”
Ramsden spent two lockdowns in central London and another in rural North Yorkshire. In between studio time, she was reading voraciously – poetry, essays, fiction – and became increasingly preoccupied with making connections with those whose words she read. “I fired up exchanges with writers who were grappling with concerns close to my own. As these conversations developed and became more dynamic, I felt it was important to find a way to house these dialogues side by side,” she says. “So, I invited each writer to construct a piece of writing off the back of our chats.”
All of the writers in Blunt Instrument are women, which is ostensibly a coincidence, but one Ramsden has ruminated on since the book went to print. Empathy, she believes, might be at the heart of it. After all, it is empathy that is buried deep in her work and gives her the ability to embody or imitate another, to try to understand them from the inside out. “I find empathy a fascinating human emotion that can be both essential and problematic,” she says. “It may be a huge generalisation, but I find women can be wrought with overly-empathetic tendencies. So it felt somehow apt that the writers were female voices.”
The featured writing ranges from notes, to short poems, to long passages of fiction. In particular, she cites Daisy Hildyard’s words on shamanic behaviours as “a very rich parallel to my process and the solitary – but also, at times, performative – activity in the studio”. Similarly, Ramsden says that the poetry submitted by both Rebecca Tamás and Genevieve Stevens echoed the abbreviated language used in her own work. There are also notes that Chloe Aridjis wrote while working on her novel Sea Monsters that Ramsden especially likes for their “perpetual state of flux”.
Far from wielding puppet master control over the writers, Ramsden was happy to let them have a long leash, because she felt confident that she had chosen them for a valid reason in the first place. “But I enjoyed the surprise of what turned out,” she says. And not knowing quite what to expect is one of the most alluring things about Blunt Instrument. Add to this the fact that it’s limited edition, and that you have to request a copy rather than just buy one from Amazon, makes it all the more special: a work of art in and of itself.
Blunt Instrument, launching 30 October 2021, will have a limited run of 50 copies. All are signed and numbered by the artist, and designed and produced by Book Works London. Copies can be purchased by contacting Mary Ramsden through her official website.