As part of the ROCHE Gallery Special Events program, I am excited to present our invited artist Peter Spencer in the coming show "Playing to the Gallery" from 1st to 11th September 2023. Peter and I met up for an interview laid out here for your enjoyment.
We got to know each other around 20 years ago since our families moved to Rye from London. I would descibe Peter as a versatile creative blessed with many talents. He is known to the local communities as a musician, amateur dramatic actor, and gardener. This exhibition shows another facet of Peter's creativity - visual arts.
A few facts:
Peter Spencer studied theatre and TV design at Worthing art college. Then moved to London and initially worked in various community theatre groups and with freelance prop makers.
With his dual interest and love of music, he decided to make TV music composition his primary career. After four years of theatre work, Peter became a freelance musician, composing for film and television: covering Channel 4 documentaries, BBC title sequences, radio and TV commercials, and later BBC dramas.
Soon after the arrival of their son Ollie, the family moved to Sussex, where Peter continued to gain commissions, mainly concentrating on music for the BBC's Worldwide programme "Idents". A large garden became a significant distraction, soon leading to a new creative output - designing outdoor spaces. Music commissions gradually moved backstage.
In his spare time, Peter still enjoys his private garden projects, finding material for his collages and scrapbook pages and taking the occasional role in the local amateur dramatic societies. His interest in music has come to the fore again. In recent years Peter has been the keyboard player in The Kytes. The established Hastings band regularly gigs in and around the area.
Where does your Art take its roots?
We had an inspiring art teacher – not great at teaching us how to draw but how to be inspired and to take inspiration from everything. On one holiday, home from school, our parents encouraged us to choose a subject and collect postcards related to that subject. They then presented us each with one shiny new exercise book to stick our collections into.
On our annual family summer holidays, I would spend my small pocket money on either a 45rpm vinyl record of traditional music from the area or a slightly kitsch souvenir from one of the towns we had visited. Now, as a sixty-four-year-old adult, I comb the local boot fairs for strangers' holiday records and their vintage souvenirs.
Finally, and most importantly, during one school day, I came across a beautiful and weighty book filled with blank creamy lined pages but with a cover lovingly adorned with African wild animals collaged front and back. I'd never seen so many colourful images pressed so closely together - presumably done by one of the homesick boys from Zambia. With some determination and a few 'swaps', it became mine. These are the blank creamy pages where all my collages have sprung from. Later at art college, every student was expected to keep a scrapbook – not a well-received instruction to many, but I, for once, was streets ahead!
Like many Art Schools making music was a part of college life. I played in the college band, got involved in making soundtracks for students' audio-visual projects, and began learning how to write songs. Throughout my life, I've always been fascinated by how the audio and visual arts were interlinked. Much of the TV composition work I enjoyed the most was written to support and underpin visuals.
My golden moment was recording my score of 32 original music cues to picture for a BBC feature-length romantic comedy cinematic release with an ensemble of musicians, friends and singers.
I ought to mention that during this solo show at the ROCHE Gallery in Rye, there will be an ambient soundtrack playing occasionally which was originally created for the Natural History Museum, London, to accompany one of The Wildlife Photographer of The Year exhibitions. Copies of this CD will be available for sale. I refer to this work as "Pink Floyd go to the Zoo"!
So, you trained as an artist, although music became your leading career?
I hesitate to say I was trained as an artist! We were given projects with little instruction in most cases. However, the visiting lecturers who came in from the real world were invaluable.
From early on, both Music and Art played equal parts. Only now do I realise that my work, either in audio or visuals, is about creating environments, worlds to escape to. I have always been a dreamer. It can mean easily becoming lost in a dream as well as constructively dreaming up alternative realities and turning them into matter. I get butterflies and experience a honey-coloured glow when creating a collage, a piece of music, writing poetry, laying out a garden and enjoying its fruition, or simply introducing intriguing images that somehow have their place on a scrapbook page.
When Ollie was much younger, I made up stories as we walked to school. There'd be no time to think, just a creative reflex once he'd given me a particular letter from the alphabet that he wanted me to feature in the tale. These were pleasing little worlds to vanish into together. Still, once the walk was over and we'd reached the school gates, each story seemed to evaporate as quickly from my mind as it had appeared. Today he's a journalist busy with work and fresh out of university. I wonder if there's a tiny seed from our storytelling in his adult journey.
I remember the musical "Fish Tales" put on by children of the Icklesham Primary. As far as I know, it was produced entirely by you. You wrote the story, the lyrics, and the music. Children loved it, and the audience loved it - it was terrific!
Wow, how do you remember that? Thank you, Marina! Yes, as a young parent, I was horrified that this unique and special rural primary school was regularly turning to bland, off-the-shelf productions for their annual school nativities. They all – staff and pupils alike – deserved something better. I wanted to create an inclusive production, set locally, with an appropriate moral story, and where every single child played a part and could take pride in their role.
My most embarrassing moment – second to receiving the Head Teacher's Award in assembly - was singing the rough acapella versions of my show songs to various teachers trapped in the staff room staring into the bottoms of their teacups! It didn't look too promising, but it all turned out OK. I wrote a second and final musical when Ollie reached the top class called Human Nature, involving a lone alien boy!
I regret missing out on the second musical! Are they available for schools to use?
Sadly not. However, when I was writing music for TV, I did have a few commissions for Schools programmes, and the Channel 4 Natural Science series of 10 programmes generated a few phone calls to the Production company from teachers asking if they could use various pieces for the dance and drama departments.
What's the story leading to this exhibition?
When Karen and I first got together, I started making seasonal collages for fun. We would take these down to Pronto Print in Hastings to be poorly reproduced on cards to send to friends at Christmas. Digital printing was in its infancy. By 2004, I'd amassed eight designs that, to my eyes, miraculously, looked like a "set". I decided to print them professionally as greeting cards to try and sell! I approached Judges Postcards to do the lithographic printing - a historic company familiar to me through my collecting postcards from a young age. I was very happy with the result! So happy that I felt buoyed enough to contact the newly opened Tate Modern shop. And that Christmas, my strange kitsch collages of seasonal mountain mischief went on sale there to the Great British Public!
The original collages and subsequent greeting cards will form a small part of the show. There are then further collages suggesting my suburban life at home in the late 60s and cards and postcards on sale to accompany them; a selection of scrapbook pages scanned from my beloved book now in poor health; and several curious and certainly kitsch 3D items. Some of the latter are still in production (which is an understatement).
At sixty-four, this feels like a watershed moment. It's a time to look at all the pieces together, perhaps for the first and last time, as many will be for sale, and it's time to move on. I have many ideas and not oodles of time, with other interests and goals.
I have always found good collages intriguing for their multi-layered nature, and the range of subjects and emotions that can be embedded into one piece is very appealing. I find surreal collages are too obvious, shallow if not empty and full of trickery and effect. For me, good montage and collage art is about creating a parallel and plausible world, often personal, emotional and informative – occasionally educational. My work mirrors my own sentimentalities, fears and curiosities and stories about others – their lives frozen in time, strangers held in a frame, for whom I created a backstory likely to be a million miles from their own.
Some pieces are based on distorted childhood memories. All memories are distorted to a degree, influenced by just one photo of a family event, a conversation with a confused elderly aunt, or a misreading of a moment when you were too young to process much. We never have a pure memory. It's often hearsay, out of which we make a world that suits our known history and emotional state at the time.
Why did you choose the title "Playing to the Gallery"?
Firstly, I like Wordplay. With this title, I am playing up to my audience – making a bold gesture of showing my personal work publicly to strangers and pertaining the work to be "Art" by having a show in a gallery – and for the very first time, I may add.
I didn't know it was a set phrase. I thought you referred to the title of the book by Grayson Perry.
Ah, I didn't know about the book!
Which artists do you find inspiring?
Well, I do admire Grayson Perry for his honesty, infectious creativity, and wearing his Art on his sleeve. His highly accomplished work is simply presented but obviously comes from his heart, refreshingly honest and often entertaining – never shallow or pretentious.
I have perennial favourites such as Kurt Schwitters, Alexander Calder, and Eduardo Paolozzi. I like Jean-Paul Basquiat again for his unique personality and honesty he put into his work. Richard Hamilton and Peter Blake obviously; Patrick Caulfield for his directness and immediacy, and Robert Rauschenberg for his impactful pieces dragging collage kicking and screaming into the heady world of American Modern Art.
Recently, I came across Sean Hillen – quite a contrast to the above - who's an Irish collagist. The parallels in our works encouraged me, although we come from very different places. There is a brilliant documentary about him on Netflix.
I'm probably more intrigued by individuals who write, create music, make art, and are involved in film and theatre, for example, David Byrne or Jean Cocteau. But your question was about "artists". I believe if you're creative, you're likely to be comfortable in a variety of the arts. Sadly in England, we tend to only attach one label per person. Do we regard these Jack of All Trades as show-offs?
I agree with you on labelling. I'd say, it is done for the convenience of the retail, however cynical that may sound. That leads us to the two questions I keep exploring through my work and in conversations with artists: What is creativity? and What is Art?
Creativity is the innate ability to conjure up something from nothing, to have the germ of an idea and make it a reality. We're possibly all on a spectrum, and one's imagination is more or less expansive depending on where you are on it. Creativity is natural and should be celebrated in all its forms.
Art is one of the tangible products that has been borne out of the process of imagination. Music is another. Art comes in many forms and is perceived differently depending on the viewer's experiences. It comes in many shapes and sizes: from grand old masters in oils to the simple marriage of paper and glue. If either is hanging in a building with a sign above the entrance that reads 'Art Gallery' and can hold your attention for a few minutes, then it's Art. If it can hold your attention for a little longer and provoke an emotion, then it is great Art.