Dulcie Wagstaff

University: University of Brighton

Graduation: 2016

Genre: Documentary, Construction

Website: www.dulciewagstaff.co.uk

Artist Statement: Taking inspiration from my immediate surroundings, my work seeks for meaning and understanding through the people, objects, places and activities that often go amiss in the ‘art world’. I believe that everything and everybody has a history, which if given the necessary attention and time, can be unraveled into something valuable and unforeseen.

My most recent work, Familiar Gardens, examines relationships between gardening, mental health and family relationships in an attempt to uncover why we garden, and how it helps us. Gardening is so much more than growing plants. It is the anticipation of summer. It is family. It is a place to think and to heal.

As the youngest in a family with a history of depression, the garden is a sanctuary that I have only recognised within the past two years. However, this is not a project about depression. This is a project about the joy of gardening, and how it has brought my family and me together, allowing us to flourish.

From the series Familiar Gardens

From the series Familiar Gardens

Where did you attend university and what year did you graduate? I studied photography at the University of Brighton, and graduated in the summer of 2016.

What are some standout moments from your time at university? The first standout moment would be in my first year, when I first used a medium format camera, a Bronica, which I still use today. I remember falling in love with it, before I had even taken a picture, the feel of it, the sound it makes, the waist level viewfinder, which is a magical way to see the world. And then of course, the perfect quality of the images that medium format cameras can produce. Although people often talk about the importance of the photographer over the camera, which I completely agree with in many respects, but there is something in the idea of a photographer and a certain camera harmonizing.

My second standout moment was in my third year, given the freedom to make work about whatever I want, with no brief or guidance, but for the first time since studying, I knew exactly what I wanted to make work about. I think that during the first two years of university I was still finding out who I was and what my interests were in general – not just photographically. Once I discovered what my interests were, I found my photographic practice gravitating towards those.

Images from the series Familiar Gardens

Images from the series Familiar Gardens

Which photographic genre do you consider your work to fall into? My work plays within a balance of documentary and constructed images. The ideas that I am discussing through my images are often very personal; I am documenting my thoughts and experiences rather than what people often consider to be documentary as being something ‘out there’, that the photographer is observing from a distance. I think a term I quite like is ‘socially responsible artist/photographer’. I often feel like photography can be quite a self indulgent and insular practice so I have become very interested in the idea of social responsibility – using photography to explore ideas and issues that might possibly benefit the viewers or participants of the project. 

 
From the series Familiar Gardens

From the series Familiar Gardens

 

What themes do you find yourself exploring? I almost always explore themes that are affecting me personally or somebody that I care about, usually something that eludes the passerby, something intimate or taboo – but at the same time something that I know to also affect thousands of other people – such as mental health problems like depression, anxiety and loneliness. I feel no drive to photograph things that are there for all to see. I want to unravel the complexities of how we live, and hope to discover some sort of ‘answer’ to the questions I am asking. 

Can you tell us how you hung your degree work at Free Range? My work Familiar Gardens was hung at Free Range according to the ‘types’ of images. Three of the five were printed small, with large white borders and waxed ash wooden frames. These images were the underlying narrative of the work and hung in a way that drew the viewer in to inspect them. The remaining two images were printed much larger and full bleed, with painted wooden frames that matched the colour of the print they encased. These images were the ‘dream’ aspect of the project, they represented the gardeners aspirations and imaginings of what the garden will be like, and all the joy it will bring. Luckily, for me at least, the mental image of that aspirational garden is enough to bring joy to a gardener.

Familiar Gardens at Free Range 2016

Familiar Gardens at Free Range 2016

I also included a climbing plant on a trellis in the show, the plant grew over and around a photograph of my granddad, my mum and me. It makes quite a literal point about the growth of the garden alongside the growth of my family.

How did you come to realise that, for you, the garden is a place of relaxation and healing, and can provide you with a space to think? When I was in my late teens and still living at home my mum would drag me to her allotment if I was having a bad day. I don’t think at the time either of us recognised why she was doing it, but after a while I noticed that weeding a patch of ground, or planting some seedlings, or harvesting tomatoes, made me feel content.

It wasn’t until I had my own garden that I really began to use it to directly improve my wellbeing. I think the stresses of university made me want to be out in the garden more, and I responded to that with making a project that would enable me to be out in the garden as much as I would like.

Images from the series Familiar Gardens

Images from the series Familiar Gardens

What visually influenced you when making this work? You have a clear interest in still life as well as capturing wider angles of the garden itself. My work finds its own form through visual research – taking pictures. Often for me, a project stems from something that I am confronted with that frustrates and puzzles me in some way. The camera then becomes my tool for understanding that situation, by photographing in and around the subject matter. This research allows me to piece together a bigger picture of what the work is truly about – it’s a very hands on approach to finding a visual style, however, I find that it gives images much more honesty and clarity without the maze of visual art references that a work can often be burdened with. What influenced my aesthetic most in this project was the specific gardens that I spent my time in and the seasonal aspects of that space, in the same way that a gardener would be drawn to certain spaces that needed attention, so was I.

Your series is designed to be positive and not portray a negative relationship between depression and gardening, so can you tell us what creating this work has taught you? Why do we garden and how does it help us recognise what's affecting us? For me, this project is not about having depression, it is about how, if you are burdened with depression, we all have the power in our hands and our gardens to take back control of an illness that for many people can be hugely debilitating. I could speak for hours about how beneficial gardening can be to people’s health and wellbeing. The most obvious benefit for me is that it is a time out from our fast paced and stressful lives. Many of us spend our days and nights absorbed in a world of notifications, phone calls, flashing billboards, emails and television screens; an hour spent in the garden is the complete opposite of that world. In the garden, things grow at a speed too slow for our eyes to see, plants rustle in the breeze, and nobody is around to ping, beep or buzz you. The garden for me is a haven of solitude, where I am left with myself and my thoughts, where I can come to terms with problems, answer questions, vent emotion, make decisions, and very occasionally, think about absolutely nothing other than the plant that I’m tending to.

From the series Familiar Gardens

From the series Familiar Gardens

How does you work make you feel looking back at it now? I have very warm and nostalgic feelings about this project. Starting it forced me to have conversations and spend time with my family in ways we may have never done otherwise. Even between family members, mental health is still often avoided as a topic for conversation so it felt good to say to my mum and granddad, through this body of work, that I understand, and that their happiness and wellbeing is important to me, and that this is something that brings us together rather than isolating us.

I think making this work was quite empowering for me; I took something I felt was a vulnerability and made something beautiful and visible from that.

Is Familiar Gardens finished? If not, do you think it ever could be finished? No, this work isn’t finished yet. After completing my university deadline for the project I reached a bit of a stand still in my practice - and then we moved house (and garden) and so I haven’t quite found my feet in my new patch of soil yet. I think as winter sets in I’ll start the same cycle of wishful thinking for the summer ahead and so I imagine the same process of wanting to take images will start again. I feel like this project could go on indefinitely.

Images from the series Familiar Gardens

Images from the series Familiar Gardens

The way in which you hung your work at Free Range is really interesting. Did you gain any feedback on your presentation? Through my installation of the work I wanted to express the connection that I feel between the two practices of gardening and photography; for me they are both focused, quiet and contemplative. These two mediums of expression became equals within the project, and thus I wanted them to coexist within one exhibiting space. I had great feedback from visitors, but most simply in regards to how much they enjoyed the presence of a living plant in the room. Exhibition spaces can often be seen as cold and unwelcoming, however a plant brings about ideas of familiarity and a homeliness that drew viewers towards my work.

What do you hope for your work to portray to your viewer? More than anything I hope that this work can open up discussions of mental health in a positive way. It is something that thousands of people carry around with them for much of their lives and people are beginning to speak up about it. However, it is not enough to simply know that mental health problems exist in our society; we should be promoting a positive, forward thinking responses to the problem. Gardening is unlikely to be the solution for everybody, however, I wanted to approach this culturally ‘taboo’ topic from a positive perspective.

What’s your favourite part of the garden? My favourite part of the garden is the sunniest part. If the sun is out, I’ll find a job to do where the sun is.

 
From the series Familiar Gardens

From the series Familiar Gardens

 

What are you future photographic plans? I am really interested in expanding into a community-focused practice. I have started working with a charity that provides workshops in order to encourage creativity amongst elderly people, typically in a care home setting. I think the older generation in England is an abundant resource of knowledge, history, storytelling and experience that is often disregarded and undervalued. I think this is a theme that will be cropping up in future work of mine.

Recent political changes have caused a drive within me to do something positive and to help the people that have it the toughest. I often worry that art and photography can be taken for an insular, middle-class pursuit – and no doubt it can be that. However, I hope to use photography as a tool to explore, research and reimagine social issues in the hope of bringing about positive change.