Birmingham City University graduate Hannah Honeywill exhibited work as part of the 2016 New Art West Midlands exhibitions. As as result, she was selected for a residency at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. We caught up with her to hear about the residency, and her new piece Tumbleweed which is currently on display at the gallery.

The curators from the Barber Institute selected me from the New Art West Midlands 2016 exhibition for this residency. I was asked was to submit a proposal for a new piece of artwork responding to the Barber and its collections.

As I walked through the Barber’s galleries, I was surrounded by the different narratives within the paintings and sculptures – for example, you are sharing the final intimate moments of John the Baptist on his deathbed with just his closest family, and then across the room is a painting of Alexander the Great in his bright pink leggings. In another gallery I encountered a fragment of 1900s realism as if captured on surveillance camera: a private and intimate moment of a woman picking fleas from her body and then drowning them. These narratives are not happening out loud – they are happening visually and silently in the quiet gallery. It felt like I was being whispered at from various centuries and realities.

The challenge was to incorporate these reflections into a new artwork. Within my practice I use objects that already exist, especially furniture, as using familiar everyday objects creates a ground from which I can queer / reshape into sculpture. When I make a change to an existing structure, I question its expected function and it subsequently occupies a new space, raising questions about its identity.

I started by looking for the furniture within the Barber, but the very nature of the architecture and purpose-built design of the interior and furniture is so cohesive and seen as one that I felt no one piece could be manipulated individually.

I then turned to the artwork, and saw that the gilt frames were the common denominator of all the paintings, encompassing the diverse narratives and points of view: the frame harmonises the collection of works. Picture frames were traditionally made by furniture-makers to protect, enhance and preserve the painting within. This legacy makes them perfect material for reshaping into a sculpture, reflecting the materials and methods of my practice of reshaping furniture. The gilt frame’s sense of being part of the institution, informing the atmosphere and influencing how people conduct themselves within it, also provided the perfect ground for me to queer. By cutting or reshaping a frame I would be committing an act against the frame – it would no longer have value as a frame but instead have a new destiny that rebels against the expected.

The eclectic nature of the Barber collection brought to mind the economist Rumens’ metaphor of queer theory being a form of “intellectual tumbleweed”, collecting different influences, experiences and ideas as it rolls around academia, culture, politics and feminism as well as other areas where you might not expect to encounter it. The tumbleweed struck me as a fitting physical form for the sculpture to take. My proposal was therefore to make a beautiful, intricate tumbleweed sculpture using reshaped picture frames echoing the styles hanging in the Barber Institute.

In addition to creating a new artwork, the residency has given me the opportunity to give a public lunchtime gallery talk and take part in a children’s Arts Award workshop that was developed around Tumbleweed. I will also be running a days drawing and creativity workshop with adults and presenting in a Pecha Kucha-style event at the Barber on Saturday 20 May along with four other contemporary artists who have been working with the Barber and the University of Birmingham.

Tumbleweed is on display in the Beige Gallery at The Barber Institute of Fine Arts until 4 June 2017. New Art West Midlands 2017 continues at the Waterhall, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, mac birmingham and Wolverhampton Art Gallery until 14 May 2017, and Worcester City Art Gallery until 3 June 2017. Applications are also currently open for New Art West Midlands 2018.

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