The Wick - Interview Artist Sue Webster The Wick - Interview Artist Sue Webster
Monday Muse

Interview Artist Sue Webster

Interview
Sue Webster
Photography
Robert Fairer
19 December 2021
Interview
Sue Webster
Photography
Robert Fairer
19 December 2021
London-based artist Sue Webster, who established her reputation in the mid-1990s, working with her then-partner Tim Noble, confirmed her rebel status in early December with the unveiling of her most recent body of work in a performance-cum-fashion show in her Hackney studio and home.

FULL LEATHER JACKETS, a collection of 18 customised leather jackets, pays tribute to Webster’s life-long appreciation of singer Siouxsie Sioux. It’s a theme she’s touched on before in her second biography I Was a Teenage Banshee (2019), which combines personal memoir with a visual narrative of her evolution as an artist.

During lockdown Webster regressed back to her teenage self when listening to Siouxsie and the Banshees helped guide her. Here she shares why she considers Siouxsie Sioux as an adopted mother figure and how becoming a mother herself has changed her.

THE WICK:   Talk us through your typical Monday.

Sue Webster:   I have an 18-month-old son, Spider-Ray, and weekends are all about him, so by Monday morning I’m usually clawing at the door to my studio to get back in and work on the ideas that have been brewing since Friday. I wake up most mornings usually between 6-7am, which is when Spider-Ray’s ready for action. It’s very painful during the winter months as I’m a big sleeper and find it difficult to justify getting out of bed in the dark. I’ll pick him up and put him into bed with me and switch Peppa Pig or something on the telly to try to occupy him while I crawl back under the covers until daylight creeps through the blackout blinds, then I feed him, bath and dress him. He’ll head off to nursery for 9am then I wander down the concrete staircase that leads like a labyrinth into the sanctuary that is my studio, my space, breathe a heavy sigh of relief and then that’s when all hell breaks loose. 

TW:   Light, rubbish and transformation are central to your work – how do you combine these?

SW:   I’ve always been a skip-diver. Back in my art student days at Nottingham if you saw a pair of skinny legs dangling over the edge of the skip in the sculpture department car park, looking for a piece of treasure someone else had chucked away, that’d be me. That’s one advantage of pushing a 4-wheel drive baby buggy around town, I made sure I bought one that had a big enough luggage compartment underneath for carrying the shopping so I can pile it up with any bits of junk I find when roaming the street.

TW:   You have written several books, how similar is the process of writing to making art?

CR:   They say that everyone has at least one book in them, and I wanted to test myself to see whether I had it in me. It was during a difficult period in my life, I was going through a major transition – I’d left the marital home and all of the security that comes with it, packed up my belongings, threw the keys through the letterbox and headed west. I holed up for a while in a Breaking Bad-style trailer in a field in Cornwall at the ends of the earth. I had a troubled adolescence that I had put in a box and closed the lid on, but I knew that in order to move forward I had to confront my teenage self, so I took a studio at Porthmeor Studios in St Ives overlooking the Atlantic and waited for it all to pour out.
 
Instead of staring at a blank canvas, you find yourself staring at a blank page or a computer screen – it’s just another way of unravelling your brain. 

TW:   What do you think is the biggest change the art world has seen in your 24-year career?

SW:   I’ve seen first-hand how money chased after art and then watched as art chased after the money.

“The whole punk rock movement in England in the late Seventies felt like one of the first instances where women were given equal importance.”

TW:   What did lockdown teach you?

SW:   That I still don’t like to be told what to do. I was pregnant during the first full lockdown, and I gave birth as it dragged on, but the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. It meant I didn’t miss going out as everyone was in some form of isolation and I got to spend the first few months of motherhood at home, alone with my newborn son, and let me tell you, it was wonderful.

TW:   How has your life changed since becoming a mother?

SW:   I’m just not bothered by things in the same way that I used to be. I find most things bounce off me like water off a duck’s back – maybe that’s something that comes with age, but I’ve certainly lost my need to be competitive. I’m in competition with no one.

Above  Sue Webster, FULL LEATHER JACKETS. Film by ArthurLOK Films

TW:   Who is your ultimate Monday Muse?

SW:   That would have to be Siouxsie Sioux, the surrogate mother who dragged me kicking and screaming through my adolescence and who taught me everything I needed to know in life via listening to the first four albums of Siouxsie and the Banshees. 
 
I had a troubled childhood and was institutionalised for a while; it was something that was never talked about in my family. It was just buried and we got on with it. But it always haunted me and later I reached a point where I felt I couldn’t move forwards with my life until that particular demon had been exorcised. So, when Tim and I split, I regressed back to my teenage self, to a time when I felt most powerful. That was when I was an obsessive Siouxsie and the Banshee fan, buying all their records and travelling up and down the country to watch them play live. Looking back, what I didn’t realise at the time was that I had somehow in my mind adopted Siouxsie Sioux as a mother figure as she was the polar opposite of my own mother.
 
My mother worked in a factory, had three kids and lived in suburbia and was ‘looked after’ by a man, which was the norm in them days. The whole punk rock movement in England in the late Seventies felt like one of the first instances where women were given equal importance alongside men – which was groundbreaking for a disillusioned teenager such as myself. Siouxsie Sioux invented an individual style that kicked down the doors of normality, with thigh-high killer heel patent-leather boots and Cleopatra-style makeup, and guided me to an alternative future from what was already written. As a result, my most recent work is more personal, an introspective awakening, a kind of homage to a woman who I consider to have in some way saved my life.

TW:   What exciting projects have you been working on?

SW:   As a lockdown project, I regressed back into my teenage self once more and began to hand-paint Siouxsie and the Banshees imagery onto old leather biker jackets. By the time lockdown was over I had amassed 18 jackets in total and began to think about how best to exhibit them. Unlike a traditional painting, they have an artwerk on both sides. Someone suggested 18 was a good number for a catwalk and the idea grew into presenting the jackets in the form of a runway show to be presented in my studio, using 18 of my mates as models – strutting up and down the studio in their own unique style. 
 
In order to do the show justice, I had to turn my house and studio into a full-on production arena and pulled in a few favours from my old drinking buddies from the early days of Shoreditch – when we used to drink in The Bricklayer’s Arms or The Barley Mow on Rivington Street, where Tim and I had our first studio. Friends who now have accomplished careers in the fields of hair and makeup couldn’t wait to muck in. I’m talking about the likes of Sharon Dowsett, now head makeup consultant for Chanel, and her prodigy Liz Martins who brought in their own team of wonderful makeup artists to let loose their Siouxsie Sioux-inspired eye makeup on each of my models. We even got top London hair stylist Stephen Low involved to cut and blow dry 18 gothic black wigs to fine tune my army of Banshee look-a-likes. To put the icing on the cake, I commissioned my neighbour, DJ Mark Moore, to produce a special ‘Siouxsiescape’ soundtrack in conjunction with music producer Dan Donovan that imbued everyone with the spirit of the Banshee.


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