Liz West

To some, it would seem Liz West has experienced overnight success – with her kaleidoscopic installations exploding onto the lighting scene. However, chatting with Helen Fletcher over a green tea in leafy Didsbury, Manchester, mondo*arc learned her success isn’t a story of good fortune, more a story of steely determination.

Call her a visual artist, an installation artist, a light artist even… But whatever you do, don’t call Liz West a lighting designer! “I admire architects and lighting designers immensely but I studied art – it’s completely different. They have spent years studying something so specific and have to answer to strict technical briefs, whereas I can make pieces related to my passions and interests. I don’t have the same knowledge as lighting designers and would never claim to be one.”

Having grown up in the north of England – the old mining town of Barnsley to be exact – perhaps it was West’s gritty northern childhood surroundings that drew her to the vibrant neon colours used in her work today. Surrounded by art from a very early age – her mother an artist with a residency at the Whitworth gallery in Manchester and her father teaching art in Barnsley and with a background from the Royal Academy and the British School in Rome – there was no shortage of opportunities for West to be creative. Whether it was playing with PVA glue, dyes, glitter and acetate in her mother’s attic studio creating gels, or ‘helping’ her father in his studio shed where she would play with lumps of clay – art played an integral role in her upbringing.

“I would pour glue onto an acetate sheet and mix dyes, glitter and sequins then let it dry and peel it off… As you can see, I’ve not really progressed,” laughs West. “I used to love the tactility of picking the glue off and the relationship between how the colours changed when they were flat in pigment form to when they were put up against a window – they came to life when the light shone through! Of course I wasn’t thinking too intellectually about it at that time, but the connection with colour and light was there from an early age.”

Alongside her strong creative streak, West has always loved collecting, whether it was different coloured nail varnishes organised in the spectral order along her windowsill, or her now famous Spice Girls memorabilia collection, which is made up of 5,000 items and has been awarded Guinness World Record status!

“I used to have collections everywhere,” she says, “I loved arranging and rearranging them, it was my way of playing… I would arrange a collection then photograph it – this is still prevalent in me today and evident in my work.”

While for some during teenage years childhood loves are lost, West’s desire to be creative and her love of art grew stronger and stronger, realising which exhibitions she was interested in and who’s work inspired her.

“I first loved a piece by visual artist Jim Lambie at the Tate Britain,” she says. “His work was all about dance, trance, drugs and illusion… I remember stepping onto the floor and feeling sick (in a good way) – there was also one of David Batchelor’s light towers in the middle and I just thought, this is up my street! I loved the relationship between the vivid, chemical, city colours.”

Having studied A Level Art at college and then Foundation Art in Leeds before heading to Glasgow to continue her studies at degree level, when speaking with West you get the sense that a ‘career’ in art has never been something she chose to do, rather art chose her. “It just felt like a very natural progression,” she says. “It was the only subject – along with food technology – I was really any good at. I would skip PE lessons and hide out in the art rooms at school, I didn’t want to do anything else, art was just ‘in me’.

“I lost my way a bit at university though. I was in halls of residence with people I didn’t know, the work I was producing was shit, I didn’t know what I was interested in and I was being pushed and pulled in every direction by my tutors. All I wanted to do was tick boxes and please my tutors and I was really struggling.”

It wasn’t until her third year of university, following a meeting with her old foundation course tutor, that West regained her confidence and direction. She had begun to question what she liked about paint – it was its luminosity when wet – this for West was her ‘eureka moment’, she realised her interest lay more in illumination than it did pigment. This eureka moment later developed into a sensory immersive experience for her end of year show Yellow Chamber, or The Chamber series, as the work is now known. It explored the physicality and illusions of space. Using numerous mirrors and constructs of light, the work multiplies through reflection, giving the impression of an endless expanse.

“It was different to everything else I had produced. My tutor had suggested I make an aperture in a wall that people had to have a very intimate relationship with. I had this collection of yellow objects that I laid on the floor that were then seen infinitely because of a mirrored chamber I had made, in the ceiling there were yellow fluorescent bulbs that created bands of yellow light on the walls.”

Just as things were looking up for West, having made a degree show she was proud of and felt more like ‘her’, it was soon back to reality with a bump. With no money thanks to three years at university, it was back to the family home in Barnsley, where she wouldn’t make any art for the next three years. “I had this huge overdraft and ended up working in the world of events – stewarding at Sheffield Arena and festivals,” she says. “I became really submersed in this world – I loved performance and pop and had some amazing experiences during that time but wasn’t creating any art. I had this idea that I’d be able to sketch away while manning an exit gate but it just didn’t happen and I had some big decisions to make. I knew I was an artist at heart and so I left my job, my partner at the time, packed up and moved to Manchester.”

Once in Manchester, West applied for as many opportunities as she could, using her university work. “I started remaking my degree show and at first it was really small shows and spaces but I got some international exhibitions too. I looked for anywhere I could get my work out, constantly sitting making applications – there was a lot of admin! I just kept pushing it and as I did more I got asked to do more exciting opportunities… I was remaking the Chamber but in different colours, sizes and so on – I did this for about two years! The Chamber series has become such a big part of who I am.”

Having been awarded Arts Council England Funding, West then moved on to produce Vanishing Boundaries, which comprised an array of reflective discs protruding above floor level. The installation emitted intense bursts of light from underneath the discs; the concrete floor transformed into a field of colour, connected by the trailing electrical wires. The same year, she created Tempo, which made use of the fluorescent stick light but modified with a particular colour.

“The art world had started to pay me a bit more attention at this stage, but all of the work I was putting out there was sculptural and something still didn’t feel right,” says West. “I was really struggling with artist’s block and became quite clinically depressed. My mum suggested doing project work, so I would go to my studio every day and make something using the materials around me. I’d take a photo and then put it all back, then repeat the process as many times as I could.”

West was relying heavily on working tax credits at this stage, living on a profit of just £2-3,000 a year and was questioning whether she should continue or should start handing her CV out for a more ‘sensible’ job. “I would get paid a block of Arts Council money and slowly see it chip away,” she says. “This is when the panic would set in and it propelled me to look at the opportunities listings again – all the time applying for stuff.

“I then spent some time at Kurt Schwitter’s Merz Barn, this is where the shit really hit the fan and I began to question everything! I was supposed to be working on a project for a light festival but it just didn’t look right – it wasn’t working! It was my (now) husband that helped me realise what I wanted to do. He came to the Merz Barn and we looked at what had been successful about my best work so far and why. We figured out that the sculptural work just wasn’t working – it was the experience of colour, whether emotional or physical, that worked for me. A lot of contemporary art can make you think, but how much of it makes you feel? That was what I wanted to do.

“This was a big moment for me,” West continues. “It was one of the hardest moments in my life – there were tears, doubts about who I was as a person, I questioned whether I was even an artist. I came out of it thinking, well I can’t do anything else so I’ve got to make it work!”

The work that came next truly announced West; perhaps it came from a fear that she might not succeed, perhaps it came from a deep interrogation of herself, whatever the reason it would set the tone for the next two years.

“By this time I had become really interested in how colour changed people’s perceptions rather than it being about coloured objects as a sculpture or form,” she says. “Mark (my husband) was curating an exhibition at Federation House in Manchester. Castlefield Gallery had brokered the building from the Coop and there were eight floors for artists to create work that they couldn’t in their studios. The fourth floor was a 10,000sqft exhibition space and I felt I could really do something great with it. I approached Castlefield Gallery and they said I could have it for just one week.”

West’s first idea was to put LED tape down the columns in the room – she had just made Shifting Luminosity, a piece that used black pipes and LEDs propped against a wall. “I made that piece because I’d just moved studios and wanted to explore the space – find its restraints and attributes and make something really spatial. So I was just going to use them in this new space but realised I needed something that was going to have more of an impact.”

After rummaging in her studio West found a bin bag of Lee and Rosco filters left over from her Tempo installation. “I taped lengths of filters together to create an area big enough to fit over the square panel of the pre existing office lights in the exhibition space. It wasn’t refined enough for me though, it didn’t look professional enough. Mark suggested I take down one of the metal grates to reveal the four T8 lamps then cut strips of the filter and wrap the physical bulbs, to see what it looked like once I put the metal grate back up. So I did and it was better but there were four lights in each of the panels and there were 400 panels in the space… this meant covering 1,600 bulbs!”

West had just five days to install it and to cover all 1,600 bulbs in time was going to be a big task. “I started to panic. I had to really think about whether it was do-able but I could see it would work and it was worth a shot. So I got on with it…”

West’s first task was to organise the filters into colour order, then decide which to start with. “It was dusk by the time I’d started thinking about it – that beautiful time of day when it’s not quite light or dark yet – and I thought wouldn’t it be beautiful if the space went through the spectrum of red to blue which would then meet the windows and continue into the sky. By the Thursday evening I knew it was going to work… I knew I’d made a piece that felt right and felt like me as an artist. It was spatial, it was site responsive and it was about the architecture and people noticing elements they’d never seen before. It was about changing and challenging people’s perception.”

Your Colour Perception was open for two days. West admits the opening was mainly made up of mates and a few people from the arts crowd but by the Sunday the piece was all over social media with people sharing pictures of themselves in the space.

“I’d never experienced anything like that before, I was happy but absolutely knackered! Every muscle in my body was aching and I was there every moment of the exhibition, watching people’s reactions – researching for future works.

Your Colour Perception represents a lot about pop – the colours, the look of it… people were running through the space, sitting and lying and absorbing the space – people were taking real ownership of it.”

From this moment, things really took off for West, she had made something she was truly proud of and set to work promoting it in any way she could, writing press releases, contacting different magazines and organisations and so on, which is where her relationship with the IALD begins. “I’ve definitely found a kindred spirit in Emma Cogswell from the UK division,” says West. “And working with the IALD is opening up opportunities for me. Being selected to go to the Enlighten conference in Mexico and talk about my perspective of colour, as an artist is nerve wracking but amazing. Hopefully it will open doors to work with architects and lighting designers on projects.”

And what of her relationship with light? “It’s about interrogating what each thing does,” she says. “How can I best control it through coloured filters, through apertures or through structures, how can I make it into something people are going to enjoy. It’s about the space and asking myself what it needs, what’s going to complement it, add to it.”

Since Your Colour Perception, West has had numerous works launch including An Additive Mix at the National Media Museum in Bradford; Through No.3 in Manchester; Our Colour Reflection at 20-21 Visual Arts Centre in Scunthorpe; and Our Spectral Vision at the National History Museum in London, to name just a few. While all individual pieces, responding to their surroundings, they have a unified voice. “I’ve still got this vivacious energy and I’m so appreciative of everything that has come my way. Every time I make a new piece of work I understand a bit more about myself and what I want. I’m serious about this; I’m not a one-hit-wonder or a joke. I never want to dictate through my work and I very much feel that while each piece is personal to me, I want people to have their own experiences – it’s about people questioning perception, their spatial awareness and their relationship with colour and light.

“It’s been a weird journey and I still feel very lucky. Why should people keep coming to my exhibitions? Because it’s coming from the heart, I want people to look closer at the beautiful world around them. I want to increase people’s awareness of where we are, it’s ever questioning.

“Light changes the way I see the world, it’s integral to my well being and I find it interesting to observe how it affects other people’s well being. But I also think the relationship between colour and light is really interesting and integral – you can’t have one without the other.”

Pic: MDP Photography