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Bob and Roberta Smith on ice cream, infinite loops & the power of giggling

Posted on 11 Aug 2020

Whether we like it or not, says Bob and Roberta Smith, we’ve been enrolled in the world, and the world is an art school. In this interview, we chat to the artist and activist about his book 'You Are an Artist', exploring curiosity, creativity, arts education and more.

One of the main messages in your book is that every human being who has ever lived was once – as a child – an artist. But many of us as adults feel inhibited in our creativity. Where did it all go wrong?! 

Learning to be inhibited is perhaps the biggest lesson our schools teach us. Teachers tell their kids almost constantly that there is a right way of thinking and that what is made up by children is wrong. Good teachers instead introduce children to their subjects with generosity. My maths teacher, for example, taught imaginatively, exciting us with ideas about patterns and geometry. Schools and parents should encourage curiosity, creativity and making things up.

You Are an Artist shares dozens of prompts and projects to help reconnect with our creative selves. Is there one you especially recommend to a total beginner?   

You’ll understand many things if you follow my son Fergal’s algorithmic recipe (where you make a ‘loop drawing’ by drawing a loop and then running the line through the loop): improvisation, composition, signature, mark-making, pattern, and art’s relationship to music through rhythm. It’s fun and joyous but it’s also abstract and poetic.

You write about how much imagination relies on new impressions and fresh encounters. How did you manage to keep creative through lockdown? 

Through the lockdown I created fifteen hours of radio, I painted four square-metre paintings based on images of the Thamesmead Housing estate and I put one hundred suggestions of art projects to follow on Instagram.

I think after a lifetime of making art you realise that making art is itself is an encounter that inspires the next art work and so on. I think that’s why so many artists who have been interviewed seem okay during lockdown: in large part, we are self-sufficient. That’s another good reason to engage in art: you will set yourself your own life’s projects if you persist.

Immediate environment is key to creativity. Tell us about your dream studio, and how it came to life. 

It’s important to have around to you what you need to make art. That could be a laptop or it could be a foundry! For me it’s a radio and a space. I have created many studios but my current studio in Ramsgate comes very close to being a dream. I am located just two minutes’ walk from the sea, and five minutes from an excellent Italian restaurant. Vernacular sign writing has been one of my inspirations, so the seaside, with its ice cream stalls and arcades, has been a magnet.

You’ve said: “Talk to yourself out loud when no one can hear you – even scream or giggle is perhaps the most useful piece of advice there is to offer the creative individual.” Why? 

Art is about fantasy and making things up. Talking to yourself works exactly the same as having a sketchbook: it’s a conceptual and ephemeral notebook. Talk to yourself and imagine different realities and universes, and you won’t be troubled by your inability with a pencil or a brush. Composers hum and dancers leap about to try things out, but artists and writers say ‘How about this?’

In 2011, you wrote a letter to Michael Gove, then Secretary of State for Education, lamenting the “destruction of Britain’s ability to draw, design and sing”. How do you see the state of artistic education today?  

We have lost our way for the moment. The Government think they are helping working-class kids by concentrating their minds on maths and English, but in the process they are removing their initiative and crippling Britain’s ability to create and design the future. There are lots of wonderful teachers out there but they need supporting. For me what is most worrying is that the Arts are disappearing from primary schools. Without teaching kids to sing you won’t hear from them later and without teaching kids to draw they won’t be able to design their future.

Finally, you’ve said that boards of art institutions “should not consider themselves valid unless they look like the communities they serve.” Do the recent anti-racism protests in the U.K. give you hope for more inclusive cultural practice?

We are just at the very beginning of shifting our notions of how to improve equality. The visual arts are far behind theatre in terms of representation. Everyone’s story deserves to be told and to be shown. I am hugely impressed with my children’s generation. I have hope they will force the issue and demand that everyone’s voice in the arts is heard and supported. It’s terrible the way institutions seem to pat themselves of the back when they show an undiscovered female or BAME artist in their eighties without launching an enquiry into what they were exhibiting in the 60s, 70s and 80s.


Interview by Eliza Apperly

Discover the book

You Are An Artist

Bob and Roberta Smith