At the first sign of sunshine I went out on a mystery walk and ended up at the dilapidated Penwortham or Vernon’s Mill on Factory Lane, Preston. This huge, sorry looking structure seemed so eerie. I wondered if this is what appealed to local artist Alison Tootell. Her finely detailed pieces, currently on display at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, feature abandoned buildings, places such as Whittingham Hospital, Bamber Bridge Mill and Huncoat Power Station. Sites which beg to be explored but have restricted access. How did she get in? And does she ever feel spooked? I went to find out more…
Who are you and where are you based?
My name is Alison Tootell and I am based in Chorley, Lancashire.
What draws you to dilapidated buildings?
I have always been interested in historical ruins but there are so many artists producing images about them, and I wanted to do work that was different, and contemporary, but in a traditional way. The abandoned nature of these properties shows how businesses have been affected by recessions and technological advances and I felt that more people would be able to empathise with them, on a personal level, rather than with historical ruins.
How much time do you spend at each site exploring and researching the buildings?
The time I spend at each site varies due to the differing sizes of the properties, but also due to issues such as access. A lot of these buildings are fenced off for health and safety reasons, so it takes me less time to photograph the external views on their own. However, I do take approximately 200 photographs of each site (sometimes more if I take two cameras). The average time I spend at a site is about 2½ hours, but I also do research via the internet and in local libraries which can take up to 8 hours.
We walked past an old mill on Factory Lane earlier today, it looked quite eerie. Do you ever feel spooked when you are onsite? Or do you see a hidden beauty in these buildings?
Occasionally it can be quite spooky, yes. But it is beneficial to visit these places in pairs or small groups just in case there is an accident, so being scared turns in to excitement, particularly if there are personal effects that have been left, such as old photos or business ledgers. I do see beauty in their decay and I think that is why I use so much detail in my drawings, so that I can capture as much of what I have seen to project it into the drawings for others to see too.
What has the response been to your work being shown as part of the Status and Dereliction exhibition?
So far the response has been fantastic, both for myself and for Gary.
Have you exhibited elsewhere?
I was the Artist in Residence at Bolton Abbey in Skipton, North Yorkshire, in 2011 and was offered a 3 day exhibition which was housed in the atrium area of the attached church of St Mary and St Cuthbert. I also exhibited in Worden Art and Craft Gallery, Leyland in 2010, and had my end of degree exhibition at UCLAN in June 2012.
How long have you enjoyed drawing?
From the minute I first picked up a pencil, which is approximately 40 years ago. Drawing is a way of losing myself in discovery, and pushing myself constantly, trying to improve on my technique as well as learning new ones.
Was there a particular moment when you decided you wanted to become an artist?
I dreamed about being an artist throughout my high school years but it wasn’t until I started my degree with UCLAN that I truly believed it would ever be possible.
Where did you train?
I have been teaching myself since early childhood, and my Grandad was a huge influence for me as he was a fantastic artist who had never been able to realise his dream, and he taught me about the different hardnesses of pencil leads and how to use them. My high school art teacher also assisted in my training and pushed me to look harder for every little detail. However, the bulk of my training has been more recently at Runshaw College for my Foundation Degree in Fine Art, followed by my BA (Hons) Degree in Drawing & Image Making at UCLAN, Preston.
Are you involved with the local arts scene?
I have several contacts in the local arts scene and I try to be involved when I can be, but unfortunately my studies have prevented me from joining in for the last 12 months. I’m looking into helping out with a Drawing Group in Preston but until the details have been finalised I have been doing some artist talks in local schools to promote contemporary drawing practice.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am currently doing a large scale drawing of what is left of the old Xelflex Factory in Euxton, near Chorley. After that I want to work on drawings of the Wesley Street Spinning and Weaving Mill in Bamber Bridge. However, if this isn’t possible in the short term, I have been to explore (inside and out) an abandoned pottery factory near Oswaldtwistle, Blackburn, and the photographs I collected should enable me to produce a series of approximately 8-10 drawings of various sizes. I also have a substantial folder of derelict property photographs and the journey through their demolition which could also provide and interesting series of images in the future.
Any plans for the future?
I will be continuing my education by completing an MA degree in Fine Art: Studio Practice, which I should graduate from in September 2014. I am also looking at other exhibition possibilities both for solo exhibitions and group exhibitions, as well as promoting my website through commissions and exhibition sales.
Alison Tootell’s work can be seen at the Status and Dereliction exhibition at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery until 29th June 2013.