Interviewee: Liz Leyh
Date: 18 March 2016
Location: Isleworth, London
Interviewers/technicians: Tony Coult and Rebecca Laughton
Audio timing – 1:27:17
For video timings please see Liz Leyh video Topics List.
00:00:42 Liz Leyh (LL) speaks of early childhood in upstate New York. Family were factory workers apart from one grandfather who ran a shop. Polish immigrants, and LL grew up speaking Polish. Mum worked in factory. Started attending Munson Williams Proctor Institute, art school [http://www.mwpai.org]. Born in 1943. Was sent to a local art school by her mum as childcare. Artists there had studios: painters, sculptors, ceramicists. Loved it so much, went there till age of 14. At 16 LL went to university, skipped two grades. No one else in her family was artistic. Her grandmother thought girls shouldn’t go to university but mother and father supported her, even though her wider family sceptical. 1961 started University.
00:04:26 LL came to the UK in 1967. Previously had a scholarship in America to study art, and a teaching assistantship at Brooklyn Prep school [http://www.brooklynprephs.org] Mentions had a 2/3 yr old child at this time. Two masters degrees in art history and sculpture. Wary of galleries in NY; didn’t like their approach to making art and way of working. Gallery scene in New York was not to her liking. Seemed bizarre to her, not related to the way people lived. When she got to UK, had had lots of training in the arts. Written thesis on Middle Ages churches in France.
00:05:53 Questions relevance of her life in London and her child growing up. Found a boat in Shoreham by Sea, Sussex, a lovely boat community. She looked at her son’s playground when he started school in Sussex, it seemed dreary, and decided to make a sculpture. Her book Children Make Sculpture has a picture of the crocodile they made at his school. This was in 1969, and her first community project. She speaks of the balancing of small children and her creative work. Single mother by then, but she never had a problem. She worked when he was asleep. She recalls making ink out of blackberries picked in Shoreham by Sea with her son.
Agrees with question that making objects rather than painting is from her family’s background in engineering and factories. Says that everyone in her family background worked in factories. Grandmother worked in the cotton mill, at the same table for 40 years. Her grandmother left the farm in Poland and never had a day of school in her life, but worked in the Mill, got married, had six kids. So background is in making rather than painting. Was working with a wood carver when she was eight. Had worked with clay and wood from age 10.
00:10:12 She recalls the1967 Seamen’s strike over employment of foreign labour. She was doing illustrations for a magazine by the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (Americans who went to fight in Spain – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lincoln_Battalion ). She met British Cunard line seamen docking in NYC, one of whom she married. Used her flat for Union meetings 1965. Helped organise meetings for them. Ted Coward (?) high in Communist party. They had all fought in Spain. Committed trade union background. Met her husband. Her family were serious Democrats. Dad was an Alderman in New York. States that she would die rather than vote Republican.
00:12:37 LL was not very aware of theatre practice when she came to the UK. She says she was tucked away on the South Coast. She was teaching at the Women’s Institute in Shoreham/Worthing doing metal relief work. Was told of ‘interesting people’ in the room next door. It was Ed Berman(EB), running a group session. She talks of his approach as seeming to her ‘aggressive’. But after session they got talking and he invited her to London.
00:15:30 Other art practices in 1967 that she related to or against? She liked group activity. Had started an art workshop in Shoreham. Had no education training to qualify her for teaching. How to work with a group of people? She knew nothing about theatre as such in London. Education was her interest. Had worked in the ‘delinquent home’ for serious young offenders in New York 7-17 yrs. It was well paid part time work. Did puppet shows and had an art room. So saw a fellow spirit in EB, working in the community, making art relevant to other people. The New York art scene had become ridiculous to her.
00:18:00 LL speaks of being friendly with Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground at University in New York; Maureen Tucker stayed on her sofa a lot after shows. Thinks that the Velvet Underground were being used by Andy Warhol who would buy them a hamburger and they would be thrilled. She talks of growing up with Lou Reed. She speaks of living at the City Farm in Camden in early 70s and hearing Velvet Underground and Lou Reed on the radio to her amazement.
00:20:20 Denies being a traditional craftsperson. She had an exhibition in Brick Lane recently; critic amazed by her cabbage carving that she had done herself. She is all for technically knowing what you’re doing. Talks about Inter-Action and how she worked with EB. She did sessions with David Powell [Inter-Action member], working in a school with emotionally disturbed children on drama sessions/ ‘group sessions’. She adapted Berman’s model of group development for her sculpture work. She worked in concrete, in Islington and Camden.
00:22:50 Inter-Action social set up, being part of it. Lived above Malden Road offices, and a number of houses. [talks of Inter-Action buildings, see later]. On her working life in Inter-Action – she found it fascinating meeting theatre people. Met the InPrint publishing side. So many people with a shared philosophy of making an art form relevant to what’s going on in the world rather than just keeping it in the arts. Working class background means she doesn’t like standing around drinking wine, it’s boring. Wanted to channel her arts work through working in the community and ‘theatre’ provided this opportunity.
00:26:00 She did specific theatre work for EB in London, making props and sets for the Almost Free theatre. She talks about her own project A Day at the Seaside. [see her photos]. Thought how wonderful it would be to create a seaside in the Almost Free in Rupert St. Namechecks Naftali Yavin director of Inter-Action’s The Other Company. Berman said she couldn’t flood the room with water but they got an engineer in and did it. Talks of the flint beach from Brighton and the rubber and vaseline seaweed. The audience sat in the water. Jetty, sand, a lifeguard, changing room. People just sat for a while then treated it like a real beach in swimsuits. People met each other. No script. Ended with a thunderstorm. 30 mins to an hour long. Foyer had a seaside cafe. The action was the audience talking to each other. She also did a set for a show with live animals for children in the Almost Free Theatre. [The Farmyard Shows?] and did lots of props for other shows such as Shakespeare the Sadist [Wolfgang Bauer]
00:32:36 Worked with Dogg’s Troupe street theatre. Developed a show called Make A Circus. Collected kids together and made a circus together for the day. Imagines the difficulty of just ‘collecting’ children from the streets today!
LL wanted to work by recycling and reusing materials – tried but couldn’t always find stuff, so took pre gathered materials in a van. Remembers old factory building used by Inter-Action on Talacre Road. Used to be underwear factory. Finds heap of bra straps, then all the kids used them for costumes. Show had two acts she recalls – a jungle climbing frame, two girls twirling with 50 people clapping for them. Another girl with her younger sister as a ventriloquist dummy act. ‘Sophisticated’ ideas that children come up with.
00:37:26 She had two children of her own: used to commute to Malden Rd from Shoreham, 9 yr old son [Blake] and 3 yr old daughter [Jenny]. Dogg’s Troupe adopted Blake, he was ASM. Dogg’s personnel: Pat Barlow, Geoff Hoyle. Jim Hiley was running the Almost Free at the time. Katya Benjamin. Blake joining in and learning from troupe. Peter Southcott was a hero of Blake’s. George King [Inter-Action Film section Infilms] also ‘adopted’ him – he had great babysitters. Her daughter was in nursery all day.
00:40:18 With Inter-Action LL goes round Camden doing community sculptures. Eating with and meeting people. Wanted her own thing making sculptures with people. EB suggested she applied for the residency scheme in Milton Keynes (MK). Cindy Hargate at the Milton Keynes Development Corporation liked her ideas. Was given a studio in MK and would work with people making playgrounds and gardens – 1974.
Some voices in the Arts Council said it sounded too much like Social Work Living accommodation next to the studio. Adjacent to the village of Wolverton. She talked to people, went to schools, she invited them to her studio.
00:44:00 The Hospital Action Group came to her asking for a huge logo. With them she made a 10 feet tall fibre glass question mark to publicise their campaign. She had to formally leave Inter-Action, and then Inter-Action set up at The Old Rectory, run by Carry Gorney and George King. Often met them working on the same estates.
00:46:15 The first ever Town Artist in Residence bursary was given to her by the ACGB. Collaborating with Inter-Action work: she built a 90 ft long giraffe ‘Concrete sculpture in the community’. Gorney and King came and did screen printing. But she was basically on her own, not collaborating. But saw each other all the time.
Was in a farmhouse “palace” with studio attached. Jack Trevor Storey was working there too as writer in residence. 5 min walk away there was an estate. She was a New York Londoner artist and conscious of the barriers between local estate residents. Speaks of the class system prevalent amongst architects and life in MK.
00:51:35 LL talks of schooling for her two children at Stantonbury Campus community school. Amazing teachers: Roy Nevitt was the drama teacher there. She did props with the kids for plays. Hilary Davan Wetton was in charge of music, Blake her son is now a composer. Did she ever consider home education? No she assumed they would go to local school. Not like Welfare State set up. Grew up as English kids. Her son is now a composer for film and her daughter works in film in France as a set painter.
00:54:30 She talks about concrete and why it is a medium that she likes to work with. Brian Behan [brother of playwright Brendan] was working on building sites and she asked him to come and help lay the bricks for the crocodile, and she knew kids would love mixing concrete with trowels. Brian gave her a tour of building sites and taught her all about concrete. A very egalitarian activity making a pile of rocks and cement.
Speaks movingly of working with disabled children project in California. Physically disabled kids did wonderful work with concrete. Talks about building work and kids in the real world. ‘Grown up stuf’. Men mix concrete. Not just ‘paint in the art room’. [see later]
Anecdotes about Israeli children associating cement and building work with Palestinians ‘The Arabs, the ‘slaves’ mix concrete not us’. No history of brick laying in the US. Carry Gorney and Robert Hulse [Dogg’s Troupe] worked in Israel, brought the Inter-Action Media Van over, full of printing materials. Training Israelis to do street theatre. She was working in Israeli neighbourhoods making sculptures. She was in Ashkelon 15 miles north of the border with Gaza. Not Palestinian land, but lots of Palestinians doing the building and farm work.
She as there in MK for 4 years, then MK wanted her to stay, so she was there for another 2 years. 1974 onwards.
01:03:15 Refers again to the disabled children’s project in California with Inter-Action which she really loved and found incredibly rewarding. Wanted to attract media attention to the prejudice of the disabled kids being asked to leave the school by building a sculpture, and mixing concrete.
Her method is to start a session to develop a theme so everyone can contribute. Sit in a circle, vote for the theme, in this case a jungle. Used Salt dough to build the jungle.
Kids from mainstream school very jealous! A teacher realised that her disabled children were able to go home dirty like other kids after LL’s activities.
01:08:05 Speaks of strategies for working with young people. Photo stimulus, work with teachers and children, what was needed in the school, a bench, practical things. Community made Sculpture for social change – the school was not moved as originally planned. Recalls a bad experience on a Cambridge housing estate with a field behind. Very rough and difficult children. Built the sculpture . Mothers wanted a play area, but it was such a difficult neighbourhood. Was with 2 or 3 other people working with her, a regular team.
01:12:27 Recalls going to a conference and only had slides of her mud hole as a work in progress. Sculptor David Harding Environmental Art at Glasgow school of art, she really admired his work in Glenrothes. Sculptors in the town working locally. John Fox [Welfare State] also admired.
Welfare State came to Milton Keynes with a show. They stayed at the Rectory. She loved the staging, costumes, and the whole “environment”.
01:15:27 Discussion of other women working in her field, she recalls Freeform working in visual arts in schools. Talks of North African communities in Israel, men didn’t like her mixing concrete, thought women should be in the home and cooking.
01:18:50 LL likes contemporary art work specially design. Speaks of BBC Radio programme The Reunion, about the early days of Milton Keynes. She talks of how, on air, she criticised the architect building terraced houses 3/4 of a mile long and was embarrassed. [she has the tape]
Book: Anna Harding – a chapter about her work came out 4 years ago.
01:21:25 Onwards: she tells us about the Concrete Cows in Milton Keynes and how they came about, and how they came to be at the Venice Biennale.
Current work: Brunel Museum in Southwark…
[Not in audio version, see video -Story about the New Orleans wood carved into the Lizard…GV of the studio…Talks about pictures on her wall.]
Audio timing – 1:27:17