A Discussion with Amber Bardell: Art as Catharsis

Amber’s new film is a mid-length documentary about Art Therapy, “but when I talk about ‘Art Therapy’” She qualifies, “it’s not like there’s a trained therapist who you do art for […] The film is more of an organic look at it through the eyes of a lot of different people. Making art is a coping mechanism, It’s music! It’s not just fine art it’s yoga, poetry, everyone uses it differently and I wanted to explore that.”

- Excerpt from last year’s interview with Milo Wilson, who is also conducting this interview. It’s me. Hello.

So, the film went up yesterday, I saw it, it was the first time I’d seen it since the screening in London a few months ago, first thing I notice on the re-watch is the animation, it’s so artful, I wonder how you would you describe your animation style, and how much do you like it as a medium, compared to fine art or photography?

Big question.

And what do you use?

It’s hard to define my animation style – I rotoscope, I draw over bits of film that I’ve taken, it means that I have the groundwork, I know it will look right, movements will be realistic if I want them to be, then I play with that and make it more abstract or whatever. I haven’t spent much time developing a style because, when I’ve animated, it’s generally been like, I’ve got time constraints and I’ve got to do something which, maybe isn’t the most beautiful thing I can do, but it’s functional, you can tell what you’re seeing, but it’s still more expressionistic than just filming something – I enjoy that element.

I use photoshop.

So animation generally takes a long time, right?

Well, I knew it would still take a long time, but, yes. It wasn’t bad. I guess that’s why my style is fairly minimalistic, because I don’t have time for loads of detail, and actually it’s really painstaking to do that, I would’ve hated it if I had to do detail. You have to make it kind of fun.

It’s very you to use a multi-media style of animation.

Yes. Yeah. I’m quite proud of the fact that the film is that style. As a piece, it encompasses loads of different things that I do. I’m glad that it’s my debut film because it really shows what I’m about, it reflects me, because I am very multi media –

- (reading from notes) Within the first three minutes of the film, we see animation, a physical sketch of the chair in the louvre, we see you painting on glass, and we even see you hanging the set on the film that we’re watching.

I think there was a slight pressure I was putting on myself, probably. I know it’s my debut, it’s a difficult industry, I’m a woman, that opening sequence does have to be good. I kind of have to say what I want in that first three minutes, I have to draw people into the story and also say what I’m about.

Though I didn’t want to be too show-off-y, I want the film to focus on the people I’ve met, I’m lucky that I get to share their stories.

In that case, let’s talk about the first subject of the doc - Matthew Sims. A painter, a musician, and a craftsman, a woodworker, did he inspire you to make a chair?

I have not made a chair. I’ve painted chairs!

He also made his own flute?

Yeah out of an old bike spoke. He was amazing, I wasn’t even planning to start the film but I went to Tasmania and brought my camera, part of me knew, I even said to my flatmate I’m gonna find someone and film them, and there he was and it was really cool, I didn’t know if he would even let me film him, but he did! We really connected, and when I saw his studio, like, even the light was perfect!

I really want to go back to Tasmania, the first interview was on the day we were supposed to leave, I met him the day before. We came back in the morning and had like, maybe an hour and a half with him, I was shooting constantly. It was really intense, I had to keep switching memory cards and deleting stuff off them, making sure the audio was okay, recording on my phone for backups, shooting pick-up’s during the interview!

Will you go back and make a chair with him?

The thing with Matthew is he’s constantly moving on to different things, he might not be making chairs when I go back. I kind of do the same thing. Though if you really love something you come back to it.

He really doesn’t care what people think, he doesn’t make art for anyone else. That’s extreme, which I love.

Next in the film is Shivani Khoshia, cosmic large-canvas abstract artist who uses memory as her inspiration, a !GWAK member as well! Are you still in touch?

Yeah, we’re doing a quarantine collaboration! I’m really glad I met her actually, she’s painted on me, I’ve modelled for her, which I don’t do a lot of, but I feel like I trust her. Trust her to put her all, creatively, into her work, which is quite spiritual. I connect with her a lot, we were saying recently, we’re quite surprised we have so much in common, like our approach to collaboration which is obviously a key part of GWAK.

A lot of artists my age will say “yeah I’d love to collaborate” but actually are quite reserved and aren’t sure about collaborating because, potentially, they aren’t certain of what their practice is about yet, or they wouldn’t be comfortable painting on the same canvas as someone else. But Shivani, I feel like we could paint on the same canvas. That doesn’t work for everyone, but we’re both fairly off the mainstream, and we have similar teaching styles as well, not all “oh today we’re going to learn this technique”, more freeform, which can be scrutinised a lot in the art world.

We want to encourage mainly collaboration! I’m excited to do more with her.

You teach art?

I have a couple of people I regularly tutor, I would love to run workshops but I think I would hate a large class environment.

Instagram live class?

Ah, maybe. I do have little stories where I do home art, little craft projects and stuff.

Should our isolated readers be doing art at home? Do they need to order some paint brushes from an evil conglomerate?

Make art, just grab what you have! Do not feel limited by not having materials, today I literally found petals from a bush and dyed some material, it can be cheap to do art, you don’t need any special equipment, draw in pen, just try something new! I’m always inspired when I try new art techniques.

Speaking of new techniques, the film features a tattoo artist as well, Corrie Foreman, how did you guys meet?

So, when I’d just moved to London, I started emailing ethical brands to find some work experience, and I got talking to Lane 45, and was invited on a couple of shoots. I met Corrie on a shoot at the Seven Sisters Cliffs, we were both assisting for the weekend. She was really interesting, covered in tattoos, of course, and we talked about the film which, at that point, was just an idea. Later I thought, she’d be perfect.

Tattoos are really interesting, Corrie’s explanation of it as like a body modification with a ritual aspect, her research into other cultures, women’s ritual tattoos and such, while some people still associate tattoos with things like sailors and gangs. Like my parents.

Corrie was great to interview. We shot it quite weirdly, she’s doing art throughout most of it, and I’m at the edge of the frame in the master shot, which happens through the whole film, actually. Like I’m accompanying you through the film, but not as a central character.

Is that how you feel about the stylised transitions?

Well, that was always a really key part of the structure, actually. When I was pitching the film to funders early on, I would explain that the film has three things, the animation, the interviews, and the stylised shots. A few of them were really strong images, Corrie’s one is really cool, it’s the trust between herself and the people she tattoos.

Molly’s was strong as well, when we shot it, there was certainly something dark about the image, I knew it evoked grief, and I was worried about pairing that shot with such a little girl, but I think it works. We had to shoot the stylised stuff in one day, before we shot anything else. Which was annoying.

How long did it take, altogether?

Well over a year. It’s interesting that making a film is part of your life, I have all these memories and phases of my life which the film is part of, because it takes so bloody long to make! It took ages in post, the animation all came later, the interviews were far apart…

You’re the common denominator, even though you’re making a film about other people, it still documents your life.

Yeah, you have to embrace that. One of my big influences, I said it last time,

Both, together: AGNES VARDA!

Her film, Beaches of Agnes, she says it's not a retrospective, but it is. It’s very autobiographical, personal, and expressionistic as well, she creates these scenes in the documentary, and will just get acrobats on a beach.

“She takes an idea for a ride”

– Amber, last interview.

When I was younger, I wanted to be like that, to be in the frame more, but now I think I don’t want to be that L’auteure type person, I think I’ve got the balance right, to where it’s just… me.

In the film, we learn that Corrie archives her journey as an artist by tattooing herself. Do you feel like you archive your work anywhere? Do you think artists should?

This is something that comes up a lot, with artists, I find it a bit frustrating actually, sometimes. I totally understand if you want to hide stuff from your past if its not as good as what you do now, but it is so important to contextualise your present practice by leaving some of your older stuff up and out there. You don’t have to if you absolutely hate the work, and yeah, sure, I’ve put some videos on private, but I have left some things as well, to show that progression! I don’t think your old work will ever go against you, unless you’ve done something really offensive.

Do you have a website?

I spent ages making a portfolio website, then found out that the “free” software I was using wasn’t free, and I just gave up after that. I will. There’s a site for Art as Catharsis, which was easy to make – that’s a good way to show your work and give it some context. But the film is only up for 2 weeks.


Festivals. Although I guess most film festivals are cancelled now. I don’t know if I’d get in anyway, the film is usually too long for the short film categories and too short for feature length. It’s quite hard but, y’know, hey hum. Art Galleries are better for the film to be honest. I’m looking to screen it in a lot of art centres and independent spaces. I might not get a job from it, but the right people will see it, y’know?

Film festivals are great, but, I don’t feel very accepted by the film industry. I love cinematography but it’s less important than the message and the creativity for me.

It’ll be interesting to see you make a narrative film.

I will do that. It’s the kind of thing people will critique in a different way

Will it be as stylised as art as catharsis?

It will have elements, probably. Yeah. Last Black Man in San Francisco, the essence of that, is what I would probably go for. There’s a sequence at the start – oh my GOD that film is beautiful – where two of them are on this skateboard, surrounded by all these people, and

I can’t even pinpoint how they did it.

Is that rare for you?

Yeah. It’s rare that I watch a film and think ‘that’s the kind of shit I would do’ when it’s like a narrative drama.

Do you want to do something big-budget?

Yes. No but imagine like, Art as Catharsis is an example of what I can do on, like, no money. I had the smallest budget for that film, and now I want to be all, “okay, watch this, and then imagine if you gave me like, a load of money, and let me do something, I was 20 when I made that.”

So that’s the plan for the future.

Thank you, Amber Bardell. Any parting advice for us?

Hm. Look in new places for art to inspire you. I think my biggest inspirations have been from copying an artist that I’ve found, then adapting that to my own. Or sometimes I like to go look at really old artefacts in museums, and get inspired by them. Or nature.

Museum’s are free, and we should really use them more once we can all get out of our houses again. They do have virtual exhibitions! Even if you’re a filmmaker, go and see an art exhibition and get inspired by something that isn’t directly what you do. That’s something I love, finding inspiration from outside of your chosen medium.

Huge thanks to Milo Wilson and Amber Bardell for hosting and taking part in this interview. You can view Amber's film here until the 12th of April!