Meet the Artist: Bethan Maddocks
Paper cut installations which represent the people and places of Northumberland are part of a new county-wide exhibition
From her studio within Ouseburn’s 36 Lime Street, Bethan makes large-scale interactive sculptures out of paper. She’s had an interest in art since she was a child, when she remembers being taken to galleries and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival by her parents. Bethan and her twin sister would create art together, and encouraged eachother to do so. But it was while visiting her sister (who now lives in Borneo) that Bethan discovered the beauty of paper cutting. ‘I was there during the Lunar New Year,’ she recalls. ‘In Malaysia they decorate all their windows and shopfronts with really intricate paper cuts. It was the Year of the Snake and I tried to have a go myself using paper from my sketch book.’
This was the start of Bethan’s own journey into paper cutting. ‘It’s really accessible,’ she says. ‘You can find paper anywhere. I talk about it as a “democratic material” – anyone can use it. You can shape it and sculpt it in so many ways, whether that’s cutting, folding or soaking.’
She uses a scalpel to create her works by cutting and manipulating paper. ‘Often I use one giant piece of paper (some of my work is five metres tall),’ she adds. But she’s recently discovered the benefits of technology too. ‘I’ve been having paper laser cut or CNC cut. That’s been a new development because my work is very large-scale and I’ve only got two (sore) hands,’ Bethan laughs. ‘Technology means I’ll be able to make even larger work.’
She describes herself as a ‘story collector’ in that she works with communities or museum collections and archives to collect stories to represent. ‘My work is always about people and places,’ she explains. ‘I often try and partner historical stories with contemporary issues. I work with communities to do a series of workshops where I ask questions and begin to pull ideas together. My work is always inspired by nature and the environment and I use that to create contemporary conversations.’
Bethan has worked with Museums Northumberland a lot over the years, particularly with Woodhorn Museum. ‘Often they’ve had a big commission (a headline artist) and I’d do a smaller exhibition alongside it,’ she says. ‘I’d done that for around five years, then Woodhorn asked me to be their headlining artist – to do the commission this year. I’m the first woman to have been given the commission and I’m a good decade younger than the other artists who’ve had it previously, so it was quite an honour, but I certainly put a bit of pressure on myself to deliver!’
Community, climate change, migration and identity are just a few of the themes included in Bethan’s new exhibition, A Northumberland Menagerie. Her paper cut pieces are now on display across four Northumberland venues, and represent untold stories about animals, people and places from across the county.
At Woodhorn Museum, the colliery’s historic cage shop has been transformed into a beehive and you’re invited to take part in the tradition of sharing news with the hive. It was thought that telling the bees about significant life events would help ward off bad luck. There’s a giant book where you can write down your important news. Beeswax carvings line the windows, and a soundscape by local musician Bridie Jackson fills the room with folksongs and tales from local beekeepers. In May, a second installation will arrive at Woodhorn Museum commemorating the colliery’s pit ponies.
A Northumberland Menagerie will also see work displayed at Hexham Old Gaol, Berwick Museum and Art Gallery and Morpeth Chantry Bagpipe Museum. At Berwick Museum and Art Gallery, a giant paper cut Twelfth Night Pie symbolises the original 12-stone pie baked by Howick Castle’s housekeeper, Mrs Dorothy Patterson, in 1770. A flock of paper cut birds are escaping from the pie in a bid for freedom. Paper birds also surround a chandelier, and join other creatures casting shadows against the walls as they circle a light – representing the many lighthouses dotted along the Northumberland coast. This installation celebrates the biodiversity of the Berwickshire coast.
Wooden creations at Hexham Old Gaol explore stories of witchcraft, trials and incarceration in Northumberland – and the animals connected to them. And at Morpeth Chantry Bagpipe Museum, inspiration has come from the building’s location (next to the River Wansbeck) and the fact it is a former school, to create a giant school of paper cut fish which are swimming through the building’s beams. Northumberland’s fishing and folk traditions are at the centre of this theme.
‘The four sites are really fantastic,’ Bethan reflects. ‘They’re all sites that have multi-layered and often complicated histories surrounding them. That was a really fascinating starting point to begin with, especially when looking at the communities who lived and worked in those places. Northumberland is such a vast county and there’s such a diversity of landscape, animals and people, each with their own stories. It’s not a homogeneous county. It’s incredibly diverse.’ Bethan hopes her art will display this diversity in a new way, and help share some of the lesser known or hidden stories of Northumberland.
Creating artwork for the community gives Bethan a good opportunity to meet different people. ‘It’s a real honour to be given a space and commission to connect with people from many different walks of life and to ask questions that you wouldn’t often have the time to ask,’ she says. ‘Often I offer provocations like: “what is home?”, “what makes this place special?” or “what’s important about this place to you?” Those questions can unravel beautiful memories and nostalgic stories and it’s a really lovely opportunity to connect with people and places.’
A Northumberland Menagerie runs until Sunday 30th October. For more information about the exhibition and individual museum opening times and entry prices, visit museumsnorthumberland.org.uk. To see more of Bethan’s work visit bethanmaddocks.com.
(All images © Colin Davison)
Your favourite artist? Or one that inspires you? ‘Louise Bourgeois is one of my favourite artists. She was working up until her late 90s and managed to break through boundaries that lots of female artists didn’t manage to. I got to meet her after I graduated from university. I had a tutorial with her for what was called the Sunday Salons. You’d get an invitation to turn up to her house on a Sunday and you’d enter a room full of flyers for amazing art shows that you’d studied.’
Other North East artists you think our readers should know. ‘Lots of the people I’ve collaborated with are really fantastic artists, including Bridie Jackson. There’s Yvette Ja, a book binder who creates some beautiful work; Becky Helliar, a ceramicist; and Catriona Maddocks [Bethan’s twin] who creates interesting cultural work across Asia and the UK. Jona Aal has been a really fantastic support in helping me to recognise work. Matt Whittaker as well – he’s a great woodworker.’
Advice for budding artists? ‘Play! Artwork is playful. Be willing to make mistakes. Try things out. Experiment with new materials and experiment with simple materials as well. For paper cutting, you could start with old newspaper, packaging or printer paper – there are so many ways you can manipulate, shape and turn that into a sculpture.’
What’s next for you? ‘In the summer, I’m making a piece called Bishop Oakland for Bishop Auckland Town Hall. That’ll be an interactive artwork based on the ancient trees and forests of County Durham. I was born in Bishop Auckland so it’s nice to be making work for my home town.’