An interview with Dover artist, Benjamin Hunt
In 2016, Dover Town Council commissioned Dover Arts Development (DAD) to deliver the ‘Pebbles Project’ in order to deepen the public’s understanding and appreciation of chalk and pebbles. On 9th May in the Dover Silver Screen Cinema, artist Benjamin Hunt spoke about his work for the project which included working with Mel Wrigley from the White Cliffs Countryside Partnership. Ben showed a film, a test piece, in preparation for his projection at the Pebbles Kiosk on Marine Parade in July.
‘A Parable for Endeavour’ by Clare Smith, Joanna Jones and Helen Lindon (part-funded by the Pebbles project) was also screened at the event. Afterwards, I chatted to Ben about what it’s like to be an artist living in Dover, the tug and pull between his different areas of work, and his interest in creating and sustaining partnerships between artists and communities in Dover.
“It’s great here in Dover. Affordable rent. Nice place. Studio space. A nice sea view.
It’s a nice feeling, knowing that I can just walk down to the sea.”
How did it all begin?
Dover Arts Development invited me to work on the Pebbles project.
I met Mel Wrigley at Joanna’s house with a guy called Richard Nash, a graphic designer. Mel started talking about the geology of Dover and I found it really interesting – we hit it off really. We got chatting.
Mel and I went on a research walk and this led to a presentation at a school – The White Cliffs Primary College for the Arts. Mel and I did a workshop, and we made some test pieces for the film we showed as part of the Pebbles screening event [held on on the 9th of May].
There have been various manifestations of our ideas. I’ve always wanted to make a zoetrope, or kinetoscopes. So far, I have purchased some ready-made ones so that we can just focus on the imagery within them.
We are going to eventually make our own – Richard is going to make the zoetrope and I’m going to make the praxinoscope. The zoetrope has a rim, is slightly higher and doesn’t have the mirror in the middle – just slits. Richard and I visited Dover Museum to do some research and came across one in there. I really wanted to do something related to stillness and movement and relate it to the slow, imperceptible movement of the coast. These image-making machines seemed perfect.
What is the end goal of the project?
I’ve never made anything that’s fixed – it’s up for two days and then it’s gone again. This project isn’t so much about the final outcome, but about things moving forward for the future. It’s a guinea pig pilot, really. The Pebbles screening was nice in that we could show people what we do in Dover; often the output of our work might be seen through the numbers and statistics of the people that it affected, but key stakeholders don’t necessarily see the actual artwork side of it.
What we’re working on now is focussed on schools – we’re making a pamphlet right now.
The pamphlets outline the difference between the different rock formations. They’ve got these drawings in this pamphlet, and you can scan microscopic images of different rocks and pebbles. We’re going to involve another school and create some animations using the praxinoscope; the students can produce their own drawings and put into the praxinoscope themselves.
Some people, when they do school projects, like to keep it separate from their own practice – but I like to keep it so that it sits as close to my own work as possible.
I like to think ‘how can the school kids do what I’m doing in my own work?’ but make it slightly more accessible. I don’t like to split it in half so that it’s completely separated.
So, have you and Mel always done the workshops in schools together?
Yes, we’ve been doing the workshops with the kids together. She works for the White Cliffs Countryside Partnership.
This project has been a catalyst for other things. We’re hoping to have an exhibition at River Garage Studios. Mel runs wellbeing walks along the White Cliffs. I also plan on leading some blind-drawing workshops, encouraging others to draw without necessarily looking at the paper.
We’re going to get some people to do some drawings focussing on the coast and then get participants to write out a few statements about Dover, and their personal history of Dover. We will just have these really simple prints of their drawings with a statement underneath, and hopefully, have that exhibited at River Garage Studios.
It seems like there’s a lot of momentum here artist-wise. Do you feel as if Dover is changing?
I see a lot of it in Dover – people are busy making work, and there’s no pretence about the place. While I’m here I don’t think of myself as ‘an artist’ – when I go down to Wetherspoons I’m just known as the guy that likes a glass of red wine. The local hairdressers don’t ask you about your artwork, which is great.
Do you feel that you have to live up to an imagined idyll of what an artist is when people do that?
Yeah, I mean, I work in mental health during the week, but most people don’t know that. It’s totally separate from my art. I work around Kent helping people with mental health issues and learning difficulties in their own home.
Now I have worked for a few different places in the mental health field on a flexible-contract, so I can carry on working in the field. It’s not really connected to the arts, but I do sometimes do artwork with them – take them to galleries and museums and stuff. But if I didn’t do that I wouldn’t be able to sustain the life I have now in terms of wellbeing, and in terms of finance really. The wellbeing side is always difficult as an artist.
The past couple of weeks I’ve had a bit of an epiphany because I’m 25 and I feel like I’m 60.
What part do you find exhausting?
Really, it’s the constant working on a project and then writing a proposal for another one, so you never stop. I’ve just made a film for Channel 4 that’s been accepted, and that’s great, but I didn’t have a chance – I didn’t let myself – celebrate, because I thought ‘right I’ve got to move on to the next thing’….
It’s so quick. It’s so dynamic – so for me, I just decided to settle down a bit more to concentrate on just one or two things and do it well, rather than split myself up. We’re all guilty of it.
Have you heard of Maslow’s hierarchy? The thing I find interesting is that from an artist’s point of view, we all try to be at the top all the time, but we forget that actually we just need to flip it around and start working on the basics a bit more. Look after our own mental health.
Going back to the Pebbles project, has there been a highlight for you? It sounds like meeting Mel has been a great connection.
Yes – meeting Mel was great. That’s the thing I like about living in Dover actually, is that there are people from all different ages and backgrounds that have come to live here.
It was great to see people take an interest in the film at the Pebbles screening. I think now the focus is really on getting these objects made and getting the projection work done on the side of the Pebbles Kiosk. It will be really good to have the zoetrope and the praxinoscope outside at night with a spotlight on them so that you can walk around the whole of the Pebbles Kiosk.
One side is going to have projected video and the other side is going to have sound. We want to make it so that you can’t really see all of the work at the same time – you have to move around. I don’t like the idea of seeing all of the work in one go. That’s kind of the philosophy of my work. The idea that you have to piece together the work, that’s always quite interesting. The idea that you can package it neatly is, to me, a false economy. I want to show people how difficult it is to piece things together.
Would that be at the Pebbles Kiosk as part of a long term public artwork?
I think that that would be a weekend project, but then the zoetrope and the praxinoscope can go wherever they want. I thought we could have them outside during the Regatta or take them to schools. The fact that people can add their own drawings to them means that the Town Council can explore what they want to do with them. I just thought it was important for me to make something.
I think we’re going to design a little plaque to show that we got the idea from Dover Museum so that we can start to create a dialogue with another organisation in Dover.
This project has been going on since last August – it’s still very much in process.
Interviewer Alice Bryant
To read more about the Pebbles screening event at Dover Silver Screen Cinema, please click here
To learn more about the geology of the White Cliffs of Dover, please read the transcript of the talk that Mel Wrigley gave at the Pebbles screening event, available here
To find out more about the work of the White Cliffs Countryside Partnership and the work that they do, click here