Arts Hero – Melanie Cutler

For the Arts Hero section of the Bronze Arts Award: Level 1 Award in the Arts qualification, young people need to research the work of an artist that inspires them. Jade from The CE Academy met and interviewed artist and activist Melanie Cutler.

Stewardship, Melanie Cutler, 2015

Dear Jade,

Thank you for asking your questions, they are very good. I hope I have been able to answer them for you and look forward to meeting with you again soon. Happy reading :o)

1. Why do you want to be an artist?

I didn’t for many years. I got a regular job like anyone else, went to work, got paid, came home etc. I had always wanted to do a degree and had started several times. The first one was with the Open University and I hadn’t got a clue what I was doing and gave up. The second one I got two years into and was studying death, dying and palliative care – just before I was about to take my final exam my mother was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and only lived for 6 weeks. I couldn’t go on to take the exam as it was only days after she had died (so I gave up again). The third time I had been accepted on to a horticultural degree but I couldn’t afford it when I got married. So this was my fourth attempt and I am so glad I have done art as I have a feeling it will change my life in ways the others could not. I got the art bug back again when I went on a workshop whilst on holiday with my dad (I was his carer at the time when he was very ill). Not a long workshop but it inspired me to go further to see what I could do. There has been a massive gap between doing art at school and going to university!

2. Why do you make art about the things you do?

I started off practicing painting and drawing friends, their dogs, people out of magazines etc. Whilst I got plenty of compliments from friends and family it wasn’t until my third year at uni that I started to get really pissed off with some things going on in the world around me. I thought you only get one shot at this so the gloves were off and so I went away from pretty wall decoration and nice sculpture. I didn’t want people to say my work was ‘nice’. I wanted people to react to what I did and to have an opinion. Most of all, I wanted people to ask questions.

I recently did a performance piece in the street in Thurrock (near London) in front of many people, which was about voting. I want EVERYONE to vote at the next election. It really matters to me that young people are so switched off from politics when it affects them so much, and I include my own kids in that too. It seems to be that only older people vote so the politicians pay more attention to what they want in order to get their votes.

3. What does your art mean to you?

Stewardship is another topic very close to my heart. Again, my work had to mean something to me. I started reading about the suicides of disabled people and their link to welfare reform – this was another topic that really got to me. I have many illnesses myself – it could easily be me lying in the ground. It is not just about the victims themselves, but also the families they leave behind, the brothers, sisters, children, husbands and wives. I stopped making the slabs when I got up to 24 but now there are 60 plus deaths being investigated, and I suspect many, many more. The things I create my artwork around are things I feel very passionately about. I have to have an emotional connection with it.

4. Do you know anyone that focus your art on?

I have of course met my friends and family that in the early days that I practiced my painting and drawing on. More recently, I have met the people of Thurrock who were the focus of my work, and I have kept the screen that all the comments have been written upon. With Stewardship I have, through a few of the newspapers that have reported these deaths, tried to contact the families concerned. I have managed to contact about two so far and another lady Gillian, whose brother died tragically when his electricity was cut off, along with all his money. He starved but was also a Type 1 Diabetic and so his insulin went off in the fridge. He didn’t commit suicide, but died of a thing called Ketoacidosis. His name was David. He had been a soldier and had served his country and had died of diabetic complications – the same complications I had two and a half years ago, when I nearly died.

5. Does it have any special meaning to you?

Yes, all my work has to have meaning for me, or I would feel like a bit of a fraud. I had to think long and hard about how I would portray these people in my work as I didn’t want to upset any of the families of these people. When handling the slabs I even talk to them like they were actually people. Also, I am finding that the work has special meaning and connects with others. It is interesting to hear the comments from people who see the work, but don’t know I am there – you are not the first Jade! I have had many reactions from people from one extreme to the other. I have had people tell me their own stories, stories of how this issue has touched their lives or the lives of loved ones or people they know. I have had hugs, tears, rants – but it all means something. It is very humbling when something you have made can get to people like that.

6. Does it make you feel good?

Yes, I believe it does. Making stuff always feels good to me and satisfies a big part of me. More recently, doing work like this is intensely satisfying as I have had a lot of feedback from different people, mostly very positive – almost like turning something that really pisses you off around, into a force for good. Like taking all that horrible negative emotion and using it for something worthwhile.

7. Who’s your inspiration?

I have a lot of respect for artists overseas who live in countries that don’t have freedom of speech to express themselves. These very brave people risk arrest, imprisonment, or even death for the opportunity to do what I do. There is an artist in China who is under house arrest called Ai Weiwei, there are Russian artists called Pussy Riot, who have only recently been released. These are the kind of artists who would never get into a gallery in their own country and sometimes have to work outside the laws of their own country to be able to carry on creating and highlighting issues which they feel are important to them.

8. Do you have anything in common with the people you base your art on?

Yes, with Stewardship in particular I feel connected to those people. I have so much wrong with me I would find it difficult to get a regular job! (Type 1 Diabetes, Coeliac Disease, Psoriasis, Depression, Asthma, Osteo and possibly Rheumatoid Arthritis, allergies and to top it off a Meningioma – brain tumour wrapped around a main vein in my head.) Most of the people mentioned in this work are roughly my age and leave behind children and families. I feel very strongly about the injustice and indignity that these people have had to go through. It seems that even if you are seriously ill or terminally ill that you are still found fit to work. Many people have died prematurely too because they have been put through so much stress when so ill. Remember this is only the tip of the iceberg and there are always many more cases that we are all unaware of. I don’t think that any of these people were benefit cheats, dole scum or scroungers but had real physical or mental health issues that were totally ignored – people have to be desperate to commit suicide and it is usually a last resort.

9. What do people think about your art?

On the whole, I have had encouraging and positive feedback about the work I have done so far and I am very lucky. I have heard other artists complain that they don’t get any comments about their work at all. It’s a bit like Marmite – you either love it or you hate it. Very few people don’t have an opinion on it. People’s reactions vary and it is completely okay to have an opinion, even if it differs from my own or that of others – that is a GOOD thing.

10. What’s your opinion on your art?

I really, really enjoy what I do and want to keep doing it. If I can affect people with my work or inspire others then I feel I have done a good job. My work is not ‘nice’ it’s ‘naaaaaaasty’, controversial and not safe.

I hope that these answers are okay for you, Jade.

Kind regards,

Melanie Cutler