Representing the creative future

“The best way to protest is to create”: In conversation with Louise Gray

The multidisciplinary artist and educator on her latest exhibition, collaboration, and finding freedom in creativity

How do we keep up our creative drive constant in a time when we’re expected to work consistently? This has always been a poignant challenge in anyone’s process. But, for multidisciplinary creative Louise Gray, who’s never been interested in just mastering one thing, it’s a chance to find inspiration in something new. An inspiring presence in addition to being a fierce creator whose career spans fashion, textiles and art, Louise also teaches at Central Saint Martins’ MA Fashion course, lending her progressive creative approach to the next generation of CSM’s prospective talents.

Alongside her cult-status career, last month Gray presented a new body of work in the form of “Hold Fast”, an exhibition held in collaboration with artists Jane Dinmore and Karen McLeod. Comprising textile installations, illustrations, and a performance piece with an original spoken word soundtrack alongside the self-published written piece: “How You Act Has Power”. The show, displayed at South London’s Copeland Gallery proved that Gray’s restless energy has no signs of slowing down.

Tell us about the show, where did the idea come from and what inspired the collaboration with Karen and Jane? 

I think we all wanted to do something that felt DIY and be able to rely on doing things ourselves, we started talking about doing something around Christmas. I just decided we were going to make it work, as January and February are already a really busy time for me at CSM because of the MA show, so It was really important for me to set some parameters about what the work would be.

Was it difficult to organise the whole exhibition whilst also creating a new body of work? 

I like making a body of work, and that’s what I wanted to do, I didn’t do this to make money. I was just going to do my thing, so obviously I didn’t have a budget for anything except for having to hire the gallery space, so I made all the work out of things I already had.

I think that energy is something we’ve just had for three years with covid, like having to just use what we’ve already got, and it was weird because I was teaching students that, so it was interesting to practice what I’ve been teaching. I don’t think anything new comes from known endings, do you know what I mean? You can only find interesting innovation in experimenting, it doesn’t come from anywhere else.

So some of the pieces I made, I would set myself parameters like: “You’re going to make this but you’ve only got half an hour.” I was forcing myself to get out of the way I usually work, and I work a lot with print designers, weavers and embroiders, so I was going to do all of it myself. It felt very fun and much more creative.

“When you’re making work, it can’t feel like work, that’s not the reason you’re doing this. ” – Louise Gray

Hold Fast was an exhibition focused on reflecting on life’s challenges, and responding to them in a, like you said, playful way. Why was that such a poignant subject to work around? 

It’s not thinking that it needs to be playful, it’s like understanding that within setting up. When you’re making work, it can’t feel like work, that’s not the reason you’re doing this. That’s not the reason I’ve made my life this. There has to be an area where you’re enjoying your job. It’s what I say to my fashion students all the time, it would be very radical for you to just enjoy your job because that’s what you’re supposed to be doing. It’s not supposed to be difficult or the most taxing hideous thing you’ve ever done, where everything is last minute, that’s just people not wanting to do work, you just avoid it.

So what happens if you radically choose to enjoy what you’re doing? That’s the approach I took to this. It was like, I’m just going to play with colour today, I’m not going to overthink it. You just have to take your feet off all pedals of opinions or the things which feel comfortable.

On the opening night, you also staged a performance piece with two dancers and hats created by Nasir Mazhar, what was the creating the performance like? 

I knew I was going to work with two performers, Danni Spooner and Wet Mess who are both non-binary, so I wanted to readdress that notion of what non-binary can look like.

I wanted them to choreograph their own pieces, I wanted nothing to do with what they did. I just told them to completely do whatever they want, which I don’t think people get to hear very often. It’s always ‘Oh, you do this good thing, can you do that for us?’ then you end up with an outcome that’s known and been seen. So I knew I had to give them that, but I hate the word empower, but I wanted them to feel a version of themselves which felt free.

Nasir is a long-term collaborator, but we made the hats years ago and didn’t end up using them. The idea is that there’s movement in the top of the hat, so when the person wearing it is moving the hat is also moving. It’s got a really beautiful flow.

Would you say collaboration is quite a big part of your process? 

Yes, most of the time I’m working by myself, and I’m always trying to avoid that. I don’t need another vacuum.

There were pictures in the show that my friend Alex Mein, an amazing illustrator worked on with me. I knew they’d look really good, so I prepared all the pages and he drew and wrote on them. It became a layered collaboration, which felt really spontaneous. We did them all in one day, so we made around 13 pieces in the end. I love the energy of “let’s just go with it.”

“I don’t want to feel like you have to do something to a certain level. I don’t find that interesting.” – Louise Gray

In addition to the paintings, textiles and even performance pieces, you’ve also started creating music. How important is it to keep that multidisciplinary edge to your work? 

You have to keep yourself interested. I know how to do a lot of things, but at this point, what you’re trying to do is unlearn them. The idea of mastering something, I don’t know how people feel about what I do but I feel like they know I’ve done it for a while. So then they think they’re going to get something which is of a level which is considered some type of hierarchy, which I just think is fucking annoying and boring.

Because when you think like that in making clothes or costumes, then it means that it’s expensive or it’s like the materials have become better, you’ve worked with a better manufacturer. I wanted to overturn all of that. Who needs to see more of that type of work? Not me.

“I don’t want to feel like I’m the master of anything. No, thanks. I always think, what are you going to do next?” – Louise Gray

How did you overturn that for this series of new work? 

I made Danni, one of the performers, shoes and I gave myself 45 minutes to make them, they’re made from paper and card, I just told myself that’s what I was doing and they had this great energy. When they were wearing them whilst performing the shoes made such a good noise. I just want that feeling! I don’t want to feel like you have to do something to a certain level. I don’t find that interesting.

I don’t want to feel like I’m the master of anything. No, thanks. I always think, what are you going to do next?

Is that where the music came in? 

I did love producing the soundtrack. That’s the only thing I did in terms of the performance piece. I let the dancers listen to the track, and I was like: that’s what we’ve made, you can do whatever you want to.

A lot of the things that I say, people think they’re affirmations. People feel like they’re from a very positive place, which they are. But a lot of the time it’s because I’m feeling completely chaotic or like I’ve abandoned myself totally. So I’m trying to figure out how I get back to that? So the tracks I made seem like a weird meditation almost.

If you’ve done an affirmation meditation, it’s like: you are powerful. But I’m saying more abstract things.

Would you do more music in the future? 

I think I will because it’s really funny to play around with. It feels like an energy that’s quite real.

“Very few times in your creative life, somebody will say to you: ‘do whatever you want.’ It doesn’t happen.” – Louise Gray

Do you think, especially when you’re working with students, giving people those really open-ended briefs and letting people do what they want, is that an important part of learning and producing work?

You don’t get presented freedom ever, really. Very few times in your creative life, somebody will say to you: “Do whatever you want.” It doesn’t happen. They want you because of what you’re known for or what you’ve done previously. So when you’re a student, you still need to figure out who you are or what you’re about. A lot of them will say that to me. They’ll say: I don’t do that. And I say: how do you know?

If you’ve allowed yourself to think or feel that you are in control from the beginning of what you’re doing, it’s a problem. So I push that. That’s where I love pushing them to; you’re going to learn something new about yourself if you step outside. What’s comfortable? Not everybody wants to feel uncomfortable, but I live there, that’s where I want to live. That’s why I’m more artistic rather than just fashion design, because I don’t want to be known for one thing, and I’m also not interested in doing one thing.

Photographs by Cherry Auhoni

What’s one thing you wanted any viewer to take away from Hold Fast?

The idea that it’s all in your hands. No one’s coming to get you, no one’s going to find you. No one’s coming to give you some amazing thing. At this point, I’ve had so many different versions of my career, but I’m still here doing it the way that I want to do it. And that is really important to me because people will say: ‘You’re a fashion designer.’ I haven’t designed fashion for ten years, but that’s what you think of me. I’ve been 100 other versions of myself since then. I feel like I’m trying to constantly get out of the things that people want to box me into. I really like that idea of finding what freedom means to you because that’s what this is all about really. It’s not about being creative and then feeling that you have to just do something mundane.

Did you always feel driven to be like that from the start of your career? 

I think when I first started, I’d just graduated from my Textiles MA at CSM and I’d done these hand embroidery dresses. Then I did fashion, and I felt like they made me be one thing. Sure, I can hand embroider, I can make prints, knit, I can do all of those things. But the idea that if you’re a master of your craft, then you just do one thing, I’m not that.

“The most radical and interesting people that we’ve always had are those that don’t give a shit about anyone else.” – Louise Gray

In your kind of work as an educator, what’s something you’d like to see in fashion and art education happen over the next couple of years? Or sooner even?

It’s a big question. It’s a hard place. I love teaching, and being a catalyst for students. I’m getting them to try and be comfortable with the uncomfortable. I’m pushing them into those places because we have to face what is interesting in the world now. That’s what we’re saying in fashion and what we’re saying the job is, to see what’s going on and represent it to people in a way which is interesting or palatable.

I’m convincing them all the time that we don’t need you to be polite, we don’t need you to be obedient. A lot of them want to be doing a good job, but I don’t know to what end or to who because actually, the most radical and interesting people that we’ve always had are those that don’t give a shit about anyone else. I really try to make students understand what it is that they want to say because we need more of those people. I feel like a lot of them are scared of things like cancel culture, saying the wrong things. We can’t live like that. We just can’t. Their creative space needs to be much more open, where you’re allowed to make mistakes. I’m trying to liberate people, in a way to be like, it’s okay to try and say it in the way you want to say it. It’s hard but interesting.

“It’s hard to be on the Internet and not be obedient.” – Louise Gray

Do you come across that a lot yourself?

I do. London is the most expensive city in the world now. People want jobs. They want some level of validation. It’s hard to be on the Internet and not be obedient. There are so many people setting rules. I think it’s a difficult place to navigate. There’s so much information. Learning how to even process that is a task in itself. A lot of the young people that I’m inspired by don’t have Instagram at all. They’re actually kind of scared of it, It makes them not feel very good. They’re makers, and they’re doing whatever they want in their own little groups. And I’m not saying that they need to stay in that small space, but I do think that that’s how they feel about life now.

“When things are difficult you only have art.” – Louise Gray

Do you think you’ll do another exhibition anytime soon?

I definitely want to do more in performance, because I love working with performers I think I’ll do it more not in a gallery, necessarily. I’ll try and find venues in London.

What can art teach us about hard times?

Hard times? All we’ve got in hard times is art. The best way to protest is to create, that’s all we have. When things are difficult you only have art. And that’s why now when there’s no funding, it’s so difficult. You still have the most nuanced people speaking about the most difficult things in the most beautiful way. Thank God we have art! Otherwise, people wouldn’t be surviving. People use it as a survival tool to process how the fuck they’re feeling.

Is it a survival tool for you?

Of course, it has to be. You have to be really serious about how much that keeps you going. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have a way of using my voice.