How do you define ‘folk art’, and what does it mean to be a ‘folk artist’? This is something that the artist Lucy Wright has spent an awful lot of time thinking about. One of those slightly obsessed people that we love here on Tradfolk, she seems to spend much of her waking (and quite possibly sleeping) hours examining what those four letters signify and how they could be put to more significant use.
Formerly a musician, Wright has focused on visual and conceptual art for the last decade. Anyone who spends time on Folkstagram will recognise her work – she’s the artist behind the Folk Fatales series (see the image above), as well as Bear Dance (see the image below). Her Folk is a Feminist Issue manifesta became a talking point on social media last year, and her up-coming Wild Woman project promises to be a fascinating dive into the world of a folkloric figure that seems to represent the female equivalent of the Green Man.
Much of the artist’s work interrogates the problematic relationships between folk, nationalism and colonialism, the under-representation of women, LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities in the existing canon of English folk arts, and the need for new, more inclusive traditions for our divided society. With these meaty subjects lined up, we booked a couple of hours in on Zoom, and even then felt as though we’d barely scratched the surface. So much to discuss, so little time.
‘Folk’ is a really powerful term and it’s not used to its full potentialLucy Wright
What does the term ‘folk artist’ mean to you? You’ve said you refer to yourself as a contemporary folk artist, but only tongue in cheek.
That’s a really good question. I suppose I’m playing with language. I am an artist whose work deals a lot with folk, but I know that the term ‘folk artist’ as a composite has a whole bunch of associations. I’m thinking about outsider art, and how that’s interpreted. And I probably can’t claim that kind of identity because I think that the kind of stereotype of a folk artist or an outsider artist is somebody who lives at a remove from everyday society in some way, whether they’re excluded due to being in prison or they have a disability of some kind or haven’t been able to access education in the arts. There’s something in particular that we expect of a folk artist, and it’s quite similar, really, to what we perhaps expect of a source singer; some kind of, I don’t know, romanticised image of somebody who lives in a rural idyll away from everything else, and they’ve learned all their repertoire from their great grandmother. I can’t claim that I have my own origin myth. I grew up in a family of musicians, but they’re very much of that kind of 1970 revival.
So, what kind of ‘folk’ did you grow up experiencing?
The repertoire that I grew up with came from LPs of the Waterson and the Coppers. My take on folk, as you’ve probably kind of garnered, is quite a broad one, and I’m aware that it’s kind of unreasonably broad and it kind of sits, maybe, uncomfortably with what perhaps trad would look like, or what the folk scene looks like. But I have been involved in that scene, too. I was a musician – a singer in a folk band called Pilgrims Way for six years. We sang at all the folk festivals. I realised quite early on that a life on the stage wasn’t going to work for me. I have horrible stage fright. I’m just not comfortable with that. I’ll do it occasionally and I do still play a bit, but I don’t enjoy performing. It filled me with dread. But I was still interested in folk and I had various kinds of questions about folk that I wanted to think about, so I turned my attention to researching it, writing about it, and making art about it instead. That’s probably why I say, tongue-in-cheek, that I’m a folk artist. I’m an artist who is interested in folk.
Folk, for me, is the stuff that people make, do and think for themselvesLucy Wright
So, you’re defining ‘folk art’ as art that has been handed down from generation to generation?
In my little worldview, I tend to separate out folk and tradition. And folk, for me, is the stuff that people make, do and think for themselves. It’s a kind of quality of an activity. I don’t mean quality instead of high or low quality. I mean the essence of that activity. Whereas tradition speaks more to the temporal aspect of it – when it’s done, how often it’s done, and its historical context. I’m personally quite uninterested in whether something has been done many times or not because I don’t think that’s very important in terms of how important or how valuable it can be to the community that practises it.
I suppose for me it’s funny because, as you say, I do actually use that term on my website, and I include it in my manifesta, but I haven’t actually particularly thought a lot about what it would be to be a ‘folk artist’. I think a lot about folk, but I haven’t thought a lot about what a ‘folk artist’ is. I think, if I was to go out there and market myself as a folk artist in the visual arts scene, it would be considered to be quite inappropriate because, as I say, the kind of perception people would have of what that would be would not be someone who went to university.
I don’t think these people exist, is what I really mean. But at the same time, I still definitely don’t fit that nonexistent model. Having stuff passed on to you might be one part of it, but I think it’s also that it’s that kind of rusticity that we expect of folk artists. Gershon Legman, who wrote about it in the 60s, said that every folk artist has learned his repertoire from his old grandmother, and it’s this idea that we have to be these authentic folk inheritors rather than people who live in the modern world, who listen to music on their phones and get stuff on YouTube. That’s kind of not how folk is supposed to be passed on. The idea that the oral tradition should be face-to-face, that it needs to be in these remote places, and that cities and urban places couldn’t really have an authentic folk tradition. I don’t believe these things exist in reality. But that’s the idea that a lot of us have. I still see so much stuff out there which seems to purport that that’s what folk is – that people who “do folk” are very different from ordinary people. And I just think that’s nonsense. I think it always was nonsense, but it’s especially nonsense now.
It reminds me of an interview I did with Steve Roud. He pointed out that there’s no such thing as a folk singer because the people that we model folk singers on – the source singers – wouldn’t have known what a folk singer was. That concept arrived afterwards. As a historian, he’s very specific about how we view these things.
100%. As an eager PhD student, I once emailed Georgina Boyes and she said that songs and dances aren’t traditional but singing and dancing is.
Sitting on the other side of the fence is someone like Ben Edge, who also observes folk traditions as an artist. I think he gets quite frustrated with the historians who want to put him back into line. Do you know what I mean? I don’t think it really matters to him how many times it has been done, or when it was done. It’s the fact that it’s still being done and it can be adapted. Maybe that’s just about perspectives: those of a historian vs those of an artist.
There is a tension there, and I definitely feel it in what I do as an artist. I have this weird background: I studied ethnomusicology at SOAS as a master subject, and then I got a scholarship to do a PhD at Manchester School of Art. It was towards the tail end of what they call the crisis of representation in the humanities, where there was this awareness that researchers had done a pretty bad job of looking after the human subjects of research projects, particularly in anthropology. Anthropology has got a lot of a lot to answer for when it comes to colonialism.
I wanted to look at this question of what folk is today in the 21st century. Does it still have a meaning? What had always kind of made me curious was that, although there were a whole lot of materials collected up until the first half of the 20th century, by about the 60s, folk collecting had kind of died out. I was told many times that there’s nothing left to collect – that everything else that’s out there just exists as a revival. But I still believe that folk has meaning today. It seems baffling to me that people thought that folk as a concept existed until the sixties, and then all of a sudden it died out, and now it’s just something we reproduce over and over.
I wanted to do my PhD to bring art into the equation, to see what it would be to be an artist who researched with other people, to find these alternative ways of learning about the practises that they did. I thought there might be some more collaborative ways of helping people to share their stories. That didn’t mean that I came in as a researcher and observed a practise and then said, “I’m now going away and saying what these people do.” I’ve worked really closely with historians, particularly Duncan Broomhead in Cheshire, who’s an amazing historian of Northwest, particularly Cheshire, Morris dancing.
I don’t think being an artist is an excuse for being lazy or promulgating unhelpful stereotypes, which I think is what happens when people don’t fully research the thing that they say they’re interested inLucy Wright
So, my interest is less in the kind of facts and figures, dates and historical detail than it is about contemporary ethnographic practises, but I do think the history is really important. It’s not that I want to throw that out. I think sometimes artists try and get away with being a little bit vague in what they do or a little bit imprecise, and I don’t think being an artist is an excuse for being lazy or promulgating unhelpful stereotypes, which I think is what happens when people don’t fully research the thing that they say they’re interested in.
I tend to look outside of the practises that call themselves ‘folk’ because I feel as though those things have been looked at a lot. The calendar customs, the Morris dancing – we’ve seen this stuff many times. There are many photographs of these traditions dating back to almost as soon as photography existed. And now you go to Whittlesea Straw Bear, or whatever, and everybody in the crowd is documenting it again. So the idea that we still need academics and research to go and see what’s happening… we know what’s happening!
However, there are traditions that fall outside of the folk revival that are pretty much unknown beyond the very small communities that practice them. And, on the whole, what I’ve found is that the communities I’ve worked with tend to be marginalised in some other way. So it’s very working-class communities, it’s non-white communities, it’s LGBTQ communities, it’s people who, for whatever reason, haven’t historically been included within these narratives. And for me, that’s where the most interesting folk material is. And that’s what I want to be involved in.
It’s very working-class communities, it’s non-white communities, it’s LGBTQ communities, it’s people who, for whatever reason, haven’t historically been included within these narratives. For me, that’s where the most interesting folk material isLucy Wright
Can you give me some examples?
Yeah, absolutely. The thing that really set it all off for me was Carnival morris dancing in the Northwest of England. My dad was a Morris dancer before I was born and he’d always told me, in no uncertain terms, that until the 70s women didn’t do Morris dancing, and they only do it now because of feminism. He hated women’s Morris dancing. He thought it’s either a copy or a pastiche of the men’s dance, or it’s an abomination of some kind. He could not accept that they would have their own traditions. I was at Duncan Broomhead’s house looking through the Morris Ring photographic archive during my PhD in about 2013, and I started finding lots of photographs from as early as the 1880s/90s of teams of girls and young women doing something called Morris dancing. They’d have these shields or banners that said they were called Morris dancers and yet they were all female. And I was totally amazed because I understood that women had only been doing Morris dancing since the 1970s. I did a bit of googling and it turned out it was Carnival Morris dancing, that it still exists, and it’s really thriving in the Northwest of England.
It’s more common in Manchester, Liverpool, Lancashire, and it goes into a bit of Wales. It’s quite limited, geographically. It doesn’t really go further than that. And it’s practised in largely very working-class communities. It’s still passed on down matriarchal lines, largely. So it’s mothers and daughters and sisters, cousins, aunts – these incredible dynasties of dancers keeping this tradition alive. It was completely hidden and completely written out of the histories of Morris dancing that I had read and been involved in.
I realised that the folk scene itself wasn’t generally very aware of this whole practise, even though it shared a name and a history. When you look at the history of Northwest Morris dancing up until the 60s, the Carnival Morris troops were dancing with Northwest men’s Morris sides together in the same event. But around the 80s, something happened and Carnival Morris went indoors.
I should say, by the way, that my dad did change his mind about women’s Morris dancing after I started doing it, and he did read my research and kind of go, “OK, this is really cool.”
Well, that’s a relief. What’s the difference between, say, Cotswold Morris and Carnival Morris?
It’s a very competitive practise. It’s less performative in a straightforward way. They perform in the round. They don’t really have an audience in the strictest sense. It’s a bit more like a sports team and they’re judged on it. It’s a competition and they win a medal at the end, or a trophy. Because it went indoors it hasn’t been seen for decades, essentially. And obviously, because it’s working-class women, the kind of the writers on Morris dancing – I’m thinking of people like Maud Karpeles – were incredibly critical of it. They said, “This is terrible. The cities can’t possibly have a Morris tradition. In fact, this is an abomination against the Morris tradition.”
I’ve spent a lot of time going into various girls’ Morris troops, particularly Arcadia Morris dancers from Skelmersdale and Wigan, learning about what they do, attending their practices and competitions and trying to make art projects together as a way of documenting these stories. Because, as I say, nobody has really documented any of this stuff. It’s all kind of informal collections in people’s houses. People have amazing scrapbooks and photo albums, but in terms of academic research, I think I’ve been the first person to put anything out there, which in itself has felt like a strange responsibility because I am not from that community, although I am from quite a working-class family in a working-class area. I feel that if I’d grown up in the Northwest, I’d probably have been a Northwest Carnival Morris dancer. But it’s still not my community, so it always felt really important to make art in such a way that their voices come forward more than my own. I don’t know if I’ve always achieved that, but that was always my goal.
From the little I’ve seen of Carnival Morris, it looks quite a lot like cheerleading. Is there a connection?
it’s an amazing performance. They do a stylized version of the rant step that you find in Northwest clog Morris, except it’s got very pointed feet and they use pompoms, which they call shakers. They wear sequin dresses and it’s quite glitzy and glamorous and a lot of people make the assumption that it’s American cheerleading. But actually, when you look at the history, cheerleading began a lot later than Carnival Morris dancing.
Are there other traditions of that nature, beyond Carnival Morris specifically?
Yes, there are others even within that area. You’ve got entertaining troops, which are a similar thing – a kind of synchronised dance troop, all female. They do high kicks and human pyramids. There are jazz kazoo bands from the Northeast and the mining communities in South Wales. They play kazoos that look like trumpets and they wear these amazing hats with big plumes on them. They are incredible. I’ve done projects on the carnival performances in Jersey, and the harestailing craft that women do there.
The dominant mode of communication is obviously online and on your smartphone, so why wouldn’t folk exist in that space, too?Lucy Wright
There’s a bunch of stuff that teenagers do. I mean, I would go so far as to say that Tik Tok and some of those things are very folk art. It’s people being able to get into a cultural production with their own hands or their own device and get stuck in and do something, making their own entertainment. How that’s done, I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. The dominant mode of communication is obviously online and on your smartphone, so why wouldn’t folk exist in that space, too?
So, the “folk” in your definition of folk is very definitely the people. You’re talking about ordinary people creating things with whatever they have to hand.
Yes, I think I focus mostly on the idea of whatever you have to hand, whatever’s the easiest and the most readily available way to be creative, to do something, to create culture.
I think, as soon as you start talking about it being about people, then it becomes a question of which people count as ‘folk’. Are you working-class enough to be folk? Are you remote enough in your geography to be folk? And I think we’re all folk.
For me, there’s something like historical folk, which is the body of materials that were collected by folk collectors in the Victorian period up to the 1950s, and it’s an amazing body of material that I love, and I grew up on it and it’s probably my favourite music of all. But that’s just part of it. The ‘folk’ part of the folk scene, for me, more than anything, is the fact that it’s so DIY. I love that the folk scene is still a really accessible space. Whatever your ability level, there’s some way for you to get involved in culture and make something for yourself.
So much culture these days, I feel, is something that’s given to us. We’re quite passive in it. We watch TV, we’re given spectacles, and professional people give us culture. Working-class communities, especially, are presumed to be quite disengaged and passive. We sit back and things are given to us. ‘Folk’, for me, is the fact that everybody wants to be creative and wants to engage in culture, just not necessarily within the kind of framework of institutionalised, professionalised art.
So much culture these days, I feel, is something that’s given to us. We’re quite passive in it. We watch TV, we’re given spectacles, and professional people give us cultureLucy Wright
I’ve got a few little things here that I want to read to you and get your reaction. When we launched Tradfolk, you tweeted to us and said, “This looks dead exciting. Hope there’ll be lots of awesome women and gender non-conforming folks and traditions represented.” You’ve also described folk as a, “slippery, divisive term with some uncomfortable associations”. In light of those statements, I’m interested in your experience of the folk world today, the challenges you observe, and ultimately what you see as needing changing.
I’m going to preface this by saying that I feel like it’s only me who could have been researching the representation of lesser-known and marginalised folk practises for about a decade, but still totally failed to capitalise on the fact that it’s a huge topic out there right now [laughs].
I’ve taken part in the folk world in different ways for a long time, but less so as a performer these days, so it’s relatively rare that I attend the kinds of events that would self-identify as folk. And I think there are some really great groups out there already doing stuff around the challenges associated with being a female folk musician. And for me, the challenges associated with being a female folk musician are probably very similar to the challenges associated with being any kind of female professional musician or artist. I don’t think it’s folk music specifically that is problematic. I think our society is still patriarchal and so there are these issues for women that still need to be faced in any professional public space.
If we view our job as folk musicians and artists primarily to kind of rehearse and repeat those customs, songs, etc, then there’s always going to be an opportunities gap for anyone who’s not a white manLucy Wright
The groups I would mention would include Esperance and FairPlé in Ireland. Queer Folk are doing amazing stuff. I think there are a whole bunch of projects right now that are kind of going, “Look at the folk scene. Here are the inequities. Let’s do something about it.” Fantastic work. Really important. The problem I see for women, non-binary people, non-white people, etc, is that the body of materials that we view as ‘folk’ were collected in an era where equity was not as it is today. And so, if we view our job as folk musicians and artists primarily to kind of rehearse and repeat those customs, songs, etc, then there’s always going to be an opportunities gap for anyone who’s not a white man because we can see when we look at the archives that there’s a massive dirth of material from women, from gay people; there’s a massive dirth of material from the Northwest of England. Industrialised places were considered to be less valuable, so the South of England has a bunch of stuff, loads of research, fantastic collections of materials, etc. The North, less so.
The important thing in terms of equity is that we expand the canon; we expand the definition of folk. And I’m not saying, “Why don’t more women or people of colour take part in mumming? We need to get them to come in and do that.” It reminds me of that thing when advertisers said, “Why don’t women drink beer? We need to give them different special glasses and then they’ll drink more beer.” I just think that it’s tidying up around the edges. It doesn’t actually unsettle the bigger issue.
We have to look for the practises that were excluded. I know they’re there – I found a bunch of them. Other people I know are doing great work as well. We need to bring all this stuff together and kind of add this to our canon. We need to accept these other practises by other groups of people as equal and valid and ‘folk’.
And I think, where there isn’t much evidence of women or people of colour getting involved, then we make it up. We create it. We actively try to invent more inclusive traditions because I just don’t see how English folk culture will achieve the diversity that it ought to have without doing that.
Some people are already doing that, aren’t they?
Yes. Angeline Morrison‘s stuff is gorgeous. I love her so much. And what Queer Folk are doing so brilliantly is drawing out those hidden narratives within the body of materials that exist. I think that’s a really valuable thing, too. It’s not the area that I’m working in, but I love seeing it happen. It’s amazing.
Before we get into your manifesta, tell me a bit about some of the other stuff that you’ve done – things like the Making Traditions project, and your idea of putting the female body into traditional imagery.
I come from what might be called a low-income background. I got a PhD scholarship, and I had no idea of what I wanted my career to be, so I sort of circled the plughole of academia for about 10 years. After my PhD I had a string of short-term contracts in academic departments doing various things, including the Digital Folk Project at the University of Sheffield, which was looking at how folk musicians use digital technology. Really amazing work. Got to say, though, folk musicians use digital technology in very much the same way as any other musician [laughs]. That was the conclusion, anyway. That paid the bills and then, in any spare time I had, and with any extra money that I had, I pursued my own projects.
Making Traditions project was my PhD project, and I did a series of mini case studies with different community practices around the Northwest. I did the Conversation Hats project with Lymm Morrismen. When I started looking at folk, I thought, “How do people use folk nowadays?” I needed to look at that first. My early projects were using material practises and making practises to stimulate conversations about what people understood by tradition. So I thought, “Who better speak to the Morris men?” I spoke to Lymm Morrismen who use their hats as aide-mémoires to talk about their histories of being Morris dancers, and how they added little elements that were kind of personal to them. And then I made a bunch of ridiculous oversized hats that were inspired by that process.
There was a project to revive a Rose Queen celebration in Manley Park. There was a project working with local dressmakers from different ethnic backgrounds to kind of re-imagine a Morris kit.
What was that about?
There’s a scholar called Pauline Greenhill who has written about the whiteness of the Morris kit and that it’s a kind of colonial issue. I don’t agree with that, but it sparked the idea of what a folk costume would look like with proper representation of Britain’s multicultural history. So I worked with an Asian outfitter and a Caribbean dressmaker to make these new Morris kits.
More recently I managed to go part-time freelance, in 2021, as an artist, which is the first time I’ve ever had dedicated time for my art. I left academia. I just gave up on it. I’ve got enough money now to live a simple life with three days a week for my own art, which is the best thing that I’ve ever had.
Thank you. It’s absolutely wonderful. From that point on, I’ve become quite prolific and started turning out all this stuff I’ve been wanting to make for years. That idea, for example, of feminising these well-known folk customs – these seasonal customs that are in some way male identified, and then inserting a female body into that. I did a nice project for Meadow Arts called Plough Witches, which was to re-imagine the Plough play for an all-female and non-binary cast. There are a bunch of these projects to kind of feminise folk in some way and subverse the male domination a little bit. Because, like I say, I know that I would find it difficult to join a traditional mummers side. I don’t want to badmouth people but whenever you see these custom representatives, 99 times out of 100 it’ll be the male protagonists. And, as far as I know, the only identified female-led seasonal custom that we have in the UK is the Olney Pancake Race in Buckinghamshire. I went this year. It was really fun. But, yeah, other than that, almost everything is male-identified. Even when there are male and female parts to it, like, for example, the cheese rolling, you tend to see the men.
So tell me about Folk is a Feminist Issue and the manifesta. Tell me about how that came about and the kind of response you’ve had to it.
“Folk is a Feminist Issue” was a slogan that I came up with in about 2017 when I was going to Sidmouth Folk Festival to give a talk about Carnival Morris dancing. It’s referencing Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue. I just thought it was interesting. I put it on a T-shirt and quite a lot of people stopped me at the festival, and went, “Oh, my God! I want one!” Or, like, “What’s this? This is really offensive.” On the back of that, a whole lot of people asked me to make them T-shirts, and I started shipping them around the world. They went to Japan, Australia, the US. They went all over. I got quite a lot of critique from various people saying, “You’re just cashing in on the feminism trend. Anything with feminism on sells, but this is not a proper thing. Blah, blah, blah.” And I was like, yeah, you don’t know me very well because I’ve been doing stuff around feminism and folk for a long time.
At that time, I just didn’t have the capacity to do much with it. And then last year I thought, “No, I want to do something with this”, mostly because I was really frustrated by the constant representations that I was seeing that painted folk in a particular way. And I think that there’s a real kind of boom in interest, because of the pandemic, really, in anything pertaining to folklore, the occult, witchcraft – anything kind of esoteric. There’s a real kind of vogue for that right now.
Why do you think that is?
People’s relationship to the outdoors changed with the pandemic. Because we were in lockdown and we could only go out for a short period of time, people started to really value the time that they could spend in nature, whether it be in their garden or they could find a local park. I’d lived in a city for a long time and then we’d moved to this village and I’d just not had time to explore it at all until the pandemic. Suddenly I was able to witness the seasons changing. I remember it being an intense experience. We had that beautiful weather in 2020. Every day I’d go out for a little walk in the woods and I could see the flowers. I felt this real connection that I’d never had because I’ve always been far too busy commuting into towns and being in these kind of artificially regulated environments. So I feel like people’s relationship with nature changed during the pandemic. And maybe as a result of that, or related to that, there’s been this kind of growth of interest in folklore and alternative ways of living.
Climate change has a part to play. I’m sure that the ways we live right now are unsustainable. Do we need to go back to nature? How can we dial back the clock on this crisis that is heading towards us rapidly? And I think there’s the Harry Potter effect as well – the generation who grew up as kids reading that are now a little bit older and really interested in all things magical and, like, having a real moment.
Sorry, I interrupted you. I was asking you about the manifesta and Folk as a Feminist Issue and what kind of response you’d had.
That’s OK. I was moaning because I feel like there is this real burst of interest which, on the one hand is brilliant, and I wouldn’t ever want to discourage anyone from studying folklore, getting involved in the folk arts or whatever element of this is most appealing to them. But I did start to get frustrated that I was seeing what I felt was quite ill-informed representations of folklore – things that perhaps were doing a disservice to that history.
One day I just snapped and I was like, “Right, I’ve got this slogan. It needs a home. I’m going to write everything down that winds me up. I’m going to make it into a manifesta.” But, at the same time, it’s not exclusively aimed at the folk scene. My day job is in the arts, more broadly. There’s a kind of concurrent movement in arts funding, and there has been for about two decades, around funding participation. This idea of trying to get more people involved in arts and creative practises, and the Arts Council has this Let’s Create strategy which is really heavily about bringing nonparticipant communities into the arts. And, bizarrely, these areas that they’ve identified as low engagement in the arts coincide quite strongly with some of the places I’ve spent time either growing up or researching these lesser-known folk practises.
Wigan and Warrington and parts of Lancashire are often identified as heavily disengaged from the arts. And yet I know, because I’ve been there, that people are doing amazing stuff. It’s just not recognised. It’s not seen as excellent. It doesn’t fit what people who have a particular view of art think art should look like, and it’s not the right kind of people doing it. And so they want to bring in professional artists to kind of educate these communities, whereas my view is that they need to be supporting those communities to do what they’re already doing.
I’ve said it several times, but I feel like ‘folk’ is a really powerful term and it’s not used to its full potential at the moment. It’s associated with a very small area of interest, a community of interest that the folk scene is engaged in, and the other area now seems to be kind of mystical and magical and esoteric and witchery, and I just kind of think, “Yeah. Fine. But folk is so much bigger than that.” I would love to see ‘folk’ being used in a more mainstream context to describe this thing, because there is not yet, as far as I know, a kind of terminology for that idea of the creativity that we all already have and already do. It’s always this idea that we should be doing something differently, we should be bettering ourselves and learning. Whereas I just think, let people do what they do; let people make their own entertainment; let them make their own culture; support people to do what they do, rather than saying, “Why don’t the working classes do more opera?” Why should they? They’re doing their own thing. Support that. So the manifesta was kind of a two-pronged attack in terms of a response to it.
Support people to do what they do, rather than saying, “Why don’t the working classes do more opera?” Why should they? They’re doing their own thingLucy Wright
And how did people react to the manifesta?
I am hopeless at promoting stuff. I’m really bad at it, and I give up quite quickly. Also, my dad passed away last year and that kind of coincided with when I launched it, so I just didn’t have the mental space to do a lot with it. But people get in touch who really love it, and I love that. I’m really happy that there are certain people who it really speaks to and who feel that it includes them in a way that they haven’t felt included before. I’ve also had some really interesting conversations with people who said that they hate it or it doesn’t speak to them at all, and that’s interesting, too. What artist doesn’t want to provoke conversation? I wanted to generate discussion. I want people to take it seriously and think about it, even if they hate what I say and they disagree with me totally. Generally, it was a relatively positive response, but the folk establishment have not noticed it at all, whatsoever.
Who is the folk establishment?
Anyone within traditional folk, I think, feel it’s a challenge to them. Which it isn’t meant to be because I don’t want the folk scene to disappear. I would hate that. I think it’s amazing and wonderful. I just want to see things expand. I just want to see the term used more broadly.
In the manifesta, I think you say, “We stifle the radical potential of folk if we continue to view it as a niche genre rather than a real force in the world.” The question is, how do you go about bringing it to its full ‘radical potential’?
I would love for people outside of the folk scene to view folk in a different way and to not see it as kind of crusty or elderly, or… I don’t know… whatever ideas people have about the folk scene. I would like people to see folk similarly to the way they see punk, for example, which I’ve always thought is the other side of the coin for folk. Punk has this amazing kind of kudos as a term. People want to be punk academics, they want to run punk breweries, whatever. Folk kind of has that but in a different way. It tends to hark to something of the past, something dyed-in-the-wool and kind of archaic in some way. I don’t know. For me it just misses something. That said, I definitely think the term and terms associated with it are having a moment. Whether they are progressing thought around what that is, I’m less sure.
The full radical potential of folk, in the way that I would like to see it, would be to see support and funding for art moving away from being heavily dominated by the same large institutions supporting the kinds of culture that wealthier people generally down South are interested in, and that it becomes more equitably distributed to support everybody. To participate in the culture. Not just participate, but create the culture that they would like to see. And while the big policymakers speak the language of that, and they say that’s what they’re looking for, they continue to apply quite retrograde funding strategies that actually don’t support that. So the full radical potential of folk for me, in the context that I’m speaking to, would be where the Carnival Morris dancing troupe get enough money to have their community centre lights on and they can run their bus to a competition.
If you really want to support people to make the culture that they already love and do, you have to give them the resourcing and the infrastructure to do that. And that is not happening at the moment.
Here’s another statement from the manifesta that really caught my attention. “In a world that values only what can be bought and sold, folk is resistance.” Discuss!
[Laughs] I’m a bit of a purist in that I think art and the arts, more broadly, are incredibly important. I think they’re my reason for staying alive, largely. I think they are so valuable in helping us sort of make sense of what it is to be human and to make it worth being here. And I feel like they’re not given, on the whole, the credit that they deserve. And the funding is continually being slashed for the arts. Across the board, subjects are being slashed in schools, whole departments and universities are being shut down, particularly because they don’t make money. They’re not considered to be economically generative enough. And for a long time we’ve tried to make the case that they are; people are often saying, “No, there is an economic case to the arts and you can see all these ways in which the arts make money.” I just think we’re fighting a losing game there because, to me, that’s not why the arts are important.
For me, folk is the art that we all make, so folk is the most inclusive approach to artLucy Wright
The arts are not important because they make us money. They’re important because they’re what make us human. For me, folk is the art that we all make, so folk is the most inclusive approach to art. Because again, art is another term that is incredibly tricky and elitist in certain regards. People feel art isn’t for them or that they have to have special training to appreciate art or to make art. Folk is the thing that says, “No, you don’t have to have any of that special training or knowledge. Anyone can participate, anyone can make things. Anyone can do this.” I think we’re all able to make art in some way or other, and participate in art of some kind. And that’s what I would like to see more of.
I’d like to see more stuff in this world being done for the sake of it. The Carnival Morris world is a great example. These troops that I’ve spent time with practice at least once a week, sometimes twice for several hours. They compete every weekend for an entire day. Every Sunday they get on their bus and they go somewhere and they dance. It’s a huge commitment to time and energy. It makes no money, it has no visibility. They’re not famous. No one has heard of the thing that they do. What is the point in doing it? It doesn’t make any money. The point in doing it is that it’s the thing that brings this community together and they have an amazing time doing it, and they’re proud of this thing that they’ve created. And I just think that is so beautiful. The more stuff that we do, regardless of whether it makes money, the better.
What’s next on the agenda for Lucy Wright?
Well, I’ve got a residency in August at Analogue Farm. It’s an artist-run organisation in Rossendale, Lancashire, and I’m doing a project around the Wild Woman trope and Mary Magdalene as the Wild Woman, grief, the landscape…
What is the wild woman trope?
When I was putting out these little paintings or drawings of the straw mama bear and these kind of feminised folk characters, people were saying, “Oh, you should look at the Wild Woman.” I guess it’s a bit like the Green Man. I started finding these images of Mary Magdalene as sort of a Wild Woman figure – a very wild-looking, untamed woman covered in this thick body hair. And I think it’s one of those examples of where Christianity saw these sort of pagan, let’s say, symbols and kind of institutionalised them. “We can’t have them worshipping that. We’ll have to make her a Christian. It’s Mary Magdalene. It’s not the Wild Woman.”
The legend that they created was that, after the death of Jesus, Mary Magdalene went out into the desert to live as an ascetic. She lived a very simple life and had no home or shelter, and over time the clothes she was wearing got really ragged and they fell off her body. She grew all this thick hair to protect her from the elements in the desert.
For me, it felt like it spoke to grief and the way that we physically respond to grief. And, as I say, I lost my dad last year, and it was very shocking and upsetting. And it just became this kind of symbol. I was interested in this idea of becoming this Wild Woman, this kind of Mary Magdalene in the desert figure. Going out and walking and being in nature is one of the few things that I found comfort in. So I’m interested in that figure and what it says about grief and what it says about the landscape and women.
How will you approach that in the residency?
For the residency, I’ve got a hut in the middle of nowhere, literally. I don’t think it has the internet. It’s just a little very simple hut, and I’m going to be there for a whole month. I’m going to make a body of paintings. I’ll take as their starting point this idea of the Wild Woman, of Mary Magdalene and grief. And there’ll be a little exhibition at the end of the residency at a gallery called The Bug. It will be my first time doing anything as a painter, because although I’ve been making art in some way for a long time, painting is quite new to me.
To find out more about Lucy Wright, the artist, head to artistic-researcher.co.uk. For more on Folk is a Feminist Issue and the manifesta, head to folkisfeminist.com.
A fascinating, thought-provoking interview. Inspiring to read a take on folk taking on new forms in the modern world as well as being rooted in the past.