Ask most artists what their work is about and you’re liable to get some first rate press copy, but things aren’t so simple for artist Ian Rawlinson.

Taking his psyche as starting point, the mixed media artist sets about exploring his inner world; a kind of creative investigation. It’s a very personal process, defined by questions of identity, connection and other internal processes. The various works he produces are communications of this, taking any form that suits – aspects of painting, printmaking, writing and even film appear in his portfolio.

It’s this inclination that led Ian to Cambridge, the place he grew up. Starting with last year’s ‘Vessel’, an exploration of The Kite area, the artist has followed his personal landscapes to actual landscapes – places and spaces which are in transition, memory and reality and all the layers in between. What emerges is something of a excavation; a recovery of personal as much as geographical history.

This month the artist shows his new series ‘TRACE’, the second in a trilogy exploring areas significant to Ian and to his family. We catch up with the artist a few days before his exhibit opens this Friday to find out a little more about it.

For the benefit of our readers, would you be happy to explain a little bit about where your work comes from and what it’s about?

My work explores places of transition including aspects of internal as well as external change. I have interpreted these ideas through a range of different imagery and media. I often use a specific idea or image as a starting point or framework within which to work, then develop and hone the image through working and re-working.

My most recent projects are inspired by ideas of place and memory, interpreting lost areas of Cambridge which are connected to my past, when I lived in the city. In this work there are recognizable elements such as areas, maps, place names and buildings, which I’ve altered using dark forms, drawing, collage and print. In the case of my films I used different film stock to emphasize the interface between past and present.

Last year you explored the Kite area, which has undergone some particularly significant changes in your lifetime. What are your personal connections to Barnwell, and how have these affected the process?

My connection with Barnwell is rooted in childhood memories and visiting members of my family, who lived in the area. Many of my mother’s family lived within a few streets of each other near the old gasworks site on Newmarket Road, whilst my paternal grandparents lived just off Barnwell Road on the Whitehill estate. I have written a more in depth family history which will be displayed in the exhibition.

What I was aware of with my exploration of Barnwell was not only the changes that have taken place, but more significantly what still remains from my childhood; streets names, buildings, houses, pubs, shops and alleyways, all with particular relevance to my past. Some of the memories feel quite nostalgic, whilst my investigations have sometimes revealed a more aged appearance to things. The work is driven by these investigations and always has a very personal, emotional basis to it.

‘Vessel’ had a very literal shape & container to it by way of the Kite. How did you approach this series visually?

The imagery is based on an adjusted street plan of Barnwell reflecting the time I lived in Cambridge. The drawings, collages and prints also have a physical dimension to the way they made. This a key force in creating these works, the physicality of making draws out the memories and emotions. The prints were developed from stills of my film ‘Trace’. The film itself is a more literal translation of the places in Barnwell that I remember from my childhood. These places were filmed using Super 8 film to bring the past ‘back to life’, as it were. I then combined this footage with stills of present day Barnwell to try to enhance the contrast between what is current and what is remembered. There are parts of these images which I am not sure I understand yet. It usually takes time for things to reveal themselves. The work is being displayed as an installation at the Leper Chapel, which adds further context to the place Barnwell has in the City of Cambridge.

The Barnwell area & exhibition site has a lot of history, for Cambridge and for you personally. What was the most interesting thing you uncovered while researching the area’s history?

The most revealing things I have discovered through making this work, as well as the area’s very long and fascinating history, were small moments of revelation in uncovering facts about my family and their lives within Barnwell. For instance my parents both attended the Brunswick School at the same time, when it had separate girls and boys schools. They were to meet years later. My great uncle, who lived on River Lane, made a video of the demolition of the gasworks, which hopefully I get to see. These small but potent moments help build a picture of the past as a tangible entity and not just a series of stories and myths.

Your work seems very much about memory, about transition; does making art from fragments of the past have a transformative aspect to it for you personally? I guess what I mean is, is nostalgia a helpful emotion to feel in the present?

Yes, this is very much the case for me. Making the work for last year’s show, ‘Vessel’ had a huge transformative effect on me. Through it I was able to change the perspective I had of Cambridge, which I had seen through the vastness of some of my memories. My investigations gave me a more realistic view of places where so much seemed to have happened in the past. I was able to walk around and look at things I remembered and see how much smaller they seemed nowadays.

In a strange way I feel I have reclaimed part of myself back from the past. To me this is the power of making art in an engaged and emotional way. It can breathe new life into something which at other points I would have considered of no interest, but now forms one of the most powerful experiences I have had in my career as an artist. The new work in ‘TRACE’ has continued in a similar vein and I am also planning a third exhibition. It is like I’m driven to do this work at the moment. There is an element of nostalgia to it but then it seems to go beyond that to something, which has depth and resonance.

Thanks Ian!

‘TRACE’ opens Friday 18th at 6pm, The Leper Chapel. There will be an artist talk on the 20th.
Words from Wesley Freeman-Smith.