A conversation between poet Erica Gillingham and artist Anna Stiles
This year our poetry editor Erica Gillingham published her debut collection 'The Human Body Is a Hive' (Verve Poetry Press). Named after its title poem, the collection is about Erica’s journey with IVF treatment. To mark the occasion of her first publication, Erica contacted artist Anna Stiles and commissioned an artwork. Here Erica and Anna talk about that commission, the artwork that resulted and the place that art practice occupies in both of their lives.
Erica Gillingham (EG): So, we’re here in Leyton in London, and you and I are neighbours. That’s how we met.
Anna Stiles (AS): Sunny Leyton!
EG: In sunny Leyton on a June afternoon. It’s been a year that we’ve known each other.
AS: It’s our anniversary. [laughter]
EG: So, Anna Stiles, will you please introduce yourself?
AS: Well, I describe myself as a graphic artist and that involves illustration and murals, a little bit of animation, and sometimes art installations. I've always been drawing, to be honest. I guess it's in my blood. I say that I'm self-taught, but really my dad taught me to draw. He was a graphics teacher, and by the time I was going to school, he'd basically taught me a lot of the basic principles of technical drawing, like 3D shapes, shading, isometric drawings, things like that, perspective. I guess there was innate interest, which he nurtured.
I'm passionate about detail, observation drawings. I really enjoy the collaboration process. Music is a massive inspiration. I like the freedom that drawing gives me, and I like to start with a hand-rendered, hand-drawn piece and then mostly use digital for colour.
EG: That's great to hear about your dad. One of the things I was curious about was when you started to create artwork professionally, because, to relate to your process, I've been writing poetry for as long as I can remember and though it was nurtured in different ways by teachers, my mom encouraged me, particularly. But I've also made choices about when I've put my work out there and decisions around when not to for periods of time. When did you decide to start kind of putting your work out there for either paid work or just more publicly? What prompted that?
AS: Oh, it might be a bit deep. You can tell me if it is.
EG: That's okay. I'm up for the deep.
AS: It was in 2009. Before that I did a degree in French, so there was a period where I wasn't creating anything, I wasn't drawing anything as such, I was studying. Then, I spent a year in France in 2004-2005, and I had a lot more time and space—headspace—and I went back to drawing. Then again, really quiet on that front until I went traveling in 2009. And, it's so personal, but you can tell me if you think this is too heavy.
EG: Nothing is—it's up to you what you want to share.
AS: So, when I was traveling, I basically started to have panic attacks, 24-hours-a-day, my every waking moment was like a long panic attack.
AS: And far from home, I think it was quite frightening and I didn't know what was happening, and, for whatever reason, I was just really, really called to start drawing again. It's not like even a calling to do it, it just felt like something I had to get out of me. And then a friend came and visited us—she was working as a designer at a publishing house—she saw my work and she said: You've basically made a portfolio.
AS: And I didn't really know what she meant by that, but I felt encouraged by her.
She said, Keep doing what you're doing. You're building a portfolio. When you get back, you should submit to publishers and you can do illustration. This is illustration, what you're doing.
And I was like, Oh! It was strange because coming from a family where there was art and graphics, it had never occurred to me—the path of illustration—you know, studying French, doing something that I felt was quite academic, but then being left to my own devices, I went down a more creative route. So, I don't know what it was about that period in my life that made me start drawing again, but that was what I felt I needed to do.
And then later, as I've worked on my mental health and I've had CBT it's become apparent that drawing is a way to stimulate the vagus nerve. When you're in a fight or flight mode, a really good way of coming out of that and coping with anxiety is to stimulate the vagus nerve. And drawing is one way you can do that. You know, for some reason, for some people it's prayer, it's yoga, it's singing. For me, it's drawing, that kind of automatic pattern and mark-making. I think that comes directly from that.
EG: Mm hmm.
AS: So that's the really personal description of how I came to put together a portfolio. It really wasn't a considered or career-driven decision. It wasn't a cold, clinical decision that I made. It was something that, I guess, was a mixture of feeling that I needed to draw and then happenstance that my friend encouraged me. She was so encouraging, and coming from her, because it was something that she was doing professionally, it buoyed me, really. It made me feel like, okay, this is something I can do.
AS: And then the first published book I worked on was 2010.
EG: Wow. So quite quickly then.
AS: Yeah. And then I haven't looked back.
EG: That's amazing.
AS: I still love doing the illustration. I still love having the briefs. I still love working with an art director or a publisher, and with the author in mind. It's such a nice thing to do. You feel privileged to be doing that because it's something that someone's worked on and poured their heart into. That's how I felt when you gave me the commission for your poetry collection. You were sharing something very personal, very intimate in your life, and you trusted me to be inspired by that. And I really was.
EG: I want to come on to that in a bit, so hold there. But first I want to go back because it sounds like for you there was an almost physical need to draw that was related to your mental health, but that it also sounds quite vocational. You know, some people talk about how they were called to do something or to be something. And for me, poetry is a type of vocation because it's something that I've always been interested in and always done. But it's also something that I can't help but do when I give myself the time and space and the permission to do it.
I had stopped writing poetry when I was in a more academic track, I’d decided to move away from poetry for time, but there was a moment in my postgraduate work where a friend said, You know, you're really struggling with your thesis, and I think you've forgotten that you're a poet. You need to remember that you're a poet and look at this project through that lens.
And so I just approached redrafting my thesis like I was editing a poem, and it totally worked.
AS: Of course.
EG: And then when we were going through the IVF treatment, which is what the poems in my pamphlet (The Human Body Is a Hive) are related to—or half of them are related to—it was another friend who was like, Well, you know, you should be writing about this. You're a poet, that just makes sense.
And it hadn't occurred to me either!
AS: Isn't it so funny? [laughter] Isn't it? What do you think that's all about? Do you think it's a level of introspection where you're so in your head about something, you almost need someone to help you zoom out to see the bigger picture?
That's one thing I wanted to ask you. To me, it's so brave the way that you discuss fertility treatment, and I really admired that. Hearing you read this particular poem aloud, the title poem, ‘The Human Body Is a Hive’, I felt there was such a warmth there and such a sense of wonder. I really admired the bravery that you had to kind of step out and say, This is my story, because it is so personal. I think it's hard to do that.
But are you ever scared?
EG: No, it just has to come out. That poem was written in this, almost, fevered rush, where I couldn't grab a pen fast enough. I don't always keep a notebook by my bed, but I did at that time, and I was just scribbling. It was 11:30 at night and I was reading my book to go to bed and this thought just occurred to me—this relationship between the queen bee's reproduction and the process we were going through. we were right in the middle of it. It was a two-week period where you are in the IVF [in vitro fertilisation] process, from starting the drugs to the surgery and then the fertilization, the embryo transfer, all of that. It's super intense.
So, we were right in the middle of that. I was reading The Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings by Helen Jukes and was just like, Oh, wait, I'm not alone. The queen bee does this, which is such a ridiculous thing to say [laughter] but it was all I could think about, and it just had to come out as a poem.
You know, there's often no hesitation with my work. There might be hesitation about who I share it with or where I place that work, because some work is private or I'm not yet at a place where I can share something. But oftentimes I find that when it comes out that way, I see the purpose for it being in the world and therefore I want it to be out in the world with other people so that other people can bounce off of it or relate to it or find solace or find joy or comfort.
AS: There's definitely some truth in the fact that the most private or personal thing that you share through the creative process is sometimes or oftentimes the thing that resonates with people most.
EG: Mm hmm.
AS: It's almost like, as you're doing it, there's that inner voice that says, no one's going to get this because this is so me, this is so from me and of me. And then you share it, and people say, Oh, yeah, I feel like that. And maybe they attach their own meaning to that thing.
AS: Sometimes I trick myself. I say this is just for my eyes. I'm not gonna show anyone this. And then I finish it, and then I think, Oh, I've done all the work now.
It’s like the ultimate self-betrayal. Well, look, you've spent weeks on this, you know, and you really should put it in a window in Dalston for the world to see. Sometimes you have to have your strategies, right?
AS: It's like, Oh, this is deeply personal, so this is just for my eyes. And then later on, you think, Oh, come on, be brave.
EG: Put it out there. It's done now.
AS: That's it.
EG: Exactly. And I noticed on your descriptions of The Polyhedra Project of which the commissioned sculpture The Hive is a part, that it’s ‘a personal project that includes sculpture and surface design’. Can you tell me more about that? And is it related to that strategy of ‘Oh, I might as well show the world’ or is that separate from it?
AS: Yeah, that project was completely self-initiated, and the kind of automatic and spontaneous mark-making patterns that are on The Hive, I'd been doing that for a long time. I don't know where the idea came from, but I thought that it would be really interesting to explore that idea in a 3D-way.
EG: As polyhedra?
AS: Yes, polyhedra are multifaceted 3D shapes with flat faces, straight edges, and vertices. Cubes, prisms, pyramids. So I started making paper sculptures, really, really small. I'm talking eight centimetres.
EG: Oh, wow.
AS: Tiny little shapes, just to see—how would that work? How would that look? Would it be effective? Would it be an interesting way to explore that further? And then from there, I remember having a conversation with another friend saying, I would love to make a really big one of these and put it in a forest and people could go there and just listen and do forest bathing. In a big polyhedra. Maybe at the time that was what I needed, and so I thought- this is what the world needs.
The first time I exhibited the polyhedra themselves was the Leytonstone Arts Trail in 2016. I hung them from the Wild Goose Bakery ceiling.The bakery staff were great .They said, You have free rein. We trust you, do what you need to do. Seeing the shapes like that, it sparked the idea of them being bigger.
Then I was really, really fortunate to meet the creative team at The End of the Road Festival and they really believed in the project. The support was unbelievable. I think you need that as an artist. If you have a vision of something, to hear words of encouragement, it’s huge. And then to actually help you create that vision, to understand it, and to give you the space to make it.
AS: So that involved six days working in a barn. On site.
AS: It was really exciting. The pyramid was made out of timber struts, then I stretched canvas over that, and then we put a light inside. For the prism-shaped one and the one that's like a crystal, they were made out of timber struts and marine ply panels.
EG: What's marine ply?
AS: Marine ply is plywood that you would use on a boat or something so that it can withstand the elements. The sculptures are still intact and they put them out sometimes in subsequent festivals to use them for wayfinding because, well, we've all been lost at a festival. I just thought that that'd be kind of like a more interesting way to say, Oh I'm next to the yellow prism or the bright pink light-up pyramid in the wood [laughter].
EG: What was the process of doing that automatic drawing on that scale?
AS: Well, this was what was so interesting because doing something on a really micro-scale with a pen—I use nibs that are 0.2 to max 0.4 or 0.5 millimetres—and then to suddenly have something that's bigger than you is so exciting. It was a really interesting way to explore the idea: How do you scale up? The process involved filling balloons with paint and water and launching them [laughter] at it to get some interesting paint spatters and then thinking about what size brush you're going to use and how to get this done because there was a time constraint as well. Six days soon goes!
That was part of the delight in the project really, seeing something that's been so tiny in your mind and then recreating it bigger.
EG: You often work in just one colour and a gradation of that colour. I think it’s beautiful and really fascinating. How does that express what you’re wanting to create?
AS: I think two things. First, I've always seen them as a collection. I’ve always tried to think of how, even though they might not always be displayed, for example at The End of the Road Festival they were displayed side-by-side.
Second, working in a single colour allows me to focus more on the mark-making, the patterns, and the meaning of the shapes that I'm using. In particular with your piece of work, with The Hive, it was really important to me that I was able to express and respond to the themes that were so clear from the words you were using. For example, when we talked about the drones, I thought, What would be a good iteration of the idea of drones moving across the sky? Or, [opening a printed out copy of the poem with Anna’s drawings on it] like this, the concentric circles.
I'm not against using more than one colour, but I think for some reason, when you read me this poem, I thought of yellow and gold.
EG: What happened for you in that commissioning discussion, what shifted or what got sparked or inspired you? I guess it feels too grandiose to ask that because it's my poem.
AS: No, it's not grandiose. Honestly, Erica, that really inspired me. The conversation, the fact that you had the grace to actually read the poem to me. I felt so honoured. I came home and I made so many notes and I immediately started making these initial drawings. Honestly, I think it's a really, really rare thing for someone to come [into] your life and to feel inspired. So for me, it was a really easy commission to do. Normally in my work, there’s loads and loads of drafts, sketches, that wasn't the case with this. It hasn't tended to be the case at all on the Polyhedra Project in general. It feels like more of a self-trusting creative process, like an exploration and the end goal is there to be discovered.
And I think a large part of that was because you just trusted me to do what I'd envisioned. It felt like you trusted me to respond to the poem thoughtfully and in a way that was going to be meaningful in the end.
EG: Yeah, that makes sense. We had that chat, where I read you the poem, and you went away—and then the proposal you came back with was totally different but I was so excited! Was it instantly a 3D object in your mind?
AS: It was when you said that you'd had an image in your mind of the WBC beehive, and I thought that would be a beautiful starting point for sculpture. I guess there was a lot of drafting and working out how to nod to that shape without it becoming like a scale model of a beehive.
EG: Yeah. Because it's not.
AS: No. I just didn't want to deliver something to you that was just like, Here's a replica of a beehive. I wanted it to nod to that. Hopefully that's implicit. Hopefully people can see that that's what that is without it being fussy or overly detailed. I wanted the detail to be in the drawing—on the surface of the shape, not in the actual shape itself.
EG: What I love[d about the process was] when you emailed me about what you wanted to create and you sent me a photograph of the print-out of the poem that I had given you with the words that you were drawn to singled out with their images—the honeycomb, the drone bees, the worker bees, the concentric circles, the eggs. And I loved that you had the embryo. The embryo sits on top and is super detailed. There's another poem in my pamphlet which talks about a high school model of an embryo, in biology class, and that was an image that I thought about a lot, but it wasn't something we had talked about in that commissioning conversation. That was really special. Then there's another point [on the sculpture] where you see the embryonic development—once the egg is fertilized and it starts splitting and dividing and becoming. It’s not just the specific words in the poem, but the process of IVF is there, too. I was just so delighted.
AS: I felt similarly: your poem is at once really personal, but there's so much science in there as well. I wanted to mirror that in what I gave you.
*The interview has been edited and condensed
ANNA STILES is an East London born Graphic Artist working across film, publishing, T.V, festivals and public art projects. The projects that inspire Anna most are those which allow her to tell a story in an unexpected way and projects that transform flat illustration into 3D creations. Anna has a special interest in deep-diving into research, the magic is in the detail. Previous clients include 20th Century Fox, Channel 4, End of the Road Festival, Warner Bros, Jealous Gallery, The Southbank Centre and Welbeck Publishing Group. WEBSITE | INSTAGRAM
ERICA GILLINGHAM is a queer poet & writer living in London, England, via Siskiyou County, California. She is a bookseller at Gay's The Word Bookshop, Books Editor for DIVA, & Poetry Editor for The Signal House Edition. Erica has a PhD in lesbian love stories in young adult literature and graphic novels. (She wrote a lot about kissing.) Her debut poetry collection 'The Human Body is a Hive' is published by Verve Poetry Press. WEBSITE | INSTAGRAM