Distribution Paintings – the mistrust of absolute truths

My sculptural output has a foot in sociological methodology. The interventions of Citizen or the currency distribution have myself at the forefront. I am quite visible in the actions that make these works, even though I am personally anonymous. These kinds of works parallel quantitative research methods – perhaps data collection without analysis. They turn me into the census-taker, the pollster, the bean-counter. Along with this mainly sculptural work in which I am ‘on show’, I have been working on new paintings – a step back from the action and concept driven work..

I have been developing imagery that is reminiscent of the statistical presentation of social data. This has been problematic for a couple of reasons. For one, I have ended up working with oil paint again (a medium I haven’t attempted to address seriously for a good few years). Secondly, I have identified  a temptation and potential trap and subsequently have had to accommodate that.


It started with this. I had a series of objects that I had textured and pretentiously superimposed the classic normal distribution bell-curve. The lower left tail-end of the graph is deliberately excised. In most sociological data, this would typically represent the lower income bracket or impoverished, the disadvantaged, the disenfranchised and repressed, the forgotten – how very political of me. I like the tension that aberration brings to clusters but this has none.


Then I made this structure with notched dowel inserted into holes in the wall and then connected with black elastic. The same mathematical description of the normal distribution is responsible for the central arch and two half-sections at the sides. This parabolic curve is the optimal solution for arches within load bearing structures.


Finally, this weighty experiment consists of ten viscalene tubes containing water hung between two hooks. Again, the bowing shape matches exactly the parabolic forms prevalent in social data. The temptation really started to show itself. I saw that the artistic treatment of the normal distribution applied theoretically to social data yet also underpins physical structures and how force acts upon them. Gold dust, surely?

I started collecting the subtlest parabolic curves I could find. Unsurprisingly, the transport networks are full of them. Sections of track coalesced with the edges of platforms. I took pictures just as I imagined hypothetical but mystically corresponding sets of data describing the movements of passengers, their age ranges, economic condition, mental health indices and shoe sizes – all somehow conforming to an intuitive sense of statistical equilibrium.


 This is where the problem set in. I think artists can be seduced by the prospect of discovering hidden profundities. When I think about the clever ways concepts can mingle with glittery aesthetics in an art gallery, I get suspicious. When underlying, yet vague principles attempt to hold things together in any abstraction , it makes me think of the unconvincing ciphers of the Kabbalah.  Artists have rabidly chased mysterious golden ratios or laws of thirds that mingle with enticing hints of Cartesian proofs or maybe fundamentals as rigid as Pi or the Planck length – as if the gestures of their practice might be abstracted axioms that hold the promise of instinctively building to some kind of Euclidean final word in a chosen genre. This is the temptation.

The seduction of underlying structures that need never be proven isn’t benign. It scours at diligence. It promotes the same creeping sense of slick unease that allows for the acceptance of revealed wisdom from a deity. Our own primate urge to seek patterns and to twist anecdotal experience to fit a world view made up of patterns isn’t rigorous enough, particularly when building artwork upon methodology. The process of seeking patterns is founded upon an erroneous assumption that implicit meaning in the observed world functions without human presence or intervention. Something felt wrong.

It would be easy to follow this dogmatism to the point of not making any work at all. I was mulling all this over but I had already started working on canvases. I should point out, they were really started as a means of working  in the evenings when I didn’t have the usual workshop access. I thought they would become a pass-time or a way of winding down. Anyway, my wariness at accidentally producing anything that looked like an attempt to push an ‘absolute truth’ led to some jarring tonal and composition choices. Feeling the zealotry of the contemporary artist dumb enough to dare to use oil paint again (and all the criticism that invites), I took a long, long time to finish a series of images that I felt complemented the rest of the practice yet also stood apart from it.I named them Distribution as I felt that, despite the above mentioned mutterings, they are representative of the pictorial display of statistical data; the columns, rhythms, aberrations and biases. At heart, they are paintings of information, nothing more.

Distribution 1 (2016) – oil on canvas, 100 x 100cm
distribution_002_100x100Distribution 2 (2016) – oil on canvas, 100 x 100cm
distribution_003_100_178Distribution 3 (2016) – oil on canvas, 100 x 178 cm
distribution_004_100x178Distribution 4 (2016) – oil on canvas, 100 x 178 cm
distribution_pairDistribution 5 & Distribution 6 (2016) – oil on canvas, each 50 x 50cm
distribution_005_170x150Distribution 7 (2016) – oil on canvas, 170 x 150cm

I was systematic about the layering of pigment and the little islands of rules that were generated. Even still, those odd little subconscious influences intrude. Only now do I recognise the influence of the satellite images from my research trip to Nebraska. Painting invites those peculiar choices in the making – the kind of decisions that are made without realising. After all, this is art, not science. Perhaps I need to remember that.

Bailey Yard, North Platte, NE – Google Earth

Research Trip to North Platte, Nebraska


The Royal Scottish Academy were kind enough to award me the Barns Graham travel bursary after completing my MFA. I wanted to visit the town of North Platte, home to the world’s largest train yard. This was my proposal.

“…As a next step, I would use this award to travel to the Bailey Train Yard in North Platte, Nebraska. At over eight miles across, it is the largest environment for the management of freight transport on the planet. Approximately 14,000 carriages traverse the yard daily and are maintained by several thousand personnel. It is serviced by the local community and, being placed in the geographic centre of the United States, is widely recognised as an informal barometer of the nation’s economic activity. The satellite images of the yard are overwhelming. Despite the obvious formal attractions of this environment to my practice, the relationship between mechanistic infrastructure and working population is just as fascinating. That a cultural landscape can be coloured by the concentrated demands of one industrial and post-industrial sector is familiar to my reading of the Scottish experience and subsequent artistic treatment. As a potentially stimulating and fascinating locale of my practice, I would seek examples of both symbiotic imperative and alienating strain between the yard and the community serving it…”

So off I flew. From the first, something about this whole experience is being driven by imagery from above – whether satellite or aircraft, map or internet, something about the rendering of the subject from above and the marking of the land has developed in contrast to my sensory experience. There feels to be a discrepancy between my assumed knowledge of a geographically certain location and what my eyes tell me. This ‘unreality’ has pervaded the whole experience and I think it began with looking at the satellite imagery of the Bailey yard. When I flew over the Labrador seas, the aerial view of the ice sheets breaking up confirmed a sense of the abstract combating raw, tangible experience on the ground.


I had a week’s stop in LA where myself and Rebecca were able to catch up with a dear friend before she flew back to the UK and I journeyed alone inland. Although not part of the travel proposal, the contrast between that part of California and it’s endless carpet of populated concrete compared to the wide open stretches of central Nebraska has really shaped my thinking from the start.


Compare this image of Los Angeles to the overhead view of Nebraska.


Apart from the obvious climate difference, I have been particularly struck with the tessellation; the rhythmic interplay of land to human infrastructure leaving it’s mark. In such a repetitive and featureless flat plain, I hypothesised how this would shape one’s developmental attitudes to a sense of place. For example, if one traveled for hours by land and arrived at a destination no visibly different from where one left, I wondered how that would shape the individual’s sense of transitions, of boundaries, relational distance, the passage of time, etc.

Anyway, without trying to pre-guess any artistic ‘product’, I’ve simply been walking huge distances everyday. Textures and noises – from the peeling paint of winter-blasted derelict homes to the diesel infused black soil around the train yard – I’ve been capturing images and recording long stretches of ambient sounds. I’ve caught the long rumbling of seemingly endless freight cargo to the alien chatter in the local diner. Cars have stickers that say, ‘support our troops’. Liquor stores have signs outside that say ‘hunters welcome’.

I have felt conspicuous. I can literally count on the fingers of two hands the number of people I have seen walking the streets.  Instead, it is entirely a car-culture. I have felt suspect taking pictures of homes.


The train yard itself is beautiful and powerful. My fondness for the repetition of the multiple and the scope of infrastructure is well rewarded here. On several occasions, I have attempted to film the complete passage of one train despite my frozen hands clinging on the camera for dear life as the wind freezes me. From overhead, I’ve filmed them rumble beneath me.


I have given myself a variety of mini projects and destinations each day. Some obvious such as the viewing tower and others more mundane. To expand on one that utilises this notion of the mismatch between aerial abstraction versus individual senses, I isolated this one section of the older part of the yard.


I suspect it is the remains of an old turntable connection and the buildings that serviced the locomotives. I knew that experiencing the environment from this perspective would brutally jar with the sense of impossibility at actually standing there within it. So I went there.


Sure enough – it’s nothing like what the global imagery prepares me for. I don’t know what any of this contrast means to me yet, but it is picking at me; making me work on a way of expressing it – not the images themselves, nor the place, exactly – more the juxtaposition of preparation for an assumed knowledge of a locale clashing with the sensory experience of actually feeling it. We’ll see where it leads.

Anyway, I’m preparing to leave now. I have amassed a huge stock of material to pore over. I’m resolute that I’m not simply going to summarise a bunch of pretty (bleak) pictures into a record of the experience and claim it to be art –  because I sense the temptation.

So for now, I’m going to have a rest and sign off with some images of North Plate, NE. I’ll be writing more once I’ve had time to reflect and catch up on my sleep. I have a long list of internal connecting buses and planes to deal with.



MFA at the Glasgow School of Art


Some months have passed since I completed my MFA here in Glasgow. The last segment of that course saw me working harder than I remember as well as enduring a variety of ailments. I remember dealing with a chest infection, then a urinary infection. I had minor surgery on my foot and eventually I was also dumb enough to impale myself on a steel rod when I fell off a chair in my studio. This resulted in more surgery and medication and recovery that seemed just as debilitating as the injury itself. At the point of installing my final show, I was physically and mentally exhausted. I was signed off work for a some weeks and spent the rest of the summer having enough of a break from ‘art’ that I started feeling twitchy, although not before I was able to take stock. Now that I feel more healed and energised, I am picking up the reigns of some projects I’ve had brewing for a while and I’m aligning myself with the demands of some exhibitions and deadlines that are just coming over the horizon.

The verbal or prose treatment of an artistic practice is good for me – it’s great venting. I thought I’d clear my mental decks with a summary of the Masters experience at the Glasgow School of Art. It’ll be greatly cathartic for me personally, might be interesting reading for a handful and perhaps help potential students make their minds up when looking around for a graduate course.

John Calcutt (the acting head of the course) is a highly entertaining and charismatic figure. On one of the seemingly many introductions, he invoked the legend of the Argo – the vessel of the classics. Supposedly over two decades of sea-faring wear and tear, the boat finally returned to port without a single original timber in it’s structure. All pieces had been replaced at some point along the course of it’s adventures yet the overall structure, integrity and purpose of the ship remained whole and undiminished. John used this story as analogy to what an individual’s artistic practice could hence undergo through participation on the programme. Like all academic forays for art and the artist, the individual by and large decides their own level of involvement. Saying that, the MFA promised the potential for a deep, diagnostic analysis of the practice. The fact that many enrolled students come from such varied backgrounds (there are several from accredited disciplines that have eschewed a ‘fine art’ training, eg. photography, glass-making, architecture, etc) and differing levels of professional accomplishment evinces a flexible structure heavily reliant on self-direction. That sounded fine to me. Up until my starting the course, I knew I was achieving something but hadn’t really taken the time to ask anything much more about my practice other than the steps in the algorithms that start with research and end in a gallery product. I felt that my personal artistic ‘argument’ remained the same but that the resolution; the detail, needed to be identified – not to mention that I was suspicious of my propensity for making large, overwhelming objects for their own sake. Already I was diagnosing some kind of small, bald man-syndrome at work.

Classmates are essential. The camaraderie, the friendships and the simple exposure to other people’s methods of working are vital. Glasgow’s MFA intake is, for the time being, small. Each of the two year groups accommodate approximately twenty-five people. This ensures that everyone gets to know everyone fairly quickly and factionalism is kept to a minimum. The studio spaces are moderate to generous in size if not in the best of repair. Being situated in a single building alongside postgraduate staff offices has a way of concentrating the atmosphere and shielding the course from some of the bureaucratic static that often pervades large institutions. Unfortunately, the now famous fire that damaged so much of the Mackintosh building prompted a series of reforms around working policy and studio access that were ultimately damaging to our student experience. An institutional ‘can’t do’ attitude seemed to hang across the campus despite the best efforts of individual technicians and tutors. An almost hysterical response to potential safety issues or the offending of sensibilities in the wake of the fire exposed the fragile perception of the GSA’s ethos. It was not a happy time for management / student relations. I can’t stress enough, however, how excellent some of the tutors and technicians were in the face of all this. It was a challenging time for all.

B_qatS6WYAAnFpY.jpg large

So, on one level the school itself seemed to have become an obstacle. On the MFA, the input of the tutors was formidable. Aside from the full-time staffing of John Calcutt and Graham Ramsay, we were constantly challenged and encouraged by the relentlessly astute Sarah Tripp and the whimsical polymath, Francis Mckee. These colourful descriptors apply to my experience of the many frequent tutorials and critiques in which we were all involved. The MFA certainly didn’t scrimp when it came to tutorials. It was rare to go one week without a solid talk about progress with either the regular tutors or a visiting guest. The guest tutors were often of some note and were thus made available by means of a sign-up timetable. Some of our number were often keen to schmooze with any famous name they had access to so things could get a little frustrating for some when the appointments were booked out. Although tempers would occasionally flare, I was lucky to never feel the need for access to any one name.

Technical facilities across the school are either exemplary or woefully inadequate depending on one’s chosen disciplines. As such, this shapes the nature of the output. A new single, centralised workshop produces scheduling bottlenecks in already over-subscribed courses to the point that any project that relies on one technology is markedly vulnerable so finding a smart balance of working methods with multiple redundancies factored in is the only way to approach scheduled work, particularly at degree show times. The technicians are terribly demoralised but wonderful people to work with. A diplomatic and relaxed demeanour goes a long way when asking someone to help out.

Discussing my experience cannot help but be coloured by my output and my relationship to my working methods. Without describing actual artwork, I would say that the diagnostic nature of the MFA programme was essential to me. The course didn’t simply serve as another two years in a studio. I felt the sharp challenge of analysis and the sense of provocation provided by sharing studios with some very talented and clever people. At the postgraduate level, most artists seem to have found their voice. For my part, I think my immediate strength that I brought to the course was in technical making but it eclipsed a potential vitality or conceptual punch. Over time, I was able to apply making skills with better strategy, one that took into account my own visibility within the practice yet still didn’t overtly make me the centre of it.

For me, a problem with the Glasgow scene is that it seems hobbled by it’s own sense of fashion. Despite an assumption of creative freedom, the ever-connecting strands of contemporary art feel choked off somehow at Glasgow’s city limits. Although not parochial, there is an orthodoxy in play that tempts those comfortable in it’s embrace. The school is deeply wedded to it. This can be forgiven considering it contains a lot of young people finding their way but it seeps into the city’s professional scene too. My tutors understood my cynicism but rightly challenged me on it. They were worried I might miss something important. Anyway, I tended not to feel out any intuitive poetry in what I was doing and instead worked systematically and very, very hard.

My degree show work was cold, clinical, neat and a little violent. It was rigorous and unsentimental. The energy within it is still in me and the narrative of the slightly unhinged processes I went through to make it. It went down well enough to win me two good bursaries that I am currently preparing exhibitions for (thus my mental clearing of the decks by writing this all down). It sounds glib, but I thought that if the course could allow me to finally come up with a succinct description or statement of my artistic practice to put on my website, then I would consider that a useful benchmark. I had a tough time on the Master’s programme. The combination of work, frustration, illness and injury burned up a lot of energy but it was still a wholly worthwhile endeavour.

Images from the course and the degree show are available online.


If you’re thinking of applying, let me know if you have any questions – I’m happy to answer.

Tattooing with human ashes

A client recently asked me a favour and, out of compassion and curiosity, I agreed.

The woman’s mother had passed away not that long ago and she was keen to have a design on her body that served as a memorial. Memorial tattoos are not uncommon – there are few instances that lay the human mind more open to issues of symbolism and memory than death – particularly when a loved one is involved. Most of my work on skin is a result of customising or creating something entirely new for clients and this woman was no exception. Her mother habitually wore a piece of silver jewelry in the design of a heart enclosing another smaller heart at an angle. Keen to avoid heavy black lines and to describe the image through shading alone, I drew this.


The design was accepted and the client asked me a favour; would I be willing to include a trace of her mother’s ashes into the ink?

This was a novel request for me. As I thought about it, it occurred that I really didn’t want a reputation as ‘the guy who does that’. On the other hand, I was curious as to the practicalities of the process. I have a tattooist friend who once sprinkled some of his deceased dog’s ashes into some black ink and then tattooed a small balloon on himself (the dog loved chasing balloons). My client seemed intelligent and level-headed so, like a lot of custom-design choices, she was the right kind of person to work with. I know that sounds vague but when you work towards a custom piece, good communication and a general sense of mutual ideas pointing in the right direction invokes an intuitive feeling that all will go well. On the understanding that this was a one-shot favour, was absolutely not a service that the shop provided as a matter of course, and was best kept relatively discreet, I agreed. I asked her to drop by a small amount of her mother’s ashes two weeks in advance of the appointment.

Initially, after reading a few bizarre and unconvincing articles involving blenders and vodka, I wasn’t finding many sets of instructions on the process that I trusted. A reason I wanted to do this (and to write about it) concerned the difficulty of getting ash into skin, possible health implications, avoiding healing problems or excessive skin irritation, and, not least of all, respecting human remains throughout the process. I knew anecdotally that the presence of coarse particles would clog the needle formations of a large curved shader, particularly as softer shading effects involve turning the machine down to a purr. Additionally, coarse particles will sink to the bottom of the ink cap so they would likely be either drawn up at once into the tip, blunt the needle, or not be taken up at all. Ash in liquid suspension was the ideal so I set about filtering the sample I was given.

equipment and sample

Unsurprisingly, isopropyl alcohol turned out to be an effective solvent. With a great deal of stirring with a wooden tongue depressor, the more powdery material dissolved, leaving a very coarse ‘sand’ that instantly sank in the mix. I believe this heavier material is likely oxidised bone, crushed and pulverised in a machine following the actual cremation.

dissolving soluble material

The mix was passed through a filter paper into a small container. By far, the majority of the mixture didn’t make it through. The isopropyl was cloudy with tiny particulate matter too small for the naked eye. The remaining ash was returned to the original container and placed in front of a mild heat source to evaporate off the remaining solvent.


After some time, the remaining mixture settled to produce a very fine sediment, not dissimilar to how a bottle of tattoo ink settles over time. I placed a ‘lid’ of folded tissue towel over the bottle and tied a rubber band around the top to prevent dust entering and to allow the isopropyl to evaporate.

magnified particles in isopropyl suspension

The fine powder deposit constitutes the only ash to be introduced into the grey-wash. Despite the sterilising properties of a crematorium operating at enormous temperatures, I made a tiny package for the autoclave so that the ashes could be sterilised to studio standard.

drying particles

So that’s it – the powder was delicately stirred into one of the dilutions and it was simply business as usual. This is the finished result, obviously, things will look more settled once the skin has healed.


Choosing to alter one’s skin is no small decision. For the tattooist, choosing to be responsible for that process should be no less of a concern. When thinking about introducing a foreign substance into ink I obviously had to research health implications. I am no medical professional but, for those concerned, I will summarise the issues as I saw them.

Particle size

The filtration and refining of the ashes ensures that no excessively large or coarse particles would be introduced to the skin. This minimises the likelihood of excessively inflamed or irritated skin throughout the healing process, thus reducing healing time and preserving the integrity of the tattoo.


The chemical components of crematorium ash can be researched online. In short, the constituents are dominantly oxides and salts. As combusted remains, these are thoroughly reacted and relatively inert substances – little more than ‘dirt’. Despite the apparently harmless nature of ash, it still makes sense to use a very small quantity.

Chemical reaction with ink

The grey wash is essentially carbon in solution. As such, it is not likely to react with the ash in any visible or harmful manner.

Risk of infection

The crematorium is a far more effective steriliser than the average tattoo shop autoclave (also used by dentists, cosmeticians, etc). Microbial or viral traces are totally eliminated and not even prions or other protein packages would endure the flames. I chose to further autoclave the ashes I prepared on the remote chance that my process of filtration had contaminated the sample. I can see no risk of passing infections from the human remains to the recipient. I assess that following my procedure raises no additional risk of infection from any tattoo process.

Efficacy of pigmentation

Provided that the client understands there is an outside possibility that there might be minor skin irritation during healing, and that this may effect the healed result, the visual product should be no different from any other tattoo. The ash is not a pigment or colouring agent and will not be visible in the skin.


A sensible routine is required for all tattoo aftercare and the presence of ash makes no difference. I recommend to all clients that they use small quantities of Bepanthen as a sterile barrier (vegan alternatives are available), that they avoid soaking in water, excess friction or sweat, and that they do not pick or scratch at the healing surface. Healing time varies across individuals but two weeks is an average healing duration.


The client has their own reasons for requesting the inclusion of ash into the ink. The simple fact is that they are bereaved and that this is likely an emotionally raw experience to endure as well as a physically painful one. Whether experiencing catharsis or closure, the client is having a hard time and respecting the use of human remains seems essential.

I hope anyone wanting to research this topic found it useful. Let me know if you have any feedback.


I am not a medical professional. I chose to publish this article (with the permission of my client) on the grounds that I carefully approached this subject with respect and diligence. I accept no responsibility for the results of this method or those who follow it.