Banner Image: Letty carrying work from her Centre of the Known Universe Project. Image credit: Zoe Hitchen

Letty McHugh was awarded an Emergence Bursary in 2019 by Shape, Disability Arts Online, and a-n. The bursary was created as part of a pilot project aiming to tackle the isolation, low confidence and marginalisation of emerging disabled artists, as well the lack of accessible opportunities in mainstream arts settings. Ahead of her return to Tate Exchange in March, Shape caught up with Letty to hear about how the bursary has shaped the last year.

How do you think your practice has changed because of the Emergence bursary?

The last year has made me a lot more confident as a practitioner. When I was applying for the bursary, it felt like a really long-shot, so it was a very pleasant surprise. It’s funny, last year when we got the email about the Tate Exchange event, I couldn’t believe it, I was very excited to be in that room. Whereas this year, after everything I’ve done – working on the project [Seaworthy Vessel], all the travelling – I felt more like, “yeah, get it out of the way!”

Can you tell us a bit about the projects you’ve been working on this past year?

I went to Norway as part of Seaworthy Vessel to do some artistic research. The project is about my relationship with my great-grandfather, who was injured in WWII. He had sailed all over the world, but Norway was the only place he went back to after he was out of the Navy. I’m in the middle of writing a series of essays that I’ll have with me at the Tate Exchange event in March, and one of them is about that experience of going to Norway. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the bursary.

Four small origami boats - part of Letty

Boats from the Seaworthy Vessel Project in Norway. Image credit: Letty McHugh.

The Seaworthy Vessel Project is ongoing but you’re bringing it with you to Tate Exchange. Do you see an end point for the work?

I think it’s an ongoing relationship. Getting people involved is the point for me. In a way, it’s only just starting then; it’s the first time I’m showing it properly and when people start interacting with it is when it becomes a real thing. I do a lot of participatory work, so getting people involved – getting them thinking about the things that I’ve been thinking about – that’s key.

You could say that the Project is going to be an “exchange” at the Exchange…

How has the knowledge that Tate is the venue for this work shaped it?

I think [the Tate name] gives you a certain amount of credibility that you don’t have when you’re trying to get people to come to work in empty shops and empty mills… It makes you take yourself more seriously, too. People who have come to the Tate are there to see art. They’re there to come and engage.

The theme of Tate Exchange this year is “Power,” how have you manifested this into your work and production?

When the three of us who are doing the event [the Emergence Bursary winners] started talking about how we could respond to power as a theme, we thought, one: disabled artists being present in that space, being able to be in control of our own stores – that’s just really obvious. But I think, for me, there’s always a power dynamic in participatory art as well because you’re giving permission to an audience to get involved. There is power that you have to be aware of as an artist. The fact that we’re in the Tate means we’ve been given a certain amount of power over all the other emerging artists who can’t be there. That’s why we wanted to nominate new emerging artists. It came up early in conversation: how do we use this power responsibly?

Can you tell us more about the decision to bring three emerging artists?

For me it was a straight away thing…it was so hard getting started, for me. Getting a “foot in the door” – which is a bit of a controversial phrase. I didn’t know anybody, and so when we had the opportunity, I was very much like, “I want to try to hold the door open as much as we can,” even if it’s just in a small way.

Looking at the Turner Prize this year, where they split the prize, we are seeing more solidarity between artists and I hope it’s something that increases. I guess the way we’ve done it is perhaps not ideal, we just picked people we know. But I think that we need to create an art world where we give people a leg up all of the time, just as much as we can, as artists and as organisations.

From your perspective as an artist, what more could organisations like Shape and Tate be doing?

I think that even organisations like Shape, who are very friendly when you get to know them, are more intimidating than they realise. If I think back two years as an artist, applying to organisation where I didn’t know anybody, on the other side of that fence, they would say stuff on applications like “contact us if you have any questions,” and I never did. It just felt intimidating to do that. I think that organisations could be a bit more aware of things like that, especially when you get into things like disability, class, people who are self-taught…it’s even harder.


Letty's Pilot Fleet. Image credit: Letty McHugh.

Do you feel a network has grown between the Emergence Bursary winners?

We’ve been in touch throughout the year and I know where Lauren and Fae are based. I can start to see it – the fact that you know people means that when stuff comes up the network is visible. You don’t realise how much of a network you’re starting to build. I’m doing a series of interviews for DAO about artists in the North and when I was thinking of people for that, I was like, “Oh I know a lot more people now than I did last year!”

When we talk about the most intimate things, like “I felt frightened, I felt overwhelmed, I felt inferior…” it’s like, that’s everybody! I think the way you get people to connect to that is by talking about your own experience.

So, what can we expect from you at Tate Exchange?

I’ve spent the last year researching this concept of “seaworthiness” as it applies to people, and I’ve kind of come to a place where I think some of it is about celebrating ourselves, affirming ourselves, and – without wanting to be really cheesy – self-belief. Part of what I looked at was emotional resilience, the thing that makes you believe in yourself and keep going. The workshop I’m going to be doing gives people the opportunity to write down something that they’ve done that they feel proud of and make that into a boat. They can keep them or leave them with me for me to take them out into the world. It’s really about getting people to think of celebrating themselves, because of everything we’ve done – we’re all damaged and weird – but we’re all surprisingly buoyant, I guess.

The sea metaphor is so fitting! Do you find yourself drawing on metaphors in much of your other work?

Yeah! You know, we float. Part of the point of doing loads of [the boats] is that individually we’re fragile, but we have strength in numbers.

I have also worked on another project with my Emergence Bursary, which was originally going to involve doing some experiments with ceramics. Because of the MS affecting my hands and ceramics being so responsive, I thought it would be valuable. It ended up becoming this whole other project, called the Centre of the Known Universe, where I basically made three different versions of a tea pot, then I made a whole tea set. I wrote an essay about how learning to throw had really helped me overcome issues of perfectionism and fear of failure. For the end of that I had this really nice event where people came and it was really intimate; we had tea out of the tea set and shared stories of fragility and trauma. That whole project has changed how I want to work in the future. Where I can, I want to make more intimate moments. I don’t quite know how that’s going to manifest yet.

An image that forms part of the Centre of the Known Universe Project. It is a blurred and soft-focused image of a hand pouring from a teapot Letty has made.

Image from the Centre of the Known Universe project. Image credit: Letty McHugh.

You focus a lot in your work on “relatable” or “universal” experiences. How did that become present?

I think Tracey Emin said, “I start with myself and end up with the universe!” Which sums up quite nicely how I feel about it. I thin it’s the most personal stories that people connect with the most broadly. When you’re talking about “this is me” and “this is my family,” people can relate much more. I did work about how women’s work is undervalued, and it was much easier to talk about that in a personal way. Especially because I was working with a lot of ladies over seventy, if I’d gone in like “this is a feminist project,” they would disengage straight away. So when I see personal experiences as universal, that’s the kind of stuff that I think.

When we talk about the most intimate things, like “I felt frightened, I felt overwhelmed, I felt inferior…” it’s like, that’s everybody! I think the way you get people to connect to that is by talking about your own experience. And as for misinterpretation, well, that’s our job as artists – to make sure that the stuff we’re putting together makes people think the things we want them to think. That’s the skill. I always think I’m trying to make people ask questions rather than giving them answers. But that’s the job, is that we use origami boats to make people think specific things. When I was seventeen I read this Yves Klein quote: “my paintings are just the ashes of my art.” I’ve seen several other people say similar things, but the idea is that the bit that matters is the bit that happens in your head when you look at the painting.

Have you got any other plans for the future?

There’s actually another project that I want to work on. I’ve only just started thinking about it, it doesn’t have a name and it’s quite ambitious. After I’d been to Norway and done all the stuff with Viking boats, I did a bit of reading and found out that there’s a few credible papers that say that the genetic group that causes MS was spread by the Vikings and around the Orkney islands. The islands have the highest per capita population of MS in the world and they think one of the reasons is because there’s such a strong genetic link with the Vikings; it’s quite undiluted. I’m currently working on a funding bid to go to Orkney and start doing some research about a project that stems from that.

You can read interviews with the two more Emergence Bursary winners - Lauren and Fae - by clicking on their names.