Talking with Peter Driver

PETER DRIVER is a multi media artist whose authentic enquiry and reflective path is worthy of attention. I have come to know Peter in my role as curator and have watched his practice grow and deepen with curiosity and admiration – both for the person and the art. I am really pleased that he is my companion in this first conversation. Peter’s work encompasses every approach from choreographing performative marches through city streets, to creating finely crafted woodcut prints, whose deceptively simple words are often as sharp as the tools used to carve them.

Stepping into the role of curator himself for the first time in 2021, the project ‘Beyond Otherness’ saw Peter bring together a group of artists informed by their various experiences as African, Black, POC, Muslim, Trans and Queer artists, to create work which pushed beyond ‘otherness’ and its externally-imposed expectations.

Like these artists, Peter Driver’s socio political concerns, his views on inclusivity, and his life experiences, drive the work he creates. In this conversation, the first in this series of personal encounters, Peter reflects on the direction his work has taken, where it is heading, and the wider narrative which is revealing itself.

Live reading for A Room For Oscar Wilde by Marc Camille Chaimovicz at Reading Museum 2018. Photo by Susanne Clausen

Can you introduce yourself, Peter and what you do, without the words ‘artist’ and ‘practice,’
just to peel away the obvious nametags

I make things, and sometimes make things happen, using printmaking, painting, walking and other procedures. I do this as a sort of vulnerable floundering for a sense of purpose and to join conversations about things I care about, such as our environment and the common good. I want the things I make to be visually interesting material assertions but also to have meaning beyond the aesthetic. I try to leave room for viewers of the work to play their part in creating the meaning.

Tell us about the background to your ‘quiet activism’ as you yourself referred to it, and the significant works that have fallen within that category and brought you to this place in your practice.

I’d forgotten I used that phrase. It evokes the tension I experience between wanting to
make art that operates as art within the current contemporary context but also ‘makes a
difference’ in the world. I find the instrumentalisation of art problematic. For me this
struggle goes all the way back to when I was 19 and an Evangelical Christian. I found that making art required not only discipline and dedication but also freedom of ideas and self- expression. That didn’t sit comfortably with my restrictive view of my life’s purpose. I couldn’t reconcile the two so I gave up art-making for twenty-five years or so. It was an act of self-sabotage from which I’m recovering. By the time I returned to making art in my 40s, I was developing a more nuanced position in relation to personal belief. So the work I made began to examine subject matter such as exploitative labour practices in the fashion industry and the restoration of the former nuclear missile base at Greenham Common to species-rich heathland habitat.

One work I think of as an ongoing expression of ‘quiet activism’ is called ‘I’m Glad You’re
Alive!’. It is an ‘infinite’ edition woodcut print bearing those words, that I’ve been making
and giving away since 2013. So far I’ve given away over 2,800 prints. They have found
homes on five continents. I plan to keep making and giving away these prints until the
woodblock wears out, or I do. It is a single, ever-expanding artwork, a personal manifesto and love-letter to humanity. Although it might seem a trite statement, ‘I’m glad you’re alive!’ opens up ideas about what it means to be truly glad that every person is alive. What are its implications for the way we treat each other; the way we treat strangers, enemies, the ‘other’? It considers the implications of love as a political position and I acknowledge that it has its roots in the gospels.

I took these ideas further in a public artwork called ‘March for Optimism’. On two
occasions, in Winchester and Andover in 2014 and 2015, I organised public marches where friends, colleagues and members of the public were co-opted into a public march along the High Street. We carried placards and banners bearing vaguely optimistic or utopian statements: ‘You Are Welcome Here’, ‘Loving the Alien’, ‘Complete Equality’, We ARE all in this together’ etc. It was a way of drawing attention to the persistent presence of optimism in a world with so many reasons to be pessimistic.

Tell me about the craftsman/woman ship of your work? The labour involved in creating the texts in a medium which is not the easiest production of text in this digital age?

Yes, it would be easier to just type the words, use digital reproduction, or use pre-exisiting
wooden letterpress type to keep a hand-made quality. But there is something attractive to
me about the extravagant waste of time involved in cutting lettering backwards into a
woodblock. That’s the starting point for my woodcut prints. I think it might imbue the
resulting text with a greater sense of intention and emphasise the importance I attach to
the content.

Particularly when my work is about nature or environmental concerns, it seems appropriate
to use wood as a natural material. I enjoy the patterns in the wood-grain, and the way we
attribute aesthetic value to its lines and loops. They trace arbitrary responses to natural
impulses of light, growth and resistance but I’m interested in the way we find beauty there.
I also enjoy the physical process of cutting wood with my three Pfiel gouges (1, 3 and
10mm), and making a work slowly appear. My dad was a carpenter so I feel a connection
with him and my manual-labouring ancestors when I’m working with wood.

Perhaps my most accomplished woodcut was a set of thirty woodcut monoprints made in January 2015, in response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. I simply included the French revolutionary call for Liberté into an abstract design based on the patterns in the woodgrain. The  implied question was Liberté for whom and to do what?  I was mindful of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s critique of revolutionary ideology: Liberté (for some), Egalité (for some), Fraternité (with some). 

Liberté Moiré (k) woodcut monoprint

What works, artist or ideas have influenced you most?

There are so many. I admire artists who succeed in making something new and relevant to
their time that moves the borders of art end extends the conversation. For me those include
Masaccio, Stanley Spencer, Susan Hiller, Thomas Hirschhorn, Jeremy Deller, Hamish Fulton,
Jenny Holzer, Rose Finn-Celsey… I love the current Lubaina Himid show at Tate Modern.
I often have at the back of my mind Susan Hiller’s statement that “artists are implicated in
the social construction of the visible world, a construction built collectively over time and
therefore one which we know from art history, changes over time”. I’m challenged by that
idea of making something that presents an authentic vision of the world; that moves us
forward incrementally and sees things anew.

I think about Chantal Mouffe’s assertion that art always has a political dimension, in that it
“either plays a part in the constitution and maintenance of a given symbolic order, or in its
challenging”. I often ask myself whether the thing I’m making might be seen as a
conservative reinforcement of the status quo or if it is extending the conversation, or
agitating for change.

You mention taking on the label of ‘fool and mischief maker’ in your work. In terms of theology, foolishness is mentioned in Christian scripture as a stance which embraces alternative values, values the world eschews. At the same time in philosophy, Jane Bennet in her work ‘Vibrant matter’ which explores New Materialism, applauds Adorno’s reference to foolishness and play when she points out that ‘a certain willingness to appear naive or foolish’ is needed to break new philosophical and political ground. It is an area where faith, philosophy and art often meet. Is this a similarly generative stance for you?

Yes. I identify with that position. I am aware of the preposterous optimism, or arrogance, of hoping my artwork can actually change the world for the better, even if only one person at a time. So I accept the role of ‘Fool’ and carry on anyway, even in the face of all the evidence that I’m wasting my time. I’m putting statements, texts and ideas out into the public realm and I’m interested in what they mean to other people. Alfredo Jaar talks about making work that “causes an audience to question their unexamined beliefs”. I accept that as part of my job description. The socially-motivated work can all get a bit heavy and I try not to take myself too seriously. Pomposity is not a good look. So adopting the role of the Fool is an acknowledgement of my naivety. It’s partly a pre-emptive defence mechanism.

‘A guilty conscience needs to confess. A work of art is a confession.
’ Camus

There has been less about confession and more about encouraging dialogue with others around social change in your work. Would this be a correct surmise or has there been a shift?

I confess that there are times when I just want to retreat from the world and enjoy the affects of mixing Alizarin Crimson, Indian Yellow and Titanium White, just for the pleasure of it. But maybe it’s a guilt-driven response to see that as inadequate. Art needs an audience; to be shared, to create the conversation that might make it worthwhile.

Art is usually a self-portrait in some sense, as Fellini observed “the pearl is the autobiography of the oyster”. So I accept that there is an autobiographical element in the work I make. My long walks over several days have usually been about a more personal engagement with the material experience of being part of the landscape; my body moving through it and creating memories and reflections. My most recent walking project, A Walk For Stanley, for example was a very personal commemoration of my debt to Stanley Spencer, whose drawings and paintings inspired me to resume making art. The book I created with Peculiarity Press as the document of the walk includes autobiographical passages and shares some of the physical sensations of the walk, including the bowel movements! A friend observed that even in these personal works, there is a sense that I’m working and journeying for others ‘for us’. I want to share the experience and take people with me, teach them to recognise a Cetti’s Warbler’s song, or show them the detail of a drainage pipe in a ditch.

So I’m not sure if there has been a shift. The personal and political are intertwined, like the river Kennet and its canal, merging and diverging along their length.
I should acknowledge that my daughter’s diagnosis with a brain tumour in her first year at university played a significant part in my decision to return to art school. I was barely functioning in my suited-and-booted office job and needed to escape to something I would enjoy. Alice’s illness was at the root of all the work I made at art school and since. She was an activist and campaigner and I’m proud to carry that sensibility into my work.

Changes in your life have perhaps foregrounded changes in practice – painting feels more about your experience and less about a conversation around social issues with others? Can you make sense of this shift for us?

When Alice died after nine years of illness in 2019, aged 28, I was preparing the Walk For
Stanley book. I wrote it in the hospice during the six weeks of her final decline. But yes,
painting is one of the ways I’ve been dealing with the grief of losing Alice. She was a naïve painter as a teenager, using drawing and painting for fun and relaxation. She enjoyed
colour, dressed colourfully and her paintings were sometimes just about colour. I prepared a set of canvases and determined to use them to make paintings just celebrating colour and its affects. Inevitably, that didn’t prove possible for me. The paintings became ‘about’ something. They’re about the experience of bereavement, or the climate emergency, or the music I enjoyed with Alice, or social inequality. I can’t help myself. It’s a form of communication and I have things I want to communicate, however inarticulately.

‘In how many dimensions are you still with me’ 2021, oil on canvas, 61x76cm

What would you say, as someone who mentions ‘loss of faith’ in your artists statement, is now your ‘ultimate concern’ as Tillich referred to it?

I change my artist statement about as often as my water filter so the current statement
doesn’t mention loss of faith. It used to say ‘my work comes from a love of humanity

coupled with a tendency to dissent, both vestiges of a lost faith’. But I don’t know if I’ve lost
my faith so much as grown out of it. I still get a thrill from seeing some of the good affects
faith can generate in people, balanced by despair at the way people use faith to control,
limit and exercise power over others. I’m still involved with Greenbelt Festival, which I find a
life-affirming, world-affirming expression of Christianity in its openness and inclusivity. I am
attracted to Steve Shaw’s seminal ‘No Splits’ theology that underpins Greenbelt’s refusal to
separate the sacred and secular.

My ‘ultimate concern’, as some kind of Agnostic-Christian-Socialist-Artist, is to make work
that is an honest account of my wonder and brokenness at living in the world. If I can be
part of the human conversation and make the work that wants to be made, that’s my way of
being in the world.

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