“It's about seeing the beauty in the broken”
What Steven asked artist and poet Zara Carpenter
Something slightly new this week, with our first two-part interview! Steven sat down with creative duo Zara Carpenter and Rikard Österlund. In the first part, we focus on Zara and hear what she and Rikard have to say about performing poetry, attacking Polaroids with hammers, and the difficulties of having a relationship with a working artist.
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Where were you born?
Zara: Chatham, All Saints. Chatham girl, through and through.
How did you both meet?
Rikard: It was sort of weird because a lot of our friends knew each other. My friends would go to parties where Zara had been, but we didn’t meet each other until one afternoon I was photographing a final year student’s fashion show. Zara had been asked to model. That’s when we probably first saw each other, when Zara came down the catwalk.
Zara: I had refused to do the show. It was my friend’s final collection, and I said ‘I'm at least 10 years older than everybody else and also I walk with a limp, I'm not doing it.’ She spent weeks and weeks saying ‘Yeah, you are.’ I said okay and I was terrified. I remember being absolutely terrified and then walking out and when as I was halfway down the catwalk, I just saw Rikard and I thought I could do the walk for him (laughs). Then it was a couple of weeks later that we bumped into each other. It was at the Tap ‘n’ Tin, and if I ever liked anybody I would avoid them because I'm really useless at trying to get somebody's attention. I’d had a tiny bit to drink and I was a bit tipsy so I marched over and said ‘I’m Zara’ and Rikard said he knew who I was because his friends had read my books and that he was really interested in working with me.
What jobs did your parents do growing up?
Zara: My dad was a hairdresser. He had a hairdresser’s just where the Tap ’n’ Tin is. Next door to it, it was called Long John’s. It was really famous back then in the 70s.
Rikard: And the 80s.
Zara: Yeah, not only was he a hairdresser, but he also did hairdressing competitions. We would go all over the country and he would do insane things to people’s hair. My mum was a housewife, but then later she worked in an antique shop. She was always quirky and doing lots of things at home. She would spin wool and weave and crochet and knit.
How did you find school and university?
Zara: Hated it. Really struggled. I found out about four or five years ago that I am dyslexic. I think I was bright, but not academic. My secondary school was a really troubled school. We used to just copy from the blackboard or books and I never could learn that way. Luckily, the rest of my life was filled with people that took me to museums and galleries, places that fed my mind. I left school with really terrible qualifications. I chose never to go back to education, so I've never done any higher education.
What was your first full-time job?
Zara: Full-time? I did lots of part-time jobs. I worked in a shop for a long time called Artisan for Unusual Things in Teynham. We lived in Chatham until I was six, and then we moved to Teynham. When I was 15, my dad died, and I was told ‘You’ll need to help your mum now.’ I was part-time, and as I got older, I got more and more hours. It was fantastic, a family run shop. They would travel the world buying unusual gifts. They taught me window dressing, framing, everything.
What is your official occupation?
Zara: Artist. I am a working artist.
What additional roles, paid or unpaid do you do?
Zara: I am an assistant to Rikard, so a photography assistant. I am also a workshop facilitator. Also a general dogsbody for the Billy Childish archive. (laughs) Is that it?
Rikard: Amongst other things, poet.
Zara: Yeah, we will ignore that one (laughs).
How did you come to meet and work with Billy Childish?
Zara: I met him when I was in my 20s. I was part of an anthology and they had a book launch at the Nags (Head, Rochester). I remember creeping in at the back. Bill Lewis had asked if I would read, and I said no way. So Bill read it out and then pointed at me at the back. It was Billy, Bill, loads of the Medway greats, and me. I was young and scared at the back. Billy bounced over and said hello. When I moved back to Medway when I was 28, I met up with Bill and Billy. Billy is like family.
Rikard: When we started seeing each other, we would see him and his family for dinner, at ours or theirs. I take a lot of photographs of art for artists, and for the last 12 years, I have photographed all of Billy's paintings.
What is the most difficult thing about being in a relationship with a working artist?
Zara: You never stop working, ever. You never stop talking about it. You never stop thinking about it. You never have a day off, ever, because we both love what we do, but it consumes everything (laughs). Even when you're on holiday, you end up talking about it, or you get inspired by things. You go to exhibitions, and you talk about things, and you are like, ‘I wonder if I could do this.’ It’s all-consuming (laughs).
Rikard: That’s pretty bang on, I think. The other thing that is difficult about it is that by default when you are creative, it's quite a difficult thing to do for a living. It's not very reliable, and then when there's two of us, it just means that there's a lot of ups and downs. Sometimes we're good, when we don't have ups and downs at the same time yeah and you can kind of balance each other out, but then there are times when it's not great for both of us and that's very difficult to manage.
Chatham Girl was published in 2004. What do you remember of the experience?
Zara: It was such a bad time in my life, tumultuous. I broke up with my husband. That was not good, I was very lonely, very used, suddenly I was a single girl and I was going out and partying. Then these incredible, really supportive figures, were in my life, like Billy, Bill and Dave Wise, and they all said you need to put a book out. Chatham Girl is a collection of poetry that I wrote from the age of 15. A lot of it is really teenage, very angry, in your face, completely unfiltered. I loved doing it. I’m revisiting it now because I want to a collection of poetry that includes some of that work. I think I didn’t have the tools to say what I really wanted to say. It was a difficult time, but an amazing time.