Interview with Sophie Willison

Sophie Willison was born in London in 1995 and studied fine art photography at the University of East London. In October 2015 she moved to Sydney to rediscover her love of Australia, now working between London & Sydney. Willison publishes an annual magazine terra firma and produces an annual diary.  She is currently working on the 8th issue of terra firma magazine, and launching a small one off publication as part of an online gallery she runs called Sandalwood Project.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

My name is Sophie Willison, I am 27 years old and currently living and working in London. I work as a photography assistant in a school and also at a fantastic magazine shop called MagCulture. On the side I publish my own magazine terra firma, in which I am currently working on ideas for the 8th issue.  My main passion is photography and design, but I also love experimenting with other mediums such as paint, clay and sewing. I have a background working in cultural institutions such as the Museum of Contemporary art Sydney and the Art Gallery of New South Wales, having lived in Sydney for the past 5 years.

I also love making websites, short films, bike rides, rollerblading and paddle-boarding.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in between Australia and the UK. I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to experience the Australian lifestyle growing up, to be able to explore the vast national parks and the rich Aussie wildlife. Countless hours of playing in the streets down the cul-de-sacs, making mud pies, jumping into pools and building sandcastles in the sunshine. Then moving back to the UK when I was pre-teen meant that I had Europe on my doorstep, so I had access to some of the most fantastic art museums in the world.

What initially inspired you to pursue a career in art?

I’ve always been a creative person, yet it never really occurred to me to actually pursue a career in art, I just fell into it so naturally. My parents always speak about how much sellotape I used to use, I was always building things out of old cereal boxes!

Could you tell us more about your self published magazine Terra Firma. What’s the story behind the name?

The title of the magazine is inspired by my mother. She never really liked flying, so she would always tell me that she couldn’t wait to be back on terra firma. I have very fond memories of travelling with my parents. I started terra firma when I was 19 at University and it has since been stocked and launched in many countries all across the world, from the USA to Singapore!

You also produce an annual diary, could you tell us more about it.

My affinity for printed matter has grown so much since publishing terra firma, I really wanted to expand what I created, but in a way that was more functional than a magazine. I really loved the idea of creating a publication that would be used every day, carried around, cherished and used as a tool of inspiration. Since it is compact and durable, it can be easily placed into pockets and bags
without taking up much space.

It really excites me at the variety of ways in which people use the diary, some people use it to write something they are thankful for every day, some people use it to take notes, then most others use it as a diary of course. The diary for 2023 is already starting to come together which is exciting, starting to photograph and interview artists on the theme of Art Vs Craft, which is a very topical subject.

How would you describe your creative process?

I work backwards. I can see the built house, I can see the complete installation, I can see the finished magazine on the shelf. So then I have to think, right okay, how do I get to that point? I also try never to see any potential barriers to what I want to achieve, I see what may appear as hurdles as challenges and work out creative ways around them. To see them as an opportunity to go in a direction that you might not have initially intended, but if you’re open to that, it can sometimes really improve or enhance the work.

How did the current situation affect you and your work as an artist/creative living in London?

One of my favourite things about being in a creative scene is the gallery openings. It is such a great opportunity to meet like minded people, a chance to see the latest work and to just enjoy yourself. However there weren’t any gallery openings to attend during lockdown, which made it quite a challenge to meet other creatives. At the start of the many lockdown’s, I was a lot more productive and excited about the amount of time I had to make work. But then it got to a point where I feel like I ran out of inspiration and motivation and so my output sort of plateaued! Now that everything has opened up again, the pace has increased and I feel the pressure/motivation to make work again.

Does your city and surroundings influence you as an artist and individual?

I think it would be impossible to not be influenced by your city and surroundings. However during a time where we were strongly advised to stay at home, the surroundings either became as small as your four walls or as expansive as the world wide web. As things started to open up I really enjoyed being more immersed in the city, visiting landmark architecture, exhibitions and discovering more of what London has to offer.

The responsibility of the council in every city is to provide a solid foundation of design, art and cultural facilities, is that still evident in London?

It was quite amazing to see that there were still opportunities for artists that popped up during the pandemic, as great as that was, everyone wanted them and so they were highly competitive. The council could always do a lot more to support the arts and culture, starting with more funding for emerging artists and just generally make it more accessible to those who need it.

Do you think it is also the responsibility of the artist/creative to improve the quality of people's lives in their city?

I think it is the responsibility of everyone to improve the quality of their lives in their city. Of course people look to the arts as a visual tool to discuss important topics from social change, politics, economics etc and it is a level of responsibility that artists have to discuss these issues in a relevant and accessible way. But there are so many things we could collectively do as a community to make the city a better place to live.

What do you struggle with the most in terms of working and living in a city like London?

Probably the size of it. I feel like I spend so much time commuting, just getting from A to B. But I have forced myself to start reading, which makes things so much nicer!

Can you tell us about any current or future projects that you are particularly excited about?

I am excited about the next issue of Terra Firma which I am working on now for launching next year. The issue’s theme is going to be focusing on anxiety & mental health, which is a topic I feel very passionate about. I am really hoping to get some financial support or government backing for this issue, as it’s a really important theme and it’s important to do it justice.

I am also working on launching a small one off publication as part of an online gallery I run called Sandalwood Project.  I will be re-launching the website very soon, alongside the watch this space!
As well as working on the terra firma 2023 diary, which is looking at ART vs Craft, so we are interviewing and photographing a series of international artists who’s work speaks to this theme.

On the back burner, is a book project that I am slowly putting together, which is going to be a satirical retrospective of the last 25 years of my life. I hope to launch that sometime next year along with a mixed media exhibition, featuring paintings, ceramics, video works and photography.

Then way way into the future, I have dreams of one day collaborating with Swatch, I am so obsessed with their watches and I would LOVE to work with them to create a new design!

If you could add or change something about London, what would that be?

I’d love more public toilets and water bubblers on the streets of London. I also think London should have more outdoor places to swim, as there really is minimal option and they often get over crowded when it gets warm.

If you could choose any artist/creative to collaborate with, who would that be and why?

Camille Henrot. I think her work is absolutely fantastic. I think we would get on really well and have a lot to talk about. So collaborating with her would feel really effortless and easy. OR Harley Weir. I am fascinated with her series of ceramics that she collaborated with her father on. They are all such beautiful pieces and I have a real visceral response to that work.

What do you do to switch off?

Rollerblade or throw on a wheel, as well as anything creative that I can do with
my hands, it really brings me into my body.

What does home mean to you?

Having moved around quite a lot in my life, I’ve come to realise that home is where you feel love. Love for yourself, love for your family, friends and partner.

Sometimes people relate a specific smell to the city they live in or the place they grew up, does London evoke a personal smell to you?

This is a great question. When I first moved back, there were so many smells I hadn’t smelt in years
and it was so crazy to experience them again after so long. I remember one was a particular male cologne, probably Lynx, it took me back to being 15 and the strong odour of teenage boys. There is also a particular smell to a grey rainy day in London mixed with the exhaust fumes of cars. That reminded me of early mornings of walking to school and the dread of the whole day ahead...

What is your favourite time of the day?

For me this is really dependent on the season and the place I am living in. I am affected hugely by light and sunshine in general. I do really love dusk anywhere in the world. It feels like such a magical slither of in-between time. The sun has just set, you know you’re going to run out of light soon, and so I feel more finite than any other time of the day, but in a really humbling and powerful way.

If you weren’t living in London and could choose any city to live in where would that be, and why?

I think I would choose Stockholm, Sweden. I visited that city for the first time three years ago and really fell in love. I love the architecture of the city and the ease of moving around. It seems like a really cycle friendly place and I love when cities are built around the respect for the bike. I had a wonderful experience when I was there.

london by sophie willison

A selection of places in London - recommended by photographer and publisher Sophie Willison. See Sophie's citylikeyou profile page here


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