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“Therapeutically overcoming experience”: An Interview with Lily Simmons

Emerging artist Lily Simmons didn’t always want to be a photographer, but upon discovering the art form she has used the medium to overcome personal struggles with mental health and memories of past experiences. We caught up with her ahead of her first solo exhibition “Come Gather ‘Round People” at Gallery 40, Brighton, to discuss her inspirations, photography as art therapy, and her plans for the future.

Culture Calling: What inspired you to become a photographer?
Lily Simmons: Wow what a question! I didn’t actually ever intend on doing photography. I was a very Fine Art based artist until I went to college and I found photography. My tutor was amazing – she was one of a kind. She inspired me to take it on, and when I did I found out about all these incredible artists and photographers doing revolutionary things. It really inspired me to take it further and become… I say one of them, but not yet.
CC: Who are these photographic artists that you find inspiring?
LS: One of my big inspirations is Robert Maplethorpe, whose photography is insane! He has two different spectrums. There’s a side where he photographs naked men and their physiques, and there’s a side where he photographs flowers in their pureness. It’s just really incredible to see that diversity in him. Leigh Ledare is also a big inspiration of mine, because of how problematic his work was. It was something that really inspired me to take forward a project based on my mum and my dad.

Image Credit: Lily Simmons
CC: Is this one of the projects you’re presenting at your exhibition Come Gather ‘Round People at Gallery 40 in Brighton?
LS: Yes, so I’ve got two projects inspired by Leigh Ledare’s work called It was time and Sexualising. It was time is a continuation of Sexualising where I look at my dad, and the frustration I have with hearing comments about how attractive he is. And then Sexualising is based on my mother, capturing how she moves from a maternal figure to an openly sexual character.

CC: This is your first major solo exhibition in Brighton. Do you have any history with the city or feel a special connection to it?
LS: I don’t have any history with Brighton, but I’ve always loved going there and going to the sea. I have a few friends there, so it’s always been somewhere I’d go to. I’ve actually just got into my Masters at the University of Brighton, so it’s quite special to have my exhibition where I’m going to be studying.

Image Credit: Lily Georgina Simmons via Twitter
CC: You say you’re exploring family, fear and grief, and aiming to tell the story of your life. Is it nerve-racking to present such personal topics to the public?
LS: I found at first that it was really hard. One of my projects in particular, It was time about my dad, was quite problematic, and I found it really hard to be able to express myself through photography. But in my latest series Touch (which will be shown for the first time at Gallery 40) where I’m therapeutically overcoming an experience I had, I feel that I’m much more open and available to talk about my problems, and I’ve found that it’s actually helped other people to talk about theirs, which is incredible.
CC: You say you’ve used photography as art therapy… how do you think this medium is therapeutic? Are you interested in sharing this passion to help others?
LS: I find it so therapeutic because it’s releasing something within me. I once had a friend named Glen (another part of my exhibition) is about when I lost a dear friend of mine. That was a really tough project for me because Glen was an amazing human being and losing him was really hard, especially with my mental health problems. But having that outlet, having photography, helped so much with my grieving process. It also helped other people see who Glen was, and what his life was about.
CC: Do you often feature in your work?
LS: I once had a friend named Glen is the only project I’ve actually featured myself in. But I think I feature in all the projects in a symbolic way. In Touch I sort of see myself as that flower.

Image Credit: lily_georgina_simmons via Instagram
CC: Do you have a favourite piece in the exhibition?
LS: That’s a horrible question! One that I’m really proud of and that I’m really excited for people to see is from my latest project Touch. It’s the main image. I’m nervous but I’m also really excited to see what people think, and to see that work in progress and where it goes in my studies.
CC: So you’re thinking of developing Touch as part of your MA?
LS: Yeah, I don’t think this project is finished yet. I’m calling it a work in progress because that’s what it is to me. It’s an ongoing project where I’m really learning to come to terms with the things that have happened to me through my practice.
CC: You say your exhibition Come Gather Round People uses documentary and performance media. What do you mean by this? Is there live performance during the exhibition?
LS: Not yet! I’m hoping to incorporate some live performance into my work, but at the moment I use the terms in reference to performing for the camera. Especially with my first three projects, I think they are really performative because I’m getting someone to step out of their comfort zone, and do something they wouldn’t normally do for the camera.

Image Credit: lily_georgina_simmons via Instagram
CC: What are your plans for the future?
LS: There’s so much I’d love to do! I lost my nan 5 ½ years ago, and she was a very big part of my life. You can tell because I’m counting how long ago I lost her. It was an awful part of my life. But she helped me to express myself, and she helped me to have my come out story of being mentally ill. So I’d love to do a project based on her, and for her.
Lily Simmons “Come Gather ‘Round People” is showing at Gallery 40, Brighton from 5-10 June 2018.