in conversation with Rebekah Dean

Can you describe where you are while writing this and what you can see from your window?

I am in my workspace, which looks out onto a street of terrace houses in North Finchley. Yesterday this street was teeming with forensics and police cars, it was really hard to not become distracted by it all, as I became a witness to an event that I had no idea was unfolding before me. The reality of the situation apparently was not as bad as it appeared the next day, but the horror of the event leaves a residue, and life does not just go on as normal.

What is your chosen medium for recording your Landlinks work?

To my dear daughter, photo by Rebekah Dean 2018

For the Landlinks work I used my smartphone, nothing special, and a refurb at that. I don’t usually like to take my phone with me whilst walking, I enjoy being incommunicado no social media or text sounds, just me and the experience of walking, that’s the closest I come to risk taking. I have been debating about whether or not to get a proper camera, but I don’t like the physical burden of carrying that weight, and even if it is a super-duper camera with digital focus, it is not pleasing to hold that ‘stone’ in my hands whilst looking with one eye to get the shot. It is too uncomfortable and the distance that opens up between me and the object of focus, and actually capturing it on film, feels like abandonment and becomes too far removed; the two activities just do not match up. I do have a beautiful old SLR that my dad created for me from different parts of other cameras, and I keep thinking I will use that with real film one day, just to acknowledge the experience of carrying that weight.

What and who is the ‘driving’ force or major influence for your work?

I need to walk, says my Facebook and Twitter profile; and my Instagram profile shows the sole of a blistered foot, accrued whilst walking from one landmark to another next to the North Pacific Ocean, in San Francisco. I have always used walking as an activity for thinking and decision making, and it is a way of sustaining my artistic practice. I wish I could say that it was an act of activism, as a way of disrupting the architectural space, in the last few years I have learned from others to recognise it as such, but mainly I walk out of the lived experience of restlessness and disorganisation. I have a memory of being 6 and feeling desperate to get outside so that I could know my own thoughts. I didn’t realise for many years that my need to get outside was actually a mental need to move, I am told this is quite common for neurodivergent thinkers, and the first move is to walk; walking is thinking, as Rebecca Solnit says in her book Wanderlust.

You work in a variety of different mediums…and working methodologies may differ. How important is research and experimentation to your work can you outline some of your working processes for us?

I love the Samuel Beckett theatre work ‘Play’. For the entire 16 minutes production the audience is presented with 3 individual heads of bodies all inside their own urn, communicating a stream of monologue in unison as well as separately, located in a barren space. I sometimes think of my activity of making like a monologue emitting from one of those urns.
I describe myself as a live and visual artist because I need to recognise the importance of being in the body in relation to representation, unless I am in the body, I cannot make the work. Research and experimentation have become really important in my work, but for many years of my practice I have found it difficult to acknowledge the significance of my female body as representation. I could only ever consider meaning from the perspective of my vulnerable human body, in relation to representation. After my own mother died in 2012, I finally gave myself permission to research and experiment with processes and narratives from my own lived female experience. Even though much of my past artworks pointed to the domestic and notions of home, the language I was using was one of repetition and pattern, it was not significant to my female body, the actions were systems for thinking. After my mother’s death I felt compelled to challenge this corner of myself that I had closeted for so many years, probably as an act of survival, society is still shocked by the idea of women behaving violently.
Exploring my own personal history in relation to female violence, never seemed an option as a daughter, or as a mother of a daughter, but in 2019 I had the opportunity to collaborate with a close friend and artist who knew the affect this lived experience was having on my arts practice. We presented the performance ‘I’m Pig’ for the underground car park exhibition ‘Four Legs Good Two Legs Bad’, a Chinese New Year event, for Year of the Pig. The piece was a re-enactment of female violence and presented two women walking and chasing each other around an underground car park, with plastic toy knives, dressed in pink tutus and wearing pig trotter socks and ranting ‘I’m Pig’.  I don’t think I could have made the work with anyone else, we both share a direction in sensibility and trust, which my collaborator and I nurtured through the online shopping of props and objects in relation to horror and the carnivalesque, the piece was a catharsis, in every sense of the word.
As the artist Joseph Beuys has said, everything is preparation for something. Where we choose to locate significance and meaning or not locate it, is immensely important. As COVID struck I was in the process of curating an exhibition called ‘Mother’s Ruin’ which was going to incorporate the reproaches and celebrations of motherhood, oh well, next year!

Can you talk a bit about walking and the importance of walking in/to your work?

Silent Walk. Rebekah Dean. Artist Residency working with Home Start Barnet. Stephens House and Gardens. Finchley. 2nd May 2018.  photo by Sisi Burn

I am in agreement with the walking artist Hamish Fulton, in that if I do not go for a walk, I cannot make the work. For most of the time that I have been practising as an artist, I did not know why I needed to leave my workspace in order for the artwork to continue. It seemed a cop out to me, that when I observe my peers who are consistently toiling away, sometimes for hours without a break, that for myself, after one hour of focused making, I have to get up and leave what I am making to walk. I did not understand my need to walk, and I placed no value upon walking in my arts practice. Then in 2013 I started to include a Silent Walk within my Paint & Performance workshop, and I learned from observing and listening to participants about the value of walking as a method for opening up knowledge. Channelled from the artist Richard Layzell whilst on a Live Art Development DIY workshop, I saw that by combining the activity of a Silent Walk with the activity of using paint with gravity across the surface of paper, developed tacit learning. Participants on the workshop start to form a personal philosophy for thinking and making, sometimes they are shocked by the words that come out of their own mouths. The two physical activities of walking and moving paint, are playful elements of risk taking and control, as participants come to realise that their own bodies know something beyond that which their minds know, it opens up so many possibilities.

What do you think about when walking?

I use walking as a strategy for managing restlessness and disorganised thinking. Walking becomes a way of sieving the internal edit that seems to fog my imagination. The physical and implicit state of being able to put one foot down on the ground, closely followed by the other, just seems to convey an indisputable truth, I walk. And the act of putting one foot down in front of the other seems to embody a kind of line making, and as I walk forward my line-making leads me into a decision-making mindset, with each step that falls to meet the ground, thoughts catch.

You are part of the Landlinks project and the synchronised walk that took place April. We would love to hear your feedback on this networking initiative and your resulting creative response to the walk.

Tracings, images by Rebekah Dean 2020

I enjoyed being part of the Landlinks project and connecting with artists nationally and internationally on a synchronised walk, particularly in the time of the virus and a national lockdown. Getting the hang of using ViewRanger with the what3words app, in combination with a step counting and social media app, facilitated an intriguing way of creating work whilst in dialogue with other artists from other locations, it seemed to mimic the nomadic artist and their studio. And as I re-visit the documentation and conversations created from that day in April, all logged entirely on the social media app, I am reminded of the uncertainties and dangers that I felt on pitstops to document my location, as COVID took hold across the globe.
I purposefully created a walk which would demonstrate pattern and repetition on the Viewranger App route, mindful of COVID and social constraints during lockdown, I wanted my route to perform this feral notion as a visual form on a map, even though the actual shape of my route resembles a saucepan, the route can be followed from where I have published it as ‘The Finchley Saucepan’. Although the route avoided all green spaces to enable safer social distancing, I found social distancing impossible, as navigation for pavement space became a premium that I could not negotiate. Standing aside for families and couples became a key feature on my route as my nomadic studio space was clearly in the way.
My final response to the walk became a series of tracings drawn out from my pavement photographs. I feel that the tracings re-enact the precarities of the walk under the conditions of COVID19. The streets I had chosen became packed with families and children taking their daily quota of exercise during the height of lockdown. I became aware of my action of trying to see my way ahead, without touching or colliding with another body, this action of trying translates as a psychological way of reading the terrain, attempting to see beyond physical boundaries, reading bodies and predicting movings, or changes in directions and interactions. In many ways the process of tracing uses a similar kind of physical struggle to see and make a decision. A surveying of a landscape, in order to perceive form and content, this process of observation of the marks beneath the surface of the tracing paper, performed a reading of bodies in space, to read between the surfaces of architectural space, and around corners, to know this new layer of experience, that of social distancing. Moving my pencil across the opaque milky white surface, tracking suggestions of marks, I re-visit the remnants of the synchronised walk as an embodied event on paper. The title of each of the tracings was taken from the allotted what3words mapping app, assigned to that particular three metre square location in West Finchley. Interestingly, the tracing titled ‘’ appears to comment on the West Finchley status in the 2019 general election where poll predictions of a tactical voting failed, and a Brexit Vote took hold.

Which film had a greatest influence on you?

still from video “Visualisation Circle“ by Rebekah Dean 2020 (

At one point during the synchronised walk I can remember stopping on a street corner to document a what3word map location, and just being in awe of the beautiful blue sky we had that day in West Finchley. And as I tried to take up a position on the pavement, within my own body space, to be there present as a lone ageing female body, observing the world around me, I started to experience a disorientation, because I had reached the geographical limit of my allotted 2 kilometres travel distance from home, and it was all becoming a bit like a scene from The Truman Show. At that moment I remember becoming conscious, for the first time in my life, of how my body was being controlled to be fearful; fearful of other bodies, and the virus; I can’t help thinking that the pandemic is a gift to governments.

Landscape and environment are both important areas of creative exploration to you. With current concerns about our environment, how do you see your role as one heavily involved in the arts?

I don’t know where this takes my role as an artist, and the sense of playing my part in A Truman Show. The privilege I used to feel when describing myself as an artist has gone, I seem to fluctuate between guilt and obedience, I can’t believe I am saying this as I type. On the one hand I am seeing changes in organisations that I admired, for example the Live Art Development Agency, and I almost want to follow suit, to stand aside for relevant causes, because the time for making art may not be where we are right now, now is a time where it is all hands on deck, and what can you contribute to saving our environment? And by the way, everyone is an artist, so google it and look busy! But then on the other hand I am still here, I am still flesh with my teaching, learning and lived experiences flashing through my head, I still have to carry them. I am always challenging myself, do I put my practice aside and join the fight with the throng of other activists; or do I continue getting my space ready in preparation?

Can you describe your favourite place and why?

Callifornia Walkscapes Exhibition Incline Gallery, San Francisco 2018

Thinking about my daughter and grandkids who live on the other side of the world in San Francisco, this place has become my second home. SF is a strange and beautiful place, with depths of poverty and homelessness that have installed themselves religiously alongside the Silicon Valley dream. Good for them too, but it is heart-breaking that these communities largely go unheard by the fortunate other, we have not seen anything like it in the UK.
In 2018 my artwork 18th & Noe was selected for the group show California Walkscapes curated by German Walking artist Astrid Kammerling at the Incline Gallery in Valencia San Francisco. Naturally I was very excited to be making work incidentally and then to have it accepted for an exhibition through a call out in the Walking Artist Network in the UK. The piece was a retail lightbox sign featuring a photograph I had taken on my smartphone whilst walking my grandson in the very wealthy district of The Castro in SF. I love the US street grid system, which makes it easier to find ones way around without getting too lost, and although Noe and The Castro District are not the ideal terrains for a stroller, my walking experience was more affected by the emotional geography of the location that mark out this part of the neighbourhood, in particular the vast amounts of homeless people. Like many of the neighbourhoods in London and the UK, the gap between rich and poor is ever increasing, and signs of this are never far away in the Castro, the difference in London is that our government does not allow homeless people to set up home on the pavement. In SF the streets are lined with people living underneath tarpaulin and a trolley or from behind a wooden palette.

The COVID 19 is having a massive impact on so many lives. Are you able to say what effect it is having on your work/creative life and what you have planned once COVID 19 retreats?

As COVID 19 struck, I was very fortunate in that the Art for Wellbeing course I had devised for a local North London FE College, went online and grew in demand and enrolments. I think the course proved to be popular not only because it was free to adults in North London, but also because it facilitated human connection online during the mental ravages of the pandemic. Besides using methods from my arts practice, my teaching practice also looks to Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle. I must interject here that I don’t actually teach anyone how to have wellbeing, I anticipate the adult learner’s own experience, how the art making process affects the learner through the art materials and their own bodies, and this is the concrete experience that builds our dialogue and the shared learning experience.
As an artist I have found a way of creating an opportunity for myself and other artists on the back of COVID 19. The hallmarks of COVID 19 dictate; don’t connect; don’t touch; don’t speak; I mean the full gamete that programmes us all to be afraid. I was catapulted by these constraints to make something happen, and I felt strongly that I needed to do this in relationship with others. COVID is making me crave human interaction like never before. Then after listening to yet another update by the government on COVID 19, something I heard Matt Hancock refer to with regards to mask wearing and being outside in the open, that it was ok to not wear a mask whilst “briefly in-transit” gave me the idea of building on the working relationship I already had with a local museum, and invite other artists on board. I am currently in the process of organising a Sculpture Trail in partnership with Stephens House & Gardens and 9 other artists as a way of using social distancing as a tool for social engagement. The trail is called ‘Briefly IN TRANSIT’ and is being funded by The Arts Council National Lottery Project Grant for this September.

Your work often references ‘place’ and that obviously influences your creative response. Is there a place that means more to and why?

I am very sensitive to ‘place’ and Stephens House & Gardens is one of the places that has influenced my creative response greatly in recent years is. The venue has a special resonance for me, in that it was a place where I spent a lot of time with my own daughter when she was a child, and as a lone parent in the 90s. Between 2017-18 I also became their artist in residence, where for six months I led a series of Silent Walks with a group of young parents, as a way of offering an act of self-care and wellbeing, I wanted to challenge the parents to get a distance on their role as a parent and to take time and space to notice their own rhythm for thinking and imagination, and as a strategy that I could share from my own artistic practice.

What are you currently reading?

I am currently reading ‘Walking Bodies’ (Triarchy Press), a series of papers, provocations and actions edited by Helen Billinghurst, Claire Hind and Phil Smith, from November 2019’s Walking’s New Movements conference. It is great to be able to re-visit those talks again in this publication. What a fantastic conference it was, and the two papers which made the biggest impact on my thinking in relation to walking were Ken Wilson’s ‘White Man Walking: Settler Ambulation in Colonised Spaces’, and Ami Skånberg Dahlstedt’s talk ‘Suriashi as a Ceremonial, Subversive Act’. Both talks made reference to the notion of walking as a spiritual practice, not in the religious sense but in the sense of the human being, beyond the body, if you will. Skånberg Dahlstedt’s research re-frames Suriashi as a walking practice which explores the slow walking aspect of Suriashi. This concept of slow walking performs a reading of trauma that empowers the individual, I am hoping to join a Skånberg Dahlstedt workshop in the not too distant future.

What are your thoughts on how the art making process becomes therapeutic?

As someone who has taught basic drawing and painting skills in adult community learning for the last 12 years, and often as an interface between mental health organisations and Further Education, I regularly hear adult learners identify their learning as being therapeutic. But this is never my aim to create therapeutic learning, I am not an art therapist. Students get caught up within the focus and concentration of using their bodies whilst using the art materials, the sound of pencil scratchings or the control of a paintbrush as it fills space, mimicks the corporeal, students start to feel in control of their own observational skills, this is the therapeutic process derived from art materials. It is not a health thing, or a science thing, it is experiential learning using the art materials in rhythm with their own bodies and thinking, in a socially engaged setting. And when I use the term therapeutic, I am referring to the person experiencing an improvement in feelings, from when they start doing the activity, to arriving at a point when they feel they have finished doing the activity. I am not referring to catharsis, which involves feeling challenged and uncomfortable, even if the outcome is positive.

Please pose your own question (you can answer it if you want to or just leave it open for others to respond)

Do professional artists experience their practice as being therapeutic, and if so, how would they describe that therapeutic process within their practice?