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Morag Myerscough on painting in a pandemic and living in a ‘New Now’

Morag Myerscough with her dog Elvis in her East London studio. Photo: Gareth Gardner

How did A New Now, the artwork on this issue’s cover, come about?
It was commissioned by the 6M3 Collective in Paris for a spot next to a 17th-century church, the Église Saint-Merri (also known as the Notre-Dame la petite). Initially I looked into something related to my family background – my grandmother was French and my great-grandfather was a salon painter in Paris – but it didn’t seem right for the moment. I kept hearing everybody banging on about the ‘new normal’; I don’t like the word ‘normal’ and the term ‘new normal’ seems irrelevant to me. I wanted to make a piece about living in a ‘new now’ – and ask questions about what this means, what we’ve been doing up to this point and how we can improve in the future. It’s meant to be a positive response to the pandemic.

How did you set about making the original piece?
I started with a sketch. I worked on eight-by-four sheets of plywood – I drew it all out and painted it in around three weeks. Thankfully, I had my partner, Luke [Morgan], to cut the shapes out for me. It’s eight metres high – it needs to be really tall to have an impact on the street, and anyway. I like painting big things. I find painting small things much harder. Maybe my eyesight is getting worse…

Did you travel to Paris to see the site before you began work?
Sadly I wasn’t able to, but they sent pictures and I’m familiar with the surroundings – a small square next to the Pompidou Centre. There isn’t always the budget for me to travel when I get commissions, but in the end it’s the making of the piece that appeals to me rather than anything else. This one is a bit strange because I won’t ever get to see the piece in Paris, but it will live on beyond the installation. It’s going to move to some hospital grounds in France.

Are people appreciating art in a different way during the pandemic?
Definitely. The number of people who saw A New Now was low compared to before the pandemic because it’s quiet on the streets, but I think somehow it had more meaning for them because it’s gone up at this strange time. People in Paris seem to have been really affected by it. One of the parishioners of the church next to the sculpture wrote a lovely poem about one of the saints of the church talking to A New Now.

Are outdoor art installations like A New Now more important at a time when most art galleries and museums around the world are closed? 
Absolutely, and hopefully there will be more outdoor artworks commissioned. If this pandemic continues we’re going to need to get work out there to stimulate us. I hope these works change people’s view of the streets.

What’s it been like working during the pandemic?
I feel like I need to have more stimulation than I’ve been getting during the pandemic. It’s been a struggle because I’ve always responded to people on the streets, the ever-changing city. This period of time has been very strange.

How has the UK arts scene fared over the last year?
There’s a whole side of things I’m not really part of – galleries, exhibitions and so on – and I think for them it’s been really tough. I work a lot more with community organisations and I think that money-wise it’s going to take a long time to be able to do the type of projects I’ve done in the past. I think we’ve just got to try and find ways of helping each other build things back up.

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