‘People wouldn’t show my work – or even reply to me’: Veronica Ryan on her Turner prize triumph | Art and design

It’s the morning after Veronica Ryan won the Turner prize, a moment celebrated with her name being projected triumphantly on Liverpool’s vast Radio City tower, and it still hasn’t sunk in. “It feels as though there’s this separate person, who might be me, who’s won the Turner prize,” she says. “At the moment, there’s a disconnect.”

At 66, Ryan becomes the oldest artist to have won the award. In some ways, she has also had the hardest path to get here. In her winner’s speech in the grandeur of Liverpool’s St George’s Hall on Wednesday night, she thanked and named three lost siblings, Patricia, Josephine and David. When I ask about them, she tells me baldly: “They committed suicide.” There have been years of trauma and grief for the bereaved family to cope with. And other losses, too. Ryan’s career had a promising start, with plenty of opportunities and shows when she graduated from the Slade School of Fine Art. But that ground to a halt. It was almost as if she was swept away by the incoming tide of the Young British Artists, who were a few years younger than her. “There was a whole period,” she says, “when people wouldn’t show my work and wouldn’t even reply when I sent them images.”

That has well and truly shifted now. She won the Turner prize for a major exhibition at Spike Island, Bristol, where she lives, splitting her time between there and New York, as well as for a public sculpture commission in Hackney, London, commemorating the Windrush generation. But there were years in the wilderness, when she was making work without recognition. In her acceptance speech she spoke of her time “collecting rubbish”. She explains that was about the times she would make work from what she could scavenge or glean for nothing – sculptures, for example, made from leaning stacks of fruit and veg packaging, the sort of moulded trays you see holding avocados at the market.

Ryan collects her prize at St George’s Hall in Liverpool.
Worthy winner … Ryan collects her prize at St George’s Hall in Liverpool. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

She talks movingly about the Momart fire of 2004 – when an art storage warehouse in London burned down taking with it hundreds of works. Famously, the fire destroyed Tracey Emin’s tent, All the People I Have Ever Slept With. That was the work that was pictured on the Guardian’s front page the morning after. Ryan also lost a huge amount of work, but none of the reports mentioned her. “It coincided with the time when I was being made invisible,” she says. There had been other moment of erasure: in the 1990s, a volcano eruption in Montserrat completely destroyed Plymouth, the town where she was born. It was a tough time.

Nevertheless, she continued making. Art is not simply a career choice for Ryan: she is an artist “to the bottom of her boots” as Frances Morris, director of Tate Modern, put it to me at the Turner prize ceremony. Art for her is a means of expression, a mode of inquiry, a way of making sense of the world, and also, in a basic way, what occupies the hands. She’s on the move a lot, and works on things she can keep tucked away in her rucksack – a bit of crochet, for example. She is also an inveterate gatherer and fiddler. Out of her handbag she pulls a bit of cellophane – something that yesterday wrapped a sandwich, perhaps. She’s knotted it, just to deal with it, but she’s pleased with the way it looks and feels. Maybe she’ll use it in her work in some way. Such modest activities as knotting or stitching are vehicles for thinking, but also a means of getting through the day. “I’m quite obsessive in various ways,” Ryan says.

Ryan unveils her artwork dedicated to the Windrush generation in east London.
History maker … Ryan unveils her artwork dedicated to the Windrush generation in east London. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA

Her room in Tate Liverpool’s Turner prize exhibition is quiet, contemplative, full of small and delicate things. Or maybe they are deceptively delicate, since the objects she makes, despite their modest scale, seem to exude power and a tough magic. An old plastic bottle, made creamy with time, is held in a net container that might have been made by Ryan, or perhaps found. Magnolia pods have been cast in bronze, then clustered and dangled with fishing line, and hung from a screw.

Plaster casts of something that might be shells or seeds are tightly bound with cord, sitting on a crocheted doily. Dried orange peels – satisfying spirals removed intact – have been sewn back together, with dark stitches that have the look of a field-surgery suture about them. There is a lot here that reminds me of the repetitive, traditionally female tasks of folding, stitching, knitting, repairing, making good. Her objects are held, contained and nested in a way I find deeply satisfying. But there is also something uncomfortable about them, as if they might be having darker conversations among themselves that are half-hidden from me.

There are lots of seeds and fruit in the work, things that speak of trade, movement and colonial history, as well as her own history as someone who was brought to live in Britain from Montserrat as a young child. But when we talk about the work, I can see Ryan resisting the notion that it’s “about” any one thing. It’s always about this but also this and this. Take the cocoa pods that you can see arranged on a little cast plaster container in the Tate Liverpool show.

‘Ryan with her work on display at Tate Liverpool.
‘I’ve grown up repurposing things’ … ‘Ryan with her work on display at Tate Liverpool. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

“I’ve been interested that people go straight to the idea of migration,” she says of conversations about such materials. “But actually, I’m thinking about everything – that cocoa was initially used by Aztecs as a kind of ceremonial drink. And then at some point, it was used to make a soup with salt. And then sugar was added and so on. I’m always a bit anxious if the work becomes only about trade networks, or race.” Crucially, the cocoa pods attract her as objects in themselves – “the way they grow straight from the trunk of the tree, how their shape is so peculiar and beautiful”. Whatever the resonances of its materials, her art is always steeped in a formal sculptural language, one that is hyperaware of how an object might sit in a space in relation to others, how it might be seen from above or below; how it might lean, or stand, or stack, or collapse.

And then there’s the uncanny power of them. Ryan tells me that when she was a young postgraduate student at Soas University of London, she took a trip to Nigeria. “In a village outside Lagos, I saw objects, seeds, gourds and different kinds of things wrapped together and hung on trees, as some sort of protection.” They were little votive objects, things that carried a certain potency. Some of her work harks back to that trip, those bundles, say, of seedpods tightly wrapped with yarn. Sometimes, they hold secrets: Ryan tells me that beneath the colourful binding, she might have hidden something fragrant, such as sage leaves. Her grandmother used to send packages of dried herbs from Montserrat, and her mother, too, would grow herbs for tea in her garden, and dry orange peels for infusions. “I grew up with this extended knowledge of plants and herbs that comes out in the work,” she says.

Ryan talks a lot about her mother, who passed down many skills – the crocheting and stitching in particular (the crocheted doilies in Ryan’s Turner prize show were made by her). When Ryan was little, her mother and aunt used to use cotton flour sacks as the family’s pillowcases, washing them until they were soft, and embroidering them. “My mother was always recycling things, not that she called it that,” she says. “I’ve grown up repurposing things when I didn’t have any resources.” It took time, she adds, “to give myself permission to sew and use patchwork and embroidery in my work”. This involved “unlearning the kind of language that we learned at art school”.

Seeing Mike Kelley’s early sculptures in New York, which incorporated crocheted mats and little toys, was a revelation. “It was so exciting to move away from a kind of gendered preoccupation,” she says. “But it takes a long time to unlearn early prescribed notions.” Ryan doesn’t like the idea of that sort of work being characterised as “textile art” since, she says, “it’s all part of the language you can use”.

Not everything she makes is tiny and handheld. Her Windrush sculpture consists of three large objects made in bronze and marble – a custard apple, a breadfruit and a soursop. They are irresistible – the scaly, knobbly fruits made strange by their scale. People lean and sit on them, climb on them, use them as a landmark. Perhaps now, after her Turner prize win, it will be time for Ryan to go big. Why not? There’s a certain gleam in her eye that suggests she might.