Annette Hamley-Jenkins is a painter based in East Dulwich. Trained as an illustrator, she makes landscape paintings which originate from drawings of local parks, often set at night. She is interested in the way the sub-conscious works and makes drawings she calls ‘Archetypes’ which explore these ideas. She also creates the maps in the Artists’ House booklet, plotting any new addresses by going out on her bicycle to double-check their location.
How did you first become interested in art?
I’ve drawn and painted since I was a child. My grandmother was a painter as well, an amateur painter in the Victorian style, so my Dad always encouraged me to paint. After art college I ended up going into packaging and became a mock up artist. I was trying to set myself up as an illustrator and would take a year out to try to get things going, then go back to having another job. I more or less stopped when I had kids but promised myself that when they both went to school I would do what I really wanted to do, painting. After they did, I also began attending a life drawing class run by Alex Cree. He turned out to be an absolutely phenomenal teacher and he encouraged me a lot. I did his evening class for about 3 years. He taught me how to think about the concept of drawing itself, not just what you are drawing in front of you.
How important is observation and drawing from life for you?
I’ve always drawn but it’s been what’s inside me, drawing for emotional reasons. Alex encouraged me to read “Drawing on the right side of the brain” by Betty Edwards. That made an interesting distinction concerning the way our brain functions. I began to understand that you could look at drawing and painting in two ways; one is the mood that it gives you and the other is the structural, logical side – the sense of proportion, tonal range and things like that. I wanted to incorporate those two sides.
How did you start working at night and can you describe the process of making your nocturnal landscapes?
Because of Alex’s influence I was going out and drawing what I saw in front of me but it became night-time landscapes because of the mood and atmosphere that you find during the night in the city. I was brought up in Cornwall in a rural area so coming to a city was a different experience for me. I absolutely love it and thrive on it but there are times when you want to retreat and go to a space that’s quiet and more contemplative, and actually that’s quite hard to find in London.
The nocturnal paintings started after a visit to Grangewood Gardens, near Crystal Palace. It was an extraordinary night because it was a full moon. There were these beautiful moon glades, the light dappled on the ground. I started working out how I could paint it – because of course it’s dark, you can’t see your paper! The day before the full moon, the day of and the day after, if it’s a relatively clear sky, there is actually enough light to see what you’re doing. You can’t take a torch with you because it ruins your night vision. So there is a very limited amount of time and if it’s overcast and there is no moon, that’s it for the month. There are potentially only 12, and with the night before and the night after, 36 nights of the year that you can actually get reference for this. Now every single month I’m aware of when the moon is and can I get out there to draw – is it too cold, is it too wet? I now have a snowsuit that I put on because even in the summer in Britain, it’s incredibly cold to sit still outside. I’m a really reluctant landscape painter because I don’t like the cold!
I start out by drawing the scene during the day because then I can do the logical, rational part in full light, which is the proportion and the composition. Then I go back and do the tonal. I think I will manage to sit for about 45 minutes and I’m working in charcoal, which is a very fast medium. I will often go back to have a look again for colour reference as well. I then work on the paintings in my studio. My colours were quite wild initially because I use acrylics, which is a very bold medium, I’ve been teaching myself how to use it over the last five years.
What are you trying to achieve in these landscapes?
The process is not necessarily a straight line. When you start painting you have your vision that you are constantly striving towards and trying to obtain it. Often you don’t quite make it and you make a painting that’s actually different to what you had intended but because it expresses the atmosphere successfully you stop working on it.
I love the English language but I’m aware that there are other things that I would like to express more fully and they can only come out via images – even down to mark making it’s all sub-conscious. If it’s too tightly controlled there are some aspects you miss out on expressing. So they come out in the way that you wield the paint, rather than the concept that you might initially have. You have to be willing for those things to come to the fore and relinquish control of it to a certain extent.
You have talked about mark making and your interest in the sub-conscious. Can you tell me about these ideas come out in your work?
I’d always used charcoal drawing as a way to express my emotions so when I would get frustrated I would have to get out a big piece of paper and a big piece of charcoal and work it out just by drawing something. Then I would be able to look at it from a more removed point of view. I call these drawings ‘Archetypes’.
What I’m trying to do is to tap into the other side of my self, the side that doesn’t communicate with words and has to use other means. It’s not meant to be a photographic interpretation, it’s not meant to be three-dimensional. I do a lot of life drawing and you do tend to pull in from other aspects of your life – I used to do martial arts, Tai-chi and yoga and I would often find that I would start by doing figures that were in those kind of postures. You produce a lot of work and then have to edit down before painting them.
I find that the interesting ones are figurative. Because they are not from life, they are completely surreal. When I was younger I used to really enjoy Salvador Dali and Magritte and medieval art as well. You read medieval drawing in a different way – if somebody was larger they were more important, there are these simple rules. It means that you can communicate differently, and that’s fed into my landscapes now: I often split my landscapes horizontally, which is useful because it emphasises the flat nature of landscapes, the width, so you feel you are in a wide space but also I started to use it to indicate conscious and sub-conscious; it’s conscious above the line and sub-conscious below the line.
This happened quite naturally in a painting I’ve done of a tree in the gardens of Dulwich Picture Gallery. I wanted to draw a tree because I thought it was a challenging subject. I picked an oak tree in the Dulwich Picture Gallery gardens, which is in front of the gallery cottage. Whilst I was there one day, a very hot day, this man came and lay down and fell asleep and so I had a lovely life drawing opportunity for two hours. He was underneath the natural horizontal line that was formed by the hedge, so for me he indicated this sub-conscious figure – and there are all sorts of poetic references to King Arthur being buried underneath and this idea of the tree, which is directly above him growing on top of him so there is that aspect. It’s not a side that I can talk about much without sounding incredibly pretentious!
What do you enjoy about showing your work as part of the Artists’ Open House?
I began exhibiting a year after I started painting, and my landscapes developed partly because of Artists’ Open House and the way that visitors have related and responded to them. One of the first things I learnt during Open House was that people have their own interpretations of your work – the nocturnes were so exciting because they were so ambiguous. I really enjoyed talking to people about them and asking them what they thought they were about. Suddenly I had these extra narratives to my paintings, and it brought an element of play to it that had been missing from my art before Dulwich Open House. I’m always on the look-out for what people are responding to in my work.
I think it’s an unusual show because there are so many people in the region who go and visit the artists and they relate to you on a different level; they talk to you with respect to your actual skill and craft but also on a level playing field which means that they feel they can offer an interpretation. As a visitor to the Tate or to a professional gallery, you feel as if you are meant to be just receiving. The Dulwich Open House promotes a dialogue between the actual piece itself, the viewer and the artist. People can often personally invest in the art because they can relate to the location or see places they recognise.
For the artists obviously it’s also a commercial enterprise, and there’s a whole range of people that do it who don’t regard themselves as artists, but they produce work that they wish to sell in order to carry on producing. It is part of the human spirit to be creative, and actually appreciating somebody else’s skill and looking at an object and it pleasing you aesthetically, or being able to invest in it in that way because it’s someone from your area that’s made it, I think that’s quite special and I think people often buy things as souvenirs from a lovely day out. I really believe in it and I believe it should happen, that’s why I show in it and it’s also why I volunteered for it.
Julia McKenzie is an artist living in West Norwood in south London, who makes work in a studio at the end of her garden. She is largely inspired by her garden, featuring bones, plants, insects, birds and foxes. Her work is drawing based, layered with paper cuts and collage. She also produces limited edition screen prints and has recently started etching.
Your work is very connected to the natural world, it’s very organic featuring birds, mosses, flowers, bones and leaves. Why are you so attracted to the natural world?
I think it’s to do with living in a city for a long time. I grew up in Surrey, so I wasn’t a million miles away from London but when I was young I wasn’t particularly interested in wildlife or nature. I was so desperate to come to London, to go to art school. London was really urban and exciting.
However, I think the longer you live in a city and when you have children your priorities change. You need that bit of green space and that connection with nature and the seasons and all of those sorts of things. When we built the studio at the end of my garden 5 years ago, I suddenly became much more aware of nature. I was sitting in the middle of it. In the garden we have foxes, parrots, stag beetles and all this stuff going on. It became really important to me to be able to watch all this behaviour.
I’m still not particularly knowledgeable but I have became much more aware. My family laugh at me. I can tell the difference between birds and bird song now. If I hear things in the garden I know what they are. My dad was a geography teacher and he was a really keen gardener as well, although not a great naturalist. But my grandfather was really interested in nature and I’ve got all his books from the 1920s which are lovely. Sometimes the illustrations from them make it into my work, especially the diagrams. He was really interested in the natural world. That’s encouraged me. I think he did speak to me about it when I was a child but I didn’t really take it in. Now, if I see a creature in the garden that I don’t recognise I will find out what it is.
Do you like living in a city?
Oh yes! I don’t want to live in the countryside. Living in the suburbs, you’ve got the best of both worlds. You’ve got galleries and you can get into town easily.
I’ve become interested in how London is here because of the river and looking at the names of districts, for example, Norwood is the great North Wood. There are layers and layers of history of people and animals living here side by side. It’s all still going on. People come and go but these seasons continue. If you look for it, it might be very small and quiet, you can find it and I find that very reassuring. Cities change all the time but some things are very constant.
Where do your ideas come from and how do you start working on something?
I use a lot of circles in my work to anchor and pull all the bits of information together. My bedroom faces the garden and I’ve become very aware of the full moon every month. I thought the circle would be a simple thing to start with, to use the shape of that to fit all these bits of my life into.
Drawing is also really, really important. It’s about scrutiny. I pick things up and try to discover what they are, whether it’s a certain kind of animal or a bit of an animal or something they’ve left behind or a plant. I enjoy finding these things.
Foxes appear a lot of work. Why are you interested in them?
I find the urban fox interesting. That’s been a motif since I was an art student, coming back from clubs at 4am and you would suddenly be amazed to see a fox. I never saw them when I lived in the countryside. They crept in and have taken over. They live side by side with us, really quite happily. People just don’t have time to sit down and think about what they are looking at and what else is going on right under their noses, which is really rich and very diverse. My work started by thinking about what the foxes were eating and living off, beetles and mice and how they survive. It was really about looking at what was around in the garden, what kept them here. Everything has sprung from this garden.
As soon as the studio was built and I sat here, I knew what I wanted to make work about. Moon, beetle, fox, it’s just all here, I don’t need to go anywhere else.
I think it’s to do with longevity. I’ve lived in this house for 14 years and watched my garden mature and now I’m part of these life cycles. I’m an observer to it. I can sit here in my studio and I’ll have foxes playing out in front of me because they don’t know I’m here.
When you start something do you have a strong idea of what the work will eventually look like or do they evolve more organically?
Sometimes, things happen in groups. Some of the pictures are really about a particular place, Scotland or by the sea. We travel to the coast quite a lot. We had a caravan in Whitstable for quite a long time, so were always finding things on the beach which would end up in my work.
Recently I’ve been doing a really big drawing, called ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’. It’s going to be crammed with as many things to do with my garden as possible, all the life cycles and all the things that happen in it. I’ve been looking at Hieronymus Bosch. There’s all kind of stuff under the soil. It’s about collections of things and places. I don’t grow or plan things in the garden but things turn up! I like the idea of the survival of the fittest. And also watching the birds, they are really quite tough and aggressive. They have to survive quite harsh winters. You don’t have to go to the Serengeti. There is plenty going on in South London.
Your work is always very carefully constructed…
They are not random. I also use systems like the golden section and grid things up to work out the composition so that I can organise all the chaos and figure out where stuff goes. I’ll also look at lots of other artists. You can find interesting compositions and structures from other artists.
You have also been influenced by the sea. Can you tell me about your interest in the sea and how it influences your work?
All my family are Cornish and my great grandfather, who was in his prime in the 1890s was a ship’s captain and travelled all around the world. When my grandmother died, we ended up with all of his hand-written diaries with all these illustrations and drawings. When my dad became really ill, we used to go down and sit and talk to my mum. One of the ways of passing the time was go to through family diaries, photographs and diaries and things and these all came to light. So I have a family connection to the sea.
I’m developing a body of work, based on these diaries, which is to do with his journeys and experiences and the places that he went to. I’ve been going up to the Horniman and drawing anemones and fish and looking at the rock pools.
I’ve done a piece of work based on a passage in his diaries about when they got trapped in sea ice off Patagonia and they nearly all died. They had to dodge these icebergs for 300 miles because he was up in the crow’s nest as the Captain. They even all got on deck and decided whether they were going to abandon ship or whether they would go down with the ship. It’s life and death. I shouldn’t really be here. That’s about tenacity as well, and survival.
You collect found objects and use these in your work.
My husband is really eagle eyed and he’s really brilliant at finding things. We go on holiday and bring back pebbles and stones. You start to find things and notice things. People now give me things as well. I’ve got a friend who lives up in Scotland and she will have found all these different things. I have been given a dead crow in a plastic bag by a student, that wasn’t quite the gift I was looking for!
I also find things on ebay. My stuffed sparrow, Lucky, who lives in my studio came from ebay! I spend a lot of time looking for things on ebay. My profile line must be quite odd. Lots of bones and bits and pieces.
You use a lot of different media and mediums in your work. Have you got a favourite medium?
I think it’s always about drawing. I like direct observation, direct experience, hand-to-eye stuff. I’m not going to start producing oil paintings. I love paintings but I’m not a painter. It’s about finding different ways of drawing, new techniques to push things a bit further.
This year I’ve also got more into print-making and as well as screen-printing I am now making etchings. I’m really enjoying etching because you draw directly onto the plates. So that’s a nice risk-taking feel and it’s a new skill so I’m in the middle of doing it.
For Open House I will have some finished etchings. Etching works really well with the work I do with maps. I have been embedding maps into the print.
How long have you been involved in the Dulwich Arts Festival, the Artists’ Open House and what do you like about being involved.
I think this is the fourth year I’ve done Artists’ Open House in my studio. I used to go and visit before I started getting really involved in my own work. There are so many artists in our little area. I love the diversity and also the sense of community. You meet so many people on so many different levels and platforms. I really like people coming and seeing what you are doing. I work here all on my own, quite happily, but it’s lovely to get people in and they seem to really like it. People have a real appetite for visiting. They are really interested.
What kind of work will you be showing this year?
I’ll have finished my big drawing and will hopefully have the new etchings and paper cuts and altered books. And there’ll be two new artists showing with me here, one of them has a history in fashion and textiles so it will be quite diverse. So there will be three different ways of working but we also have links like recycling and re-using things and transforming stuff.
Can you tell me who you are and what you do?
Pawel Wasek (PW): We are Polish artists who own The Montage, an Art Gallery and Coffee Shop in Forest Hill. Our passion is old houses, old items, old furniture and junk stuff.
How did The Montage come about and what was the inspiration behind it?
Gaba (G): Our aim was to have a vintage shop; we have loads and loads of vintage items, furniture, small bits and pieces. We wanted to display them nicely around the premises and hopefully to sell them as well. We discovered that there was enough space to put a small coffee shop in the space too…
PW: … and when we discovered that there is also the first floor space we had the idea to also have a gallery space…
G: …so it was the combination of all of those ideas. It gave us enough space basically to do everything in one. When we started we didn’t know exactly what it would turn into.
It must have been a lot of work to create this space. What was it like before?
PW: It was a barber’s shop downstairs. Imagine yellowish, old laminated floorboards and panelling etc. Upstairs again there was an old office, late 80s, old worktops, old kitchen cupboards. We took everything out and started from scratch.
And did you do a lot of the work yourselves?
PW: We did a lot of it but we had builders too. I love gardening so it was great to have an outside space that we can use and we could build this conservatory, to find space also for a playroom, a kid’s room and to put plants and to have a different kind of place outside.
G: We played with the space. This is what we like to do. It took about a year for people to understand the concept that the coffee shop is an additional thing to the shop. However, now I think it’s more a coffee shop than a shop.
PW: Some people come here only for coffee, some for the shop…
G: …or only for the playroom, the family room…
PW: We also have live music sometimes and we transform the place downstairs… It is different every day, which is nice.
What is The Montage Group?
PW: We’ve got lots of fantastic friends who are artists. The idea was to exhibit our friends in the gallery place.
G: Every year The Montage Group for the Dulwich Festival is a different group.
So you also create and curate the exhibitions for the gallery space. Where do find the artists?
G: Artists recommend other artists and artists themselves come here to ask if we would like to show them. So it’s different sources.
PW: We had a very good exhibition we made recently, very, very last minute. We invited 16 artists for ‘Love It!’ made for Valentine’s Day – an erotic subject and a group exhibition. It was made in a week, maybe 10 days. It was very good. I just made a few phone calls and that’s it! It’s about positive selection, not negative selection. Once artists are happy it works ok.
It can be very risky to put artists together. But once we feel something is really good, there is no option to say no. And it works. There is not a big risk because we have very talented friends.
Where do the ideas for the gallery space come from?
PW: Sometimes the best ideas come to us very last minute. We transform the gallery space every year around Christmas time. We turn the gallery space into a living space. We paint the walls dark and transform the rooms into a living room, a bedroom and a kitchen/diner. Everything is for sale. The perfect situation is once someone buys a big piece, we have to fill the gap and find something else to put there. Everything is moving. Again we are playing with the space.
G: Sociologically, it’s very good to do this. If the item is hidden somewhere and it could stay there for a long time, no one is actually interested in the item. When you show it in a different context or in a different place, people suddenly notice it.
PW: We also deliver big pieces around the area. It’s a nice process. We are in a closer contact with people. You see the chest of drawers that we used to have in our place, that we then moved to the shop, and now it’s in someone else’s home. It’s a really nice way of recycling the pieces.
You are also an artist yourself. Can you talk a little bit about the work you do?
PW: It is mostly painting, drawing and making objects. For the last three years I was making oil pastel on paper, quite large scale and rapidly done, abstract basically. I also make figurative work sometimes.
You do so many things. How do you fit everything in, managing the business and being an artist?
PW: It’s pretty difficult. We learn every day.
G: We have a family and we have another business as well… It’s good to be busy most of the time. It gives you challenges. But Pawel mainly works in the evenings as an artist. He doesn’t have a studio, so he works at home. There is never enough time!
I’m a sociologist and I trained as a curator but this is Pawel’s role. I support Pawel and run the business with him.
How long have you been living in London and what makes London a good place to be as an artist?
G: We have been in London for 14 years now. It gives you possibilities in many ways that we never had at home in Poland. Obviously you are a foreigner but it’s such a multi-cultural city that you can find yourself in it with no problems. This is my opinion.
PW: If you are brave enough to make some changes and you are prepared to work very hard… We appreciate everyone who comes to our place, this is important. This is the point too.
What artists will you be showing at this year’s Dulwich Arts Festival?
G: We have four or five at the moment. There will definitely be ceramics and also some small objects and some prints. Very good quality art.
PW: I will also be showing a few recent pieces.
How many times have you been involved in the Artists’ Open House at the Dulwich Arts Festival and what do you like about being involved in it?
PW: When we moved to Dulwich, we thought about taking part but we used to live in a small flat in an estate, an attic flat, which was difficult to find so we didn’t do it there.
G: Then we moved to Upper Sydenham and three years ago Pawel opened our place there, which was very successful.
PW: The first weekend it was quiet and we were disappointed. And then the second weekend was so busy and it was a really nice experience. We had lots of sales as well. It was really good. And then we started The Montage, and this will be the third time we have shown here. So in total this year will be the fourth time we have taken part.
Why do you like doing it?
G: It’s very popular. Loads and loads of people are coming here. It’s a different crowd. It’s good to know that so many people are interested in art as well. And even people from other parts of town are coming here.
PW: It’s done very well. The atmosphere between the team and the artists is very good.
What do you like about living and working in South London, in particular this part of South London, Forest Hill?
G: We have discovered so many musicians, so many artists and photographers. People are very active as artists here.
PW: Every day more and more artists are moving to the Forest Hill area and coming to our place. Some work here during the week, especially when it’s quiet. They come with their laptops. We have met some interesting people.
G: Loads of artists and musicians. One of our barmen is a musician. We also host a literature event every month. It gets bigger and bigger. We never knew it would be so popular.
What are your future plans for The Montage?
PW: This is a new business so we have to work hard to have some peace of mind for the future. We need to survive as a business. We really appreciate every customer who comes in.
G: We have so many ideas. We try not to push too much and just take small steps. We sell quite a lot from the shop, large furniture, old bits and pieces and we sell art as well. Some exhibitions are commercial. Or we sell the gallery space for other people to curate their own exhibitions.
PW: The Dulwich Festival is helpful with selling because people are coming to see and also to buy. In some exhibitions the pieces are difficult to sell but they are very interesting as art pieces. So they are also important to do.
Pawel Wasek & The Montage Group took part in Artists’ Open House 2015
Can you tell me a little about your background?
I’m from Canada but have lived in London most of my adult life. I’ve been a full time artist since I did my MA in Drawing at Camberwell College of Art in 2007/2008. Before that I worked in prop-making for the theatre, which I still do from time to time. I’m the head of props for the musical CATS, which is currently at the Palladium, and will be staged in Paris and on Broadway later this year. I also teach practical art workshops at Dulwich Picture Gallery. I was Canadian Artist-in-residence there for the ‘Painting Canada’ exhibition, and ran a lot of workshops for the recent Emily Carr exhibition. I go back to Canada every summer to re-invigorate my love of trees, beaches and coasts, from which much of my art is derived.
How old were you when you knew that you were going to be an artist?
When I was 5, I had a drawing I made of some horses posted on the wall in my reception class and the teachers all said it was great. That made me feel fantastic and I thought that’s what I want to do, I want to make pictures for the rest of my life.
My mother wasn’t particularly artistic but she was very interested in art. My grandparents were very talented artists who nurtured my artistic ability. They weren’t professionals, they just did art for fun but they were very good. I did art at university but segued into theatre because I liked the collaborative bonhomie of it and being alone in my studio wasn’t appealing to me at the time.
Where does your interest in the natural world come from?
I grew up in a small city, Victoria, BC, which has immediate access to countryside. We were surrounded by water, beaches and there’s a huge park near my family home that has a hundred acres of natural woodland in it.
When I became involved in the theatre, I put that to one side for a bit, immersing myself in the arts and the backstage world. When I came to London I realised that there wasn’t that wilderness that I had taken for granted, so I had to hunt for it. I started making pictures of Canadian wilderness for my home, as a retreat that wasn’t present outside my window. And I go back to Canada every summer to re-invigorate my love of trees, beaches and coasts, from which much of my art is derived.
Can you describe your working process and how you choose your subjects?
I take a lot of photographs. I did a series of pictures of the Thames, which was inspired largely by spending so much time there, as both my boys were rowers. I would be looking out at the river getting bored with waiting around for the boys’ training to finish, so I started taking my camera and bike, cycling along trails and recording views that were interesting to me, in particular the light on water and riverside reflections. Back at home, I sift through the hundreds of photos taken and pick the ones that particularly interest me. Often I’ll take several photographs of the same scene and merge them so the composition becomes stretched either horizontally or vertically, especially in forests in Canada where you can’t get the full tree height in one picture.
When I was doing my MA, I was encouraged to go into monochrome, and make tonal works, getting away from the colour I had previously used. So I did a series of tonal drawings in charcoal of surface waters of the Thames, because the muddy colour of the Thames was not as interesting anyway so it was good to record it in black and white. When I was asked to be artist-in-residence for ‘Painting Canada’, they asked if I would mind returning to colour, given the vibrant colours of the Group of Seven. So I happily returned to working in colour, and oil pastel.
You make drawings on paper in oil pastel, ink and charcoal. How do you choose the right medium for the subject and do you have a favourite medium?
It’s all about the mood of the image, really. I like the archival quality that charcoal gives to some of my trees and water images, that are quite colourful in reality. And then with the ink, I was doing some felt tip pen drawings of trees, inspired by a workshop I was doing on winter tree outlines. I liked the stark black and white look of those. I was making a lot of charcoal drawings of grasses created by lifting off the charcoal with a rubber. I decided I wanted to do them in ink. I started picking grasses on the way to my studio, chucking them on the studio floor and drawing them in ink. That led into wanting to do some low-level pictures of grasses growing in verges, complicated tangles with wildflowers and weeds, which I made in ink and then oil pastel. Some were quite challenging initially, but once I got into it I really enjoyed making them.
I like to move between different mediums, I feel it keeps the work fresh.
You are very involved with South London Women Artists (SLWA). Can you describe how the group works and why it is important to you? Is being part of an artist community important to you?
It was just happenstance for me. The group was formed in 2008, the same year I finished my degree, following some lectures on women in art at Dulwich Picture Gallery. For me it was a perfect step from the MA. Having done a lot of critiques at art college, I liked the idea of continuing these so I ran the critiques for a while. Then I got involved in assisting with professional development lectures, and curating exhibitions. I also ran a gallery for a year with the help of one of my SLWA colleagues. Being a part of an artistic community has been important to me, as I’ve met some wonderful women with whom I have a lot in common – raising children, juggling studio time with family commitments – and it gives me the opportunity to do that collaborative thing again, working on exhibitions with them.
You recently curated a group show called ‘What is Urban?’ as part of your work with the South London Women Artists. I would like to ask you the same question – what is urban?
For a lot of the artists involved, there was a response to finding pockets of wilderness in the city because we feel starved of it at times, especially if you haven’t got a garden or access to parks. We are lucky as we have lots of access to parks in south London. Even so, you are sometimes cooped up in your studio with lashing rain outside and you want to have a bit of access to something besides tower blocks and gutters to look at. So I asked the question. Grayson Perry had just done that series ‘Who Am I?’ that questioned portraiture, and this was questioning urbanity. Sometimes the first thing you think about is street art and hip hop. Just because we live in the city doesn’t mean we are all street artist who listen to rap music. You can be a person who lives, works and creates in a very different way. And so the artists had responses based on city patterns, textures, and building structures, and a few responded by thinking about clusters and congregations of people. For me, urban is about living in a city with an amazing visual culture but also some well-placed greenery and wilderness.
So would you say, when you look at your work, it is all about the natural world? How would you describe what you are looking for?
Parks are the best thing to have in a city for that very reason, because you feel you can breathe. They get full of people and dogs but at least there’s an option to go and be in a big space. I cycle a lot, I dip into parks and cycle through them, feel the wind in my hair, the sun on my shoulders. One of my favourite local parks is Burgess Park, which was recently closed for a year and a half for regeneration. They have planted meadows, created hills, and the pond has got reeds around it for the ducks to nest. I think it’s magic. When I cycle through London I always choose the most park-accessible route available. I really believe in the importance of green spaces in an urban setting. I go through them and I’ll stop if I see a view I like, some trees, or these plants, gnarly grasses and weeds, and I’ll photograph them, look at them and think how I can make them into a piece later on.
What do you like about being involved in the Artists’ Open House, during the Dulwich Festival?
I really like meeting people coming through. As an artist you always want to get feedback on your work. If you’re stuck in a studio by yourself and you get no feedback, you have no idea how people view your work, or what they think about it. Even if someone comes through and doesn’t buy anything, they will still say something; we’ll have a conversation about a piece where they recognise the location, or they’ll ask about my process.
What artists inspire you?
I like a lot of Canadian artists. Takao Tanabe does the most beautiful, big three metre wide landscapes. I also really like Peter Doig’s work. It’s completely different, it’s big but it’s layered and textured. I like Gordon Smith’s complex grassy paintings. But I also like artists who can pare things down, and take out a lot of detail. I struggle with that, because I always get wrapped up in the detail. I like putting it back in. I’ve resigned myself to that. Whenever I feel like I’m getting bogged down in detail, I open up Gustav Klimt’s landscape book. I love his work.
What are you going to be showing in this year’s Open House?
A lot of my recent work has gone to Canada where I’m having a solo show in June. So I’m showing some older charcoal water drawings, some field cyanotypes, and some newer ink drawings of grasses and wildflowers.
Chloe Cheese is an artist and printmaker, working from her house and studio in Forest Hill. After leaving the Royal College of Art in 1976 she began working as an artist and freelance illustrator. She is known for an informal style, which gives the impression that the images are drawn directly onto the printed page.
How did you first become interested in art?
I grew up with art. Both my parents were artists and I lived in a small village where a lot of the other people that my parents knew were artists. It seemed like a very ordinary thing to do, like being a butcher or a baker. It’s a very engaging thing to do. I never came across anything else that seemed like a nicer way of living. It just came very naturally and I never changed my mind on my direction.
So were your parents very encouraging of you being an artist? Did they assume that you would also be one too?
I think you enjoy doing the same thing that your parents do. I found this the same thing as with my own children, because you enjoy them making work you talk about it a lot with them and you put their pictures up on the wall. You’ve also got the art materials there. I remember my daughter when she was little, describing drawing as work. You take it seriously.
A lot of your work is based on drawing or line and observation. When did drawing become something that you naturally did?
I think it was very young. My mother described a drawing I’d made of my grand-mother’s kitchen which had the detail of an umbrella hanging over the light switch and all the little taps on the gas stove. I was always interested in detail, in looking closely at objects in my environment. Where I lived in the small village there were a lot of very interesting artists’ houses with people who collected various objects or arranged then in various ways. I was a sponge, noticing all these different things and collecting them together in my mind.
Were you always drawn to the small details of people’s domestic lives?
Up until the first part of my working life, it was all still lives because I liked the abstract qualities of the way that you can put things together in a picture and the history that objects have, the social meaning of them. I hardly ever used to draw people but in later years I did start to include people. I think after I had children I became more interested in the relationships between people and people within the environments that I was drawing.
What was the appeal of being an illustrator when you first left college?
I rather unimaginatively did the same thing as my mother, who was also an illustrator and a print maker (Sheila Robinson). I love reading and was always very interested in words. It’s very engaging trying to make your own version of a written word and make a visual narrative. I enjoyed doing that.
I thought I would never make a living as a fine artist. Having grown up in that environment, I was very aware of the practicalities, which perhaps made my view less romantic.
I think I was also lucky enough to leave art school at a time where, the way that I illustrated, which was primarily through drawing, was something that people were very interested in. It fitted together nicely.
Were the things that you were illustrating when you first left art college, the food for the cookbooks, were they naturally the things that you wanted to draw?
Yes they were, first maybe from visiting Paris, the studio in Paris when I was a student, that the Royal College of Art had, just seeing how food was culturally totally different in France and becoming interested in the meanings of food, that it symbolised lots of different things. I like drawing the things that people made, and how you made a particular kind of cake, which would be eaten on a particular kind of occasion and looked a particular way.
Can you describe your process of working? Do you for example still sketch a lot, do you take a notebook around with you, are you always generating ideas like that?
I always draw, maybe make two or three drawings first and then I will translate that into a print. The print will probably look quite different from the drawing because I’ll simplify it a lot. It always starts from the drawing. For me it’s the best way to work because you’re taking out the thing that interests you about what you are looking at and then you’re looking at it and then defining it again. I find that works well for me.
Occasionally I sell the drawings as images in their own right but it would be very unusual for me to draw something and then use that as the final image.
What made you stop doing illustration?
I couldn’t really change my work to fit in with the current trends in illustration, which was moving away from using drawing at that time. Then I found that I also was moving away from it myself anyway, in that I was more interested in doing work for its own sake or because I was just interested in making a whole body of work about something and not just the odd thing that you would get to do as an illustrator. So it was a natural divergence.
There are recurrent themes in your work that have always been there; the domestic scenes, the buildings, the objects and now you’ve introduced figures that you didn’t use to draw. What are your absolute favourite things to draw?
I think I always like drawing things that are often used. I like things that have a sense of being used, that applies to buildings, or objects in the home, it’s that sort of sense that they are almost disappear because they are so familiar and it’s nice to reinvent them in a drawing. So for instance, very beautifully designed buildings or objects are hard to draw because they are very self-conscious. I like the unselfconscious object or building that’s really old and well used. That’s why places like Venice are nice to draw; not because you’re concentrating on the architecture, but because you’re concentrating on the way that people live there. It’s an everyday environment, people have been there for hundreds and hundreds of years, which makes you think of all the other people who have passed down the street. Then there’s this little old lady with a shopping trolley, walking in front of these amazing buildings. I like those juxtapositions.
Your style is very loose and quite informal. Is that the way you have always drawn? You make it look so easy.
That’s what I hope. I mean sometimes they take a really long time, there could be a lot of layers of colour or say lots of little individual stencils of colour. Sometimes the drawings I make are very complex and more realistic and then I’ll remove that. My work has a range from quite detailed and more realistic to being very impressionistic and simple. I mean that is purposeful, I mean to do that. I find the realistic quite problematic as an image. I want to be able to see something as something else, in order to relate it back to what it really is.
How do you think your work has changed over the years, or would you say that it hasn’t?
I think it’s evolved quite slowly. I think it is freer now than it was to start with. It was very exact when I started and that’s partly to do with scale. Illustration is quite small on the whole so as it’s got bigger, it’s freed it up. I’m pleased it’s gone that way because sometimes people tighten up as they get older but I haven’t. I’ve managed to keep that sense of freedom, which I try to protect in my work.
How does your studio work within your home? Is this important to the work you are doing?
When I had small children, I obviously had to work at home in order to be on hand. I had a room where I shut the door, but I wasn’t far away. And then later on, when I moved to this house, which is quite small, I was thinking of having an outside studio but I discovered that all the things I draw are in my house. So I stayed here and have just adapted my work round my house. There are various rooms where I do things. It’s very much part of the way I live. That’s the way I enjoy working. Also my work isn’t really large scale so I can manage that within a small space. Printing is quite messy but I have a routine which works.
How many times have you been involved in Artists’ Open House?
I haven’t done it before. I’m having work in a friend’s studio because they’ve got quite a big studio in Peckham. It seemed like a nice thing to join in with because as an artist you know the people you know, but then round about there are obviously a lot of other artists. So it seemed very nice to join in with something that’s a local thing and it’s our community.
What are you looking forward to?
I like the idea of local people coming to see my work. Some of the pictures will be of places that they know or recognise. I’m looking forward to meeting other people and having exchanges with the others artists about their own work, how they’ve done work about local subjects or how they find the area. It seems like a very good idea. When I was small my parents used to do an open house.
What work will you be showing at the Artists’ Open House?
I’m hoping to have a few sets of different things that I’m doing specially for the Dulwich Festival. I’ve started doing a set of work about the objects that I own that are in my kitchen. And then I’m going to do some drawings of the friend I’m doing the open house with. There will also be some of my work that has been in recent exhibitions.
What do you like about living and working in south London?
I’ve lived in south London for quite a long time now. I’ve always enjoyed it because it seems like more of a community of people that actually live somewhere. In other parts of London, it seems like a more shifting, impermanent community. South London is very lively, it has quite a young population of people and you really notice that, people are quite friendly and there is a lot of green space. I really love it here. I’m a great supporter of south London. When I first came to live here from north London, people in north London were snobby about it, they wouldn’t deign to cross the river. Actually I think it’s nicer.
There are a lot of little galleries springing up. It’s great to have the South London Gallery and The Stage and Bow in Forest Hill, where a lot of people are starting to sell their own work. I think it’s exciting.
Chloe Cheese took part in Artists’ Open House 2015
What attracted you to glass blowing?
I think it looked completely magical and mysterious and really enticing.
And how did you get into glass blowing?
I was in my early-to-mid 30s then, so I call myself a late bloomer! I was living near a school that had an open day and showed up in the afternoon and was offered the chance to have a go at glass making. I gathered a small bit of glass from the furnace, probably about the size of a golf ball and blew a very, very small bubble with a great deal of effort and I was completely hooked.
What were the early days of your glass blowing career like?
Natascha and I met each other at that same school where I first tried glass making. It was a few years later and Natascha was attending a summer workshop. I just dropped in to see who was there. She had just finished college at Farnham, I think we were both completely taken with glass making. We didn’t have any experience really and so each of us got jobs as assistants at different glass blowing studios. The earliest years of glass making were spent apart, just gaining experience. And after three years we set up on our own. Natascha had been making fashion glass rings for a client in Japan in her spare time. She had so much work on that she could quit her job and I started assisting her full time to make these rings. Slowly, I started making blown glass objects as well.
How did you come to have your own studio?
For a very long time, we hired studio time at a number of different studios in and around London. We would work three or four days a week, very often out in Billericay. We wanted to be glass makers but we didn’t have a clientele. I applied for a couple of different art festivals in the US, over the summer. We just thought, well let’s just try one. We went over to the US and hired studio time to make work for this particular festival. At the end of three days, we had had a great show and we thought, gosh we can make money doing this!
Later that year I participated in the Chelsea Crafts Fair, as it was known then. I was then offered a place to exhibit at a commercial trade fair in the US – our very first trade fair. We had one of the best commercial shows we have ever had. We got an order a few weeks after the show from a retailer in Manhattan that has some shops here in London. It took Natascha and I three months to complete the order. That was the start of our serious endeavour together at creating a studio. Slowly, slowly we built our clientele, and reached the point where hiring studio time at other studios was too difficult so we opened our own glass blowing studio in early 2000.
What inspires your work?
The main thing that inspires my work is marks made in snow. I grew up in Minnesota – very cold in the winter – and in my memory I have windswept leafless shrubs, the light striations across wind-blown snow and also the marks that shrubs scratch into the snow. Also the marks left by flood waters on sand bars are the inspiration behind a lot of the textures I use in my work. In terms of the colour palette I find arid landscapes really, really exciting and also times of the year – early September – or times of the day – early morning or late afternoon when the light is very full.
So are you drawing on memories when you make your work? Because you are living and working in south London where it’s grey for a lot of the year…
It’s not just about arid landscapes. There is an urban palette, which inspires me too. I have favourite views in London. At the end of the day when the sun is going down, just to look out over the cityscape from the top deck of the 68 bus going over Waterloo bridge, the light and the colour palette of the urban landscape is really amazing. My favourite light is a fluorescent light attached vertically to a cast cement wall at the exit of an underground car-park near Russell Square. I enjoy walking around and seeing different car-parks, for example, with garish neon lights and the light that they cast, or the way coloured objects react or appear under the light of a harsh urban neon light.
Can you describe the process of creating coloured glass?
The colour comes in right at the very beginning of the process. Inside our furnace, we melt only clear glass. We purchase the coloured glass from specialist manufacturers in the shape of what looks like icicles – intensely coloured glass icicles. We just take a small chip of that icicle shape and heat it to about 500 degrees in a separate oven. At that temperature we can stick it onto the end of a blow pipe and then we heat it further until it’s molten. Then we are able to blow a very small bubble of coloured glass. We let it cool down briefly and then we go to the furnace and we coat the coloured glass with the clear glass, so as the bubble inflates it’s a very fine inlay of coloured glass on the interior of the vessel. Looking around the studio, you can see the lovely browns and greys and blue colours. All those different colours are very fine inlays of coloured glass on the inside of each of those vessels.
What do you like about working with glass as a material?
The thing that attracts me to glass as a material is its ability to take up a line and to freeze a shape. Looking at my work, people may say that it looks organic. But the strange contradiction is that it requires a lot of physical exertion to make glass look organic. Molten glass is perceived as this gloopy, nebulous object, but the thing that affects glass the most is gravity. If you blow a bubble and let gravity do its thing to it, it will naturally create a straight-sided object. Glass doesn’t want to be organic and gloopy: it wants to be geometric and have straight sides. I love the idea that a lot of the objects I make look like I was just accompanying them along the way to being natural. But I think the physical exertion required to make a natural looking object is greater than a geometric object or a straight-sided object. That’s funny and appealing to me.
All of the marks you see on your vessels, are they planned?
The lines are intentional but I don’t know exactly where that line is going within that piece. I set out to make marks but the heat of each piece and the force that I use to make those lines will affect how those lines appear. I never quite know exactly what I’m going to get with those lines.
You are making things that are designed to have a function. Do you have to compromise aesthetics in order for the function to work?
There’s will and desire and ability and skill. I set out with a vision in my mind of what I want to create. But I may be limited physically to create that, or there are physical limitations of the glass as a material itself. I think nearly every piece that I make is a compromise in some way, either a physical compromise determined by my skills, or my lack of skills, or physical limitations due to the physical limits of the glass as a material.
It reminds you to be humble. Very rarely do I look at a piece of mine and think “wow, that’s a great piece”. I often look at pieces and think, “gosh, I nearly made it there, that’s nearly what I wanted”, or “what was I thinking when I did that?” With glass blowing you have opportunities to do actions at certain moments, and if you miss that moment you can’t go back. The next chance you’re going to get is the next piece you make. You have to live with what you’ve got or destroy the object.
They are such beautiful objects. Do you want people to use them in their daily lives?
Yes absolutely! I was in the Mid-West selling very small bowls, and a visitor to the stand asked me what I would use that vessel for. And I told her it was a little pinch pot for salt or something. I asked her what she would use it for and she said, “I would use it for pretty”. That’s a really great expression, “using it for pretty”. I don’t want my objects to be used for pretty, I don’t want them just to be looked at. I really want beautiful objects, exquisite objects to be used every day. You might only have one drinking glass of mine but if you use that drinking glass every day, for everything you drink, you’ve got that beautiful object that you’re actually using in your life. I like the idea of that, of using something of exquisite beauty as an everyday object.
When I finished art college I was very into concepts and non-utilitarian objects but the longer I’ve been a glass maker, the more important it has become for me to have utilitarian objects, functional objects that are maybe a little bit more on the ephemeral side of things but still serve a function, a definite function.
What does craftsmanship mean to you and how important is it to you?
I once heard a poet say that when he reads his own poems publicly, he considers every single poem a failure. For me, each piece is an endeavour and it’s about pursuing and pushing myself to be a competent maker of glass. It’s about having an idea, an aesthetic idea, and trying to competently realise that idea. One needs to acquire the technical skills to give voice to one’s aesthetic and design through those skills. I think the skill of making is about capability and ability and the exercise of those skills. It’s not leaving stuff to happenstance or serendipity. It’s about intention. Skill is about intention and competency and rigour.
What do you enjoy about taking part in the Artists’ Open House?
It’s always great to see who comes in. We have regular visitors who have come to see us every year and we also have people who have lived here for years and years and have come to see us for the very first time, so it’s great to see old friends and to make new friends. I’m very curious, so I like to learn who our neighbours are. It’s also a pleasure for me to see that moment when people are really excited by the idea that there is a glassmaker, somebody doing this sort of thing in their neighbourhood, because I think it’s quite unusual and quite special.
Parade Mews where your studio is in Tulse Hill is a hub of creativity…
This lovely little mews where we are, it’s a pretty amazing world of people making some really cool stuff. I think I’m very fortunate being in that world because we know lots of different people, in different parts of London, who are making really cool stuff. I feel privileged already to know those kinds of people and it’s exciting for me to go down an unknown mews and meet new makers. If we can perhaps introduce ourselves to more people, to a broader public who would enjoy that, I think that’s also really great. That’s part of the excitement for us to be taking part in the Dulwich Festival.
Can you tell me who you are and what you do?
I’m an artist, an interior designer, and now a designer. I also teach colour theory on the interior design courses at Chelsea College of Arts. This is my new career. I’ve only been doing this for the last two or three years.
Tell me about your background.
I’ve had a very mixed background. Until 4 years ago I was Head of Marketing and Business Development for a big City law firm. I did that for 8 years. Before that I worked in theatre, producing, marketing, mainly social enterprise. Before that I was a singer in a band and did charity fundraising and all sorts of things. But this is it! This is my career now.
What led you to pursue this final career as an artist?
My O-Level and A-Level art teachers really tried to persuade me to try and earn my living through art. They wanted me to go to art college, but I was academic so I pursued that. By the time I had done my degree and a masters degree I got led into other things. I wasn’t confident enough about my art to do it, because it was my one natural talent and I thought that if I pursued that and it failed then it would be too devastating.
But once I had been working in my corporate career for a while, I became increasingly desperate to paint. During one of my summer breaks I did a week-long course at Camberwell, and that got me painting and drawing every day. And I started getting more and more excited about it. I was working full time at the same time, before having children. It got to the point when it would get to Friday, and I would be just itching to get to the end of the day so I could rip off my suit and paint as soon as I got home. Then I would get up at 6.30am on Saturday and Sunday morning and paint all weekend. I had got to the point where I just needed to be creative.
Then I had kids and I had to stop it all again because I didn’t have time. When I was pregnant with my second child – I had just got pregnant with her – I took a massive risk and resigned from my job. I had decided that this was the moment to pursue my creative career. But then I split up with the kids’ dad, so that’s why it has taken me a while!
I ended up at 41 having to start my whole life again from scratch. I had to sell my house, so I was 41 with no partner, no career, no money, no assets, nowhere to live with a baby and a toddler. It was pretty awful at the time.
So even though you had had such a tumultuous time, you felt happy and able to create joyful images…
This is what I had always wanted to do. The two things I knew from quite a young age that I wanted most in my life was to have children and to be creative. So suddenly out of the disaster of what had happened, I found myself actually with the two things I wanted most!
What is the significance of your image of the flying bird?
When my son was approaching school age I thought it would be the right time to put out feelers for starting a new creative career, and then within a really short space of time, just as my son started school, I had my first solo show in Dulwich through Jane Newbury, I got my first teaching job at Chelsea College of Arts, and I was offered my first interior design job. I ended up having to paint the whole show in three weeks. I had to think of a theme that would make sense. So for me this moment in my life was being free from all of the rubbish. The flying birds all came out of that. They’re about feeling strong, flying free, doing a new thing, which is why I think a lot of the colours are so vivid. It’s a combination of being really vivid and bright because I was happy and also peaceful and strong because that’s the place I felt I’d come to in my life.
What about the flower images?
I painted the flower images when I still had my house. They were from my garden in East Dulwich. To make them you need a lot of space and somewhere to dry them. When I found myself on my own in this little flat, with small children that became impractical. I had to find a medium that was very quick drying and I could store flat. So I started painting in ink on watercolour paper, because you can do it straight away and you don’t have to store a big thing. So I painted in pen and ink on water paper using Japanese graphic art pens and brush and dip ink. I love ink because it gives a really vibrant colour, it’s different from water colour. You can get a richness and a depth.
How did you develop your work from paintings to homewares?
To create the homewares I make really high quality scans of the image. Then I digitally manipulate the image to make it work on fabric. To make the images work on a rounded surface like a lightshade, I have to duplicate and add to the image. For example on the bird image, I’ve drawn in some extra reeds to make it work. The image then becomes a mixture of my original work and sort of adding and creating on my computer to make it work on a three dimensional object.
This one (Sedum Detail) for example, the abstract one, is a massively big blown up close up of the flower image.
So for this first collection of homewares, you’ve developed a few themes and motifs which you work in different ways, developing them and getting more out of them?
This first collection of homewares was only launched at Olympia in January. Dulwich Open House in May last year was my very first test of them. I didn’t know whether people would like them. They were really successful, so between Dulwich last year and January I have been working on the manufacturing process. Jane (Newbury) stocked some and I had a shop in Scotland. I thought that if I was going to launch to bigger shops and more nationwide I needed to get it all running really smoothly. It’s market testing for me.
I had a much wider range at Open House last year. I was seeing which was the most popular and what worked together as a collection. In January I chose my six designs and I launched those so I’m now in 30 shops across the country. My official launch was only six weeks ago!
This year at Open House I will be showing my new products, including new prints, new designs, giant lampshades and glass lamp bases.
What do you enjoy about being involved in the Dulwich Arts Festival and being part of Artists Open House?
I love the creative atmosphere in this area and the fact that there are so many people making art and being creative around here.
That’s one of the best things about the Artists’ Open House, to have the opportunity to see what’s going on creatively in your neighbourhood, to see all the artists working on your doorstep. That’s such an exciting thing.
I also love being in a shared house with other artists. We all talk to each other and it creates a wonderful atmosphere. I think it’s nice for people visiting as well because you get a variety of work. I love having the chance to meet the people buying my work. I put so much passion and thought into creating the image and the colour that to be able to have a conversation about that with someone is really rewarding.
How important is colour to you?
Throughout my life I’ve always been very sensitive to colour so I know how much of an effect it has had on me. I’ve always been fascinated by it and now I even teach colour theory at Chelsea College of Art as well. A lot of people aren’t aware quite how much colour affects us. It affects us because of emotional and cultural associations but it also has a very physical effect on our bodies because of the way the rods and cones in our eyes react. Colour has a physiological affect. Colour can either create an effect of real peace and calm or inject warmth and sunshine to an interior. So the very vivid pinks, blues and greens, you put them in any room, it makes a room glow. It makes me feel happy. So I create colours that make people feel happy and peaceful and mirrors the feeling that I want to convey through all the art work.
I can see that the diversity of your work is a process and that one has led out of another. Is there one aspect of your work that you enjoy making the most?
I tend to enjoy the thing that I’m doing as I’m doing it. I’m constantly creating new things. Recently I’ve been doing product design for the very first time for my lamp bases. I’ve really enjoyed it because it’s three-dimensional. And yet at the same time I’m coming to fruition with a particular group of images and I’ll soon be starting to create my next collection, some of which will be at the Dulwich Arts Festival this year. There will be some of the new colour ways. I’m really excited about doing that too.
Can you tell me about the lamp bases?
The lamp bases came about partly because of Dulwich Open House last year, when I used them purely for display. It didn’t occur to me to manufacture them at that point. Everybody loved them. They were also a massive hit at the Olympia Trade Show and so I have now sorted out the manufacturing. My whole brand at the moment is made in Britain. What was interesting about the process of the bases was that because I wanted to respond to the demand quickly, and also make them a very reasonable price, I was advised to go to Poland, which I thought was a good idea. My grandmother is Polish, so I thought that was a nice tribute to her.
For various reasons I ended up deciding to move the manufacturing back to the UK, to this wonderful family run glass works in Norfolk, who are one of the oldest lamp fitters in the country. It’s a big selling point for British manufacturing because the process has been so easy. I’ve been able to travel up to Norfolk, work with the master glass maker to hand blow and we’ve worked together with me drawing and literally creating the perfect shape that work with the shades. The glass is a beautiful high quality crystal glass.
So you will have these all ready for the Artists’ Open House?
They will be ready for the Open House, where you’ll be able to see bases from the very first batch!
There seems to be a lot going on for you at the moment with lots of possibilities and your work taking new directions. What are your professional goals? What are you hoping for in the future?
What I would really like is to create a high quality global brand that is about British manufacturing and has a core of beautiful art and a sense of craft and hand-made about it. I would rather stay more high-end and for each product to be something that is very carefully thought through and designed to work with a whole interiors brand. I want to create something long-lasting, something which is sought after. At the same time I need it to be a successful business as on a practical level I would like to provide security for my kids. As a single parent it’s about supporting my family.
You’ve been on quite a journey…
I think what’s been fascinating for me is the journey. I was earning lots of money in the city, I had my own house and garden. I didn’t really have to think about money or space. And I’ve found that suddenly having no money and living in a small space and having the (delightful) restriction of children, actually has made me far more creative. You have to think far more, it guides you more than when you have everything.
When did you first start working with ceramics?
I suppose like everyone, I dabbled in pottery at secondary school, then moved away from that towards painting and sculpture, which is what I felt I wanted to do. Eventually I changed and did my BA in furniture design. After graduation I worked in furniture for 10 years or so before deciding to go back to ceramics.
The catalyst was a small cabinet I made: I used porcelain for the handles and the feet of this little box. Just getting into that process again reminded me of how much more I enjoyed that than the wood and metal I had been working with. I went into it full-time after that. It enhances my daily life. I love doing it so I don’t mind how many hours I’m here, weekends, nights, days etc. My eldest brother David had always had ceramics as a hobby and I think that connection with him also made me want to get back into it.
Did you have to re-train?
I’ve never formally trained in ceramics although I was taught briefly by Emmanuel Cooper whilst on my furniture BA course at Middlesex Polytechnic in the mid 80s. I realised early on that technical books are useful up to a point for information about firing temperatures etc but there is nothing more important than just being there with the material and making your own mistakes and working it out that way. A few people have said to me that my approach is different from what people are told they can and can’t do at college. For example, I started making moulds in the way that I had figured out myself. I thought I should get a bit more professional about it and picked up a book about mould-making. There were so many pages of the terrible things that could happen if you did this, or if you didn’t do that, or if you didn’t make sure that this didn’t happen first, that I thought that if I’d read this two years ago, I would never have even attempted making a mould. It showed me that I could stumble along and eventually come up with my own way of doing things, which has worked well so far.
Can you describe your approach to making a ceramic piece?
It depends on the object. Some pieces I hand-build – these are coiled, more traditional pots made on a non-mechanised turn-table. Then there are the pieces that are made using handmade moulds – the electric kettles, cocoa pods, gourds etc.
I have been making sculpture again over the last 5 or 6 years. I call them Grid Abstractions, sort of a soft geometry. They are made in clay, just little sausages joined together to make 3D grids climbing into space. I’ve also been making mobile sculptures using a combination of ceramics and glass. I was first commissioned by Firmdale Hotels to make these mobiles, which are now hanging in the Ham Yard Hotel in town, just behind Shaftesbury Avenue. They’ve got three of them in a row. They do look really nice. The glass elements in the mobiles are made by a friend of mine, professional glassmaker Roberta De Caro, who makes the glass to my specifications.
I am spending more time on projects like these. Abstract ceramic sculpture is what is most interesting to me right now. I will continue to build large pots and other vessels but would like to explore this further. The unknown element of it excites me.
Your ceramic pots seem to fall into two categories – the organic forms like the gourds and then the non-organic forms like the plastic bottles, the balls of string. Can you explain the dichotomy between the two.
People have asked me about that and how come they are so different. It’s never really struck me. I mean obviously it’s two very different aspects of an aesthetic –the organic and the industrial. I think I took most of it from looking round the kitchen, where you see milk cartons, blenders, coffee pots, sitting very happily next to apples and pears, pumpkins, natural things… A kitchen was my inspiration and if you go back to your own kitchen you will see all of these things do sit there together. It’s not a conflict.
Some of the industrial things came from going to charity shops. I was thinking that these are the only places where you can see some of these objects. You can’t buy them in shops any more because they are out-dated and obsolete and will disappear one day. I just wanted to see how changing the material that they were made in, in shapes that I think are amazing, would make people perceive them differently. I wanted to turn them into a bit of art. If people see them in porcelain, it changes it up a bit, porcelain being a traditional material that signals that something is important, fragile and beautiful. It’s like a signpost.
Is craftsmanship important to you? Do you see yourself as following in a tradition?
I like the idea that working with clay is so ancient and primal but I don’t like the idea of being restricted by the whole baggage that comes with being a craftsman. I like dipping into all of that and being a part of it, but I don’t want to be boxed in by the whole craft thing. I love it and appreciate it but I’m not wedded to it.
It can be very narrow, spending hours talking about glaze recipes. That’s not me at all. I roughly get the colour I want without getting too bogged down with the technicalities. And I guess that comes from not having done BAs in ceramics so I just approach it a bit more loosely.
You are obviously very drawn to making things with your hands.
That’s important to me, definitely to be in contact with the material. The material is ceramic at the moment.
Some of your objects are for display and lots of them have a function as well. How do you balance something having a function and it looking beautiful? Does the function get in the way of what you want it to look like?
I can give you an example of how my work has been evolving recently. I have been making the stacking cups for about 15 years on and off and they’ve always been vases. Lately, I wanted to make the stacking cups with the cone shape, and felt that the top could easily be closed. I didn’t necessarily need it to be a vase, which was a way of making that tiny leap into sculpture with these.
There can be a prejudice that if it’s a functional piece it can’t be art. Obviously the bowls are bowls and they are designed for that: the glaze in them is food safe, it’s all washable and so that was a prime consideration with me when I started making ceramics. That brings it to life in a lot of ways.
One reason I started making bowls and vases is that I think the table is a very important basic thing for people. I’m interested in people sitting around a table and if they are passing a bowl of fruit to each other and the bowl has a specific importance for them in their family, I think that’s hugely significant. A table full of food and vessels is a lovely thing. It promotes love. I love the idea that one of my pieces could be considered by a group of people as something that will enhance their meal or their day.
Is that something you were thinking about when you first started making bowls?
I think that was a really important thing. Certainly with the more functional pieces that we are talking about, the human aspect of them is really important. If they can enhance relations between people then that’s a good thing. I do believe that. It was quite central.
And because ceramics are handmade, it’s such an easy thing to connect with. There is a Peruvian lady who collects my work avidly. She is the president of the Slow Food Movement in Latin America. It’s the opposite of fast food, the way that everything takes forever and it’s all beautifully prepared. My mother is Venezuelan so I was also influenced by the importance of gourds in Latin American culture when I first started making my gourd bowls.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’m thrilled to have been asked by Whittard [of Chelsea] to make bespoke lighting in translucent porcelain for their refurbished store in Covent Garden. There will be some nice things there. It is hard to describe, you would have to see them. There will be a little place when you go down the stairs and there will be all these things which relate to tea and coffee – a coffee grinder, tea infuser, things like that. I originally made a few of them solid and then thought again that they should be perforated because it makes it clearer that they are made for lamps. When they are all lit and translucent I think they will work well. They will be hanging at different levels. I’ve taken moulds of things I’ve had for years so it’s been very interesting to use them. The central piece at the entrance of the shop will be a giant chandelier made of individual tea leaves in translucent porcelain.
I was asked towards the end of last year to design the lighting for the restaurant Pedler in Peckham Rye. We kept it very organic. They have lines of translucent cabbages, melons, onions etc hanging down the length of the restaurant. I think it’s been well received by their customers.
I also have some work in a travelling exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, ‘New Territories: Laboratories for Design, Craft and Art in Latin America’. The exhibition is about the influence of contemporary Latin Americans in the arts. It’s travelling to Albuquerque at the end of this year and then going to Puebla in Mexico. They are showing my Hot Water Bottle, a Milk Carton and Stacking Picnic Plates, all in cast porcelain.
What do you enjoy about being part of the Artist’s Open House?
I think it’s a fantastic opportunity. I’ve been involved for about 5 years, maybe a bit longer. Mostly I show things with Cavaliero Finn [Juliana Cavaliero and Debra Finn] at their Croxted Road address. They have been a huge support to me and I think they are brilliant curators. And the Dulwich Festival is one of the highlights of our year.
Last year I managed to persuade the owner of my local garage, Padwick’s in Oglander Road to allow me to use a part of his premises for the two weekends of Artists’ Open House. It was a shop front filled with old tyres. It was a beautiful turn-of-the-century shop front and he just had pigeon feed because he’s a pigeon fancier, and tyres and old bits of car mechanic stuff in this place. I convinced him to allow me to paint the place, redo it and use it for the two weekends of last year’s open house festival. It went really well. Unfortunately he can’t do it again because it’s his business, but it looked really good as a little pop-up gallery. I shared it with my illustrator and painter friend Phil Hankinson. This year we’re showing at my house; a different setting, so we’ll see how it goes there…
Can you tell me who you are and what you do?
I have been a designer all my working life. After a degree in graphic design I worked in branding and packaging for many years and I am still a freelance graphic designer. That’s my main job. About 8 years ago, when I moved here and found that I had the space I decided to do a course in screen printing and set up a print studio. I was used to working on computers and I just wanted to get back to doing something a bit messy. I started printing on textiles and really enjoyed it. I started selling a few pieces and I’ve taken it from there.
When did you first become interested in design?
It’s always been around me. My mum worked in the arts and we were surrounded by works of art and design.
What was the starting point for your business roddy&ginger?
About 5 years ago an interiors magazine wanted to do a feature on my mid-century house and they told me it would be a good way of promoting a business. So I had to get it off the ground and up and running with a website and online shop by the time the article came out. The name, roddy&ginger was coined by a friend’s little boy, it seemed like a nice name and now I’m stuck with it! I got a bit of publicity by being in a magazine and it went from there.
Where do the ideas for your designs come from?
I have always been interested in mid-century design and have gathered quite a collection over the years. It’s good, innovative design that has lasted the test of time. It has also become very fashionable again so I could see there was a market for it when I started roddy&ginger. My collections of textiles, ceramics and illustrated children’s books from the 1960s and 1970s are all a big influence on my work.
Your designs are spread across different forms- cushions, trays, wallpaper. When you are creating a design are you thinking about where it will be used?
I’m not that organised, I felt that some of my textile designs were particularly applicable to wallpaper so I decided to give it a go 2 or 3 years ago, I now have a small range of two wallpaper designs which are printed in Holland.
Do you have any particular favourites of the designs you’ve done, that you think are particularly successful?
Although I still keep printing some of my older designs I am more interested in my current work which tends to be more abstract and geometric.
What are your new products for Dulwich Open House?
I’m hoping to get some new textile designs ready for Open House.
The nice thing about Dulwich Open House is that you can showcase new ideas and get instant feedback. That’s how I started my wallpapers, I printed a prototype length, stuck it on the wall and got lots of positive comments.
Last year it was a new geometric design that sold well. This year it may be something different. I tend to do special prices for Open House and I try to empty my stock cupboards. There will be plenty to buy from as little as £5.00 as well as seconds and miss prints.
What do you enjoy about being involved in the Dulwich Arts Festival and how many years have you done it?
This will be my 5th Open House, I have watched it grow since I started. I like the fact that you meet lots of people. I use my house as a location house so it has been great to meet journalists and stylists who are interested in my work and the house. I really enjoy taking part in Open house, it gives me motivation to do something new and it’s very relaxed because it’s at home.
Can you tell me what you do?
I’m a ceramic artist. I left college in 1992 and have been working ever since. I’m a self-employed artist working on mainly figurative ceramic pieces for galleries and exhibitions.
How did you first get into ceramics?
I used to do quite a lot when I was at school. We had pottery classes. And then I did O-Level and A-Level and then a diploma course, which you could specialise in either ceramics or jewellery. I think you did a little bit of both for a while, amongst other things and then had to decide which one you wanted to specialise in. So I specialised in ceramics and then went on to do a degree course and then an MA. I studied for quite a long time.
What was it about ceramics that really appealed to you?
I think it took a while for it to really appeal. I suppose once I’d found various skills then the appeal became greater. When I initially started, I think I could have quite easily have gone into graphic design. So the ceramics I did tended to be quite flat and I’d decorate the surface rather than build more three-dimensional pieces. Gradually as I built the skills up and was taught more, then the drawings translated into three-dimensional pieces. With clay, I suppose it’s the way that you can manipulate it and produce characters fairly quickly. It depends sometimes on how I’m feeling. Sometimes, it doesn’t work very well, other days it does work. Then there’s also the glazing, I love the glazed surface, which is something I’ve worked on for a while.
Where do you get your ideas?
Childhood memories have always been quite present and things that I had as a child, say toys, books, television programmes I watched, all that kind of 70s imagery I think is still quite apparent in the pieces. I suppose it changed a little bit when I moved into London. I travel on the tube and watch people. So I note different patterns and characters, for instance businessmen with different patterned shirts and patterned ties.
Do you sketch them?
Not as much as I used to. I think maybe I will make little doodles and notes of ideas but now I tend to go straight into the clay and work out the forms as I’m modelling.
Describe your process of working. How worked out are your images before you start working with the clay?
It’s quite well planned and also you have to be because with the certain pieces, say for instant one of the ones with the birds on their heads, I’ll have to roll out a slab and leave that to dry for a certain amount of time before I can construct it into the body. If you try and do it straight away, it will just sag under it’s own weight
Can you tell me about the birds. Where do they come from?
People often ask me and I’m never terribly sure other than I’ve always been interested in nature and grew up in a fairly rural area. I’d always be outside drawing and observing. I like to combine nature and the human figure. To me it just seemed an obvious way to do it, having the birds in conjunction with the figures.
The face looks quite similar across the pieces. Is there a particular person or a character that they are based on?
Not so much with the smaller pieces but the larger ones, people do ask me. I’ll show you a photograph of my father and I think that’s where the inspiration has come from with the larger ones. You can see very much the likeness. I’m so pleased I’ve still got this photograph because when people see that they automatically say that it explains everything! I don’t think it was conscious but it is very clear to me now.
I don’t know if my father saw the connection. I’m not sure that he every really understood what I was doing. He was quite conventional. It was my sister who suggested that I went to art school. He sent me off for interviews with British Telecom. I failed all the aptitude tests, luckily. I came back and my sister said, well why don’t you try art school. Although he didn’t really understand, my father was proud of me for where I got and where I am.
How have you developed the glazing part of your ceramics?
We used to have glazing technology lessons at college, a lot of which went over my head. When you start experimenting and making them up yourself, you start to realise what different things do. It’s chemistry really, what different materials add to certain glazes. I do still experiment. At college I started making little figures, I call them the little men and the little ladies, to test glazes on rather than having test tiles. I still make those and use them to experiment with glazes and test new ones. Now I have a palette that I’m quite pleased with and use over and over.
You know the ingredients of each particular colour that you use?
Of my particular glazes I do. I’m not good enough to say, for instance my friend Lorraine, you could go to her and ask her what to add to make a certain glaze if you wanted to make it whiter for instance. She would be able to do that. I’m not that technologically advanced but I know enough to please myself with what I’m doing.
How much of the process is left to chance in terms of colours. Do you welcome chance things happening?
Usually with me, it would probably be misfiring in the kiln. That’s the only chance really. The kiln could overfire and then you get a completely different colour, if you’re lucky and things haven’t actually stuck to the kiln shelves. Sometimes you open the kiln and think that’s not quite what I expected but you get used to it or other people come in and say that they think it’s gorgeous. But because you had a certain idea in your mind you aren’t so sure. That’s the only chance really.
I’d like to experiment more but also I don’t want to harm my kiln. I lose quite a few kiln shelves as it is already, I’m not a terribly conventional or careful potter. It’s an expensive process having to replace those. I’ve kept a piece in my studio where the ladies are all welded to the shelf because the glaze ran.
There is a lot of humour in your work. It makes you smile.
It’s a quiet humour I think which engages people. I have a lot of people coming back and saying that they are pleased that they brought a particular piece because they look at it every day and it makes them smile. There’s a lady who takes her group of little men on holiday with her. She sent me a photograph of them in France! People feel a connection with them.
There is another lady who brought one of the birds for her husband and she said that it’s really nice, it’s on the side board next to the front door and you can hear him when he comes in from work, where the door opens, he’ll hang up his coat and put his briefcase down and come in and say ‘hello bird’ every evening. I do enjoy that side of it.
How do you expect your work to be seen when people own them?
I’ve been quite surprised by some pieces. I made a few pieces that were metal, there are metal workers in one of the other arches here and they made me these big crinoline-type skirts and I made the top of the body, female bodies, and they were meant to go in people’s gardens so they could grow flowers in them, so they would have a big flowery skirt. I sold one of them and the lady must have a very big living room because she said it was in her living room with house plants growing up the skirt. I hadn’t really expected that.
I like the fact that they can go indoors or out. People have said that with the larger flowers it’s been nice when they’ve had those in winter and everything dies around them and they’ve still got these little spots of colour in the garden.
How long have you been involved in the Artists’ Open House and what you like about being part of it?
I think I might have been involved for 10 years or so! What I’ve enjoyed is being at Ingrid Beazley’s house, which is a lovely place to be for the weekend. It’s nice to be there with Ingrid and Tom and meeting the other artists. I’ve made good friends from sharing their house with other people. It helps if people can see my work in a domestic setting or in a domestic garden. Not everyone can visualise the pieces in their homes. That helps a lot.
I love talking to people about the work. I don’t have that if I just show through galleries. It’s nice to see people’s reactions, they come in and start smiling, even laughing sometimes. I don’t get that if I just have work in galleries. So that’s a big part of it.
What do you like about living and working in South London?
My workshop in Peckham is the thing that was the main draw, because the space was so lovely. I’m really lucky to have been here for such a long time. I like to work on my own because I like to concentrate but I do get lonely. Luckily enough there are other artists next door.
I like that Peckham is so varied. One way it’s all gentrified and the other side is completely mad. I quite enjoy that, though I did prefer it when it was a bit less gentrified.