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