Paul Benjamins (18 October 1950 – 23 November 2015) – an Artists’ Open House exhibitor since its early days – was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2014 and died on the 23 November 2015. Paul’s wife Jaqui wrote to Artists’ Open House about his last months: ‘Paul worked with a new urgency during the last year of his life, completing a series of mono prints with Advanced Graphics, culminating in a show of the prints at their gallery in The Borough in April. He was working on these prints in between his chemotherapy sessions at Guy’s Hospital. On receiving his diagnosis, Paul decided to keep a visual diary of his life, treatment and emotions. The result is 18 large sketch books and almost 300 drawings of his journey with cancer. He also arranged to have a mini retrospective exhibition at his gallery in Paris, Galerie Pascal Gabert, in October. Paul’s determination to work during the last months of his life was extraordinary to witness. There are plans to have a London show of Paul’s last works this coming October.’
This is the interview Paul gave to Artists’ Open House during last year’s Dulwich Festival.
Can you tell me who you are and what you do.
My name is Paul Benjamins and I am a professional artist and have been painting since I left The Royal College in 1975.
And how did you start painting and when did you know that you were going to be an artist?
When I was at school I had a place at Oxbridge to read history and I didn’t think I would get the grades at A-Level. So I didn’t take up the offer. I wanted a year out but they didn’t do things like that then in those days. So it was either then or re-apply the following year. I did actually get the grades, so I could have actually gone to Oxbridge if I’d wanted to. But I thought I was too immature. It was the late 60s and they were trying to take working class heroes into Oxbridge at the time. I didn’t think I would take it seriously enough. I spoke to my art master at school, I was very good at art and he said that he could get me onto a foundation course at Camberwell. I met the most amazing man, who was Head of Foundation, called Paul Bullard, at Camberwell, he has long since retired, I think he might even be dead now. And although I only had four pieces of work, because I hadn’t saved any of my work, he took me on. So that was it. I got on the Foundation course but then I let him down because I left foundation after three months because again, I didn’t think I was as serious as everyone else. I went out to work for a few months and then realised that actually it was something I wanted to do. It was the best decision I ever made, was to leave and to realise that I wanted to actually do it, because unlike my wife, who wanted to go to art school all her life, I didn’t have that drive but then that decision made me think that I did want to do it. So I went back to Camberwell, I got on a degree course because I was late again for everything. And much to the chagrin of most of the students who were there, I won the principle drawing prize. I think it was £25 which in 1969/70 was quite a lot of money. I came back and picked up this cheque for £25.
After Camberwell, I went to the Royal College and graduated in 1975. From then I’ve always tried to paint as well as teaching part time. I eventually ended up with a drawing post at Brighton Polytechnic, which was a two and a half day a week associate lectureship, I did that for four years and then my own career began to take off and I realised that I didn’t have enough time to give enough time to the art school. From there on, I occasionally taught part time, I did some teaching at Royal College and various other colleges throughout the country, and I used to go down and lecture at Brighton about myself. I gradually moved from teaching.
And was it always painting that you taught?
I taught textiles, drawing for textiles, I know quite a bit about textiles because my wife is a textile designer. When the kids were young, I used to help out by going to trade shows and work on a stand with her studio’s work because she hates selling. It was much easier for me to go away for three days to Germany until they got older..
Where do your own ideas come from for your own work?
I think it’s mainly from where I am, from my surroundings. I’ve done a whole serious about urban centres, influenced by living in London. I’ve always lived in London, some there is an urban influence there. My work has fluctuated between being semi-abstract, in terms of it having some figurative aspects in it, to being completely abstract. I hate the word ‘abstract’ because all painting is abstract basically. It’s moved again to being in a sense, much more, I call it lyrical abstraction because I’ve become influenced by setting a feeling, I’m trying to paint like Turner, so what I’m trying to do is create an atmosphere that people might have seen, might have been there, or felt it at some point and that’s just based on my own experience, visual experiences. I take lots of photographs to use as references but I prefer to use my memory. I remember things. I walk across Peckham Rye sometimes and the light is just so wonderful, even in the winter so what I’m trying to do is to create that. But what I don’t want to do it too physically. It’s to draw a memory up for people.
What is your process of working?
The process of working is that I have an idea in my head, which comes from something I’ve seen or thought about. That will then move me into working on a series of ideas, until I burn myself out and feel that I can’t say anything more about this. And it will gradually shift to something else.
What other artists are you influenced by?
Cy Tombley was a great hero of mine. There are so many that influence you and it changes. Richard Diebenkorn is just having a show at the Royal Academy. He first started as a figurative painter and then painted these beautiful abstract colour field paintings and then goes back to figuration again, goes back to abstraction again. It’s a bit like Sigmar Polke, it doesn’t matter, you have an idea you do it whatever way suits you. It’s a process of exploration. If you want to put a big circle, or a big splash and then put a flower in it, then why not. I think sometimes in this country, artists get very restricted. I’m trying to get rid of all that. I’m not worried about it. I’ve managed to make a living, some years better than others but we’ve managed to bring up kids and do what we want to do so that’s the best thing I could actually ask for.
Your paintings are very sensual, with lots of layers and textures. How important is it to you to explore the way tee paint works?
I want my paintings to look like they don’t take very long but actually they sometimes take much longer than I think. I have to be very patient. I use very thin washes and I started using acrylic spray paint. I don’t just spray it, I move it around when it’s still wet and then I add layers to that. That’s how you get that kind of luminosity that comes through. I’ve always been interested in paint. I like moving it around, there are various different ways of using it. My wife dies her hair so I get all these lovely bottles, which are fantastic for making drips or drawing. I use them like pencils so I can draw with them. I always work flat on the floor.
I also do mono prints.
What materials do you use?
I use oil paints occasionally but I mainly use acrylic paints. I use it very thinly and I use lots of mediums with it, so it’s very thin. And then I might varnish over the top. I like to keep experimenting with paint otherwise your work doesn’t move. By using the spray cans I can get a fine spray down.
What do you want people to experience when they look at your paintings?
I want to evoke a thought in people, even when it was much more abstract then it is now. I want to spark a memory. I want it to be about something and nothing. I want to evoke some kind of reaction. I either want people to really like it or not like it. Not everyone is going to like my work but people who do like it, really like it and that’s important to me.
What do you like about being involved in the Dulwich Arts Festival and opening up your studio?
It’s quite interesting because when it first happened my son, who was then a student and was working for an estate agents, went to a meeting and met the organiser of the Artists’ Open Studio. He encouraged me to open my studio. I’ve done it ever since then. It’s been incredibly successful. Once a year I clear my studio! It’s a good way of keeping in touch with people. I’ve got very good neighbours here and I think nearly all of them have bought pictures from me. It’s always been good fun. I have also collected new clients from it. Every year I’m completely gobsmacked by how much I sell. My paintings aren’t cheap.
I like meeting new people. I’m not a shy and retiring person.
What do you like about living in Peckham?
I’ve always like the mix of people living here. There is still that mix although the emphasis has slightly shifted. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I like having young people around. I like that I can walk to Peckham Rye Park.
This year’s festival will see internationally-recognised artist Louis Masai live-painting an outdoor piece at local nature reserve, Sydenham Hill Wood. Festival-goers will be able to watch the painting being brought to life beginning on Friday 13th May and continuing throughout the weekend. We caught up with Louis to ask him about how he became a street artist and what inspires him to create his stunning, outdoor pieces.
When did you begin your career as an artist? Is it something you’ve always wanted to do?
I moved to London 6 years ago, specifically to start my art career. When I was a kid I wanted to be a chef like my dad, then I wanted to travel the world. In a way that bit I am doing along side being an artist because of the way that I work. Wanting to be an artist I suppose is not really a conscious decision for me it’s just kind of within me. I would find it very hard to spend the day doing much else any more.
Have you always drawn, painted and sculpted animals?
When I was at school I painted mostly animals, then at Uni I was painting people a lot. But for the past eight years I have only really painted animals.
What is it about the animal kingdom that inspires you?
The animal kingdom is so varied and fascinating. Animals have so many textures and colours. Shape and movement is also so varied. The animal kingdom is so complex, I cant think of anything more inspirational.
Your recent work draws attention to the plight of endangered species. Was there a particular light-bulb moment when you thought you could use your artistic ability to raise awareness?
About three years ago I was on a painting trip in South Africa. I was painting endangered species of South Africa and writing statistics next to the work. At that point I realised the impact that using murals could have to inform the wider audience of species decline. Since then it’s just evolved and evolved. Now I’m working with environmental agencies and using my paintings to encourage change.
How do you go about researching the animals before creating a piece of art?
I spend weeks researching images on line for a series of work. In some cases I watch documentaries also to gain a wider understanding of what I’m creating.
Do you ever encounter any negative reactions to your work or snobbery about street art?
For the most part the public are pretty happy to see my work and very rarely do I get a negative reaction. It’s more common to hear people get upset when they are gone. I’m not sure I understand why someone would be snobby about what I do or don’t do, I have never encountered it.
What advice would you give to aspiring young street artists?
Do what you believe in, and if you’re happy about it then that’s more important than being sad about it.
What are your plans for the future?
Well this year is a busy one like the last one I guess, lots of traveling and painting amazing walls, and in October I will be starting a two month tour of the states.
You can see Louis at work on Friday 13th May – Sunday 15th May in Sydenham Hill Wood. For more information and pictures of his work, visit: www.louismasai.com
Andrew Carter is a printmaker who lives and works in East Dulwich. Having originally studied Fine Art, he graduated with distinction from the MA Printmaking degree at Camberwell College of Art. He has exhibited widely, most recently at The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.
You were previously a painter. What made you switch to printmaking?
I originally studied Fine Art Painting at Central St Martin’s and then much more recently did an MA in printmaking at Camberwell College of Art.
Circumstances played a part in this change. As a painter, I used to make a lot of big work and when we had children I started working more from home. That promoted a new, smaller scale of work. The catalyst was a series of limited edition books with poets that I made; the first with Jonathan Ward, the Head of English at Dulwich College. This got me into printmaking and led to me doing an MA in Fine Art Printmaking.
With paintings there is often a confusion that you are chasing something that is elusive. It can be hard to feel satisfied that a painting is ever finished. With printmaking I resolve a lot of things before I come to colour or even printing the blocks. Often the piece is totally resolved before I’ve printed it. Making prints has changed my approach to painting – I’ve become much more methodical and more specific about the shapes I’m working with.
Now you are fully established as a printmaker what do you think your painting background has brought to your printmaking?
Painting gave me a willingness to experiment with different ways of cutting and with scale as well and an interest in colour. Generally the prints I make are ideas for paintings. I’m working in quite a small space at the moment but I’m always thinking that one day lots of these things might become paintings again.
Where do your ideas come from and how do they develop?
My ideas come from different places. It’s to do with looking. There is a particular tree in Dulwich Park -a big oak tree – that I pass every day throughout the year.
I keep looking at it and I photograph it and I make quick drawings. Then eventually they arrive as an image, which I cut as a relief print.
The prints that I’ve been cutting are always made in reverse. I start with this image of a tree but actually what I’m cutting is the negative space; so I arrive at the tree through the slow process of cutting away the bit in between.
I’ve made work based on a beautiful piece of water on the Island of Iona in Scotland. Another piece is from an ancient olive tree in Umbria in Assisi… I’ve also made work using a tree from near Flatford Mill, near where John Constable drew and painted. I like the idea that this willow could possibly be a tree that Constable drew from and that those ancient pollarded willows have a history of being drawn and drawn and drawn.
My eyes are focused on particular things in different places. What I try to do is to bring these different elements together. One image might be from something I saw 10 years ago, or even 20 years ago, and then something might be from now. I want to be true to specific moments and shapes seen.
Can you describe how you combine the figurative elements with shape, colour and pattern?
My work is to do with looking at something organic and also looking at something geometric to do with flat colour.
Recently I have been making a series of prints with the Jealous Gallery, which I think are good examples of how I combine elements of observation, abstraction and design and juxtapose elements from different times and places. The geometric shapes are a contrast to the thing that I’m seeing but and are also the blocks before anything is cut away. In these I have started to use more luminous colour.
A lot of painters I’m inspired by are American minimalist geometric painters like Ellsworth Kelly and Brice Marden. I respond to abstract painters.
However, I’m also picking up on a very British tradition of printmaking from artists like Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious. I suppose my work is trying to combine these two threads: a knowledge of American abstract painting and a very British figurative, illustrative quality. I respond to both equally. There is an eccentric Englishness in people like Edward Bawden that is absent in someone like Ellsworth Kelly. If I can combine these two conflicting ideas, which I feel that the work over the last 10 years has been doing, I’ll be really happy.
How do you combine photography and drawing as a way of recording information?
I’ve always made lots of drawings. I work on a drawing for a long time, and that’s about accumulating shapes. The subject matter is outside so I go outside to record things and then these drawings become about measuring and discovering how things fit together
I also use photography to record things, but I have an odd relationship with it. It is just another tool for drawing not an end in itself. I use photography as a way of selecting, making shapes static and seen from a single viewpoint. With all of the images I want to try and be as true as I can to the thing that I’ve seen. Many of the original drawings that I’ve been working on recently are tracings. They are scaled photographs that have been very carefully traced and then there is an editing in terms of what I leave in and what I leave out.
The forms that you are attracted to in nature, for example the trees, become abstract when you look at them in that kind of detail…
They become filigrees, silhouettes or just shapes in the end. The thing that I really love about them is that they create their own light. When you start cutting a pattern of negative shapes, they take on a luminosity of their own. They let light through the surface. Many of the prints that I’ve made are single colour blocks but I like to play against this by using flat pieces of colour.
In the end I want them to look like they have just happened quite simply.
I don’t really want them to be that figurative. I want them to become more abstract. I want them to work as shapes and objects.
Can you describe what techniques you use to make your prints?
I see them as block prints or relief prints – each block is cut as a positive/ negative pattern of marks – linocut printing, woodcut and some screen-printing.
I enjoy the tactile qualities of using materials the surface quality of the paper and using hand made blocks. It’s very much about the process of making something entirely by hand.
I like to experiment with different papers; Japanese paper has a lovely quality to it.
My process of working is very involved. A piece like ‘Constable Willow’, took 30 or 40 hours to cut. They can be time consuming in the way that they are made. It’s a bit like a piece of knitting. One very large block took me three months!
Before the cutting stage, there is the process of making a drawing, then a tracing. I paint the blocks white, and burnish the tracing on to the block so that it is reversed. At this stage I convert that into a brush drawing with ink and then I cut it. Once I’m cutting, there is still a lot of editing going on, playing around with what the shapes look like. This is my favourite part and it’s totally absorbing.
Can you talk about the Japanese influence in your work?
I admire the great skill that goes into Japanese woodcutting. I’m not interested in the look of lino, I’m more interested in the idea of reproducing a line or shape made in ink or as a collage that can be cut absolutely beautifully. The blocks are cut and printed from the initial hand drawn mark. If you look at any of the great Japanese printmakers like Hokusai or Utamaro, especially with Utamaro, what you see in their woodcuts is a beautifully cut facsimile of the original ink drawing. I want to be true to the mark that I have drawn so that final print is fluent – that’s how the Japanese printmakers have influenced my work. What I love about their work is that that the spontaneity of the original gesture or idea is made slowly. The original idea is revisited. It slows time down.
Helen Ireland is a painter working in East Dulwich. Her paintings are collages combining printing, drawing and layers of paper.
What is your background as an artist?
I grew up in Cheltenham, Singapore for 4 years and North Yorkshire. After finishing my foundation course I studied Fine Art Painting at Central St Martin’s and an MA at Chelsea School of Art. Straight after that I was the drawing fellow at Winchester Art School. For 8 years I taught painting and drawing on the Foundation course at St Albans Art School. More recently I have been working in collaboration with the British Council for the Rivers of the World programme. I was part of many group studios including Paragon studios in Elephant and Castle. I then co-founded Cubitt Artists in Kings Cross. I was a studio holder at Gasworks studio in Vauxhall, where we ran the Triangle Arts programme, which worked with artists across Africa; I was at that time able to work in Namibia and did a residency in The Hague in Holland. When I had a family I decided to build a studio at home to allow me more flexibility with time and looking after children. I’ve been making paintings for a long time!
What kind of work do you make?
Although the work is quite abstract it always starts from something that is figurative. I suppose the beauty of getting older is that you have lots of fragments from different times in your life that come into the work, through the experience of living and knowing different places. I’m taking ideas and images that I’ve collected over the years. Last year I was preoccupied with making lots of drawings from the islands in Scotland. Although I live in London, I travel and make drawings and paintings from the landscape. I was up in the Orkneys recently, making drawings and photographs of Scapa Flow. A lot of the images were of debris left from the First World War that remains under water, scaffolding and fragments of war ships left from when the German fleet was sunk.
Can you describe your approach to making work?
When I’m in a place I draw, make tiny little sketches and take photographs, picking up ideas. I’ve been inspired by the Dazzle camouflage ships in the First World War, one of the ships has recently been moored on the Thames. They were used to confuse the enemy and the shapes on the sides of ships are absolutely amazing. I’ve been taking ideas from that and using the different elements.
How do you turn these fragments and ideas into your paintings and collages?
I start with the simple idea of a shape; for instance, the Isle of Eigg. From the mainland in Scotland it’s the most beautiful thing so I pare it down to a simple shape on the horizon. I might make a linocut and then print it on Japanese paper. I can then repeat the print and collage them onto plywood. The printed elements are then reworked through a process of drawing and painting. I work on board because I like the hardness of the surface, you can really work the surface, you can sand it back, take it off, put layer upon layer of Japanese paper so I suppose that’s the process that works for me.
How do you use collage in your work?
Most of my work is collage and multimedia. I’m using pencil, paper, printing and painting as a way of working a surface. Although my work is pared down I like how rough the surface can be, I’m interested in the ageing of a painting. I love the Giotto paintings in Padua and Assisi. You can see fragments where the paint has been completely worn down by age and I really love that quality of dusty, chalky surfaces. I also like the work of Prunella Clough. I like the surfaces of her paintings, the work at first seems ambiguous but after careful looking you can see how she has arrived at specific forms.
How long does it take you to make your paintings?
I work on pieces for a long time. Sometimes I get too involved with the process of working rather than the end thing because I’m enjoying painting. Paintings can arrive really quickly and other times they can go on for months depending on the individual piece.
What do you enjoy about showing your work in the Artists’ Open House?
The open house can be unexpected. You can meet very interesting people who are local but not necessarily involved with art. It’s good to get feedback about my work. I think people also enjoy seeing studios in a home environment. From a personal perspective it’s a good opportunity to connect with other artists and see how like me, we are juggling making work and bringing up a family.
Drawing is obviously very important to you. How do you feed the drawing elements into your work?
I have always drawn; I discover ideas through drawing. I have sketchbooks and fill them with drawings that are very quick, thumbnail sketches of ideas, that have come from the landscape. I use these to go directly into the paintings. Shapes from my drawings will be used in linocuts or mono prints, which will then be fed into my paintings. It seems haphazard but it’s not. I will break up and fragment images in the process of working. I’m not somebody who can have an idea and then do it straight away. My work very much comes out of the process of working and reworking until there is a visual cohesion.
Tony Beaver is a painter living and working in South East London. He went to Goldsmiths’ College in the mid-Eighties where he was taught by the conceptual artist Michael Craig-Martin. Having moved away from painting at College he gradually returned to it and has been shortlisted for the Garrick Milne Prize, The Celeste Prize and the Discerning Eye.
What was the first thing you painted?
My original subject was potatoes. To teach myself to paint technically I wanted to be able to paint solidly with light and shadow. I chose a potato because I’d never seen a picture of a potato before, so I didn’t feel I was in competition with anything. A couple of months turned into a year, and then into 4 or 5 years.
There was a moment when I had to decide whether I wanted to do that for the rest of my life. People have had sillier lives than that! I realised that my potatoes were my attempt to do portraits and what I wanted to do was portraits.
The way you paint potatoes changes with time, so they become self-portraits of where one is in one’s life. I think if you were to paint a potato every day for the rest of your life, some would be about death, some would be about children, some would be about doubt, some would be about celebration. That’s just the way self-expression is, you can’t keep it in.
How many potatoes do you think you’ve painted?
I’ve lost count. I am still interested in painting potatoes. I go back to it to see what’s happening with it. They have become a point of connection. People recognise them. When you’ve been doing them for a long time and people like them and buy them, they become adverts for themselves. That’s another reason to keep on doing them. Every house should have one! That would be brilliant.
The potato lead you to painting portraits of recognisable figures like Tommy Cooper and Kenneth Williams. What attracted you to them as subjects?
Both of them are from that generation of people who did national service; they are very rich psychologically. I choose lots of people because of that. I have also done portraits of Tony Hancock, Charles Hawtrey… They don’t have the spin that people have nowadays. They don’t seem so self-aware. They express themselves so strongly.
I think of them as archetypes of ways of being men. I want the paintings to be about a way of being a man, that is unusual and admirable, and to do with not-obvious qualities. The paintings of Tommy Cooper came out of the fact that he died on stage. I find that a very rich, full of meaning moment that Tommy Cooper did the most serious thing that you could possibly do, in front of an audience of millions. The paintings imagine the moment just after he has gone to the other side. I want them to look as though he’s emptying. He’s like an astronaut going into the after-life, exploring on behalf of us all. Because he was so loved, he can take people with him.
What about Kenneth Williams?
I’ve been painting him for years. I’m interested in him because of the type of man he was. I’m interested in the notion of Britishness and what these men represent about Britain. Kenneth Williams represents a whole huge chunk of a type of Britain. He’s a national treasure. And yet he was a very brittle personality and misunderstood and difficult and like a hedgehog, very defensive. I’m trying to capture something of that.
Your paintings of pots seem to be related to your potato paintings…
I like painting lowly things. I started doing them because they were lowly, like the potatoes. Lowly is good. I was drawing in the British Museum and I noticed that there were rooms and rooms of these kind of pots. I noticed that they had more pots than anything else and they were utterly ignored but they had a strong feeling of the ancient. They are painted from photographs I take at the British Museum and bring them back to the studio. I do a bit of drawing there too.
You are a self-taught painter. How have you taught yourself to paint?
I go to the National Gallery and I have a day of doing fur and looking really closely at all the fur, trying to work out how they have done it. It’s a joy for me to do that. And then do metal the next day. It’s so marvellous. Painters look at paintings to see how they have been done. The technical aspect of painting really fascinates me.
I have done a whole series of works on water, based on looking at baroque paintings, and Caravaggio. When you see paintings in situ in churches in Rome by the Masters, you realise that what they are trying to do is create a miracle, or a feeling that a miracle is about to happen. They have the power of that. And that’s why I like Baroque painting because it’s to do with acknowledging the miraculous. I think that’s one of the things that painting can do, that nothing else can. It can make that acknowledgement to the miraculous. So I did a series of paintings of water because I wanted people to look at it and wonder how it had been done, like a magic trick. Painting is like a magic trick, and it’s also alchemy. It’s changing oil paint into water.
You have recently started making paintings of guinea pigs. What interests you about the guinea pig as a subject?
I like the idea of a really, really tiny life, that doesn’t have a lot of effect in the world, put in a big space. Those are the two ideas that I want to bring together. A small life, big space.
The guinea pigs are the easy bit. It’s the space that’s hard bit. I want the space to be enormous and psychologically enormous, like a dream space, or a heaven, or something. So it’s really difficult. I’m not there yet and I’m beginning to worry slightly. I haven’t cracked it yet.
The subjects are very diverse. How would you sum up what you are looking for in a subject?
I try new subjects all the time, but I look for a subject that has legs and that you can do again and again and get deeper into.
There’s an expression that cricket commentators use, and they say ‘the ball got big on him’ and it means that the ball bounces a bit nearer to the batsman than they had judged and suddenly it’s heading towards their face. That’s what I’m looking for in a subject. I want the ball to get big on you.
Martin Grover lives and paints in South East London, working from a studio in West Norwood for over 20 years. As a painter and printmaker, his work combines scenes from every day life with elements of the surreal and humour.
How did your interest in painting begin?
I’ve always enjoyed drawing and painting. I remember taking myself up to my room as a child and losing myself in work. I’ve continued that enjoyment and interest throughout school, Trent Polytechnic, the Royal Academy Schools and beyond.
How would you describe your work?
My paintings and prints in style are quite realistic, not photographic but they can be intensely detailed. It’s about taking the familiar and giving it a little twist. My work over the years has developed into a few distinct strands. I paint traditional landscapes or cityscapes, a lot of these paintings are based around Brockwell Park and West Norwood. For the last 15 years I have also been painting old vinyl singles, I call them my flat still lives. Originally they were painted life size but after a few years my faltering eyesight and a wish to give them more impact led to me enlarging the paintings to 1 metre square. So they have become more of a celebration of the golden age of the 7” single whilst simultaneously lamenting its demise.
My screen prints incorporate these landscape and record influences but I also create prints that use more text, have a bit more of a pop art influence and are more humorous, wistful, and playful. Such as the ‘Panic and Give Up’ screen print my little antidote to the ‘Keep Calm…’ epidemic.
Does where you live have an influence on your work?
West Norwood and Brixton continue to be fertile sources of inspiration. I’ve had a studio in West Norwood for 20 years now so I’m always walking around the area, making mental notes and doing drawings. Brockwell Park is important influence because that was where I took my children when they were young and where I walk the dog now. The more time I spent in the park more I fell in love with it. At certain times and in certain areas you feel are in the countryside while other aspects offer majestic and sweeping views of London.
One of my continuing series of paintings uses local scenes as a backdrop in which to place portraits of some of my favourite singers. They roam South London streets and Brockwell Park singing their songs of love, deep soul, regret and redemption. This series began with a reported sighting of Barry White outside Brixton Town Hall (this was at a time when a lot of the old soul acts were playing at Ceaser’s in Streatham). I loved that piece of hearsay and I conjured up a painting of Barry waiting to cross Acre Lane. Subsequent paintings have him in Brockwell Park taking a well-deserved rest. Dubious or not this little anecdote has led to an ongoing list of paintings and prints that includes Marvin Gaye, Bobby Womack, Billy Stewart, Lamont Dozier, Jerry Butler, Rance Allen, Tyrone Davis, Johnny Cash, The Carter Family, Irma Thomas, Hank Williams and Al Green.
Your paintings are like scenes from a narrative. Do you know how these stories unfold?
My sources and inspirations are simple. Consisting of childhood recollections, minor street scenes, small news items, poetry, short stories, radio anecdotes, old 45’s, lost toys, bus stops, sheds and shelters. All these things have an inherent narrative some that can be fully realised in a painting while others are left hanging, the opening sentence to a story but no more, drawing you in but leaving a melancholic or unsettling ambiguity. Over the years, I’ve based a few paintings on John Betjeman poems so they have a distinct narrative, a beginning and an end if you like. Other paintings have no narrative to begin with, just an idea or an image, both the viewer and myself are left guessing as to what has already occurred or what may be about to happen.
Can you give me an example of how you have illustrated stories you might have read or heard in the news?
The screen print and painting ‘Peace River Story’ is an example of how I like to illustrate stories, songs, books or poems. This particular piece is based on a little newspaper story that teetered on the edge of tragedy. A three year old boy was camping with his parents by the mighty Peace River in British Columbia. He awoke early one morning before his parents and promptly drove his electric car into the river and to his delight was swiftly carried away downriver. He drifted for more than four hours before coming to rest in some shallows many miles away, totally oblivious to the frenzied and frantic search that had been undertaken and the danger he had been in. He suffered mild hypothermia and a barrage of local press interest. The painting uses the simple image of the drifting car, vulnerable in this vast wilderness. It has a slightly eerie quality and it’s a good example of how the less we know about the source of the narrative the better.
What kind of mood are you trying to evoke in your landscapes?
I always think of them as being quite melancholic. I think one of my default settings is melancholy but then again I like comedy and humour so sometimes the paintings and prints are distinctly one or another and at other times they are a strange combination of the two.
What is your process of working?
With the record paintings I treat them like still lives, so I pin them on the wall and paint them directly, top lighting them and scaling up the larger scale paintings.
For the landscapes I go out and do drawings, take photographs. I work from these and sometimes make things up. I like the accidental, things that happen through that process can be quite thrilling, rather than to try and make it as accurate and realistic as possible.
I don’t consider myself a natural artist, I’m a great believer in trying to work every day, you can’t wait around for inspiration, I get really inspired when I have made something and even though it’s wrong I can see where to take it. Doing observational drawings or sketches are very important in my process. It doesn’t sound very bohemian or artistic but I have to treat the creative process like a job.
How long do your paintings take to make?
The records can take anything from 10 days to a month. The larger landscapes evolve over a longer period and take up to three months. It’s important to be able to step away from them from time to time and that is where screen printing has been a real blessing, it gives me the opportunity to finish a piece of work relatively quickly and to try out different ideas. Printmaking is more of a process and sometimes it’s good to have that, a beginning and an end. The paintings can be so open ended, not so linear and are never really finished…..
What artists do you like looking at?
Some of the artists I like are Edward Hopper, Stanley Spencer, Andrew Wyeth, Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious, Edward Gorey, Ben Shahn and Laura Knight. The record theme is more influenced by pop art and a lot of the prints I do use bits of text, reference adverts or book illustration.
Music is a very important part of your life…
At the secondary school I went to, if you were interested in art, the teachers were happy to let you get on with whatever you wanted to do as they had to spend most of their time in preventing a mini riot. I used to copy album covers. I was into rock and progressive music. That was all about album covers so that was a big influence growing up. I need to have music on in the studio when I’m working. .
I was commissioned to paint some old singles for a client, he wanted a trompe l’oeil (trick of the eye) effect that he had seen me do with other still lives, most notably my shirt and tie paintings. He was really pleased with the results and I was quite inspired by doing them. I’ve been collecting singles for a long time now so I just carried on painting from my own collection. I tend to choose ones which have iconic graphic designs covers where the paper is quite worn. I can get quite excited by little tears and creases and the way the paper has discoloured and become slightly transparent.
Is it important that you like the music?
It helps but I didn’t want it to be about what I thought was good music because everyone has their own opinion. I didn’t want it to be that subjective. It’s as much about celebrating the idea of vinyl especially the 45 and how important it was for a lot of us growing up. And it’s making a bit of a comeback, the CD was supposed to be the future but it’s been shown up to be the bearer of false promise, vinyl is where the soul is.
How did the bus stop paintings come about?
The bus stops prints and 3D pieces are another strand of my work. I was having an exhibition and I had the idea of using the London bus stop template as an invite for the show. Then I tried a little screen print which was quite good but I thought it could be improved and I’ve been trying to perfect it ever since.
Where does the text come?
Some of the text comes from song and book titles ‘Stop In The Name of Love’ or ‘Hangover Square for example. Others are just little puns or turns of phrases that I think will work. The most popular piece of text I have used is known as the ‘Bus Driver’s Prayer’. I always thought this was written by Ian Dury because I’d heard it on one of his albums and it is definitely something that fits his unique style. It turns out to be an anonymous poem which he slightly adapted. It’s an ode to London districts and roads but done in the rhythm of the Lord’s Prayer. It’s brilliant and I wish I had written it because it is perfect. Bus stops tell you where you are, where you are heading towards and the various places you will be going through to get there. I like the idea of the bus stop representing a life journey, real as well as imaginary.
How important is humour in your work?
Humour is important. It allows me to go off at a tangent, offering respite from the sometimes stressful/tedious process of working on large detailed and melancholic canvases, which can take months to complete.
The bus stop series of prints and sculptures, ‘Life in the Bus Lane’ is a good example of this. It has developed over the last 13 years, alongside my more traditional landscape and cityscape paintings. As previously mentioned the idea was to use the London bus stop as template for an exhibition invite. Doing it as a limited edition print I started to think about the rich variety of poetic destinations and street names London has to offer, while also beginning to make up a few of my own. The prints eventually turned into 3D pieces as well and they have enabled me to mix elements of melancholy with wry and whimsical humour, incorporating book, poem and song titles as well as various turns of phrase, proverbs etc. For the bus numbers I substitute various states of mind, internal dialogues or general observations. Destinations are changed to reflect ambitions or personal dilemmas; places to avoid or more importantly places to aspire to, reflecting the various journeys we undertake in our minds as well as in reality. Being a life-long bus user I know that they are perfect places to mull over life’s trials and tribulations, on buses we can daydream, read, sightsee, be a bystander or become part of the tumult and hubbub, the ebb and the flow of London life.
‘From Anger Lane to Healing Common’ is one such print. This stop includes the ’Bus of Sighs’, ‘Trouble Bus’, ‘Bus of Un-rung Bells’, ‘Also-rans Bus’ as well as the more tender ‘Bus of First Loves’ and ‘Bus That Brings Me Back To You’….
What do you like about painting?
I love the process of painting of being able to transform this acrylic liquid into something that resembles a real thing, I still get a big kick out of that. At school I was always being told that I would be suited to graphic art. Even though I bucked expectations and chose the much less profitable Fine Art route my style has remained graphic. I like creating images. With the screen prints, I don’t use any photographic stencils, everything is hand painted on to the screen and I have enjoyed doing all the lettering. It suits me that a very simple process can become quite complex with the overlaying colours and the creation of different tones. I like the independence to it. I’m not reliant on lots of chemicals or lots of equipment. You just adapt to a way of working, every artist is looking for their own way of doing things. The way I do my screen prints, it’s not unique but they have a look and feel that makes them fairly original.
How long have you been doing Artists’ Open House and what do you like about doing it?
This will be the fifth year I’ve taken part in Artist’s Open House. The boundary changed a few years ago to include residents and studios in SE27, I’d always enjoyed doing Open House/Studios in the past. Also it allows the artists here at Carlew House to be a bit more sociable with one another, as we are normally quite solitary creatures or we operate on different time patterns. AOH is incredibly well organised and is a much anticipated date in the cultural calendar. It has become such a large event and there is a really high standard and variety of work so it is an honour to be part of it. It’s a great way to meet people and clients. The informality of the event is quite refreshing. The people I have met through doing it are really enthusiastic and make a great effort to plan their routes, targeting certain areas over a number of years. Gallery shows are fine and necessary but I feel more in control and at home here in my studio. People are really interested in seeing how and where artists operate.
Carys Davies is a ceramicist who works from a studio in Parade Mews in Tulse Hill. Having left her career as an engineer she re-trained and set up on her own as an artist, making porcelain pots.
How did you first become interested in ceramics? I was good at science so there was never any question that I would do art A-Level let alone an art degree. I was lucky because although I didn’t study art at school, my school had a pottery club so I got to do ceramics right up until I left.
I went on to do an engineering degree where I developed an interest in design and problem-solving. I became an engineer and consultant working on the design of systems. After a 30 year career, I jacked it all in and went back to college to do a ceramics degree at Harrow.
I finished college and I got a job in Parade Mews working for another potter. After 5 years, I set up on my own as a ceramist.
What does your background in engineering add to your process of working? I was attracted to engineering because of the materials. As an engineer, I made gas turbines for aeroplane engines. Throwing a pot and making the combustion chamber for a gas turbine engine are quite similar. They both go round.
I was always very interested in materials and how they work and how they affect what you can make out of them and also the importance of the feel of design. When you are making ceramics, it’s all about the feel of it. There is quite a lot of feel, even when you are designing the very high tech stuff in industry.
I was an engineer at a time when it wasn’t very common for women to be accepted on the shop floor so I moved from engineering into computers. It wasn’t that long ago, but it was long enough ago, that you couldn’t get a job as a woman. A lot of design also happens in computing. There are no materials in software, although code has a sort of materiality.
Today people talk about the correlation between knitting and coding and say girls should be able to code because they can knit – it’s bonkers! The first computer programme was written by a woman, Ada Lovelace, who was directly inspired by the Jacquard Loom, which used punched cards. The Jacquard Loom is considered an important step in the history of computing hardware. I like the idea that weaving gave rise to computing.
Where do you your ideas for your ceramics come from? I think it’s from the materials actually. I throw in porcelain, which is a very recalcitrant material – it doesn’t do what you want. It wobbles and goes pyroplastic in the kiln. It’s always a collaboration between you and the porcelain. The pots I love the most are the ones where that’s most strongly felt. I make these oval pots that are called ‘Volcanic Oysters’ where I just squeeze the pot when it comes off the wheel. In the kiln, the shape will be impacted by the stresses within the walls of the porcelain, like engineering. Sometimes it becomes rounder because the stresses make it go back into a circle. A lot of my work comes out of these processes.
I’m also inspired by the landscape and its textures. I make these blue and white pots, where I use the horizon line, the sea and the sky. The textures I use are also very landscapey, volcanic or inspired by rocks and things like that. I’m much more into nature than urban stuff.
I spent years working with metal making aeroplanes in titanium, but I’m not inspired by the look of the industrial environment, just its dynamics.
Can you be more specific about what you like about working with porcelain? With porcelain you get a fantastic colour response so you can get very pale and beautifully subtle gradations of colour. You just don’t get this range of colours with stoneware because of the iron in it. I also like it as a material, because you working with the edge of its ability to cope. It’s like making things out of silk, rather than out of felt. You can make anything you want out of felt, because it’s not going to fray. Somehow there is no challenge in that. And the challenge is often what makes you make the mistake that makes you think harder about it.
Are you inspired by any particular artists? Does that inform what you do? I’ve been inspired by poets and people who write text. I use a lot of text on my pots. Although I’m Welsh I’m not very good at Welsh but I have used the text of Welsh poets in my work. A recent work, ‘Wylan’ which means seagull in Welsh in inspired by a very famous poem ‘The Seagull’ written by Dafydd ap Gwilym, who was born around 1315. Wales was the centre for poetry in Europe at this time, and this poem, which is about his girlfriend, is fantastic, because it still feels very contemporary. The emotions in it are very sharp. So I like the idea of that, of bringing disparate things together. Like writing on pots.
When did you start working with text? At college I was writing formulas on the pots. There are lots of formulas to do with rotating bodies and things going round and the descriptions of the stresses and strains of the spherical vessel. They are very pretty because they are all in Greek writing so I was writing these on pots.
I did a site-specific installation at a National Trust property called Cotehele near Plymouth. When you do a site-specific installation, your work needs respond to the environment. I needed to change my work to make it fit into this place steeped in history. I started to write on the side of the pots so that they had a ghostly pale look of something from the past. The writing was related to the history of the place – things written in the 1640s by the people living there.
Can you talk a little bit about your process of working. How evolved are your ideas before you start making the piece? As I’m material based, the work develops through the material. The way the writing is put onto the pots has evolved through experimentation. Some of the writing is incised and some of it is done with the resist of shellac. Until you use the shellac you don’t know what it’s going to come out like. In the past I made a lot of work with single writing and then started using double writing, which I prefer. I want to make my pots more complex.
Market pressure is another factor in the way I make work. In ceramics, you either sell a lot relatively cheaply or a few very expensive. There isn’t really a middle way. All the galleries are one or the other. Sometimes you make something which you think you’ve got right and nobody wants it. It makes you think again about the work and what you want. I do have to make a living so this is a factor in the way I make work. Recently, I’ve been making a lot of bigger and more complicated work because these are the works that are selling.
How interested are you in the technical aspect of making pots? Harrow, where I did my degree, is well known for being more technical than other places. It’s not something that everyone is interested in as a ceramicist. I really enjoy this aspect of ceramics; it relates to the engineer/scientist part of me. My glaze books are where I record my work and write down and document the technical processes involved in getting certain colours and affects. If you fire in a gas kiln, where the work is positioned in the kiln alters what comes out. So you have to take a picture of the position of the pot in the kiln. A lot of it is very technical.
Do you welcome mistakes or accidents in your work? I welcome mistakes and accidents. Out of mistakes, I have sometimes discovered really lovely effects and because I’ve always made a note of what I’ve done, I can work out how to get the same effect again. The ‘mistake’ glaze is sometimes nicer than the glaze I was trying to get!
My volcanic work came from an accident. Whenever I’ve approached a gallery these are always what they take first. It’s always what the new customers buy first because it’s so distinctive and it’s also plain. Distinctive and plain is really hard to do. Nobody else can make this because it’s complicated. Even if I gave them the recipe it’s really hard to make it work.
How long have you been involved in the Artists’ Open House? I have been involved for around 5 or 6 years. My current studio is in Parade Mews but I used to work in Edmund De Waal’s old studio, which is a very nice artist-designed space based in the Mews. At the time, the Dulwich Festival didn’t really come over this far. I applied a few times and was the first person in the Mews to get in. I think half the people who came that first year just wanted to see Edmund’s space and not my pots! Over the years more and more people in the Mews have come on board.
What I love about it is that you are meeting people and talking to them about your work and you are not really trying to sell them stuff. It’s more relaxed. They are seeing the whole of you as an artist, not just what a shop has bought, or a show has decided to let you show. And by seeing people’s response to my work, it sometimes makes you revaluate what you are doing.