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Interview with Julia McKenzie

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.

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