Tour of My Artists Open House

Wow. I have just completed the second weekend of my first solo Artist Open House as part of the Brighton Festival. It has been an overwhelming success with 18 out of 30 pieces sold so far. As well as the sales, it has been wonderful to meet so many new passionate artists and collectors, catch up with social media contacts 'face to face' and get together with many old friends.

If you fancy popping in, I am open for the next two weekends, Saturdays and Sundays 11am to 5pm.

Here is a little tour I did before I opened on that first Saturday.



Artist Open House - May 2017

I will running my first solo Open House this May.

Sat 6th and Sun 7th

Sat 13th and Sun 14th

Sat 20th and Sun 21st

Sat 27th and Sun 28th

Open 11am to 5pm and at other times by appointment.

22 Clifton Street



I am very excited and a little bit terrified.


Through the Looking Glass

My fingers have been hovering over this blog post for weeks, maybe longer. What a can of worms. Everything I try to write leads me down rabbit holes, up walls and round many, many bends. It's a big and complicated beast this abstract art stuff. So perhaps it is easier to start with what this post is NOT about.

Firstly, this is not a history lesson. If you do want a quick referesher The Tate has a great glossary of terms that you can dig into if you fancy. Secondly, this is not a 'how to' guide - either on how to decipher a painting and certainly not is it how to paint one. It is essentially an exploration of how I am moving between figurative and abstract painting. It's a bit of a ramble and a way for me to unravel my own thoughts, so at times it may not even make sense. But that's a great metaphor for art anyway, so lets move on.

So, it all started back in September 2014. I returned to painting and drawing after a break of about 20 years, and for the most part this was in the life room.

One of my first Life Drawings of Felix. November 2014.

One of my first Life Drawings of Felix. November 2014.

I started once a week, then twice. Then it became a whole day and then another half day. Plus a couple of little courses thrown in for good measure.

Profile of Laura from Portrait Painting Masterclass with Ilaria Rosselli Del Turco. May 2016.

Profile of Laura from Portrait Painting Masterclass with Ilaria Rosselli Del Turco. May 2016.

So quite clearly, despite Life Drawing being a controversial discipline in the art world, I am a big fan.

"The phrase 'the life room' elicts extreme reactions. It often smacks of reactionary aesthetics and dilettantish Sunday painters, a charge that extends to the belief that only the total eradication of the life room could free artists from a tradition that had strangulated generations. Indeed, by the late 1950s the life room had become synonymous with an old fashioned skills-based approach to the teaching of art that was stultifying innovation." - The London Art Schools: Reforming the Art World, 1960 to Now by Nigel Llewellyn

When starting something new, one of main barriers is often finding the time. By joining a regular, well organised class that time becomes scheduled and it soon became routine for me and the family. I also liked the fact that it was away from the house. Being self-employed and working from home it was good to have a change of scene - and the Studio at Draw, Brighton is a wonderfully inspiring room to work in. But perhaps most importantly for me, by joining a life class I also found a supportive community. It quickly came apparent that I wasn't the worst, or the best, or the oldest and there were plenty of other local people, like me, who for one reason or another wanted to draw and paint more. Plus it's always warm, you can go anytime of the day / week / year and there is tea and biscuits.

The Doors of Perception (The Studio at Draw, Brighton)

The Doors of Perception (The Studio at Draw, Brighton)

So, technically speaking, when you don't know what your subject is and your muse is still waiting to make her entrance, the life room is a fantastic place to learn the tricks of the trade. There is the opportunity to explore all the mediums you can get your messy hands on and other people to help you use them. But most importantly, there is no better place in which to battle with the demons of scale, compositon, form, colour, weight and representation than in the life room.

Mark on Blue. December 2015.

Mark on Blue. December 2015.

But, 18 months later, all my paintings started to look the same and that focus on really, really looking became a problem.

"... a life class has always been an artificial situation.... One sees a stranger naked and draws her well, although I think it's only the training ground, it doesn't seem to me to be the situation in which one makes an image." - Frank Auerbach

Essentially, I came to realise that capturing a good likeness does not mean, in the slightest, that you will create a good painting.

If only it was that simple.

Francis Bacon, Two Studies for a Self Portrait (1970)

Francis Bacon, Two Studies for a Self Portrait (1970)

Around the same time, I also visited the Richard Diebenkorn exhibition at The Royal Academy and started to see how by concentrating on colour and form - you could, maybe take your eyes off the subject for a bit. There was a space in Art that wasn't simply just 'Figurative' or just 'Abstract'. I knew this was where I wanted to go, but didn't have a clue how to get there.

Richard Diebenkorn, Cityscape No.1 (1963)

Richard Diebenkorn, Cityscape No.1 (1963)

And this is for me, is when the great crashing, noisy, all-to-obvious-now-you-mention-it enormous reality hit me. The crux of it, actually, is that a truely great painting has to stand on it's own two feet. And actually, the greater the painting the less it has to do with the subject at all. Of course, I always knew this in someway in relation to other artist's work - say a Picasso for example. But suddenly I felt I had found a way to break out of the tight, figurative cycle I felt stuck in.

So, for example, if I paint a picture of a cat. You will judge the quality of that painting on how much it happens to look like an actual cat. You may have a preference on the colours, medium and style, but essentially it will work because you think I have captured the qualities you think are most important in cats, or even in a particular cat - if you are a cat person. Put simply, if you like cats you are more likely to like a painting of a cat than someone who doesn't like cats.

Anyway, this is not to say you can't have a great painting of a cat. But it has to have something extra. I'm not particularly a cat person, so lets change the subject - flowers.

Monet, Water Lillies, Setting Sun (1907)

Monet, Water Lillies, Setting Sun (1907)

For the sake of this blog post, I am assuming that you believe, like me, that Monet's Waterlillies are some of the greatest Impressionist works of art in the World. So, to prove my point, although there are Waterlillies in this painting, there is so much more than that. The colour, light, movement, scale and use of paint becomes more important than the subject - to put it another way, the sum is greater than the parts. And, critically, the response becomes emotional, rather than rational. Louise Bourgeois is another example. Her Spiders are more spider-y than the real thing.

Louise Bourgeois, Maman (1999)

Louise Bourgeois, Maman (1999)

Therefore, you can apply the same argument to abstract paintings. Because you are not bothered with placing the accuracy of the drawing on a scale of 1 to 10. You can start to appreciate the piece as an autonomous object.

Kline, Black Iris (1961)

Kline, Black Iris (1961)

Rothko, Light Red over Black (1957)

Rothko, Light Red over Black (1957)

And you start to engage with your feelings.

And that really is the point. I finally realised, despite years and years of looking at my subject and trying to render it realistically, I had to stop looking and start feeling.

Sundowning. 2016.

Sundowning. 2016.

If I create from the heart, nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing.” - Marc Chagall.

Process for Progress

It is three weeks since I hung my first solo show, This Shimmering Space. Thank you to everyone that attended the Private View, sent messages of support, bought a painting and have generally just given so much encouragement and support so far - thank you!

Since then I have attended the Abstract Expressionism exhibition at The Royal Academy, and also the private view of local stone carver, Paulien Gluckman. It was interesting to browse through Paulien's beautiful sketchbooks and see the thought process involved in bringing one of her sculptures to life. This led me to think about my own research patterns and process and in the end, I decided that I probably talk about my work better than I can write about it.

Please forgive the umms and errrs and overall clunkiness - particularly at the start and finish. The whole thing is just over 9 minutes, so it might be worth putting the kettle on beforehand.

Take a look at the finished paintings here.

“There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality.” - Picasso.

This Shimmering Space

This Shimmering Space is a new collection of abstract works. Inspired by Brighton’s seafront, it explores the many contradictions inherent within our experience of the place. Executed with a palette of blacks and muted greys, the paintings intend to locate the perfect balance between emotional vastness, escape and restraint. Heavy, urban forms are juxtaposed with drizzling skies and hazy seas, which contrast with the queasy pinks of candy floss and Brighton Rock plus the mint green of the municipal paintwork. This Shimmering Space is a tribute to Brighton, its light, its dark, and all its variant shades of life between. 

This Shimmering Space, MangeTout, 81 Trafalgar Street, Brighton. BN1 4EB.

Monday 10th October to Saturday 12th November 2017.

Private View: Thursday 13th October 6pm to 7.30pm

"This shimmering space, where imagination and reality intersect... this is where all love and tears and joy exist. This is the place, this is where we live." – Nick Cave, 20,000 Days on Earth.

Art in Brighton - Review of The New Immortals

I've written a review on the New Immortals Exhibition at The Phoenix Gallery in Brighton. I've called it "In God We Do Not Trust" in reference to the old Brighton motto, "In Deo Fidemus", which is a bit obtuse now I come to think of it. Anyway, it's a good exhibition on until 20th March.

Guyan Porter’s  ‘Species’

Guyan Porter’s ‘Species’

You can read the whole review here.

You can find out more here.

Artist in Residence - Adrian Turner

I have known Adrian Turner for a very long time. Our commercial relationship goes back to my first agency job in the mid-nineties and during the last 20 years he and his wife, Di have been a constant source of support, wisdom and inspiration. They produced amazing work both on location and in their previous massive studio, complete with original SSE jukebox.

These days, Adrian focuses more on his own work and having just completed a big sale of his seascapes, it's the perfect time to discuss his more creative output.

Two Tides Marina 20.11.12 - My favourite image of Adrian's.

Two Tides Marina 20.11.12 - My favourite image of Adrian's.

AB: So, you are probably best known for your beautiful seascapes. Are they still your 'thing'?

AT: They are one of three 'things' at the moment. But I do go out and watch the sun come up over the sea everyday. I like to watch the light change. So I'm taking photos everyday. I get really itchy otherwise; I find I've got to do something. And Facebook and stuff is good for that, because you think 'I've got to put something up there'.

AB: Yes, that’s true. I found my #sketchaday project really pushed me to do stuff.

AT: And you get a response as well don't you? Because working by yourself - it can be really isolating.

AB: Exactly, and for me it documents the journey. Because even if I do a crap painting, I'll paint over it. But I'll take a photo and then when I look back I can see the journey.

AT: But I don't think you should ever throw anything away.

AB: What! You're joking.

AT: No, I think I can say this because I've just cleared my parent's house and there are my Dad's old Art School portfolios from 1936. He did commercial art - so 'graphics' now I guess and actually, you know I've never ever thrown a negative away. Actually I tell a lie - when we moved studios I threw away all the commercial work!

Adrian's Great Uncle, the subversive illustrator, Alan Odle.

Adrian's Great Uncle, the subversive illustrator, Alan Odle.

AB: Was that painful?

AT: No! I had cupboards full. I skipped the whole lot. Except I found an old picture of a guy holding a floppy disk. I kept that one.

AB: Sounds like it was cleansing.

AT: Yes it was. That studio had become a burden rather than a creative space. I felt in the end that I was being forced to do stuff. But now, I might pick up a nice little job and the money goes in the bank rather than paying the rent or the gas bill. And that’s amazing!

AB: So do you feel more creative now?

AT: Well yes, I've been thinking about that and I realised that I do all my work early in the morning anyway, before the sun is even up fully. Obviously it changes with the seasons and at the moment I get a lie in. But every morning I get up when its dark and watch the light change.

Two Tides Shoreham harbour wall 2

Two Tides Shoreham harbour wall 2

AB: And is that always at the sea?

AT: Pretty much. Because for one reason you have a horizon and this panorama where you can look right and have storms over Shoreham and look left and it be bright sunshine and it changes and moves across.

AB: Yes, because there is nothing in the way, so it’s all about the light.

AT: Yes.

AB: But you don’t do it the other way round, when it gets dark?

AT: No, I can't be arsed with that. It’s too busy.

AB: So is it the sea, or is it the light?

AT: Well I started about 10 years ago, and I thought I wanted to be like Turner - you know strapped to the mast.

But I was looking at the results and thinking that is absolutely nothing like what I was experiencing. I was cold, soaking wet and terrified and the result was a few splashy waves.

Two Tides Hove Groyne 1

Two Tides Hove Groyne 1

But then we moved over to France and I started to look at it a lot more calmly. Because there is no one there.

AB: So that was the turning point that you starting to look at the light? Because you had less distractions?

AT: Well yes, you have to remember with a big plate camera you have one crack at it. It not like digital when you are rattling off hundreds of clicks. Each time you press the button it’s about 50 quid and you haven’t got a viewfinder. So you're not looking through a little hole. You've got to really look and say 'Now!' And you've got to be decisive - because when you've got a roll of film and you know you've 36 pictures.

It's when you stop and change the roll. That’s when it happens.

AB: That’s a good point. You're looking at the scene, not through the viewfinder. People forget how photography used to be. Scrabbling around in corners and under tables to change a film.

AT: I use the digital differently, because all the information is there. The time it was taken and the exposure. But I rarely use it as a way of planning a picture. It’s totally different. Although saying that I'm doing another project around town and I might go on to big format.

AB: So you'll choose your camera based on what you're doing.

AT: Yes I think that’s the thing about coming from advertising. You get so used to making things, for example if the weather wasn't right - you went somewhere where it was. And I'm really trying consciously not to do that anymore, I want to capture what’s really there.

AB: So its purely a emotional response?

AT: Well, we’ve all been there. You are walking on the downs or somewhere and you just think ‘wow’. And you think about how to try and reproduce that. And you know I really want to paint. Cos when I see painters they look at something and think I need to add a bit of yellow here and bit of green there and they have to build the whole thing up. But I can’t paint. I haven’t got the patience.

But there are certain things that you know a photograph is never going to capture. Even if I was the best in the world. There is no way a photograph is going to capture that.

It’s like there is a specific moment when the sun comes up and all the whites pop. I think how can I possibly capture that?

AB: And so far it’s eluded you?

AT: There’s loads of stuff that has eluded me. Its like when I saw Hockney’s first show of Polaroids – I remember thinking that’s the rule book gone.  Because it wasn’t the frozen moment, there wasn’t a frame even or a single viewpoint.

A later Hockney polaroid (Photographing Annie Leibovitz While She's Photographing Me, Mojave Desert, Feb.1983)

A later Hockney polaroid (Photographing Annie Leibovitz While She's Photographing Me, Mojave Desert, Feb.1983)

AB: And they’re Polaroids.

AT: Yes its like when I take photos on my phone. It’s a shit camera. But then the other day I was on the seafront and I saw this guy taking a photo. He showed me and I thought, that’s really good. I would spend hours fiddling with the shadows and saturation to try and get something like that. Here I am with 10 grands worth of kit round my neck and he’s taken that photo with a bloody phone and I bet he only looked at it once or twice. He has probably deleted it now as well.

AB: That’s the most interesting that has happened to photography recently isn’t it? The fact that everyone goes out and they have a camera with them.

AT: Yes someone said years ago that we’re all photographers now. But me taking my coffee photos isn’t like other people taking photos of their dinners. Its about what is it for.

One of Adrian's coffee photos from his personal facebook page.

One of Adrian's coffee photos from his personal facebook page.

AB: Yes and that spending ages thinking and looking – I believe for example, that Bailey will spend 40 or 50 minutes just chatting to his subjects and drawing them out and only when he feels he has done that and seen something does he go ‘click’ and that’s it.

AT: Yes, Steve Pyke, he works in the same way. And Jane Bown, I love her work. She has her camera in her shopping bag and then she might only take three frames and she is done. Portraits are so difficult because people always change when they are in front of a camera. Sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes that’s a bad thing.

AB: But you hate being photographed don’t you?

AT: God yeah I hate it. I have seen people taking a photograph for example if its just me alone on the beach and I find myself striking a pose because I think its going to make a good picture for them. I was walking along a path in the park, in the fog and I could see there was someone taking a photo at the end of the path. So I put myself right in the centre of the path so it made it symmetrical for her.

The rarely photographed Adrian Turner

The rarely photographed Adrian Turner

AB: So you composed it for her.

AT: Yes I did.

AT: But I also like Gregory Crewdsen and Jeff Wall – Jeff obviously sees something he wants to capture and the then re-creates it back in the studio with models. They’re huge photos and backlit. So there is nothing hidden, there are no shadows. It’s really interesting – and I think that about Goya – he must have seen something. Kept it in his head and then gone back to his studio and painted it. Amazing. I saw these Goya’s in Madrid and they totally took me by surprise.

Mimic, Jeff Wall, 1982

Mimic, Jeff Wall, 1982

AB: You had an epiphany.

AT: Oh I’m always having those. Have you seen there’s a bench in Brighton that says something like so-and-so had an epiphany on this bench, but then she forgot what it was.

AB: OH god, where is that? I’m always just walking in autopilot. I just take the shortest route somewhere and it all becomes wallpaper after a while.

AT: Yes, I can really talk about that. When my dad was very ill in 2002 – we couldn’t get to see him very often because he was so far away. So I would send him a little book every day. Up until that point I would always drive to work and I’d try to do it in less than three minutes. Just get from work to home and back again as quickly as possible. But before then, always going for a walk with my dad was a revelation; there was always something he would point out. So I thought I would start to walk to work and take photographs of stuff that we would normally look at and talk about. Stuff like his grandson’s record shop.

I would take these photos and make them into a book and send them to him. And as I was doing this, I realised that I had forgotten the art of looking. Cos as I said before - work was always making something, building room sets, employing models and I had forgotten to look at what was already there. And that was a light bulb moment.

It made me take a different route everyday. And even after he died I kept on doing it and I walked further and further. Because Brighton is very small and you walk through where the rich people live and then through where the poor people live and come out the other side – all in just a couple of hours. And that’s now a new project of mine called Sub Urbia – because you can see it changing. And there is certain point in the social strata where people start decorating their houses and there’s another one where they get a garage. And it's all for display to other people. And then you get the really really rich and they’ve got gates. But at the other end you have people in flats and they put their meercat displays in the window to show people. So its much more human at that end. And that’s been really interesting because you can see it all in the course of a single walk.

Images above, just a small selection from Sub Urbia.

You can see more of Adrian's work here

You can like his Facebook page here

Playing to the Gallery

I don't need to tell you that Artists are, generally a very snobby lot. Despite the lack of a traditional working model with formal titles such as 'manager' or 'director', they are still bound into a bitchy heirarchy based on their gender, success and chosen discipline.

For example, artists are either Fine Art, or they are not. All artists generally look down upon designers. And for the sake of fairness all artists and designers generally look down on everybody else. Got it?

“It’s very important, even to this day, how one defines oneself. I always define myself as an artist who happens to use traditional craft techniques and templates… because if you’re a craftperson and you want to expand, you’re forever shackled to that definition.” Grayson Perry

So Painting, Sculpture and 'MultiMedia' are seen as more creative than Graphic Design, Illustration, Fashion and Product Design. However, like a bohemian game of snakes and ladders, points can be gained and lost easily. A good degree can move you up, but little or no success takes you down ten points. A successful career in illustration for example, is worth more than being an unsuccessful sculptor. Then there is publishing, lecturing, shows and galleries all playing their parts. Then as you drill down further, even within Fine Art you have the figurative painters, like me at the bottom, with sculptors and film makers above. And sitting right at the top, like a bunch of avant-garde angels are the performance artists who are looking down on everyone.

The performance artists demand attention - it takes commitment on both sides. They demand your time, a place and as many senses as can be assaulted within their frame. I remember visiting the Turner Prize in 2012 when we meandered through the spaces of Luke Fowler, Paul Noble and saw the wonderful piece by Elizabeth Price. Then we were abruptly brought to our senses by Spartacus Chetwynd's performance. She brought the whole of the gallery to a halt and even dragged in bystander Noel Fielding to play a part. It was disruptive, challenging and immersive.

But, overall I am deeply embarrassed at my lack of knowledge in this genre. And with the prolific Marina Abramovic due to launch her memoir in 2016 and Laurie Anderson guest directing the Brighton Festival this year - Performance Art is big news.

So, when Helena Vortex invited me behind the scenes to sit in on a rehersal for her sold out show, Infamous Rising, I jumped at the chance.

Described as 'a journey through one woman's psychotic episode', Infamous Rising explores: 'pseudoscientific whitecoats and Jungian archetypes, an astronaut's dramatic fall to earth, an all-encompassing obsession with the colour orange, how to become the perfect man, a partial transformation into a faun, and the and rise to the Drag Kingdom.'

In reality Helena and her fellow performers interact with each other and a psychedelic backdrop incorporating stills, moving image and sound. The overall effect combines balletic movement with a hypnotic soundtrack and a feast of visual imagery that charts the journey of Helena's rebirth into the drag king Ace Heartbreaker.

It's heroic, sexy and very very clever.

I leave with a renewed sense of admiration for Helena and all performance artists. They are post-modern masters, blending together a diverse range of references and media to craft their vision. Performance requires discipline, collaboration and a mastery of the physical, visionary and aural. Unlike a canvas that can be transported anywhere, they work within the confines of the space, its context and also with time. They have nowhere to hide and put themselves literally in the centre of their work, inviting adulation and criticism like no other form of art.

In short, they deserve their place at the top of the creative tree. As works of art themselves they have destroyed any boundaries between art and life and exist at the cutting-edge of culture.

So as a dedication to all performance artists, here is the ultimate avant-garde angel - watching over all of us.

Grayson Perry quote from "Face to Face: Interviews with Artists by Richard Cork"

Photos are from rehersal of Infamous Rising at The Iron Duke, Brighton 19th Jan 2016.

Infamous Rising is on until Saturday 23rd Jan. Tickets are onsale here

Read my blog with Helena here.

The Highs and Lows of Cornwall

I've never seen the appeal of Cornwall. All those twisty turny vomit-inducing lanes leading to postcard pretty villages full of quaint cottages called 'Sea Breeze' or 'Windy Point' or other charming nonsense. Twee beyond belief gift shops, antique shoppees that frankly should be nailed under the mis-descriptions act and then cream teas, pasties and pubs..... yawn. And thats if any of the aforementioned is actually open. Seen one pretty Cornish village and you've seen them all.

However, there are the views - I'll give you the views. Combined with the famous quality of light.

So, having decided Cornwall isn't really my thing, it took something special to get me to go back - particularly during the rainiest January in living memory.

Maker Heights is a former Napoleaonic military base, set high above the Londoner's favourite 'unspoilt' spot of Kingsand on the Rame Peninsula. Maker is currently home to 'The Canteen' run by a River Cafe chef, a Gallery owned by former Lenkiewicz friend and model, Paul Somerville, 'the coolest campsite in Cornwall' (Cool Camping), a whole host of musicians and, last but not least, The Rame School of Artists.

At the centre of this community sits The Random Arms, a renegade pub sitting on the edge of the world, hosting live music and open mic sessions all year round.

In short, Maker has serious creative credentials combined with all the ingredients to attract the swathe of second-homers flooding the local villages. Plus a 360 degree view that is quite breathtaking.

But, it is falling apart.

Years of neglect have meant that the Artists residing in the main barracks building are struggling with the cold, constant leaks, doors blowing off and even on one occasion a collapsed floor.

I meet painter Heath Hearn and he explains how Maker is a unique artistic community with a healthy mix of painters, sculptors and musicians. They work hard to keep a balance so that one discipline never becomes more important than the others. Artists such as Steve JoyJK Lawson and Katy Brown are here because of the freedom that the location gives them. Plus of course, the rent is dirt cheap and the studios are massive, with high ceilings and wonderful light from the huge windows. But, they are freezing.

All the above photos are of Heath's studio and work in progress.

All the above photos are of Heath's studio and work in progress.

Heath and Katy Brown, have also forged links with the University of Plymouth and offer the art students temporary placements at Maker - giving them access to these huge studios and teaching. As well as being a clear benefit for the students, this constant injection of fresh blood on site creates encourages ideas to bounce around, keeping the whole enviroment alive and vibrant.

Paintings from Katy Brown.

Paintings from Katy Brown.

One of these students, Chelsea has now become a permanent artist at the site. As well as a painter she is also a musician and so resides at the noisier end of the Barracks.

Chelsea's space above

Chelsea's space above

As an outsider, it's all very well to see this group of creatives stuck on the hill, battling with the elements, as wild and romantic. But in reality, they are currently fighting with mouldy canvas, falling debris and water running down the walls.

Another studio in one of the out buildings.

Another studio in one of the out buildings.

Paul Somerville, the gallery owner on site says that visitors are undoubtedly put off by the derelict state of the buildings. His gallery sells top notch stuff from Howard Hodgkin and Terry Frost - but he admits that it can be hard to sell a £20,000 piece when he is next door to the portacabin that houses the loos.

 A gorgeous Howard Hodgkin at the Somerville Gallery.

 A gorgeous Howard Hodgkin at the Somerville Gallery.

But help is on the way and the whole Maker site has been bought by a sympathetic developer with a vision that will give Maker the TLC it so desperately needs to survive. As Heath puts it 'the dice have been rolled, but we don't know yet how they will fall'. Predictably, there are concerns over the scheme and how the unique 'bohemian' atmosphere can be maintained. But, without some outside help the whole environment is literally in danger of being blown away.

It was such a priviledge to visit Maker and The Rame School of Artists at this crucial time in their history and I will watch closely how this unique community will adapt and flourish within it's new and improved environment. I might even go back.....

Watch this space.

"All my early memories are of forms and shapes and textures. Moving through and over the West Riding landscape with my father in his car, the hills were sculptures; the roads defined the form. Above all, there was the sensation of moving physically over the contours of fulnesses and concavities, through hollows and over peaks – feeling, touching, seeing, through mind and hand and eye. This sensation has never left me. I, the sculptor, am the landscape. I am the form and I am the hollow, the thrust and the contour." Barbara Hepworth

quote from Extracts from Barbara Hepworth,  A Pictorial Autobiography, Bath, 1971

Simple Pleasures

At times, I take this art business very, very seriously. Which to be honest, to those that know me is quite odd, as overall I don't think I am a very 'serious' person. However, Art is something that I can get all quasi-religious about and, given a willing audience will gladly spout all sorts of platitudes to the point of utter tediousness. Do not, for example, ever offer to join me at the latest Turner Prize - trust me, no-one gets out alive.

An iconic Turner Prize line-up from 1991.

An iconic Turner Prize line-up from 1991.

So, it is a relief, frankly when I can find an environment that evokes the sublime experience I am craving but also means I can relax my inner tendency to dissect, conceptualise and critique. Yesterday, I visited the Courtauld Gallery and indulged my senses in the visual delight of The Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.

Kees van Dongen (1877 - 1968), Torso, The Idol 1905

Kees van Dongen (1877 - 1968), Torso, The Idol 1905

Back in the days of Art School, it was the height of naffness to admit a penchant for a bit of painterly Impressionism. And The Courtauld was, in a word, stuffy. Interestingly, the gallery still seems a little apologetic and lacks the blockbuster zeal so recently adopted by the Royal Academy (which was also stuffy, but now isn't), the V&A (always cool, but perhaps needs to calm down on the Disney-ing tendencies shown in Bowie and McQueen) and of course The Tate (lost the plot). But, this I think makes it all the more charming.

It shows small but relevant shows, most notably the stunning Schiele,'Radical Nude' and at the time of press the 'Soaring' Cornish Abstract painter, Peter Lanyon. However, whatever is on - it's worth the flight to the top of the North Wing. When you get there, the intimacy of the space, combined with the scale of the paintings and lack of visitors gives you the sense of being lost in the attic of some long abandoned stately home.

Modigliani, The Female nude circa 1916.

Modigliani, The Female nude circa 1916.

And, personally, I discovered an 'unfinished' Degas, or study that I find completely wonderful in its ability to capture mood, light and form with the paint seeming to barely stroke the surface.

Degas, Woman at a Window, 1871

Degas, Woman at a Window, 1871

And all this, before you venture downstairs to see the really big-hitters from Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh and Gauguin.

It really is a pleasure throughout, and, for me a joyous exploration in the medium of paint. This stuff is easy on the eye, accessible and arguably less challenging than all the other '-isms'. However, much as I love an un-made bed, porcelain crabs and The Black Square, sometimes what we really need is to stop over-thinking and just celebrate our human capacity to capture pure beauty in just a few dabs of pigment.

"The moment you cheat for the sake of beauty, you know you're an artist."
- Hockney


On Reflection

I've written my review of the year 3 times now. Deleted each and every one of them, still can't get it right.

Really, I just want to say two things....

Firstly, it's about how output needs input. It's all very well slaving away for hours on end, perfecting those tricky hands, or getting the weight of a pose just so. But, I've come to realise that as well as putting the hours in on your allotted craft - you need to go and see what else is going on. Look at stuff, read stuff, watch and listen.

Frank Auerback at Tate Britain / October 2015.

Frank Auerback at Tate Britain / October 2015.

And then, most importantly - find people to discuss it all with. Those conversations enrich beyond measure. They spark ideas, give you another perspective and every so often they throw you the life raft you so desperately need.

This post is really a massive ‘Thank You’ to everyone that has enriched my paintings and drawings this year. I've been watching, learning and listening and, trust me, I've been making notes.

No, the face may not look like you and you may not think there is any resemblance. But I can assure you that every 'like', every comment, a snatched conversation on the school run or a longer chat over a coffee has made an impact and is in there somewhere.

So before this post does a Paltrow....

Thank you and Merry Christmas.


Artist in Residence - Alex Butler and Andy Ash

Alex Butler and Andy Ash are married with 3 children. They are both artists who have recently returned to their practice after a difficult time for them as a couple. They are both happy to discuss this very personal journey that has seen them re-connect with each other as well as their desire to make sense of themselves through their art. They have literally re-built their home and domestic setting to bring the family back together.

We start off sitting at the family dining table.

Abi: So, I’m really interested in how artists that work from home either use or try and separate themselves from the domestic in their work. Particularly you, Alex as I know that your childhood and children are an important part of your work.

Alex: I really can’t remember what its like to make work without children. But they inform the work, yes. They remind me of my childhood, they remind me of the past, they remind me of journeys, they remind me of the sublime every single day.

I realised when they were little that looking after small children is mostly incredibly dull, with little stabs of the sublime.

For example, sometimes I’m cooking pasta and I find myself leaning against the counter really thinking. Then I have to rush upstairs before anyone stops me and write it down. The studio is where I actually make my work. But the ideas happen here – when I’m talking to the children in the kitchen. Andy built me this kitchen.

Andy: I did. It’s all recycled from old Victorian floorboards that I found in a skip.

Abi: Really? That’s impressive. But you don’t just get up one morning and decide to build a kitchen?

Alex: No, its part of a bigger picture. Our relationship was at an all time low. Andy had a nervous breakdown and out of that, he built me this kitchen. He didn’t consult me at all, and he has built me the exact kitchen space that was in my head. And now, I’m so happy here and it is a creative space.

Andy: Yes it was about creating a space where we could talk. Because we were finding the kids were dominating all spaces in the house. Mainly around the social areas, so we thought if we had somewhere that we could sit and talk but also do things in. But still be connected and close to them, because we also found that if we escaped, the kids followed you. But we found that if you were nearby, they were quite happy. And that was the only way we could find space.

Alex: Because we realized we didn’t have any time on our own. All the spaces in the house had the children there, in the bedroom they were always in there, and their stuff was in there – their slippers and their books. They’re in your bed, eating. And that was every single space.

Andy: We’re not saying we want to have formal boundaries.

Alex: But they’re everywhere!!!!

Abi: Yes, it’s the same with us. So when did this all happen?

Andy: About a year ago. It took a month to build from beginning to end.

Alex: But that’s because Andy was ill, and he didn’t want to go out. He didn’t want to do anything. But he did that. And it was creative as well.

Andy: And it was transformative and it was about the domestic. The kitchen that was here was horrible, and although it was relatively new, it just didn’t suit us.

Alex: No, and because it all worked and we didn’t have any money, we just put up with it. But we were so miserable in here, and now we really use this space.  And there is also the piece of work that Andy made on his 50th birthday.

Andy: I wanted to make something that was about our journey and reflecting. But also about us and our space and how our relationship and this space is such an integral part of our day-to-day.

Alex: Also, it’s about how you needed to come back together as a person isn’t it?

Andy: Yes, so although there are 9 different entities, they all collaborate and work as a whole. Whereas for many years that wasn’t the case. There was a dislocation. So this was about working at bringing those fragments together. And although it’s also quite aesthetically pleasing, it’s also practical.

Its reflective, it brings light into the darks metaphorically and literally.

Abi: So it becomes an installation? A purpose built space to make you feel a certain way?

Andy: Definitely. For me it was a practical way for me to try and make sense of things – but also, to move forward.

Alex: Yes and you had this big realisation that you were an artist and wanted to start making things again. I think it happened very instinctively. I was absolutely delighted. I loathed that kitchen from the moment we moved in, but we didn’t have the cash to do anything about it. And Andy can make stuff, and because he was signed off work he had the time to make something. So I loved it, but I also loved the fact that he made something that was completely recycled and it was exactly like something that was in my head. It was like he could see inside my head.

Abi: So in a way, it helped to reconnect you again? Because what you wanted was essentially the same thing?

Alex: And it rooted him back to this space – because Andy had been working away a lot and now it became his as well, not just for the girls and me.

Andy: Yes I didn’t decide to do the bathroom. It was a conscious act to reconnect with a space that I’d felt disconnected from for so long. Because I was working away a lot - when I came home Alex dominated this area. The kids dominated every area, and there didn’t seem there was a place for me. The only space I had was my office, which we’ve now converted into the studio, because there was so much resentment of me having an office.

Alex: And me not having a studio.

Abi: Especially, I should imagine, as it was empty because you weren’t here?

Alex: Exactly, it was a space I could use.

So then we decided to get rid of the office because we decided that we needed to make art more than we needed to do some paperwork.

Abi: So the kitchen was the start of the journey?

Andy: Yes the kitchen was definitely the start of us looking at how we use our home. Originally we thought about getting a studio away from the house to share. But then we decided it wasn’t sensible to remove ourselves. And when I was making stuff for the Brighton Festival I did most of the making on this kitchen table and saw how it influenced the kids. So that was really creative and I saw there was this opportunity to make together.

Alex: Which was about coming back into the family again.

Andy: Yes I found it really quite interesting being at home and making. But also combining these multiple facets of self or aspects of your reality. So I thought it was a much better idea to make a space in the house that we could use creatively.

Alex: Absolutely, we couldn’t afford a studio. Why are we finding more satellites?

We need to be at home. All of us. Together.

Abi: How has it influenced your art Alex, having Andy here?

Alex: Well I just had that crashing realisation that I needed to make work. It was just over a year ago and all the colour suddenly turned up on everything. I had art mania. I couldn’t stop. I was in revelry of ideas. I just kept writing them down. I can’t believe I didn’t make art for so long. Except that I know other women artists have said to me it’s because your youngest child is seven. Apparently that’s a thing. When you’re youngest child is seven, there is apparently enough distance between you and that child to be able to look in a different direction. And it really feels true.

When I first held my eldest child in my arms, I remember looking at her and thinking I will never make a piece of art again.

Because I couldn’t stop staring at her. And I haven’t really looked away for 13 years. But suddenly I have looked away, and it’s good for them, and its good for me.

Abi: It is fascinating how the two of you have dovetailed timing wise. Now you support each other.

Alex: We came to realise that instead of resenting each other, we asked each other what is it we really want to do and it was to make art. Andy never really talked about making art and I didn’t realise he was extremely depressed.

Andy: I was spending time looking at other peoples art. Going to private views and talking to students about their art. Then it was a sudden realisation that I was generating all these ideas that were being used for other things. But now that they could be used for self – without being selfish. It is very exciting, because it’s a new chapter isn’t it? And like anything, it has to be something that works for all of us. Because you can’t exist on your own in a family, or else there will be tensions. It has brought us closer together and closer as a family, because everything makes more sense now. There is less tension and resentment and everything is truer. It has a cleanness about it as opposed to a greyness or grubbiness.

Abi: That’s a lovely image.

Andy: Why try and resolve things that are outside of your day to day reality? That’s why I’ve been doing a lot of work around dyslexia, depression and dislocation.

Abi: But doesn’t that go back to that question of why we haven’t made art for twenty years. Is it because you have to find something that feels genuine to talk about and that often comes with age? I really struggled at Art College, because I had nothing to talk about.

Alex: I really enjoyed Art College and had a really productive time. But I made all these rules for myself. I would only make work which was about truth and the sublime, and that I thought could be useful to people. I was brought up a Catholic, so I used to believe in one absolute truth and one absolute God. But now I realize there isn’t one absolute truth. So fuck it. I’m just going to make what I want, and there aren’t any external rules. Now I don’t care if it’s relevant to other people. I don’t care if it’s useful. I’m not trying to make public information videos - I want to make art – and that is what age has done for me. It doesn’t even occur to me to put my art through my filter. Its much more liberating and I feel much more confident about saying I’m an artist now.

And as for two artists being in the house together, I’m all for giving an impromptu tutorial after a gin and tonic. 

Andy: We’ve had some very difficult conversations because Alex is not very good at taking criticism.

Alex: That is true.

Andy: We have helped each other though haven’t we?

Alex: I’m really proud of the work Andy put in the Artist's Open Houses in May because it was the first work that he’d made that made him feel vulnerable and it was the most beautiful work I’d seen him make.

Andy: I know, and it was also about making connections with others. Which I think is perhaps what I’ve done with humour in the past. Whereas now I don’t need to use the humour.

Alex: No you’re just trying to be honest aren’t you? Whereas I didn’t think he took art seriously because his work used to be quite jokey. And I’m all about the sublime and VERY serious. I used to think what is the point of making art if you’re just going to make a stupid joke. But now I realise he didn’t want to make art about things that made him feel vulnerable. I’ve always been really serious about my art and I do feel it’s a really serious business - maybe too serious. But I was trying to make work about the big themes, about belief and death and love. Because what else is there? And I’m still trying to make work about those things, but with not quite so much of a heavy hand.

Abi: Yes that lightness of touch is always a good thing, whatever your medium.

Alex: Yes I’m still after the sublime, but not put it through all my filters. Because I used to put it through so many filters there was no work at the end. It had gone through every filter and failed, so you’ve just completely broken it and might as well put it in the bin.

Abi: I totally get that.

Andy: Which is interesting, because Alex is clear about her outcome. Whereas I have no idea what I want to achieve. It’s the journey, whereas Alex seems to be more direct. For me the interesting thing isn’t the end, it’s the thinking and what I’m discovering. Obviously I will have outcomes, but they’re not necessary finished things.

Alex: Yes I have an idea and then I have to make it very quickly or I get bored. So everything I make is done really badly. I don’t mind if it’s badly lit, got shaky camera and no lighting because it just want to do it there and then. Or by the time I’ve set it up – it’s gone.

Abi: Your filter has kicked in?

Alex: Yes, so the first piece I made since I started making work again after 13 years was really quick. The lighting was really bad, but it was just a moment. I didn’t care. I got something and what I captured I’m really, really happy with.

Alex: Things were really shit and I said to Andy, I’m so sorry but I have to do it. I realised that if I couldn’t make art about this situation then I couldn’t make art about anything. So I’m really glad I pushed us and it was the start of something.

(At this stage we move from the kitchen towards the stairs and Alex points to a ‘brain’.)

Alex: This is the piece that I’m most proud of Andy for doing. That’s his brain.

Andy: Yes, my brain. I tried to contrast this smoke fired surface with the gold and the delicacy of the ceramic. The areas where depression and creativity happens. It really interests me that surrounding creativity is this dark abyss. There are grey areas and pure areas.  So I played around with those relationships and thinking.

Abi: And there is the gold again. Which is sublime and also about alchemy.

Andy: Yes definitely. And there is something nice about gold because it catches the light.
Plus there is something quite nice about thinking about your brain as a beautiful object. But I like playing with the contrasting materials. Between this one, resin with a piece of gold set inside and also aluminium.

(we now enter the studio, upstairs)

andy brains on chair.jpg

Abi: So Alex, this is a lovely space. Did you segregate it like this? Where is the line of masking tape across the floor?

Alex: It’s there more or less! I wanted Andy to work in here. So I set it up, I painted it and I’ve given Andy a space.


I would have done it. But my urgency wouldn’t have been as great as your urgency.

Alex: I’m SO happy in here. And there is no admin.

Andy: It had a desk and my files and became a dumping ground basically. And I resented the fact it became a dumping ground.

Andy: But now we use it for art. So at the moment, as well as my brain, I’m also thinking about perception from different viewpoints. I’ve been thinking about how we frame things and how we see things. These are my glasses over the last 15 years, which led me to collect other people’s glasses. I also like the metaphor of a lens. And these magnified retinas I find rather beautiful.

Abi: There is also something about reflection again isn’t there and thinking about how others see you? And how we filter information about each other?

Andy: Definitely. And I also made a film, which is a bit of a revelation for me. I’d made little vignettes before but not done anything with them. Interestingly they’ve been about reflection as well. I had an MRI scan of my brain and strung the images all together.

Abi: Alex, tell me about the juxtaposition of the crucifix with the crow.

Alex: Religion and the crucifix is an enduring theme. When I was growing up, our home was very simple. But we had the crucifix and we also had a Dali print of the crucifixion. Apart from being at home, the only other place we went to was church. So I was always looking at Jesus on the cross and thinking this was the most sublime and beautiful thing ever.

Abi: So on the one hand you have this visually quite sparce home and then on the other the dramatic visual language of Catholicism?

Alex: Yes we loved it!

Abi: To enter into that environment must have been incredibly powerful and influential?

Alex: It was. I was in a state of revelry most of my childhood.


We come from very similar religious backgrounds, but I didn’t embrace it at all. I never bought into it. Interesting how we both have similar histories, but have dealt with it quite differently.  

Alex: Belief and religion has always been very important in my work and Andy has always understood that coming from a similar background. It is very easy for people to laugh or scoff at religion but he didn’t.

Abi: So talking about your latest work, which is collaboration with your sister. Do you think that has come out of your renewed relationship with Andy because now you’re more open generally to talking about your work?

Alex: Well it came about because one of my sisters, Sam has ‘Fevered Sleep’ which is an internationally renowned theatre company and for ages I’d been hoping that she would ask me to work with her. But she never did and in the end I just asked. And it’s been wonderful to work with my sister.

We’ve made this piece of work about fostering. Because my family fostered and I had this idea come to me in the kitchen about the song of the foster mother. And what happens to these songs when the child goes.

There will be performance and also a sound piece that is made up of all the voices of these foster mothers.

Abi – so is the work about your mother, as well as the child?

Alex: Yes, I think it is a piece of work about my mother, or rather our mother. Because why would you foster when you have 7 children of your own. And a lot of fostering can be about trying to fill up with what you didn’t have when you were a child. 

I had this idea that we’d have the family table, but when it’s upturned it becomes a ship cresting over waves. And it’s about how you can stay on board, about how can you keep the group together.

Andy: Its very timely isn’t it? I think boats at the moment and families and boats is very timely with what is happening in the Mediterranean.

Abi: Yes it’s all about families and keeping everyone safely together.

Artist in Residence - Tasha Harrison

Tasha Harrison is a commercial copywriter and writer of four novels as well as a collection of short stories for children. Despite having a suitable attic space to work from, she more-or-less choses to hot desk around the house and find places to work depending upon the time of day and where she feels comfortable.

AB: So, you don’t have your own, defined workspace in the house?

TH: There is a desk in the loft, which is a proper work space but I never use it because it’s just too separated from the rest of the house. I’m constantly running downstairs to do something – so I just think – this is silly, I might as well just be downstairs. I might get comfortable on the sofa, but then my wrist aches, so I’ll move to the table so I can support my wrist. So, sometimes I’m in the sitting room, or in the kitchen or - if its not too dark - in the snug. But if the kids are at home then I have to fit around them.

Wherever Tasha is working, Ted is sure to be close by.

Wherever Tasha is working, Ted is sure to be close by.

AB: But do you get distracted, if you’re in the kitchen and the worktops need clearing or something?

TH: The housework is constantly beckoning but I’m getting better at ignoring it. I do get the odd day when I have to deal with it because it’s affecting my ability to think clearly. But generally I feel it’s just so unimportant, I don’t care. It’s about what am I going to regret on my deathbed and housework isn’t it. Although some times doing the mundane chores can be really good to clear out all the thoughts that are knotted in my head and fighting for attention. Ironing can be really good for clearing out my head. But equally it takes me 30 minutes to walk into town and that has the same cleansing process.

"I do love working at home, in that I can be really productive. But I’d go insane if I didn’t go out."


I think it’s always good to step away from my computer and one of my best places for having ideas is going to a café for a coffee. I like to go somewhere that I can feel relaxed by myself. And anonymous. I get out my notepad and the ideas will just flow. There is no computer, no internet, no emails or jobs needing to be done. The phone isn’t ringing. Even if it’s only half an hour that time can be really productive.

I have to say, I used to feel really guilty about that but I don’t anymore. Because that’s often where I do my best thinking. I love getting my notepad and pen out.

AB: And old-fashioned note book and pen?

TH: Yes. I hate it if I forget it and have to work with the notes on my phone, it’s just so fiddly. I want an actual notebook and pen. I can just work so much more quickly and fluidly, and you can’t delete stuff so it just flows. Ideas just sometimes come so fast and I’m trying to make sure I can catch them in time.

There is a wonderful Ted Talk by Elizabeth Gilbert and she talks about the poet, Ruth Stone, who would literally feel a poem coming at her over the landscape. Ruth would run home as fast as she could across the fields to grab a piece of paper and a pencil to try and capture it before it moves on to someone else. It’s such a great image and I totally relate to that.

AB: It is a great image, so when you’re out it’s about capturing the essence of an idea?

TH: Yes, it really can happen like that. I was out getting the kids some tights or something the other day and I came up with the opening line for my new book, which is just a big ball of clay at the moment. I thought, “Oh that’s good, quick I must write it down!” I ended up diving into the loos in the shopping centre and I sat on the loo and wrote it down.

Tasha works quickest with a pen and paper

Tasha works quickest with a pen and paper

AB: How funny. Do you think that sometimes its best not to be looking for that inspiration then? To let things happen naturally?

TH: Maybe. Sometimes you can force ideas out. I can open the laptop and start mapping out a character, their storyline, their background and all their habits, what they look like – but yes most of my ideas come when I’m out with my notebook. I can shape them afterwards. This is all happening at the moment for me, because I haven’t written anything since I published Blown Away Man 18months ago. I just didn’t want to think about writing for at least a year.

AB: Why is that?

TH: I was just so burnt out with it. The actual writing of the book was so enjoyable. But when you get to the end and towards having a finished manuscript, you need help and you need someone to help you edit it and proof read it. Getting it to a place where you can upload it is really stressful. And then I wonder if I’m doing the right thing with it, or if I should submit it to a publisher or to an agent first. So anyway I did that book and then I did my collection of children’s short stories at the same time – which was supposed to be a bit of fun, but then of course I ended up taking it very seriously. So I did all that and then I’d had enough and needed a break.

But then at the start of this year I started thinking about my next project. I thought just relax and an idea will come. It will come and I’ll catch it. But Nothing! And I’ve been busier than I’ve ever been at the commercial copywriting, so I tried not to worry about it. But then about 6 weeks ago I thought its just not coming. So I am going to have to just sit down and try and force something out.

"I actually started to think this is what writer’s block is. Which I’d never experienced before."


AB: There is that quote by Matisse that says inspiration only comes when you’re working. So, you do sometimes have to go and meet it at least halfway.

TH: Absolutely. So I thought the time had come to put some effort in, and it did work! I had this rush of a character and I was really excited because it felt really strong. But then a week later I’d gone cold on it and thought it was really feeble. I didn’t know who the characters were.

AB: So a confidence crisis?

TH: Not quite. I think because in all my four books one of the characters will be based, however loosely on someone I know or on someone I’ve met. That’s a really good foundation on which to build a fictional personality on. But these two new characters I was evolving, came out of nothing, therefore I wasn’t sure if they would be convincing or real enough.

AB: So that was new for you, normally there is an element of realism to scratch away at and play with?

TH: Yes, I have done it with lots of secondary characters, but there’s always one or two who are inspired by somebody who actually exists. For example on Package Deal a lot of the characters were inspired by people we had met on holiday or people I’d worked with. That’s not to say it is them - it could be their looks or maybe a habit of theirs and it’s amazing how much you can build on that. So I don’t think anyone would ever come up to me and say 'that’s me in your book'.

Then, In Blown Away Man, I borrowed a lot from my husband’s background. But all the time I was working to try and drive it away from that. But it’s hard because I had that voice in my head and what those characters looked like. But then it’s also a challenge to do it the other way round. So the two protagonists I had for my new book weren’t built on anything real so now I need to go and look and listen to people to find that real element. Because that’s a key thing in a novel, your characters have to be authentic.

And it’s good to go somewhere different. We went to Glastonbury recently. Every other shop was a mystic tarot type shop. We went into a shop and the woman behind the counter had long red hair and robes and all the ethnic jewellery, you know the type. Then her friend came in and I started listening to their conversation. She had a new man and they were talking about moving to the country ‘to grow’. So I was making these notes on my phone and then she said, ‘but I don’t know if he is compatible with my deep Scorpionic nature’. I just thought if I wrote this in a book, no one would believe this person exists!

It’s about finding that balance of truth being stranger than fiction. I think I need to find some more inspiration.

AB: But it sounds like its still early days?

TH: Its really early, yes.

AB: You talk about this initial rush and this energy that comes and takes over and it’s exciting. And then you talked about the final stages of your last book and about being exhausted and not being able to look at it anymore. Is that a consistent feeling – the initial enthusiasm, and then at the end, you’re physically worn out by the process?

TH: Yes I just want to see the back of it. Do you feel like with your art?

AB: Oh god yes. In fact I had a very interesting chat online with a friend of mine. We were chatting about drawing and I realised that one of the main reasons I publish my work on social media is to give it an end point. I go through the process and at the end of the session I publish it on social media, people comment on it and that’s the end. Now if I didn’t – I feel that those paintings or drawings would never leave me and they’d just keep going round and round and drive me mad.

A thank-you sketch I sent Tasha months ago.

A thank-you sketch I sent Tasha months ago.

TH: Yes you have to put it out there in some way.

AB: Yes so it becomes ‘other’ and its not so much part of me anymore. As people comment on it and take some ownership it allows me to separate myself and get some sort of distance from it.

TH: You have to get distance from it and it’s out of your system. I think all writers want to publish their work. It’s not necessarily egotistical. But why would you write otherwise, if no one was going to read it? It’s a natural thing to share it. Social media is great for that. There is a person I follow on Twitter who challenges you to write a story in 6 words. I love those things. I could keep going on a hashtag game with puns on novels for hours. I just love playing with words to the point of it being an irritating habit.

"It feels just like an itch I have to scratch. In fact, I can spend ages composing a tweet – honestly, who else spends hours sending a tweet?"


AB: I bet there are loads of people. I bet there is tweeters anonymous or something. If you put it on there, they’d all come out of the woodwork…but slowly!

TH: I thrive on the challenge but then it gets me down sometimes. It can be painful as I think I’m not where I want to be. I’d love to reach a wider audience – to have a proper publishing deal.

AB: Isn’t it wonderful though how through the internet there is the possibility to self publish and people can have an outlet?

TH: Yes, it’s liberating. But the flip side is that you’re competing with thousands of others. Some are really great and some are utter shit. And you’re all just there lumped in together in this huge haystack of authors.

But even if you were picked up by one of the big publishers, they would totally expect you to be on social media and work all the literature festivals. They check how big your audience is on Facebook and Twitter. Although I kind of think all that stuff is a load of bollocks and sometimes I think you’d have a bigger impact if you actually did none of that stuff.

AB: Very interesting. You’re not the only person that has mentioned about publishers wanting to know how many followers you have on Instagram and all that stuff. That’s really bloody depressing.

TH: And incredibly misleading, because most of the people that follow me on twitter are other writers. And so many people just follow you because they want you to follow them back! And that’s not a proper audience is it?

AB: No, there is no value in that.

TH: And it can be distracting, worrying about what everyone else is doing. I think what I’m trying to say is that the journey is so much fun when you allow it to be. I love those spoof Ladybird books – The Art Gallery - such a simple idea. I wish I’d come up with those. It would be so nice to do something like those. Something fun.

AB: Yes, it doesn’t have to always be about angst does it? Because also the word ‘novel’ has a real sense of importance to it doesn’t it?

TH: Yes it sounds really important.

TH: Actually, I can tell you what is important – I cannot write with music on. I cannot concentrate.

AB: That’s interesting, a lot of the visual artists I’ve been speaking to use music a lot and say its key.

TH: I think its another part of your brain. Classical is all right, because there are no words. I can ignore building works and the kids screaming. But not pop music. That’s a key thing. The words intrude.

"And in terms of how the house looks - that’s Chris’s domain. I don’t even care. I’m quite relieved to have that taken out of my list of things to do."

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Frieze Frame - hitting the wall

When you start something new (or in my case to return to something after 20 years) you experience that initial exhilarating rush of excitement.

The joy of discovering a world full of like-minded people, of enlightenment through new books and using a highlighter to mark those quotes that are clearly written with just you in mind. The physical and mental clearing of an attic full of stuff which feels like casting off layers and layers of an older self. The magical trips to exhibitions with the familiar ducking into Cass afterwards to fill up on the right materials to fulfill whatever particular inspiration has been ignited that day. I have it all. A stack of books from Amazon filled with scribbles and post it notes, every conceivable type and size of paint brush, a group of imaginative like-minded friends and the much-desired space to call my own. I am so lucky sometimes it hurts. So, with all this in place something amazing is going to happen right? All my ducks have been lined up - no more excuses. I can't wait for that electric hit of inspiration. I'm going to be so ready when it happens....

I'm waiting.


I've been stood up. I'm all dressed up with no-where to go.

What I failed to anticipate is that the upward curve can't continue at the same pace for ever. I feel I've been racing flat out for the last year and a bit and now I've hit the wall. I have no more excuses and no more obstacles that I can conveniently blame my inactivity on. What I am clearly lacking is a muse.

“...for I did not know that it was in me. If any had asked me a single day before if it was in me, I should have told them frankly no, it was not. That is the way with us; we may go on half of our life not knowing such a thing is in us, when in reality it was there all the time, and all we needed was something to turn up that would call for it.”
Mark Twain


But, it seems that even those lucky enough to be visited by their muse, they have trouble keeping hold of her. "She's high maintenance" as Lance Hill would say.

The letter is read by Kylie Minogue for LETTERS LIVE: Letter taken from Letters Of Note, compiled by Shaun Usher (Canongate): When released in 1996, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' ninth album, the beautifully haunting, sometimes terrifying Murder Ballads, attracted critical praise from far and wide and went on to reach a larger audience than any of their previous records.


For me, I believe she is already here, I just have to give her the space and time to show up on her own terms. When I find her my god, she had better the most sparkly, star-spangled fantastic muse in the world, like a beautiful scary cross between Grace Jones and Bianca Jagger.

I'm sure she will be - after all she's already running late.

Artist in Residence - Helena Vortex

Helena Vortex is a performance artist, working with concepts around gender, identity and queerness. Initially, she hesitates when I say our chat has to happen in her home because it’s a ‘super-mess’ but then I am warmly invited into the self monikered ‘Bat Cave’ where Helena, just back from her run, changes from her exercise gear into a full length slinky cocktail number.

AB: You don’t have a defined workspace in your home do you – how do you feel about that?

HW: I have to get out all the time. Because we have a really small space and I’ve got lots going on – so it’s quite a good time to meet in some senses because I’m absolutely going insane.

AB: Yes – you’ve got this tension going on. Which is exactly what I want to explore.

HW: I put my headphones on and say I’ve got to lie down and listen to some music to try and switch my brain over and its like that’s not even allowed really. Because, we’ve got such a small space I can’t even say – Ok I’m going to the attic or another room and go and shut the door so they know I’m not to be disturbed. They come in and out – in and out.

AB: So you find that physical interruption into your space is a distraction?

HW: Yes, it’s really hard. Particularly as I think now I’ve gone up a gear. There is so much available to me and so much to do. I could totally run with my performance stuff. But it’s just so hard, and I don’t have an agent or somebody that can do this stuff for you. But that’s generally an Artists issue isn’t it? Struggling with the businessy bit.

AB: So, does your running help you? It gets you out and gives you space.

HW: Yes, I don’t find it easy at all. But I know on a cellular level, exercise is really good because it’s freeing. And I think it’s one way of having a sort of power - an autonomy, because you have some sort of power in your body. Also, I think about being creative and about being an authentic self. So for me it’s about ‘what’s the best version of myself’. What would that look like? And to me – the best version would be fit and eat well and that kind of thing. Because that's one way of getting power isn’t it?

AB: Yes, and control.

HW: And control. It’s trying to claw back some sort of identity. So you have your kids, you do that hideous Primary School thing, and I actually spent, oh I don’t know – too long - being hidden. No one knew me and actually I didn’t know myself in that time. But I’m through that now and I thought I’ve had all this time with an identity that I didn’t particularly feel comfortable with - but, nevertheless it was an identity.

So I made a performance. My background is fine art and I always identified with being an artist, but for some reason chose not to be for a very long time. So I was looking after family and then suddenly I thought I really want to express myself so I started doing these little performance things. I projected things onto my body, about dying and being born at the same time and pictures of my home projected on my body and pictures of kids and orange and things like that. So I wasn’t quite sure, but I pushed myself over.

Image from The Fall

Image from The Fall

AB: It’s taking that leap of faith to start and say as an artist this is where I am – and its not quite right. But, for me – I just had to get over that point of producing stuff that I don’t like.

HW: Yes that’s really cringey isn’t it?

AB: But I’m glad I did it – because a year on –I’m in a better place than not doing anything.

HW: Oh my god can you imagine it? And because as soon as you start talking about art, it becomes exciting. We can re-connect and there are other women you can connect with and it becomes really bloody exciting and you think why didn’t I do this years ago?

AB: I know.

HW: I think once you have a child its like being pushed through fire. Because you can’t go back. Once that has happened you’ve changed. And then maybe, ageing is another fire to go through as well and how are you going to experience that? And the re-connecting with creativity.

I have a friend – who I clean for. I am the world’s worst cleaner! You should see our bedroom – Jesus Christ! It’s so bad I need to have a holiday – that’s why I want to go and stay round peoples houses - like yours.

AB: you can come round next time.

HW: So, my friend, Jo, who is 75. She is fantastic – she’s an artist, but she can’t go out. So we have these fantastic conversations. I’m supposed to clean, but really we spend the whole time chatting. Really talking. Some awesome conversations from a woman who is you know – just further ahead. About sex and art and she send me loads of stuff about for example, Kim Cattrall who is in her 50s saying you must have your own work. And you must have autonomy of your own body and all this sort of stuff. And how important it is to really, really get on with it.

AB: To get on with it!

HW: Crucial.

AB: So, your friend Jo, she’s an influence. Any other influences? Is it other Artists or just interesting people?


"I’ve always suspected this, and I now
I believe it to be true: Artists are the
people to be with. Artists, performers,
visionaries, radicals and mystics .”

'Cos no-one else understands do they? They don’t though! You can laugh but you know I’m right. It’s true. Look at us – come round for a cup of tea and let’s talk about going through a fire.

AB: Yes!

AB: So when I was looking at your stuff and your website. I went to Ace Heartbreaker and Treble and Vortex. What kept coming up is this idea of icons. And the birth of an icon with you creating these characters that are glamorous and sexy and aspirational. You’re not dealing with the mundane are you? Is it about escapism?

HW: No, not escapism – more about different versions of self. So this time last year I was thinking about the other choices I could have made in the versions of myself. And I was thinking about slightly fantasy versions and also Jungian archetypes - the magician or the outlaw and things like that. Archetypes I have identified with in my life. This is aside from the mother identity – so it’s different versions of self. And mostly it was that man character. It was really interesting and exciting and maybe I could have been that? Maybe I still can? And then there is this super space 60s thing – that’s quite a strong influence.

AB: Like Barbarella?

HW: Barbarella – oh yes!  They’re my two favourites.

Cosmic vs Domestic

Cosmic vs Domestic

AB: So the glamorous lounge lizard?

HW: Yes he is really strong masculine construct that came from 50s America – a post war invention that the Beatniks copied that from a black identity. It’s really really great being that character, you get lots of attention and its quite fetishized because when I inhabit it – I LOVE it so much. I had it tattooed. So yes I just love it so that would be my alter ego.

AB: Is he more flamboyant than you?

HW: No – he’s got the masculine thing that you don’t have to say anything – they never have to explain, you don’t have to say anything. You just do it. Or don’t do it. Maybe he’s got an interesting past – but they never talk about it.

AB: Being an enigma.

HW: Being an enigma. They don’t complain and they don’t explain – that version of masculinity when they don’t give a shit. That is a great character to inhabit.

The Legendary Ace Heartbreaker

The Legendary Ace Heartbreaker

AB: Are you still exploring him – or is fully formed?

HW: He’s pretty fully formed but the exploration now is in the performance and making it better. But I could do it all day long – this drag king thing. I love it. It’s really on the rise. It’s becoming a massive thing. I really wanted to go to Texas, but it would take so much work to get there. I just need to get my act together. Literally.

AB: How long have you been working on him?

HW: It was a couple of years ago and I was having a party. I wanted it to be a Russ Meyer, Faster Pussycat Kill Kill, Valley of the Dolls, Supervixen thing. I was going to go as Tura Santana who I have a massive girl crush on. But then I thought I’m just slightly too tall to be an Ultra-Vixen. So, I thought well I can’t not go to my own party because I’m slightly too tall. So I’m going to go as Russ Meyer.

AB: Is an Ultra-Vixen one of your other selves?

HW: I tried being an Ultra-Vixen but I’m just not quite right. I like Tura Satana she is American and Japanese I think, with black hair, she wears black, big boobs, black gloves, drives a black Porsche.

AB: Sounds great!

HW: AND she’s a karate expert.

AB: Maybe I could be her then?

HW: Yes definitely you could! There’s this really famous film, where there’s three Go Go dancers on the run in the desert, and she ends up at this weird ranch strangling this man and chucking someone else out a wheelchair. She’s so interesting. She’s the basis of the woman in Kill Bill. Anyway I love her. And being a fan or hers means I’ve met loads of other interesting people who are fans. So anyway, I thought I couldn’t be her so I’ll be Russ Meyer, and I had so much positive feedback.

AB: So it was other people that re-enforced that for you?

HW: Yes – just at this party, I thought I’d try it and then it was ‘Oh god. That really works.’ Then I had a friend who is a writer, but also does a bit of spooky tarot. And we did this thing with a pendulum and it said you will find your fame and fortune as a drag king.

The Pendulum that helped come up with Ace Heartbreaker.

The Pendulum that helped come up with Ace Heartbreaker.



AB: But this was after the party?

HW: Yes after the party. They gave me a pendulum and we asked it all these questions and that’s where we got the character name from. So it was really spooky how it came about.

AB: Can I bring up the Gothic then? Cos we’ve got tarot, we got shamans. Is it a Romantic Gothic, the aesthetic of the Gothic, or a bit of both? Do you like to explore that dark side?

HW: I like that cosmic thing as well. That would be my interpretation of Goth. Having visions and tarot and a pendulum – I like that and think that may part of an artistic sensibility. Because even though it sounds a bit ‘woo woo’ I thinks it’s very profound and about how we just don’t have the language for what a profound experience is. What it is to really feel and touch and sense things.

AB: So it’s about experiencing something inexplicable?

HW: Exactly. There’s this and there’s that and there is this entire bit in between. Its not rocket science. And in fact I think the smartest scientists would agree with this – there is so much that we don’t have the language for that is really there. But it’s just too much for our little heads to cope with. So yes, it’s perfectly ok to be in touch with that – the other. I think there is an agreement that many people make that they are going to experience the world ‘like this’. We are going to have all these signs and signifiers for stuff so we all kind of speak the same visual language. So you know if draw something that looks like that and like that then you know it’s a cat. But they’re only symbols, its only an agreement that makes life easier.

AB: You’re absolutely right

HW: Artists get it. They understand it’s an agreement. And it’s also similar to some types of madness because when people have mental health issues they tend to slip outside of that agreement.

AB: Very much so and I think how we deal with that is fascinating.

HW: Yes, that’s a whole different conversation.

AB: Yes and that idea of the artist as a mad genius.

HW: Or a magician.

"I like to think of artists as alchemists,
turning the mundane into the beautiful."

Interesting objects clash everywhere in Helena's home.

Interesting objects clash everywhere in Helena's home.

AB: That’s exactly what it is.

HW: And make something for an audience to resonant with. I think all fine artists can take what is around us and transform it.

AB: Yes, it’s a way of thinking. 

HW: It’s definitely a way of thinking.

AB: Is there anywhere you like to go by yourself to allow yourself to experience something or do you like that interaction with others?

HW: Definitely the interaction with others. If I’m by myself then I’ll sit down and listen to music. That’s where I am at the moment. I can’t really read or do anything bitty like a mood board. If I had the space to have my records I’d love that whole ritual of putting a record on. Oh god its so difficult. It’s like you and your stepladder. My computer doesn’t work, on my tablet I can’t get into my emails.  Everything on my phone is so small I can’t fucking see, so I have to use a magnifying glass. Its just AArrrggggg sort it out. It’s so hard for us to get there. My computer doesn’t work I can't get into my emails. To get in your space you have to climb a fucking ladder. It’s hard.

Music helps to 'switch the brain over'

Music helps to 'switch the brain over'

AB: Oh I know. The mundane reality of life intruding on your art time and time again.

HW: Which is why it’s great to have a space. Ideally everything would be white; I’d work with texture. A winter palace – I’d love that.

AB: The snow queen? In control and slightly aloof?

HW: Yes, and I think that’s cultural. I think if you are English – you are culturally partly aloof, partly a bit shy. Don’t show off too much and also being calm. We just keep it all under control comparatively. We’re not Latino, we’re never going to smash everything up are we? And in my space, maybe some books, maybe a bit of Art. But just white. I think I’d start off with it just white. Start off with a nice chair and a table and just think for a bit.

Artist in Residence - Stephanie Bird

I think most of us, given the choice would love a studio-shed at the bottom of the garden. Portrait artist Steph Bird, built hers as a place to paint and draw. But also, it has become a space for some of her 'significant' and beautiful objects, which are starting to inform her work.

SB: We built this shed over a week about four or five years ago. We had to fell a tree to get it in so it wasn’t an instant process. But its absolutely brilliant – I love my shed.

Steph's hand-built shed.

Steph's hand-built shed.

"It's not just a work space. It's my refuge. A place to hide and be myself."

AB: So, apart from your tools, like brushes and your palette, what were the first things you put in here?

SB: I’ve moved house a lot, and for years and years I used to carry everything around with me, like hundreds of books and I am very very attached to objects. I have great emotional connections with things. But because I had moved so much I started to get tired of that whole process with boxes and packing. So I really cut down and the things that I have left are things that have a great personal history. And when I got my shed it seemed like the most natural place to put them.

"Its my space and no one else has to like it. Whereas in the home you are compromising."


AB: Do you think as an artist its important to create a workspace that isn’t a compromise?

SB: I think it's a privilege. And of course with my paid work there is always somesort of compromise. But yes, it does help me to relax and think about my own work. Although sometimes I do want to chuck it all out and then think 'right, now what’s in my head?'

AB: So as well as the commissions you work on your own projects as well?

SB: Yes, I didn’t for a long time, but recently I’ve started some work. I’m not sure where its going – but that’s a big pleasure. It’s a big thing ‘allowing myself’ the time to do that.

AB: Is that fulfilling?

SB: Definitely – although its frustrating. You know what its like – if you paint or draw anything you go through an emotional rollercoaster and generally I don’t mind that. Although I wouldn’t say that when I’m in the dark bits of it. I suppose it feels like a bit of a journey.

AB: If something is going wrong do you bin it or try and work through it and turn it around?

SB: That’s an interesting question – obviously if it’s a commission I have to keep going! With my own work that’s more difficult. I’ve always kept things thinking that I will come back to them, but in reality – I never have. A friend showed me this amazing project called, 'Tales of the Unfinishable: Investigating the Incomplete' which happens to be about textiles. They ask people to submit things they can’t finish and the stories behind them. It’s absolutely fascinating, some of them are really funny,  some are heartbreaking and some are quite dark. But the people are so grateful to have them taken off their hands – because they don’t want to keep it – but can't throw it away.

Steph with one of her works in progress

Steph with one of her works in progress

AB: What a brilliant idea and now all those projects have an end.

SB: I have a friend that leaves his paintings for years and comes back intermittently. Even when a painting looks 'bad' he embraces that part of the process entirely.

AB: But imagine if you kept everything?

SB: Oh I know, I have boxes and boxes with stuff in them everywhere.

AB: I think most people would agree that portraiture is one of the most difficult disciplines, and painting children, particularly other people's children must be so difficult.

SB: I just really love it. I’m not very good with words. I stumble over words a lot – but I find a lot on people’s faces that interest me. I like to see how emotions come and go and I think painting from life is a lovely thing.

One of Steph's favourite portraits

One of Steph's favourite portraits

AB: Who are your influences?

SB: I love Freud. I like Jenny Saville.

AB: They are both artists that explore the ‘fleshy-ness’ quality of oils.

SB: Yes there is a definite 3 dimensional quality. If you look at a Freud I love the way that the paint is broken. He is so brilliant. How does he know how to do that? And they’re not as instant as they look. I went to a big exhibition of his in Paris a few years ago and I just couldn’t look at the still life paintings as they made me so cross. He would have a massive canvas and choose to paint the wall outside his studio that had a vine on it and he would paint all the little leaves. And I just thought how could you do that? It would drive me insane.

A few pins on Steph's wall.

A few pins on Steph's wall.

I think it's because you don’t get a lot of time, and when you do snatch some it feels so valuable and I’m certainly not going to spend it painting 5,000 leaves! But then you can see how his accomplishment as a painter has come through hours and hours and hours of working.

AB: Yes I think he did paint every single day and there is a story about the benefits supervisor model. She went on holiday and got a bit of a tan and he was livid and said he couldn’t paint her for 6 weeks until her skin tone returned. So he was obviously incredibly particular about mixing his colours and I think he may have mixed every brush stroke separately. Which is all incredibly time consuming.

 SB: Yes, I do that, virtually every brush stroke is a separate colour.

AB: Rather than mixing on the canvas?

SB: Yes at the beginning it's about shadow and shape but the further it evolves I try and mix each stroke separately. My degree was 3 dimensional design and that has informed my painting in terms of creating planes. I find drawing a bit laboured and I prefer paint as its more ‘splat’. I like to colour mix. Recently I've noticed certain artists who have very beautiful palettes. They’re so considered, they obviously don’t waste much paint! Mine are just a mess and I can never come back and find a colour I used 10 minutes ago because its been obliterated by something else that I’ve mixed.

AB: But I think that is something you do or you don’t do and if you force yourself - you may find you lose part of your signature. I would also say you’re much more of a colourist than Freud and Saville.

SB: They have more subtlety. The palette doesn’t have much, but the breadth within it is breathtaking. My paintings tend to have everything in them – maybe if I progressed as a painter I’d be able to get that subtlety. I really love the delicacy of some artists paint mixing.

AB: Lets talk about scale – does being in here limit you to certain size of canvas?

SB: Not really, I just haven’t been painting very big recently. The only thing I really struggle in here with is the light. Sometimes it comes through the back of the canvas so I have to block it off. And the light changes throughout the day. It’s south facing, so its not ideal. But I’m not going to complain.

Interesting little objects jostle for space on Steph's shelves

Interesting little objects jostle for space on Steph's shelves

AB: So, is that the only thing you would change? If it faced the other way?

SB: Yes. I love this space.... What’s your studio like?

AB: My studio is the attic. So I can only stand up in the middle. My easel can only go to a certain height because of it. But there is an end wall and I think I can throw some stuff at that. But again, I’m not complaining. I’m really interested about how the space is going to affect my work. In my case, I need that studio, but I also need some stimulation.

SB: Yes, you can’t create out of nothing. That was my problem for years as a mum of young children. There was nothing going in. I was always creative so always took the opportunity to make something – like the kids dressing up costumes I always took really seriously and became a bit obsessive over, because I needed that creativity. And then I reached a point when I realised I was incredibly frustrated that I had nothing to paint and couldn’t think of anything to paint. It’s only recently now that my youngest child is 8 that I’m finding things in my head to paint again.

AB: That’s very interesting. I have a friend who says that for her, having and looking after young children was like being in a cultural coma.

SB: Yes that’s a good way of describing it.

AB: And now the kids are a bit older we have this need to feed ourselves with all this stimulation again. What are the places you like to go to and visit for inspiration?

SB: One of my favourite things to do is just go for a wander and look at everything. It’s a very emotional process. We’ve had masses and masses of bereavement in our family over the last 8 years and everybody is touched by that at our age. But it really has taught me to take pleasure from simple moments. You get to a point in your life when you feel your own mortality and you think about what is it that makes my life good.  For me it was visual beauty. Moments of visual beauty that can be anything and you can see them everywhere.

"I remember very clearly one memory, that I come back to a lot. I was in my teens in a coach going over the Westway and someone leant out of a window of one of those towerblocks and let go of a whole stack of A4 paper. It just exploded for a second in the air and then just as quickly it was gone. It has just stayed in my head. Just one of those moments when you see something visually incredible."

Those are things that inspire me, they may not feed directly into my painting but they’re always there bubbling away.

AB: And they give you pleasure. Are you interested in The Sublime as a genre?

SB: Yes I get that. I know what you mean. It’s the moments that make me feel great. I’m not religious at all, but there are moments when humans create something so wonderful, like a ballet, or a piece of music or a painting – or even a moment when someone does something spontaneously wonderful.

AB: Yes, I was always embarrassed that I liked to create something beautiful. Coming from a conceptual art background I always felt that I lacked the intellectual rigour or self-torture that 'proper' art should be about. So it has taken me a long time to accept the fact that’s its ok to aspire to beauty in art. And I how we create something that transcends the earthly and the human. I find that an utterly compelling and attractive space.

SB: I guess they are the moments when you see the real beauty in having a life to live. And they are the ones you should take notice of. I don’t know if I’ll ever paint them. But I think the work I’m starting to do now is certainly more emotional. I want to work with significant objects. It's always been important for me – and I’ve started to talk to people about which objects they carry with them through life. I’d like to start incorporating those things into my portraits.

The bunny was a gift from Steph to her daughter.

The bunny was a gift from Steph to her daughter.

AB: In a way, that’s an indirect portrait isn’t it? The stuff we keep and how we arrange them - it's part of us as individuals.

SB: Yes, it sounds really over blown. But I almost feel I have a physical reaction to objects. That they have an energy and when I touch them I can feel it. Sometimes it drives me insane. When I go round peoples houses I’m always looking and asking about the objects. I find it exhausting but fascinating. Lately I’ve been asking people what is their most treasured object. It’s a really difficult question.

AB: So what’s your most treasured object then?

SB: I can’t answer that! And it would change. But right now this minute I’d say it was that whirligig windmill that my father made for me. But you know – that could change. There is nothing in here that makes me unhappy, because this is my space. But in the house there are multiple things that make me feel not great, that I’d rather get rid of. So what I have created in this studio is a space with very positive feelings.

Steph's Whirligig made by her Dad.

Steph's Whirligig made by her Dad.

AB: I should imagine that your portraits certainly become 'treasured possessions' and they are a beautiful way to immortilise the sitter for future generations.

SB: I knew a portrait painter and he was commissioned to restore a portrait which had gone peculiar around the mouth. The sitter’s wife had been kissing the portrait every night before she went to sleep. I loved that. That must be something that is linked into my work.

AB: So, do you like the idea that something has been created for one purpose but we change it through our ownership.

SB:  Yes, there is a Japanese term. “wabi-sabi" that means value that is added through time and use. It has a connection through making objects more beautiful and how aging is a beautiful thing and should be embraced.

AB: That’s beautiful - that’s my new favourite word. So, does that mean a painting or portrait can be too perfect?.

SB: Yes there is definitely a point that a painting becomes too overworked for me and you lose that nuance of the viewer working something out for themself.  There has been a trend in recent years with photographic style portraits and although they are amazing , it doesn’t give you anything emotional does it? And that’s where I am – I try and get some emotion into it by it not being perfect and the viewer is given some room for interpretation.

AB: And now, you are looking to develop your work with your interest in these 'significant objects'?

SB: Yes, it’s personal and a route I’m looking at. I do find it necessary to have some respite from other stuff that's going on and want to work on my own projects.

AB: So you find it takes your mind off life’s stressful stuff?

SB: And it helps you forget the passing of time. Whether it is painting, drawing or making things. Actually, my immediate go to – is making anything. I tend to make things and give them away. It’s made and then it moves on.

Some beautiful badges originally destined for a blanket.

Some beautiful badges originally destined for a blanket.

AB: So its meditative?

SB: Yes it helps me to feel relaxed making things.

"I must say something that is really important. When I got my shed, initially I had this kind of compulsion that I must do something. But eventually I found out that it is just as useful to sit and do nothing. You can't launch yourself into the creative process without pausing."

AB: That seems like the perfect place to stop doesn't it?

You can find Steph's website here.
Her Facebook page is here.

A Year in-and-out of Provence

September has started. Or, more specifically the 1st of September has passed without me meeting the hugely significant and symbolic goal that I set myself a good few months ago.

As of the 1st September, my studio/attic would be ready. And, well, errrr no its not - not at all. Nevermind, its getting there - and better late than never. However, my reason for writing this post now is that it marks just over a year of me picking up a pencil again and starting 'a sketch a day'.

During last years summer holiday in the South of France, I decided that it was time to form a new habit and start sketching again, something I hadn't done since the early 90s. My first tiny attempts were certainly small (in the smallest A6 Moleskine available) and tight, self concious and awkward.

Le Lac, August 2014 (watercolour, A6)

Le Lac, August 2014 (watercolour, A6)

But, this year, having returned to the same place, I was able to really appreciate how far those first tentative steps have taken me.

Le Lac, August 2015 (Oil on board, 10x7")

Le Lac, August 2015 (Oil on board, 10x7")

Since those first sketch-a-days in France last year, I have returned to my first love - the nude, and now attend at least one life-class a week. I have a monthly-ish 'Art Club' when my artschool friend, Angie and I visit exhibitions, catch up and generally blame everyone else for our unproductivity. I have discovered a joy in chatting to other creatives about how the act of art and making literally has 'a place' in their homes and lives. I have also taken part in my first open house and actually sold some work. And now, soon, I will have my own space in which to paint. Perhaps most significantly, if you are reading this, it has become part of who I am. An essential part of my dialogue, my passion, and, with this website a way to actively engage with people and share the happiness, fulfillment, frustration and self-doubt that comes with any sort of self-expression.

Ultimately, I'm sure its a form of therapy.

'Boxing Blind Drawing' March 2015

'Boxing Blind Drawing' March 2015

So, yes - this post is a homage to being nervous, being crap but essentially giving it a go. It's a celebration in starting small and seeing what happens. I completely acknowledge our human propensity to dither, procrastinate or generally not bother. Because that was me for 25 years.

"I stored up all my plans in a cupboard, and always carried the key with me. I have lost that key and am incapable of throwing off the state of coma into which I have fallen" - Degas.

Yes, I probably could pin point a few key events that lead me to pick out that first tiny sketchbook and choose a miniture 12 pan watercolour set. But the main one has to be taking that holiday, having a change of routine, a change of scene and literally looking at my life from a different perspective. It's a cliche but its true - life really is too short.

So, in the spirit of 'back to school'enthusiasm. I urge you to really think about anything that you may have been putting off. My journey back into the art world still feels exactly the same as it did a year ago. I hate my work, I don't know what to paint, I don't have enough time, I look a total prat, it lacks intellectual rigour and can I afford all these materials and lessons? But, there have been a handful of moments when painting and drawing has allowed me to experience intense feelings of sublime pleasure and I have seen, in my mind some of the most beautiful objects on the planet.

(left) Matisse, Femme a L'ombrelle and (right) Picasso, Charcoal Portrait of Francoise

(left) Matisse, Femme a L'ombrelle and (right) Picasso, Charcoal Portrait of Francoise

Which interestingly, in terms of the above, lead me right back to the South of France.

Which, I now realise - one day, is exactly where I'd love my new studio to be.

"Don't wait for inspiration. It comes while one is working." - Matisse.

Artist in Residence - Ste McGregor

A true polymath, Ste McGregor’s career spans everything from animation for Skint records and TV ads for major brands through to web design, international DJing sets, graphic design and as the recording artist, Kidda. Most recently he has released a new album, Ten, Ten as Soft Melt.

Ste lives in a little cottage oasis, tucked away in the heart of bustling Brighton. He shares his home with his wife and daughter, and I want to know how he creates such a huge and varied output of work within such a small, but beautifully formed home.

Ste, or rather Kidda, in animated form

Ste, or rather Kidda, in animated form

1.     Where-abouts do you work in your home? I work in the back area of the front room, it drives my wife up the wall 'cos she would rather it was a proper dining area. But we tried that and it just never worked. I always needed a space to work for my animation or music and so I used to end up doing it on there. We always ended up eating on the sofa anyway.

2.     So when did you manage to agree on turning it into your studio space? Well we had a bit of a shuffle about and we got rid of some stuff and then I said if I put everything here and make it look tidy then I can work here. My argument has always been at least it’s a functioning space with a use, not just a space that looks nice.

There is heaps of made stuff propped up around Ste's computer and digital bits and bobs.

There is heaps of made stuff propped up around Ste's computer and digital bits and bobs.

3.     So do you find it an energising space that you look forward to going to? Yes – I think it looks great and I use it a lot and I also see a lot of potential in it because I know I’ve got everything I need to do whatever it is I want to do. Although it doesn’t look like a lot, it’s taken me a long time to get to the point that I’m happy with the set up. All it needs is that desk to be a foot wider on each side and I’d be fine.

4.     Is there one thing (besides the bigger desk) that would make it better? (Long pause) A comfy chair and I’ve always fancied a rug. But I don’t really worry about it, cos when you start working and you’re in the zone it all goes out the window. You always think it would be better, but then you’d only find something else.

5.     What do you like and dislike about working from home? I used to have a studio down the road and I quite like the idea of going to work. The situation of having breakfast and then in two steps sitting down to work – I’ve always had a bit of problem with that and especially when does the domestic stuff stop and when does work start?

AB: But that is the friction of working from home. You can’t just separate yourself completely and go to work. So how do you create a space that works as part of a family home yet allows you to get into the headspace you need to create and work? Especially creatively, when you don’t work 9-5.

Yes, I use my headphones most of the time but only ever get to use the monitors when I’m home on my own.

6.     Does that mean you have a routine, so you can do stuff at certain times when you know you won’t be disturbed as much? No not really – but I do always take the opportunity if I do get a chance - that’s a good thing about working from home. That you can just get on with it straight away.

7.     What items do you like to have around you? My Cheech Wizard, I got that off a friend years ago. He’s a cartoon character that was created by this hippy fella in the 60s, then used in America in the 70s by the graffiti crowd. I found out about it in the 80s, thinking it was contemporary, but then discovered that it had been around for twenty years. It’s just a daft character thing, but it has been around all my life.

I was involved in this sampling event as part of the Great Escape Festival earlier this year – about 20 of us were all given a stick of samples and we spent all day in this room and then had to present the track we’d made in the end. We had to take laptops and the stuff we work with but I thought I’ll take that because it just makes a difference to me. In fact, they filmed me getting him out of the bag with all the headphones and stuff.

It was really interesting, because there was just these 20 blokes on headphones with laptops in this grand ballroom in a hotel and in terms of how you work and where you work – that was it completely stripped down. You realise how you work, because you’re out of your usual environment. And there was a lot of pressure because you knew you had to deliver something.

The Cheech Wizard

The Cheech Wizard

8.     How did you feel about having your peers around you and that level of interaction? It was OK, people were in it for the right reasons. There were winners,  and I don’t know how you judge music, but I think people did like seeing what people came up with. You felt like you were with other creative people doing their thing. It was cool and interesting to see how other people work. A bit like a show and tell.

AB: Did that affect how you felt about coming back and working here? Did it make you think about maybe working in a group environment again?

Kind of – other people were swapping numbers and stuff but I’m just not very good at collaborating. I’ll get people in, like a singer if I need something. But I just like doing my own thing. I’ve always been like that. I don’t think I’ve got far enough with what I want to do and my own development. Whether its animation or art or music. I always feel I need to go back and refine things.

 AB: Are you afraid to compromise?

 Maybe, my manager is always saying I should be collaborating with so-and-so but I always feel like it’s a bit diluted. I’ve just never really got it. Not yet anyway….

9.     In my opinion some people get into music because they want to be in a group or gang - but with a fine art background you must be used to working alone on your own ideas. Yes and it’s about finding your own voice, not literally, but its saying this is me and what I do. Not what WE do.

For the first album I collaborated with a couple of singers because I thought that’s what you do. But then I found I was much more fulfilled when I wrote the tracks, and the lyrics and the melody. So on the 2nd album I wrote everything (except one verse).

10. Can we talk about the animation you do as well? You work across so many mediums. Do you start with a message and then find a medium to transport that? Or do you get excited about the process and its possibilities? It’s the process. I first got into animation through computer games, and thought how great it would be to be able to make this stuff. I was always trying to work out how they would make a hazy sunset for example and at the time with relatively lores equipment. Something like Pixar has always been beyond me, and now computer games are more like that but at the time they seemed a lot more do-able. But as soon as I tried to create these things it would lead onto something else and the urge to create something out of it, like narratives and stuff. And I was quite happy with that.

So then I went to Skint records and asked if I could make some videos. They said Yep and that spiraled into more animation and then an agent.

So then I was working to briefs. They massage your ego and tell you how creative you are and how amazing your ideas are then say ‘Here is the character we want you to use, this is what they do, how they do it and this is the storyboard and palette you need to use. But we LOVE what you do, you’re SOOO creative.’ So you end up completely compromised…. but for a helluva lot of money.

But I was able to find a balance where I was working on the two things at the same time. This one is paying the bills and this is doing what I love.

AB:  Yes and there is a certain creative freedom in that.

Yes, and then we hit the recession so I ended up stopping the animation and took up an opportunity I had in music.

12. So whats the relationship between the animation and the music? Which comes first? The music has always come first. I did it before the animation. But I’ve always done drawings,

13. Do you still draw? Occasionally if I get the inclination, I like to draw in biro. Because you can’t rub it out. My sketchbooks were always full of things I’d made up in my head. All these different characters and stuff – mad illustrative ideas.

Part of a recent installation for a new restaurant.

Part of a recent installation for a new restaurant.

14.  Is there anywhere else you like to work? Not really, If I get some sort of block, then I’ll just work on something else. If I reach a dead end musically – or have a crisis because I’ve heard something amazing and feel like giving it all up then I’ll work on something else, like a logo. I can start to see it happening now as well and know that in a couple of weeks I’d have forgotten all about it anyway.

AB: I think you’re unique in that respect. You can shift into using different parts of your brain. Between the sound and visual. Most visualisers, such as designers and artists have to change their physically surroundings, and their view to get inspiration. But you change your medium.

15. I think you’ve already answered this one - but choose one person (alive or dead) to collaborate with. (after a struggle, Ste’s wife, Sez interjects with The Beastie Boys). Well, yes I did remix 31 of their tracks one summer. But no, I think to me it would have to be with someone completely different. For example a choreographer friend asked me to come up with an animation that would become part of a dance performance. So that’s something new that I’d like to explore. I was asked once to collaborate with someone pretty major , but I turned it down. It just doesn’t interest me.

18. Are you good at starting things - do you get excited at the beginning of something? It's really hard making stuff and sometimes I do get bored. I start and then think I’ve done that. Years ago I started a website about pixel characters. I wanted to create a pixel art website and create this narrative. I created some nice little things and thought oh well no ones ever going to see it, but I’m quite happy with that.

I’ve got better at finishing stuff. Music is the hardest cos there are so many opportunities to just piss around from the arrangement to the mixing. I remember when I was in the studio down road. One guy spent 6 months mixing the same track.

AB: But this is why some people need a manager or an editor, because they just don’t know when to stop. Certainly with painting it happens all the time. I’ve nailed it in the first 15 minutes – but because I’ve got 45 minutes remaining in the pose I’ll keep going and it’ll end up a complete dogs dinner.

Oh god yes I remember that!

19. So one of the talents we have to have is knowing when to stop. As being an artist there may not be a deadline, or a client saying yes that’s great. So do you ever bring in people to discuss your work? No. With music you can say it has to be between 3 and 4 minutes. Or 30 seconds – which is what I’m currently into.

20. So finally, can you describe your perfect studio? I really like the idea of Bill Gates’ cave as a place.

AB: that sounds solitary.

God yeah, it would have to be solitary. I’ve always quite liked the idea of an annexe. Like a purpose built sound proofed super shed, I think it’s a really nice idea to walk up the garden path and go there to work. And everything’s in there, the internet and the keyboards and stuff and its nice and warm. My mate had one and you could go in there and have a drink and you were in a creative bubble…. and he had a rug.

AB: For me it's finding a balance between that sanctuary as somewhere to feel relaxed and no one is judging you and you can make mistakes, but also being able to tap into inspiration and people when you need it. Personally I need people to help formulate ideas and stop me getting lazy.

I’m less like that as I get older. The majority of stuff I do is pretty self referential and it’s about my relationship with whatever I’m making. Obviously I listen to other music and sometimes think I want something to sound a little bit like somebody else’s track but it never works out like that because its you and that thing that is you.

AB: Isn’t that also an age thing? When get older you become more confident in your own voice. Whereas in your twenties you’re exploring and experimenting and learning.

Yes, we’ve done our Art History.

AB: To use a Caitlin Moran analogy - It’s about nurturing that pearl within - taking a bit of grit and helping it grow and gradually stripping down the layers until maybe one day it’ll hopefully…

It pays you a living wage?

AB: Maybe.

Finally, Ste's wife, Sez joins us and sums it up. Its also important for the kids. It's good for our daughter to see her Dad working every night on something he is passionate about. And she has learnt she is not allowed to touch it and she can sit here and work on her own stuff. It’s a good thing for them to see. He puts the hours in and has earned that space.

Ste with the hand made Kidda tapestry that took months.

Ste with the hand made Kidda tapestry that took months.

 You can see more of Ste's stuff here.

And you can download, the new Soft Melt album here.

Artist in Residence - Lance Hill

Welcome to the first Artist in Residence feature. Interviewing a whole host of arty types in their studios and trying to find out how they build a temple to creativity or a secure a sanctuary away from the world.

Lance Hill is creative guru of Brighton based Graphic Design Agency, Blank Associates.

When we work together in our home office, there are very clear delineation lines between my space and his – and in fact we are currently in the process of me moving upstairs and Lance taking on the entire room to himself. So, I thought it would be a good time to ask about the stuff that he likes to have around him and whether working from home is a good or bad thing.

Lance Hill with some favourite inspiration

Lance Hill with some favourite inspiration

1.    Where-abouts do you work? In my home office / spare room / dumping ground

2.    How long have you been working from here? 7 years

3.    Where did you come from before this? Serviced offices in town

4.    What are the pros and cons of working from home? I can put a wash on – which is a pro and a con. I like to keep this space separate as much as possible from whats going on in the rest of the house, and from the children for example. I think when your work is in your home you need to make it look different, which can annoy people but I think to be able to work effectively you sometimes have to mark your territory.

5.    What items do you like to have around you? Stuff that makes you feel inspired, lots of visual stimulation and reference, nice images or a lovely bit of type to help get you going.

Lance's pinboard

Lance's pinboard

6.    What is your one favourite item? My record player. Its a good distraction if I want to play some music I have to get up from my chair and move away from my desk to put a single on. Its tactile as well, unlike digital music. Also,  it was record covers that made me want to become a designer in the first place, to me they are beautiful things and I like to be surrounded by them all the time.

The beloved record player

The beloved record player

7.    What is your one most useful item? The computer unfortunately. Or a pencil because it doesn’t tend to crash or need its software updating. It just works. You don’t need a computer to be a designer its just a tool.

8.    How has this space affected your work and your thinking? Sometimes its really good, sometimes really annoying. It’s good because its comfortable and I feel literally ‘at home’ here. But it can be distracting, particularly when the kids come home. It’s also helpful because you can’t be creative 9 to 5 so you can pop into your studio at any time. Although saying that - you don’t need an office to be creative either.

9.    What one thing would make it better? Kate Moss

10. Where do you go or what do you do to find inspiration? Loads! Anywhere, even just walking to the end of the road can give me loads of ideas. You sometimes just have to change your environment, for example a browse in Waterstones or just going to get a sandwich from M&S can be enough.

11. Can you describe your perfect studio? Yes - big and spacious with space to walk around so you didn’t have to sit at a desk all the time. Honestly, if I could I wouldn’t have a desk, you don’t need a desk really.

Pin ups feature heavily in Lance's studio from this deco ornament to modern magazine photos.

Pin ups feature heavily in Lance's studio from this deco ornament to modern magazine photos.

12. Do you find this space energizing or relaxing? It can be both – which is why music is so important to help create a mood. I choose music based on what I need to do.

13. Do you keep a strict routine in your studio? God no - thats why I'm self employed.

14.  Is there anywhere else you like to work? Yes, I'm always 'at work' and never switch off wherever I am. You can find inspirational things anywhere – being creative is a state of mind, not a location.

15. If you could choose one person (alive or dead) to collaborate with, who would you choose? Peter Saville. He is the reason I do the job.

16. Where / What next? I’m happy with my own company and I’m looking forward to having my own space. Otherwise it’s a compromise – and everybody loses!

So there we have it. Some of Lance's design work can be found at It will be interesting to see how Lance's studio evolves when it is purely his environment and how my attic differs from the shared space we both currently inhabit.

Coming soon, artistic polymath Ste McGregor.