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 - 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.