Our Arts Editor (Print), Lucy Goldsmith, and photographer, Hattie Ellis, visited the studio of Falmouth student Yoli Ward-Streeter to talk Quentin Blake, exposure, and the ethics of politicised art. We started the interview looking at her most recent work, ‘Let Nature Take its Course’…
I came up with a trio of illustrations quite quickly; I think because I had lots of different things in my mind going on, like the book The Beauty Myth and the feminist ideas it inspired. These thoughts seemed to link with nature for me. I didn’t do it intentionally; you know, ‘I want to do this really deep thing about women and their bodies and nature’… but it just happened organically. I wanted to represent women in a way that isn’t typically seen in mainstream media. One fellow illustration student at the Pop-Up Fair, Jessica Vaughan (http://jessicavaughan1.wix.com/vaughanillustration), asked if she could feature one of my pieces in a blog post (http://jessicavaughan1.wix.com/vaughanillustration#!You-can-have-pubes-but-you-probably-wont-get-laid/xu8bp/56461e750cf2f51f3239934c) exploring feminist ideas and body politics. It felt like her way of saying ‘yes, that’s what I’m thinking about, and you’ve conveyed it in an image.’
It’s nice to be able to interact with the artists on such a close level like that which is what works really well about the fairs. You can just go up to the person who’s made it and express your appreciation. How did you get involved with the Pop-Up Fair initially?
My friend Vita Sleigh (http://plantseedsofchange.tumblr.com/) did it a few times and I helped her out, but I didn’t have anything to put out. After I made these trio of prints (‘Let Nature Take its Course’), I thought that I’d sell those, because I quite like them. People were interested.
Was it your first time selling your art? Was it strange to put your art out there, open to people’s judgement?
I didn’t want to be pushing anything onto people from the message of my work – y’know, ‘you must grow leg hair!’ or something like that. Because like with pieces I’ve done before such as my seaweed studies, I know that what I create doesn’t always have to be a political agenda. Sometimes nature is just aesthetically pleasing to draw! I know when I go around art fairs, I feel like there’s a lot of pressure to be interested and respond engagingly. Especially as an artist myself, I know how much the artist puts into it, so I feel the need to stop and talk. But that can be the best way to help them grow and in turn, grow the community of artists into a welcoming space.
You’re in your second year now – how do you think your art has developed since the start of your degree?
I’m a lot more free. Recently I did a big series of prints and translated them into 3D models – I never would’ve done that in first year, I would’ve been too scared. Through the process 2D turned into 3D and back again. I like some of my first year work but process-wise it was very limited. I would decide ‘I’ll do a series of prints here’ or ‘I’ll work in acrylic’. It was very much inside a boundary, whereas here, now, I feel comfortable that I can start with a medium and not have to finish with it. Just see where it takes me.
Tell us about your current sketchbook work.
I’m working in a way I haven’t done before, on a piece about the Syrian refugee crisis. It’s an issue I’m really interested in, and I think it’ll push me out of my comfort zone because it’s a gritty subject that I can’t just do nice drawings for; I have to do it justice. It’s still in its early stages, but my main aim is that it will be interactive. So I’ll have a big wall with an illustrated piece, like a flow diagram. The viewer has to make a decision about the people represented in the drawings– what do they want to happen to them? Do they get to stay?
So kind of comic book-esque?
In a way, the style is key to what I’m trying to communicate, as I wouldn’t want to use one that is too cartoonish or light hearted for such a delicate subject. Although based on facts and current political events, I want to explore the blurred lines between fact and fiction. The way news outlets convey these stories are so skewed: refugees are predominantly relegated to statistics, and it’s dehumanising, that they’re not seen as individuals any more. Reports repeat that there’s thousands and thousands of them, that they are going to overrun us; the Daily Mail even did a comic strip likening them to rats. It’s harking back to the Jews and how they were portrayed in Nazi propaganda. I want people to empathise.
Do you think then that this project has encouraged your work to discuss a moral purpose?
I hope so, because that’s what makes art important. It’s nice to make things that are aesthetically pleasing, but how about what’s morally right to represent? Artists are often torn between what’s commercially viable – what consumers like – and what’s important to do. You don’t want to tell your client that they’re wrong – they’re paying your bills! – but at the same time you want to keep your originality and integrity. You need to find the line between the two.
What would you hope to do with your degree?
What I hope to do is use art to make a difference, challenging the way people think. Illustration is a means of communicating where words can’t always suffice. It crosses countries and languages; an image can mean so much more. I’d like to explore areas such as teaching: to stop drawing being a punishable thing as it so often is, like with doodling in class, and instead show kids that if their minds work creatively, it’s not a bad thing that they’re less academic. Besides, doodling is a great way of expressing yourself. Everyone’s minds work in a different way.
Is that something you saw lacking in your education growing up?
I did feel that the two spheres of academia and creativity were very separate. I remember at school we did an online quiz to discover what type of learner you were, say a kinsthetic learner, or an audio learner, which was great… and then we went back to class and nothing changed; we carried on doing tests. What’s the point in identifying that we’re all different and then not catering to it?
Who inspired you in your childhood? Was it art teachers, or specific artists?
When I was younger, I was first inspired by the books I read that were illustrated. Particularly Quentin Blake: I was obsessed. [Roald Dahl] found exactly the right person to compliment his writing, and communicate it in a different medium. I love that he can draw so effortlessly, which is such a talent. And he’s proof that although anyone can be good at drawing – once you break it down into grids, and practice, and take lessons – not everyone can understand character intuitively. Blake captures the essence of people; you just can’t learn that.
What is your creative process like while you work? Are you a music listener, a film watcher?
Definitely radio, Radio 6 Music. It’s almost too good; I’m writing down songs every 5 minutes! I have to have something on, whether it’s music or radio. But I understand how people find it distracting. It can really help if I’m doing a drawing and want to get it finished – I can put on something upbeat and get into a rhythm.
But still, my creative process is something I haven’t quite figured out. I’m definitely not a morning person! There’s always that point for me where it’s late into the night, but I’m still up and my mind’s buzzing with ideas. I like that: when you’re in your room, in your own little zone, and everyone else is asleep but you’re on a roll. Your thoughts of the day are settling and making links. I do find it good to come into the studio during the day and just keep working at it until I need a cup of tea and some food. I’m getting more organised, and I’m still working it out, getting the momentum started early. If I’m not in the mood to churn out creative ideas, then I try and switch to something else creative, like personal work. You’re bound to get inspired from switching your method and technique for working. So still creating, but a break from university-set projects.
How do you find the boundary between money and art? Have you had people requesting you to do work for them, and then expecting it for free because it’s art?
This is such a big problem… for example, the magazine Oh Comely don’t pay their illustrators, as I found out from a former 3rd year student. I was congratulating her, because it was my dream to be featured by them – and she responded, ‘yeah it’s great, but I don’t get paid for it.’ I mean, it’s obviously great exposure to have in your portfolio. But it’s more about the principle of you as a professional. You wouldn’t ask a plumber to do a free job with the excuse that ‘it’s free exposure, mate!’ We are a profession like any other, and we should get paid. I’ve learnt the skills, I’ve done a degree. I could say that I’ll do some work for Oh Comely for free, but then someone else might ask me, and where do I draw the line? It’s hard.
Do you feel like you still have challenges to overcome? Before a degree, your art is often done for pleasure, but now you have to be creative even when you don’t feel 100% creative.
Sometimes you just have to push through even when you’re not ‘on it’. Normally when I feel like that I draw anyway, do bad drawings, and get frustrated… but something within the bad drawing always has potential.
To see further work by our artist featured here, Yoli-Ward Streeter, visit her website at: http://yolillustrates.tumblr.com/
To see more of Hattie Ellis’ wonderful photography, visit her website at: http://cargocollective.com/hattieellisphotography
or follow her blog at: http://hattieellisphotography.blogspot.co.uk/