Thursday, 23 August 2012

In Conversation with Naomi Frears and John Emmanuel

As part of the August programme at St Ives School of Painting, an informal series of conversational meetings has been introduced, and finding myself free to attend this one I felt that it would be interesting to go.

John Emmanuel has been a resident of Porthmeor Studios for 30 years, and is one of the longest still there. Self taught, he produces textured abstract surfaces which marry elements of the human form with the Penwith landscape.

Naomi Frears is one of the most recent to have moved into Porthmeor Studios, having been there since 2005. Her work is partially abstract and part realist, and ghostly forms often hover in the image as a result of her process of making and scraping back. Originally trained in printmaking, it is sometimes possible to determine a specific area which has been influenced by a printer’s rather than painter’s technique.

In many ways John has been Naomi’s mentor, and it was clear from the outset that they have a close bond while developing their individual visions separately. Indeed John stressed the importance of having one really good artist friend-one who you can talk with about anything. When he first arrived at Porthmeor, his was John Wells.

The talk ranged across all sorts of areas, with side excursions thrown in by questions asked from the attendees, so I am attempting to record what I can clearly remember.

Both John and Naomi use oils, with acrylic media and sometimes paint in the underpainting levels. They paint on canvas or prepared board, sometimes collaging elements onto the picture plane and sequentially scraping back or building up many layers of glazes. Naomi admits to being a colour addict and says she probably has far too many tubes of paint, whereas John is keen to point out that you don’t really need that many colours, or indeed brushes, to make work, and tends to work from a fairly limited palette.

Studio practice
Naomi joked that this was the key secret which all of us were dying to know the answer to, that, once mastered, would magically transform us into “real” artists, and added that actually it was really more like a day in the office, with the usual coffee breaks when they would stick their heads out of the door and catch up with the other residents on news and gossip. John added that the real advantage was having a dedicated space, everything was around you and there was no interruption caused by the need to put away or get out work upon arrival. Pictures of both artists’ studios are on their respective websites.

Voice and vision
John spoke at length about the need to have a clear focus of intent during the process of making work. He also suggested that if a dead end was reached, not to be shy about going away and doing something completely different. In reference to Naomi, he remembered her becoming stuck at one point and had asked the question “What is it you feel like doing? You should do that then.”

Naomi described how her working methods often meant that a piece evolved into intent at some point through their creation, or changed into something else. She tried to explain how to stay open to what is happening on the canvas and realise where it may be going.

Self confidence and motivation
Both admitted that there is nothing worse than a poor reception to their work, and Naomi in particular said how she practically lived in fear of a negative response and that it could really bring her down. John, more pragmatically, suggested that a knock occasionally was a good opportunity to review work with a critical eye.

As both artists work full time from a dedicated studio, they felt that motivation was easier to maintain, in that they travel to their studio, shut the door and work uninterrupted in their own space. Both have previously worked from a room at home or part-time, and had experienced the lack of continuity that working in this way can entail.

We were able to see sketchbooks from both John and Naomi. John is a meticulous sketchbook user, and a whole book can be used just chasing down an idea. Of the two he brought, one was filled with collage of figures cut from newspapers, where he was seeking the exploration and abstraction of the human form. The margins were crowded with notes. The other was full of colourful oil pastel studies which he had done when on a week’s “holiday”, he had taken himself off to nearby Clodgy Point and recorded the colours and landscapes of an area he loves. Having commented that the sketches didn’t really tie in with his other work, he went on to say “I suppose I have made rather an icon of Clodgy Head- it has such a distinctive shape, and you see it in my work, in the skylines, I use it a lot.”

Naomi, while carrying a small sketchbook all the time, laughed depreciatingly and commented we would all see how bad she was at drawing. Her pages are surprisingly uncrowded, with brief notations of shapes and people, often in biro or felt pen and (in this book) mostly simple line with no tonal notations. Even a tiny head or statue will eventually make it into a painting, not necessarily as the main feature but to round out the story, and she showed us a couple of specific examples with the help of some exhibition catalogues she had also brought. Later, reading an essay on her website which mentioned her specific and meticulous drawing, I was surprised because there was little evidence of that in what Naomi showed us, and in fact she said she preferred to work up her outlines directly on the canvas.

Self taught v. art school
John is wholly self-taught, having trained as a signwriter. He stressed the importance of having a focussed vision but felt that he had been able to develop his own work without undue pressure from tutelage.

Naomi was of the opinion that she had not learnt anything from art college and only began her learning process when she began her practice.

However, both recognised the value in group participation and networking and acceded that in some areas of the country, as well as abroad, there was a tendency toward snobbery against those artists who had not attended an art school.

Exhibitions, galleries and dealers
A normal period for an exhibition would be two years, and in that time the artist would normally produce about 20-25 pieces to comprise the body of work. Naomi usually only looks to produce around 10 pieces as her method of working is slow, and she says that being under pressure to produce more would not enable her to make the paintings come right. She stressed the importance of having a strong relationship with a gallery so that each understands where the other is coming from.

John has had a varied approach to selling, and although he dealt with galleries originally he spent time selling through dealers, which he now regrets. One of the biggest cautionary notes he raised was that dealers want too much, and can put far too much of your work out there, either flooding the market and devaluing or losing the presentation of the theme by including work which is more experimental. He also said his name disappeared for years as he was not being promoted, he was still making work but very much behind the scenes.

In all it was a very interesting evening, both in seeing Naomi and John’s passion for their work, and learning that they too suffer the same doubts and crises of confidence as we do.

Examples of their work and biographies can be seen on their websites:

1 comment:

  1. Really enjoyed reading about these artists, neither of whom is known to me. It is always interesting to see how some artists abstract or pare down the human form to produce stunning images.