I have loved having the opportunity recently to feature emerging Yorkshire based artist, Harriet Gillett @harrietgillettart
We discussed favourite locations, Leonard Cohen, studio necessities, colour and values.
When asked to describe her work in three words, Gillett used: “narrative, fluid, psychological”.
Her highly original paintings are honest, speak a strong narrative and have a surreal, imagined feeling about them.
I love the rawness of her colour palette, and her use of mixed media to create stunning effects.
"Narrative, Fluid, Psychological"
Tell me, every artist has a story of how they became an artist. What was your earliest memory surrounding artwork?And was there a moment it clicked that you would be an artist, or has it never been a question?
Although I paint from it a lot ironically I have a terrible memory! I was always into making little books though, and illustrated journals when I was younger. But in all honesty, I never really believed that ‘being an artist’ was something I could do until recently. I enjoyed it at school but didn’t think I had the imagination for it; my art projects mainly consisted of painting different animals: one year I did chickens, the next cows etc. I did branch out to rhino’s in the final year which felt pretty radical. I kept doing commissions and Open Studios alongside studying English Lit at Uni. I felt so jammy making money from painting instead of bar work!
I don’t think it was until I moved to London, where I was able to regularly visit the National Gallery and the Tate that I really began to get beyond brief visits and start to spend time with art. I was working at an auction house in an admin role which lacked creativity, and I think that factor, along with the exposure to so much great art, made me really want to scratch the itch and see if I could make it as an artist. I quit my job and did some part-time art courses alongside working on commissions and other random jobs to pay the rent. I started meeting other artists who got me really inspired.
I have slowly gained in confidence, and now I do actually introduce myself as an artist!
What 3 words would you use to describe your artwork?
Narrative, Fluid, Psychological
Who or what are your biggest influences, and how do you find them? How do these come out in your work?
My academic background in English Literature, and I draw a lot of parallels between writing and painting. I think a lot about who is telling the story and why. Language is power. I find it so interesting that it is essential to how we socialise, but so often to the detriment of individual expression. It’s the system through which perceived social norms are constructed, and perpetuated. I looked a lot into how writers navigate that. I want my pictures to trouble that a bit. Painting is such a great language for doing this, I like the fact that it's a material thing in the world, its physicality helps to draw attention to how constructed the act of telling any story actually is, without having to speak at all. I like my work to contain some feeling of narrative within it but I never want this to be too direct. I’m interested in how we constantly mis-represent things, or mis-interpret them so I also like to play on that. That’s partly why animals came into my work a lot; I feel they’ve been left out of art history as a subject in their own right - they often just become symbolic extensions of our own thoughts and feelings. I like them for their timeless quality; they don’t change as quickly as we do. We are more alike to them than we like to think. At the moment I’m reading a lot of Ted Hughes’s poetry. It captures the dark, primal aspects of humanity while being quite funny, I’d love to achieve that through painting.
Probably my biggest artist influences have been found just through chatting with people. I was recommended to look at Ken Kiff by another artist. I’d never seen anything like that! I was struck by his use of colour and shapes; they're so sophisticated yet manages to feel almost childishly playful. I really felt him revelling in the paint and I hope my paintings have some of that irreverence in them.
What is, if you have one, your preferred location to create?
I think it’s more about atmosphere than actual location for me. For getting initial inspiration, I love to be out and about drawing from life. I like the urgency that it gives you - you don’t have time to stop and think and you make quick decisions. In the studio, my most inspired work is usually made later at night when it feels secretive, with loud music playing on repeat so that I can get out of my own head. I really like Leonard Cohen because he is so spiritual but his mind is always in the gutter.
What is your studio like? What are your artist necessities? What could you not live without?
My studio is so messy, I collect all sorts and I am a terrible hoarder. I have about five different sketchbooks/ notebooks/ books I am reading which I tend to lug around with me everywhere. Even though I rarely use all at once they always make me prepared like I am ready for anything.
What questions drive your practice? What are the focuses and themes of your work?
When I look at my favourite artists, I often wonder ‘how on earth did they make that up?’! I suppose I’d love someone to look at my work and think that.
I feel that the best art expresses the complexities of life. Often my paintings emerge from a yearning to escape to simpler times and places, which seem so far away from and at odds with this complexity, so the themes often revolve around that tension. I’m not interested in showing good or bad because I don’t think anyone is ever just one or the other; I want to avoid generalisation. We live in such an age of polarity and I’d like my works to offer a space which shows the two sides meeting and where the boundaries are blurred. I want to question simple processes of categorisation or probe at supposed ’truths’ by offering multiple perspectives in one image. I’d roughly describe all of my art as being my own psychological landscapes which blur the lines between abstraction and figuration, dream or reality, predator or prey to reflect upon wider themes of collective identity, behaviour and containment.
Usually I think about three things I’d like a piece to have; darkness, beauty or humour. If I can make one which contains two of these, then I see it as successful.
You work in so many mediums. Do any of them speak more to you than others? What decides the medium for each piece?
A lot of my work arises through simply playing with the medium and letting it take over, seeing where incorporating chance or working automatically can lead, so it tends to be that the medium dictates the piece. Watercolour and Gouache have a dreamy, ephemeral quality which lends itself to working from imagination or memory; it has that quality of being something you can’t quite grasp or put your finger on, like a memory. I like never knowing quite how the paint and water will react. It feels really mysterious and as if I am just an observer.
Printmaking has been a god-send for organising thoughts. It’s a really physical process with lots of steps which you have to do in the correct order, so the structure is a nice starting point. It’s a great way for turning pencil drawings in my sketchbook into more finished pieces, which is exciting for me as I find that my work often feels unfinished! I like what Kiki Smith says about prints - that they are like people because although they all look the same, each one is different to the other.
I feel like there is so much potential for painting in oil because there is so much scope for experimentation. I have recently started working in spray paint and using that as a base for oil paintings. It feels so acidic and artificial, especially the neon colours which just scream that they are man-made; it makes a juicy and jarring contrast to the more organic feel of oil paint. A lot of my current work circulates around themes of destruction or change, and how many of us are often at odds with our environment, so I like how the use of spray paint means that the human presence never feels too far away even if it’s a painting of animals in a landscape.
Can you tell us a bit about your process for your paintings, and how each of your artwork comes to be?
I’m dyslexic and I think that really shows in my process. I often find myself making big leaps, or drawing parallels between things which others might see as completely opposing or random, but I like to roll with that and expose the unlikely connections or the discrepancies in the familiar, to make it seem strange again. As a result of this, I tend to work quickly on lots of things at once and flit between them so that each series informs the other and my whole body of work evolves together.
I usually work on a small scale first, often working into scraps of paper or old palettes, or bits of rubbish I have lying around as it gets rid of the initial stress of making. I try to get into a state where I’m not thinking too much as then I am an anxious mess - a more automatic state is best! I tend to start off making abstract shapes to form a base, and then seeing what figures emerge from that. Often things appear that I have previously drawn from life, but when I work directly from the imagination they take on a bit more character. If I am surprised at what comes out, that’s usually a good thing.
I’m relatively new to oil painting and working larger, so am still learning a lot but I’m excited about it as a process through which I can slow down. For me the layering of oil paint enacts the process of memory and it’s ability to create distance between reality and sugar-coat it. In a lot of my work I want to give both a glimpse of nostalgia towards something whilst also acknowledging its propensity for darkness, so I find the layering of oil paint, and the combination of murky and luminous colour does that nicely and often creates a space where ideas from my smaller works can culminate in one larger piece.
Is colour important to you?
Yes! I think being expressive and experimental with colour has always been what has unified my work. I love how well it is able to convey emotion, and create atmosphere. It’s so immediate, it can transcend the barriers of language and it’s always been the way through which I can make even the most everyday subject (for example, cows!) exciting.
I remember reading an interview with David Hockney in which he was talking about the Bridlington skyline. He described how what at first glance appears grey, actually holds a host of lilacs and blues. I always refer to that when I’m teaching my art classes. I think art is really all about indulging in looking, and ultimately seeing more. So I like to think about how I can communicate through colour alone. That being said, I often use it pretty intuitively. Often my pieces touch on darker subject matter, so I like to use a sunnier, more playful colour palette to balance that out and keep it light hearted. I like the tension that creates.
What memorable responses have you had to your work? And which artwork would you like people to remember you for?
Over lockdown I devised a method of printmaking by using my car instead of a printing press. I was really excited about the results but when I showed them to my dad he said it just looked like I had spilled my drink on a piece of paper.
I’ve met a few people in Yorkshire (where I used to hold my Open Studios) who still remember me for my pictures of cows which is quite jokes, but hopefully I haven’t made the work which I’ll be remembered for yet!
What are some values and beliefs you live your life by?
Be nice! And open minded. I believe in karma and that kindness and generosity are usually reciprocated. I’ve also learned to ask for help. We have a saying in Yorkshire that ‘shy lads get nowt’ so I try not to be shy. I enjoy giving my own time to others too, and actually it’s often been the way through which new opportunities have arisen.
Ironically I’ve learned more about life from reading fiction than I did in my history lessons so I’m a big fan of that too.
If you could own one piece of artwork in the world, as if money or likelihood was no issue, what would it be and why?
Such a hard question! Probably just for impact, The Crucifixion by Francis Bacon. I was gobsmacked when I saw it at the Tate, it caught me right off guard. I’ve never seen so many strong reactions to a painting before either. When I was sitting and drawing it, an old man accused me of dabbling with satan under his breath. I like art which anyone can look at and take something from, even if it is just shock!
What are you working on at the moment?
Too much! The painting I’m currently most excited about working on is a big one of some people sat around a camp fire. It’s based on some blind drawings that I did of friends last summer; I made it into an etching a few months ago using a print-making process called spit-bite, where it took on quite a spiritual feel. So now I am scaling it up to a 1.5 x 2m diptych which will hopefully retain some of those qualities but take it to a whole new level with the scale, and the colour and volume that layered paint will bring. It’ll be my most ambitious painting to date.
And what would be your dream project?
I really like collaborating with other people and making art that’s more accessible to a wider audience. Set design is super fun. Perhaps a wacky set installation of paintings for the main stage at Glastonbury? I did a piece of street art in Camden last summer whilst my friend’s band played a live gig above me which was awesome and I’d love to do more things like that.
Looking ahead, what do you think could be your biggest challenge?
My challenge has always been to get the right balance between work and art; to make enough money to pay the overheads without too much stress and still have the time to actually have an art practice. I’ve also got really bad at parting with my work! My new paintings are like my babies and I feel I’m not quite ready to send them off into the world yet which is so silly as I know that in a couple of years I will be over them anyway.
What can She Curates do now/ what can we work on together to help you?
It would be incredible to be part of an exhibition alongside some of the other awesome artists who you have been showcasing!
Favourite historical female artist?
I was wowed by the recent Dorothea Tanning exhibition. But I also just love Lee Krasner’s work. Her titles are always so on point.
Favourite current practising female artist?
I am obsessed with Jesse Makinson and Sara Anstis. I’d love to hear more about the backstory behind their work, and how they come up with what they do.
Who should She Curates interview next?
I love Mary Herbert’s work! It is so dreamy and mystical. I am saving to buy one.
Is there anything else you wanted to say?
Thank you so much for interviewing me!