Source Magazine, autumn 2014.
Artists of vision: The Hackney and Haringey arts hub
She’s not quite what you’d expect, Lauren Baker. Her art is intense, bright and hard-hitting, so you’d think the person dreaming it all up would be loud and brash. Of course, Baker is plenty intense once you’ve spent some time with her, but the surface remains deceptively subtle: a small girl with lots of big brown hair, riding a pink mini-bike with a chihuahua zipped inside her coat. In a sense, Baker’s a bit like her art: the surface is only half the story. Look closer and something happens, light and dark collide and it’s sharp and fearless, and ultimately, fascinating.
Take Baker’s favourite piece right now, a large, three-dimensional starburst covered in mirrors: “It’s symbolic of the portal to other dimensions.” Next to the portal sits a coffin, lined with light: “Like the light you see when you have a near-death experience.” And everywhere are the skulls: gold and metallic ones, jewelled eyes, bright neons, colourful crystals, painted in jagged or sweeping patterns, energetic and bold.
Baker’s Hackney Downs studio is halfway between Hackney Wick, which has the highest concentration of creative practitioners in Europe, and Haringey, home to a thriving artist community including the Chocolate Factory, London’s biggest studio complex. While conscious of the nurturing effect of the East London arts scene, self-admitted workaholic Baker is really just doing her thing, no biggie. Her studio is inside a railway arch next to Hackney Downs; perfect, she says, so close to her house. Today she’s in a loose, long-sleeved playsuit and tights, chunky jewellery in silver and bone offsetting the discrete outfit. She serves tea in mismatched crockery before sitting down, launching into the story of how she got to where she is today. Now 32, Baker’s only been an artist for three years: “I didn’t find my passion until I was 29. It’s moving really fast. Now that I’m finally on the right path, it’s just flowing.”
Baker credits her former life of working in events and marketing as part of the reason she’s managed to become a successful artist in such a short time; she knows how to attract attention to her work, and this is how the Tate Modern picked her up after her very first show. But it was necessary to make a change: “I quit my old job and went to South America. I was looking for an adventure, a spiritual path.” What she found was a mosaics artist in Brazil, who inspired Baker to go to Venice and learn the craft. But not before having an experience, deep in the Peruvian jungle, where she met a shaman and had a vision that she should become an artist. Having moved on from mosaics since, Baker now considers herself a multimedia artist: “I see my art practice as one big fun experiment. I don’t want to restrict myself.”
It’s sunny outside the cool railway arch, and Baker’s chihuahua, Dude, is keen to go outside. Baker releases the dog once we round the corner into Hackney Downs, and the tiny dog disappears immediately in the tall grass. Baker is unconcerned; Dude makes friends easily. “I love it here,” she says, as she waves to a woman passing on a bicycle; “That’s my neighbour. She’s a blacksmith.” I ask if Baker, who’s not a native Londoner, would ever leave the capital, but she looks at me like I’m mad: “Oh no! East London is my home. I could never leave!”
Even when she’s talking about her work, Baker is soft-spoken to the point where you still can’t quite believe all that powerful art comes from her. Then she talks about how, early in her career, she decided she wanted to decorate display windows, picked three places she fancied, and ended up with Harrods. She makes it sound easy, like it was nothing. The Harrods window led to a Selfridges window, and there were shows in New York, California, Ibiza. “I try to trust my instincts,” she says, in an effort to explain how she does it. “I think, in order to succeed, you need the ability to just go for it. Not letting yourself be led astray by what other people want you to do. Stay true to your heart.”
And, Baker is quick to add, you need to be a top-notch networker: “You really need to get yourself out there, go to exhibitions, art fairs, talk to lots of people and tell them what you’re doing.” Being part of Hackney Downs Studios makes this possible without going far; Baker’s complex is home to over 100 artists, designers, record labels, bookbinders and other creatives, even a brewery. Regular events and open studio days, plus a café, shop and gallery, ensure a nurturing community.
Baker doesn’t linger on the details when she talks, skimming over the studio that’s freezing in winter and the fingers that bleed after hours and days of placing crystals. Instead she talks about how much she loved it when the Tate Britain invited her to reinterpret one of their works; she chose ‘Ophelia’ by Millais, “the most beautiful death”. Baker created a forest inside the gallery, recreating Ophelia’s final moments surrounded by trees and flowers, and of course, skulls and bones. “I’m really driven to try and understand death, in a positive way. We’re not here forever.”
We’ve sat down on a bench on the Downs, and Dude has reappeared and wants attention. Baker has been talking about her work for Save Wild Tigers, and spending two and a half months placing 35,000 Swarovski crystals on a life-sized tiger’s head. This year she’s doing it again, only it’s bigger and will take four months. She readily admits the work can be maddening: each sequin is individually placed, and it has to be perfect. “But then I get into a meditative state doing it, and it’s really lovely.”
Baker’s in demand for commissions, but will still spend all her money on materials and push on with her passion projects. She’s just come back from her first vacation in three years. “The plan now is to have a work-life balance!” If that’s possible, that is: “I get into extremes with work. I got to bed at 3am last night. I basically have to leave London to stop working.” She seems to be having a lot of fun though. Is she? Baker looks up from Dude in her lap, and for a moment it’s like she’s surprised. Then she lets out a big, red-lipsticked laugh: “Yes! I’m having a really good time!” And you know it’s true.
Adam Doughty, illustrator in Hackney Wick
Adam Doughty draws what he sees: a pint, King’s Cross station, some cheese, what the weekend feels like. Of course, it’s all re-imagined, bringing a sense of magical, yet simple, realism to his work. “I liked the phrase ‘magical realism’, I felt it was a fitting term to describe my work.” says Doughty. “I focus on the everyday, but I like to play with aspects of the illustration, like manipulating scale, adding historical references, and using a varied colour palette.”
The result is day-to-day elements captured with a whimsical feel. Doughty likes to research the history of an area before drawing it: “It’s inspiring to discover the old use of a building, the people who worked there and what it stood for.” Like his workplace, the Bridget Riley Studios in the part of Hackney Wick known as Fish Island; the building used to be part of a peanut factory. “The Bridget Riley Studios has such an array of talent. At the last Hackney WickED open studios I talked with painters, glass cutters, sculptors, illustrators, web designers, architects, fashion designers – all in the same building.”
Doughty shares his studio with two women, one is a children’s illustrator and the other a freelance architect. “Our studio is quite spacious and we all get on really well. I love the fact that the space is hidden away, nestled in the corner of an artistic hub. If I leave my window open I’ll often get a cat visitor, who sits on my rocking chair until I’m done for the day,” says Doughty. “I’m proud to show visitors around the area. The graffiti, the quirky sculptures, canal boats, the giant stadium, and the creation of the neighbouring Queen Elizabeth Park. It all make for an interesting experience.”
Doughty lives ten minutes’ walk from his Fish Island workspace, in Bow. “I loved the feel of the place straight away, especially the vibrant arts scene in Hackney Wick. If you need support, it’s there for you.” Recently, Doughty has been experimenting with larger scale illustrations, but he always has a couple of Moleskine notebooks on the go: “I sketch and draw in these when I’m out and about. I draw on the bus, train, the doctor’s surgery, the beach, the Sikh Temple in Bow – anywhere that allows it.” He laughs. “The only place I’ve been told off for drawing was in the Tate Modern!”
Matt Small, painter in Haringey
“North London is one big village,” says Matt Small. He’s sitting on the fire escape of his flat in Camden right now, but his workspace, at Euroart Studios in Haringey, is just a skip, hop and jump away on the Overground. There are new studios opening up all the time, Small observes, with lots of open days and initiatives for support: “There’s a DIY mentality growing. I think us artists have realised it’s important to take control, and not wait on established organisations to provide support.”
As a full-time artist, Small knows that locking yourself away in your studio to focus on your craft probably won’t cut it: “You have to be savvy about promoting yourself. That’s a part of the job as well, and not something us artists have traditionally been so great at. So it’s good to have a network of individuals who are in the same boat as you.”
Primarily a painter, Small has a strong, compelling style, often choosing discarded objects like car bonnets or old signs instead of canvas for his work. “The theme of my work is young, dispossessed people: individuals who feel undervalued, who don’t have a voice, who get looked over.” Small explains how the urban debris he paints on becomes symbolic of the feeling of being without value: “I thought it’d be interesting to connect the two – that oven door, that shelving unit, that piece of trash to someone – I don’t see it like that, I see that it can be something beautiful and worthwhile. That’s how I see our young people too. Let’s look at their potential, at the hope that’s in all of them.”
Small has hosted workshops for socially marginalised people, driven in part by a desire to give them a voice, but also wanting to make art more approachable in general. “I think the art world is un-inclusive by design, but for me, making it understandable and connected to us mere mortals is what art is about. It’s about finding your own way of communicating what goes on in your mind. That’s the most powerful thing you can do as an individual: creatively express yourself, visually or through music or dance.” And of course, there’s the thrill of the challenge: “I’d feel as if I was cheating myself if I wasn’t pushing the boundaries of my own potential. Keep discovering, keeping finding, keep playing.” He laughs. “Having fun with it all. Yes, yes!”
Natalie Ryde, painter/printmaker in Hackney Wick
Delicate nets and intricate webs are in Natalie Ryde’s blood, it seems, as she was drawing these patterns for years before discovering her family’s 300-year history as framework knitters. “It’s so curious to me. I’d been drawing these nets and ferns almost intuitively,” says Ryde. The realisation came five years ago, when her family was invited to visit the factory where their ancestors had worked for generations. “My family knew, but they never mentioned it. They just took it for granted. So it’s definitely not from nurture!”
Studying nature, and close-up details, are key elements in Ryde’s work. Her nets create a “sub-lingual pattern” that tries to convey something: “It hints at things that are familiar but not quite discernible, like you can relate to them but you’re not quite sure what they are.” She laughs a bit, nervously, it’s hard to explain what she means. “I’m compelled to drawing things and making things in response to the world around me. I can remember being little and wanting to be really good at drawing. It’s so much a part of my life now, I can’t imagine it not being the thing I do every day.”
Originally from Scotland, Ryde works at Wallis Studios in Hackney Wick. “Why did I come here? Because this is where everyone is!” Previously living in London Fields, Ryde has since moved to Haringey. “I was thinking of getting a studio closer to home, but I quite like the commute. I cycle down, along the canal.” Not to mention the community in the Wick: “It’s exciting, there’s always lots of exhibitions and galleries. There’s always so much fun going on. People work hard here, it’s nice.” Ryde is part of a mentoring programme for artists in the area, and also works in arts education, in part for local children in nearby Queen Elizabeth Park.
And of course, there’s the net drawings. “I have worked in lots of different mediums but I’m focusing on the nets, as I feel that’s my visual language now,” says Ryde. “l get my ideas from being outside, but I’m not necessarily interested in the view. I’m more interested in the ground, or in things that are washed up on the beach. That’s how you’ll find those strange, alien-looking things, detached from their context, so it doesn’t quite make sense when you first see it.”
Richard Peacock, printmaker in Haringey
“The Chocolate Factory is really not bad,” says Richard Peacock, who’s been in his Haringey studio for 14 years now. “When I first qualified I had a studio in Dalston, where you had to scrape the ice off the windows. But here, we have heating!” He laughs. Peacock lives close to his studios too, although this is a happy accident; he originally came to Haringey because his sister lived there. “I didn’t do my art degree until my 30s. As a teenager in Essex I wanted to be an artist, but I didn’t get back into it until I started going to evening classes. Then slowly and surely it became the most important thing in my life.”
Peacock talks about the “rhythmic abstract” process of screen printing, the “changes in the weight of the inks” and the “variation in the edges of the shapes”. This is a physical experience, requiring 24 different processes for each print. It can be planned or intuitive, but regardless: “You have to respond to what’s happening. That should let you make something that’s better than what you can plan.”
The result is part abstract, part pop art, playfully exploring shapes and colours. “Every time a cardboard box comes into the house I take it apart and look at it,” says Peacock, who often ends up using the shape in his work. “I like things with holes and gaps in it, so you can see through it as you print layers. Someone once sent me this lovely waxed paper with lots of tiny holes, it had been used in a circuit factory.” Peacock used the paper to print strips, which began to resemble trees in the forest. The resulting piece, “Step from the path”, is his favourite. Sometimes he’ll includes words too, usually simple phrases, or maybe texts from spam emails or horoscopes; it’s cliche language that ultimately says something about how we live.
Haringey has seen a lot of new artist spaces pop up in the past few years, says Peacock. While still a very diverse borough, things are becoming more buzzy, especially around Tottenham with its open studios, and around Alexandra Park with its arts trails. “Then there’s the Chocolate Factory, which has its own community associated with it. There are lots of people here who are making things happen.”
Esther Ainsworth, mixed-media artist in Hackney Wick
It starts out subtle, Esther Ainsworth’s work, always with a place or sound that’s caught her attention. Like today, when she’s in Balfron Tower, East London’s Brutalist masterpiece: ”It’s an incredible building. I’m using it as a kind of residency, trying to conjure up ideas based on the environment here.”
Ainsworth’s main medium is sound, but through this comes an exploration of space. “I like looking at what makes an interesting place, and then finding the sonic information that gives it a sense of identity.” The result is an experience that teases you in and opens you up, be it a recorded soundscape or a site-specific installation. Ainsworth has been at Mother Studios in Hackney Wick since 2006, which has provided its own experience as the area has changed. “Hackney Wick is such an interesting place to be. It was completely different when I got there,” says Ainsworth; especially the previously “stark and industrial” Olympic area has undergone a complete transformation.
One of Ainsworth’s current collaborations is with a light artist also working at Mother Studios. “The activity on each floor at the studio is very sociable, very vibrant. People often work with their doors open, and you can get feedback on your practice. We share a mailing list where everybody can promote their work,” says Ainsworth. “All the studio blocks and the galleries tend to know about each other. The Wick is essentially an artists’ village, because there’s not really anything else happening there!”
Having said that, Ainsworth often works outside of East London. Her favourite project is called Drive-In Sound; she’s done it three times so far, most recently on her way to a residency in Slovakia. “I love the idea of combining the freedom of a road trip with something that’s deeply enmeshed in the communities you visit. You can create new networks as you move around from place to place.”
This also goes to the core of why Ainsworth does her work: “It comes from trying to understand the world a little bit better. By finding interesting places, by hopefully connecting people between those places.” She thinks about it. “The idea of uniting and building bridges between communities and cultures is very exciting for me. I don’t think there’s an arrival point, but there’s a sense of journey. It drips through everything.”