What I paint after my body stops attacking itself

An Interview with Becky Blair by Ant Gray

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2014 was a horrible year for painter Becky Blair. It all started with pain in her joints and ended with her being hospitalised. Eventually, she was diagnosed with Lupus—an autoimmune disease that caused her immune system to go on a rampage. After more than 20 years as professional artist, Becky was forced to a complete stop. Now, 15 months on, she’s back painting in a whole new way.

I didn’t know you’d been ill. So sorry to hear that!

Yeah, I was really ill. I’ve spent the last year getting better, and now I’m feeling ready to get my work out into the world again. So this is very apt time to do an interview!

What happened?

I stopped painting while I was recovering from a terrible turn that took a huge toll. In July 2014, my health declined very speedily over six months. We didn’t know what it was at the time. For three months, I couldn’t leave the house alone. Then I went into hospital just before Christmas. They discovered I have Lupus. It’s an autoimmune disorder that can attack almost every area of your body. In my case, it concentrated in my joints. It was terrifying and for a long time I was unable to paint. But modern medicine is helping to deal with the symptoms, so I’m slowly able to live life more fully again. I started painting again in September 2015.

This new body of work is a reflection of this journey. It’s a departure from my previous work. I’m very excited.

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Yeah, seeing all your recent posts on Facebook and Instagram, it looks like you’ve been really busy. Are you working towards a new show?

Yes. I’m working towards a small solo show in Brighton where I live in the UK. It’s very exciting to be having a show here. I haven’t done one in Brighton since 2009! I usually show in London or Perth, Western Australia when I have solo shows, but this work has come out a period of massive change.

It must have been hard being out of action for so long, and for your illness to be undiagnosed. It must have put a terrible strain on you and your family.

I’m good now—a zillion miles from where I was 15 months ago! It was hard on my daughter Eva and my partner Ben. Ben had to do absolutely everything. It was really hard on my mum too because I was so unhappy and depressed.

How much work goes into keeping it at bay?

At the moment, I’m on a cocktail of immune suppressants and steroids, which are really sorting me out for now with no side effects. I’m on a healthy eating plan to support my system long term as well. I also have to be careful about stress. In general, I would say its taught me some big life truths and helped me simplify my life!

When you paint, I read that you don’t necessarily plan your pictures. That you start with the under-painting and then work with what you see.

I used to not plan my paintings at all, but along with everything else, that’s changed now. I do still approach the canvas in a very open way, and I try very hard to maintain that spirit until the work is completed. But now I’m planning more too. I find that by working through an idea using shapes in watercolours, I can fine-tune some of the elements, so when I come to the canvas I can be spontaneous and confident in my vision. It’s like practising a piece of music over and over, so when I ‘perform’, there’s a feeling of confidence and freedom.

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Wow, you ‘practise’ ideas in watercolour and then ‘perform’ them in paint?

Yeah. I’m working through ideas in watercolour on paper, and getting ideas through that practice. It’s like a visual warm up and a nice way to get into a creative flow, easing into the work happening on the canvas. I started doing the watercolours when I was still in the early stages of recovery. Just as a nice free form, playful expression. I had no expectation that it would lead me to anywhere meaningful.

I think it got my creative brain re-activated. I had been craving a change in expression for quite a few years. But with deadlines and expectations of galleries, I just kept plugging away, unable to let myself off the hook to have a break. Although getting sick was not my ideal way of making that space, it certainly forced it. In all I had 12 months off, so getting back into it has been challenging.

I felt well and truly knocked off my comfy perch, but thankfully I didn’t just step back into safe patterns of picture making. I let myself re-address those known pathways and put into practise a new approach.

So whereas before, I would lay the canvas flat and pour and dribble colours creating an intricate web to then pull out imagery; now, I come to the canvas with an idea of a composition, build up the gesso surface to have texture and interest, then build colours in soft glazes, putting in detail and working up the vibrancy in layers. In some ways, the process is more akin to watercolour painting, but with acrylics.

I was interested in your old way of working because it seemed like it was ideal for discovering unconscious ideas and hidden forms ‘lurking’ beneath the undercoat. Was that how it worked?

I think my previous method did allow for a very playful uncovering, but the imagery it brought forth, I kept very impersonal—more about subjects and everyday experiences that were easy to relate to. I was very fearful of presenting anything that drew too much on my personal feelings or experiences. I didn’t ever delve too deep.

My current approach with watercolours is definitely a vehicle to be light-hearted and playful. But the experimental and unconscious imagery is definitely happening on the canvas as well. I think that by removing the safety net of pouring layers and building an intricate web, I’m creating work that is more exposed and vulnerable, which is an important part of what I want to convey. The images are more spacious and pared back. But there are also intricate arrangements of the incidental worked into areas too. As a whole, I think the process has become more organic.

The very first paintings I did when I returned to the studio were solely made up of triangles. I simply started using them to play with colour and composition, but as a symbol, I was slightly mystified. Though, with time, I’ve connected so much symbolism to this shape and see it as a building block from which my symbolic vocabulary has grown.

Why did you choose triangles?

I think, initially, because I find them powerful yet simple. They’re very versatile. They can be a mountain, or a road in perspective, and that’s just the beginning.

I chose them as a non-figurative structure to experiment with colour, and find my way back into a painting routine. But after painting them for a little while, I became nervous and unsure. I needed to connect with the shape. So I started to look at triangles in symbology. In alchemy, they refer to the basic elements in nature depending on what extra marks are made alongside them. In science, they’re the symbol for change. As my partner Ben pointed out, in digital artwork, everything is constructed from triangles.

It started to feel to me that triangles were a symbol that referred to everything from the molecular to the vast.

Becky Blair, "Life on Mars"

This made me feel excited. Because of my experience with my health, I felt I had found a universal image I could build on. I began to create a vocabulary of imagery that I could explore and communicate my experience.

Then I introduced a bird motif, and put the bird inside the triangle as a symbol for entrapment—of the feeling of restriction brought on by this disease. I’ve since added trees and foliage, again describing feelings of containment. These pared back images give me great joy, and I feel like I am creating work that presents an interesting combination of vulnerability and bravery.

Becky Blair, "Tethered"

It’s interesting what you say about vulnerability and bravery. I’ve always loved something British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott said:

“In the artist of all kinds I think one can detect an inherent dilemma, which belongs to the co-existence of two trends: the urgent need to communicate and the still more urgent need not to be found.”

Is that like what you mean?

It’s a great quote. I think so, yes. I want to tell a story but I am scared of what I might unknowingly reveal of myself. (Laughs)

It’s really interesting too thinking about vulnerability and bravery in the context of you being ill. It’s almost that illness in our culture is treated like a moral failing. That people get sick because there’s something wrong with their being and not their bodies. That they are failures for not trying hard enough to get better.

But then again, as a society, we sometimes over-compensate, claiming that some people have won a moral victory for enduring their illness—the counter-narrative being about heroes and battlers.  That’s not to say that people who suffer terribly aren’t brave. But there’s a middle ground between heroism and failure.

We’ve made a lot of advances in understanding illness, but there’s still a lot of myth surrounding who gets sick and why that we have to work though as well.

Yeah, I think your right. I experienced a lot of shame, grief, anger and denial during the onset and worst times of being ill. I hated feeling incapable and pitiful—so much negativity. I never felt brave or any sense of heroism. I lost hope and wanted to die rather than carry on, and that is said with full gravity—not for dramatic effect.

I get the impression that your journey back is more about a careful, thoughtful re-inhabiting of your life and body—about slowly re-establishing trust in those things—or am I being fanciful as well?

Yeah. The drugs, which I had refused initially until there was a diagnosis, were my train ride out of hell. I leapt on and held tight—held tight to the hope and possibility that’s come with the relief from the symptoms that were ruining me.

I’m so glad you came through it. And now to come back to painting—that must be a relief. It must have been terrible not being able to turn to the thing that has been such a core part of your life.

Yeah, the painting thing just got impossible. I couldn’t walk up the four flights of stairs to get to my studio. And when I did, it was too cold for me to cope. My body was completely f*cked. I lost about ten kilos. I was like this 90-year-old version of myself and I had to sleep two to fours hours during the day.

It’s scary to get a glimpse of what old age is like. You’re the same person inside, but everything is a chore—everything hurts.

I managed to do two commissions as my health declined, but that was hell. Then I just completely stopped, which was actually a relief in the end; I just felt so guilty that I wasn’t doing any work.

But the bit that made me really sad was that I couldn’t dance. That really cut me deep.

Becky Blair, "Land of Plenty"

What came back first? Painting or dancing?

Dancing! (Laughs) First I started going to an afternoon tea dance once a month. It felt wonderful to be moved around the floor. I was still very ill when I went to the first one, so I found just two dances exhausting, but it was worth it.

Once I was in recovery, I persuaded Ben that it was really important I fulfilled a lifetime dream of learning to partner dance. So over six months, we took private classes and now we can waltz, foxtrot, quickstep, tango, swing, salsa, cha-cha and mumba. We go every month. It’s brilliant fun!

Becky Blair, "Wolf Mountain"

Is there a physical dimension to your painting? For classical musicians, they sometimes talk about the importance of ‘gesture.’ You see it when classical pianists play and they look like seated ballerinas, using these dramatic movements of their arms at the end of phrases. Gesture has a big impact on how they articulate and interpret a piece. Is there anything like that going on when you’re making an image?

I love that idea. I’ve never really considered the reason behind the way people play their instruments like that, but it makes perfect sense.

I do dance sometimes when I am working. If the tune is right and the creative flow is aligned—almost like a celebratory wiggle. But generally I would say painting is a very static process. There is so much mental activity as you process, create, solve, re-invent, delete and imagine. I become very detached from my body.

Maybe that’s why I love dancing so much as a physical embodiment of the creative process—it’s the yin to the yang of painting.

(Laughs) That’s beautiful.


Becky Blair is a UK artist, based in Brighton. She has exhibited everywhere from Singapore to France, New York to Delhi, London to Perth, Western Australia.

You can find more of her work at beckyblairartist.co.uk. Or, follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

All images © Copyright 2016, Becky Blair