More Light: An Interview with Artist Issie Weir

Issie Weir was one of our featured artists at the Girl Talk Exhibition last term. I chatted to her about her paintings and finding time to create.

Hi Issie, thanks for agreeing to chat to me. Can you tell me a bit about the two paintings you had in our exhibition?

I exhibited “Flora” and “Ludo.” Both models are friends I study History of Art with.  I painted “Ludo” first, as from meeting Ludo on the first day of our course I had a really strong vision of how I would like to paint him. I wanted the portrait to be painted in a traditional style with strong chiaroscuro lighting and a black silk dress.  But in discussing the portrait with him the theme of the painting started to develop around the format of a traditional society portrait and how that could be challenged and played around with through androgyny, to almost play a trick on the viewer and require them to spend a little longer looking a little closer, something which we tend not to do when looking at the traditional society portrait hanging in the gallery. 

With “Flora” the aim was a little different.  I had been to the botanical gardens during the Easter term when the orange sunlight was pouring through the glass roof of the conservatory and the colours were so incredibly bright and bold. I wanted to capture that, and Izzy was the perfect person to be captured in it as she has a similar vibrancy.  So we spent the next day in the botanical gardens, quite literally among the plants, embracing them at times, I imagine it was all quite amusing to passersby.  In painting Izzy, I wanted to try to portray a person, character, and emotional depth through light. Light is so fundamental to paintings and while in general it is praised and noted, its specific types and characteristics seem to go unnoticed, or are perhaps too personal to the artist or sitter to have an effect on the viewer.  I wanted to see how I could use its different and specific types and characteristics to express warmth or detachment, or to evoke a certain memory or feeling.  In “Flora” I wanted to capture that beautiful warm and yet bright light which was as much an aspect of her personality as the surroundings. I am looking at this interplay of light and subject matter more at the moment in a short film I’m making and am excited to see where it will lead me. 

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“Ludo”

What is it that draws you to this style of painting?

It was interesting with these two as they were both rather dramatically different styles, one more “finished,” refined and naturalistic and the other slightly geometric and abstract. Both originated from the same classical method which I tend to follow.  I’ve always been drawn towards the more classical and “traditional” style of art, I find the illusion quite fascinating, particularly the realism of textures and drama in certain light effects which could only be produced with the depth and translucency that oils can achieve.  I just wanted to be able to replicate the artists that could do this, and so that’s been the style that I’ve tried to hone my technique towards and those more traditional and often renaissance artists tend to be the artists that I go to for inspiration. 

In “Ludo” I’ve used a limited and cold palette in keeping with a traditional academic technique to create dramatic chiaroscuro lighting but one with an air of cold detachment and elegance.  On more technical note I chose this type of lighting and subject matter to give me a chance to have a go at painting silk.  The style follows a more traditional technique, which begins with a raw umber underpainting and is built up through a limited palette mixed into shadows, midtones and highlights, so this one is less experimental in style but perhaps more so in subject matter.  However, in general my style is still very much in a development stage and so I am trying to experiment and not get tied to any one style quite yet. 

“Flora” actually just began as an underpainting on top of which I would refine the details so she would eventually have a similar finish to “Ludo.” However when I stood back and looked at it I really liked it as it was, the colors had just worked in creating the warmth I was going for, and I liked the contrast between the soft colors and the slightly more geometric lines. The result was something a little different to what I had intended, and it became a catalyst for trying out more colorful and funky underpaintings in later works to see how this would affect the vibrancy and lend a nuance to the light. So, in that way it opened a door to experiment again with oil paints, looking to find new limits. 

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“Flora”

How do you make time to paint in your schedule? Does inspiration come to you at once or do you set aside time on purpose?

So for the larger paintings I tend to store up ideas until the holidays when I’ll just go on a spree of binge painting.  During term I keep a sketch book on me all the time, just a little pocket one, it’s just for jotting down ideas, life drawing and sketching people or compositions for paintings I might work up later.  Inspiration really comes in fits and spurts at fairly random times.  I find trying to force inspiration at a particular time just doesn’t work, a bit like when someone asks you your favorite film and then you can’t think of a single film let alone your favorite. 

But on the other hand, if you have the inkling of an idea or a theme then setting aside time or just letting it mull over in the back of your mind can be quite good for developing ideas. Sometimes I know it sounds stupid but I genuinely have had dreams about some of these ideas and then have had to jot them down at about 3 in the morning, it’s a sort of ongoing thing. 

I have been working on a project with a friend this term to do with muses which has been fun and a nice thing to run alongside the general hecticness of Cambridge. 

Have you been finding time to create during lockdown? Does art help you get through times of stress?

Yeah lockdown has actually been really quite helpful for general painting productivity.  I’ve just been trying to get back into the swing of painting, it always takes a bit of time after a while away from it, I’ve been working on a series of “quarantine portraits” of everyone in my family as its quite rare at the moment that they are all home.  I haven’t started anything big yet just because of lack of large boards at the moment.  It has also been quite nice to have the time to experiment with different media without getting distracted or putting it off until I have time, so I’ve been working on a short film about light which has been fun, just in terms of teaching myself how to film and edit.  Other creative moments have included a cardboard puppet head the other day for no particularly good reason than I had a cardboard box that needed using and the time.

Art definitely helps me when I’m stressed.  I think it’s partly just the manual aspect of it, having something to do with my hands which also occupies my mind is just very calming.  It’s also an excuse to just have time in my own world. 

Find more pieces like these on Issie’s Instagram @belle_arts

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A Short Meditation on Sofa Beds: A Conversation with Helen Grant

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Can you tell me a bit about A Short Meditation on Sofa Beds?

It’s a comic that does what it says on the tin, really – thinks about sofa beds. I moved to Paris in September to start my year abroad, and found myself taking up a ritual that had punctuated my mum’s daily existence when I was small: folding away and unfolding her bed. I’dnever really properly appreciated her situation as a single parent fudging solutions as she went along. I wanted to represent that odd, personal, slightly dark corner of family history somehow – it kept going round and round in my head – so one day I just sat myself down and sketched it all out. It was ultimately quite a slow development process, and by the time I’d finished all the illustrations and posted it on Instagram, I’d had to leave France because of the coronavirus. I wasn’t totally happy with the final draft, but I thought it was better to let it go rather than keeping tinkering around with it.

What is it about illustration that you like so much?

I always say I like art but I’m not massively art literate. I usually mean I like the pictures in books, and if I like any fine art it’s often because it looks like it would look nice in a book. I brought picture books with me to Cambridge in my first year because they felt like the most beautiful, warm, comforting, inspiring things I owned. A good illustrator will make any story a thousand times funnier, more powerful, more poignant. And I like the way illustrations can either agree with or challenge a writer. There’s something equally pleasing about a comic or graphic novel where the style of the art and words seem to completely harmonize together, and a novel whose picturesare far more playful and experimental than the sentences alone might suggest.

How has getting creative helped you out in times of crisis?

I can’t think of anything else as simultaneously soothing and infuriating as art. It’s like putting my brain in a different box. It gives me technical problems I can solve rather than real world problems that are out of my hands. I really struggled living on my own in France, and rediscovering drawing and painting in that time was the biggest saviour. I drafted cartoons on post-its at my desk at work and absorbed myself with more complicated pieces at home. It let me feel proud of myself and my output and hopeful about my capacity to improve.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to give it a go?

Expose yourself to a huge mixture of artists and styles! That’s what makes Instagram so brilliant. It’s so freeing to be able to see the bajillion different ways of going about making art. I think artists like Ruby Etc. and David Shrigley are really interesting here because their work doesn’t *look*intimidatingly technical. As a beginner you can immediately see that you don’t have to aim to end up at some terrifying hyperrealism for your output to be meaningful and exciting. And I’d also say that playing around with materials in a kind of abstract way can be really fulfilling. Paint in a colour you like and try out different shapes and lines. And look at little patterns and details in art that you really like. Make them yours.

Let’s Get Fat Together: our unhealthy obsession with exercise during lockdown

Rebecca Ebner-Landy 

The arrival of coronavirus has brought with it the arrival of new restrictions, and for eating disorder survivors and sufferers, it is all too familiar. I have just recovered from an eating disorder and now again find my life controlled by a sinister rulebook l know frustratingly well – just this time I’m not the one writing it. With briefings telling me what I should and shouldn’t be doing – one form of exercise a day – the implicit media standards and silent pressures so many of us feel have now become direct commands. Suddenly everyone is saying “I should do more exercise because I don’t want to put on weight”, or “I’ve got to be careful I don’t snack too much given the circumstances”, or “I should eat less of this” as the prospect of food shortages becomes real. 

I’m angry that the front page of the Times’ weekend supplement is: “Offset your calories — how not to get fat at home”, instructing me on how many times I need to run up the stairs in my house to counterbalance the glass of wine I drank with my friends on Zoom last night. “30 minutes with Joe Wicks” allows me – yes “allows” is the word used – a slice of cake. Thank you so much Joe for permitting me such a luxury, and thank you too for your presumption that we all live in big houses with stairs. What would in normal times be no more than a passing comment about a post-work visit to the gym has now become the topic of conversation, the social media post, and has generated an exercise culture that is all the more compulsive and competitive. Whenever I’m online I’m being shamed by someone, somewhere saying: “You haven’t done Zoom yoga?”, “You haven’t run 5km for NHS heroes?”, “You haven’t livestreamed Zumba?”. Questions which make you ask yourself – if someone else hasn’t asked you already – “what then have I been doing instead?” 

Run faster, look thinner, do more … Aren’t we allowed to just sit and think about the strange madness of the situation – how it’s hard and how we feel scared or uncertain or depressed and perhaps, because of this, we may not want to, or not be able to do anything at all? Or do we all have to be exercising all the time? 

I’m angry because it seems that the people who go on these well-broadcasted runs are precisely the people who ignore the social distancing rules. The parks are filled with joggers weaving in and out of the dotted walkers, leaving their unwelcome scent as they brush past. 

When a jogger’s only mechanical thought is time, distance, and calories “offset”, it seems that social distancing isn’t always on their mind. Perhaps this is why I find them constantly coming too close for comfort, too close for safety. 

This is a time which we’ll look back on: judging ourselves and being judged by others for the decisions we made. What will we choose to be more important? The pleasure of posting your crafted physique in your Lululemon gear? Or the feeling that it’s probably going to make someone else – the self-isolaters, the shielders, the disabled, the depressed, your own friends who may want to exercise but can’t – feel absolutely awful. It’s like we’re at war so we should treat it as one and in these moments of uncertainty, fear and sadness, turn to collective solidarity instead: boosting people’s morale and spirits. We should run because it makes us feel good, because we enjoy it, with a favourite song blasting, half-dancing and on top of the world. 

And if we’re not out running – why should any of us have to? – let’s not let Joe Wicks become our new Shakespeare, Stormzy and Meryl Streep. Since when did exercise culture replace real culture? Has freedom become something that can only be had in the one hour of exercise, or can we get freedom within the confines of our home as we discover new worlds in books and music and films and recipes? Have we forgotten how much joy can be had from reading a great book, as you shut the back cover? Some of our freedoms have been restricted – and for good reason – but let’s enjoy the ones we have left, freedoms we so often ignore. 

So, when you’re cooking and baking and sourdough-bread making, don’t caveat it with a comment about putting on weight. “Do these cookies cancel out my run?”, “I’ll add that to my corona-kilos”, “Stay home and get fat”. Yes, you’re going to put on some weight but hey, we all will, so what’s the big deal? Let’s get fat together and accept it – collective solidarity – instead of trying to constantly outrun each other. 

And for eating disorder survivors and sufferers, accepting this will be even harder. The idea of being locked inside for an indefinite period of time, not able to buy familiar foods, or having someone do your shopping for you is already terrifying. A social media world filled with people bragging about the amount of exercise they’re doing makes it so much worse. Recovery is tough enough as it is so, please, for me, for all the people out there who are just about surviving this period, think twice before posting about your 5km run.

C13FA9DF-2B71-4A9F-81AA-F899D9C265CAimages by @eldabroglio

For Now: Photos and Words by Helena Fox

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returned 

to the nest

A bundle of 

relief and 

questions.

And feathers. 

Should I sharpen myself –

all teeth and claws and twigs and brittle –

Or double down, downy soft and swaddled

In lie ins and childhood toys? 

I flew the nest once

And will fly it again 

And though I am 

Angry and hurt

And my claws

Are sharp,

Burnt out

Brittle

Bony

For now, 

go 

softly.

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Finding inspiration and creativity in the natural world: an interview with artist Elizabeth Robson

Elizabeth Robson is an artist who paints a lot with oil paints. We exhibited a few of her pieces at our exhibition last term. I chatted to her this week about her work.

Hi Lizzy! Can you tell us a bit about the animals you paint and how you got started?

I was horse-crazy growing up so I spent my childhood drawing and painting horses – which eventually morphed into painting pet portraits for friends, first as gifts and then as commissions. I really enjoy portraits and it’s an honour to capture something of the essence of somebody’s special pet.

I discovered oil paints during GCSE art, and immediately fell in love with their buttery texture and slow drying time, leaving ample opportunity for luscious blending. When I’m painting for myself rather than as a commission, my work tends to have a slight fantasy feel. I enjoy trying to capture movement and light, as well as all the little details.

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What inspires you to make art?

I’m always inspired by nature, especially animals, and love to paint beautiful things in wonderful colours. Seeing other people’s art also inspires me to experiment with new techniques and things I haven’t tried before. I often paint from photographs, where something about the light or shape or movement will have caught my eye and made me think ‘I must paint that!’

However in the last year I’ve tried to go with the flow more and see what comes out of my brush… It’s really exciting just throwing paint at the page not knowing where it’s going or what the finished piece will look like.

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Life is pretty bizarre right now. Do you find getting creative helps you out during tough times?

Yeah, it’s a strange time – I’m revising like mad for finals at the moment but took a day off on Easter Sunday to get the paints out, and it was so relaxing. There’s now three backgrounds on my desk next to my work, and my brain is buzzing with ideas of what subjects to add to them… creativity is not only escapism for me, it reminds me of the beauty there is in the world. I’ve also been really uplifted by the artists I follow on Instagram, how they are coping at the moment and the beautiful things they are still creating.

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What advice would you give to someone who wants to do something creative during lockdown but can’t seem to get started?

Tricky one – it depends what’s holding you back! If it’s lack of time, give yourself permission to prioritise your mental health and creative side, and set aside some time to create. If it’s insecurity, pick up your pen or brush and don’t let yourself put it down for a full 10 minutes – just create something, anything, and enjoy the process rather than judging the result! If it’s creative block, find something beautiful to copy, or a tutorial on the internet. Put on a playlist and a light a candle, or go out into the garden with a sketch pad, and make space for your inner artist. Enjoy it!

You can find more of Lizzy’s work on instagram @elizabeth_robson_art

A Strange Spring, with a Silver Birch

Blanca Schofield Legorburo

After breakfast at noon I walk back to my room and lie on my bed. A foggy head and heavy limbs detain me. I am stuck. Stuck in this rut of not much. The restlessness of a morning gone, of self-set so-called tasks unmet, fill my whole until my stomach is churning. 

I look to the left. The ground is divided into pale yellow and grey yellow, but starkly so. It’s sunny. Very sunny. “Oooookay,” I stretch. “Come on.”

Rolling onto the floor, I get up and make a little pile of books and art supplies. In the hall I grab the mat and slip on my shoes. Then, I’m outside. 

Nobody is in the garden, which is nice (and! safe!) but also a shame given that the blue of the sky is illumined by a sun so bright it’s practically laughing with joy and freedom. 

On the grass I unfold the mat and lay it down beside a tree in the corner. It’s a thin-trunked tree, offering only the lightest of dappled shade, but a good place for a mat nonetheless. And I lie down, arm over face. Breathe deep. 

Some time later I remove the arm from my face and open my eyes to look up. Above me, ruffling feathers of green spread their wings, not quite shading, but adding to the pearl-haze blue of the sky. A canopy of companionship embraces me in its green, silver-brown. I close my eyes and breathe deep anew.

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Introducing The Minerva Festival: Celebrating Women and Non-Binary Composers

This week, we spoke to The Minerva Festival about the amazing work they are doing to help lift up the work of women and non binary composers.

The festival turns two this year! Could you tell us a bit about why it was set up in 2018?

The festival was set up by our 2018-19 chairs, Laura and Claire because they noticed that opportunities to hear music by women and non-binary people in Cambridge are rare and can often be quite tokenistic: most, if not all, of the music in the classical canon is by men and so it is unfortunately relatively common to attend concerts where all of the music is by male composers. Most of the music studied in the Music tripos is also typically by male composers and the number of female students who take the composition options is quite low. The festival (known in 2018-19 as the Cambridge Female Composers Festival) was set up, then, to try and remedy this by providing spaces to encourage the performance and study of music by women and non-binary people. 

What barriers are still in place for women and non binary people in composing in 2020?

While many women and non-binary composers are active in composition at the moment, the fact that composition faculties are dominated by men, all the ‘great works’ a musician may ever play or study were written by men, and only male composers are deserving of a place in the concert hall, history books, and podiums gives the illusion that there is no historical precedent for what we do, and that we are alone. Even though women are now allowed to study composition, the socially and institutionally-ingrained idea of the male composer-genius are hard to defeat, and no doubt influence the way compositional endeavours by female and non-binary composers are received. Hence, while in 2020, equality seems apparent on the surface, we still have a long way to go to achieve true parity between genders. 

How have you gone about finding music written by women and non binary people from history when they have been so overlooked?

There are some helpful online resources, such as the ‘1200 Years of Women Composers’ playlist on Spotify (https://open.spotify.com/playlist/7mgjMnYI9ERG1598WKpFUR?si=jFnjU8jqQ8uA3QcFDwc2cA). Twitter has also proved a useful tool for asking others for music suggestions which we may not have come across! Some people have also drawn upon their past performance experiences, although unfortunately it isn’t rare for people to have never performed music by a woman or non-binary person. It can be quite difficult to find music as, particularly in the past, women have had limited access to publishing opportunities; however, there is still a lot out there that is relatively easy to find. 

Susan Rutherford has also recently taught an optional course called “Women in Music” in Part 1B of the Music Tripos, which has been immensely helpful in embedding female composers in their respective social and historical contexts, and introducing their works to undergraduates in an educational context. The inclusion of this course has definitely been a major step for the music faculty; however, one will still have to do much scavenging until female and non-binary composers are integrated into the compulsory history courses in schools and universities around the globe. 

What made you want to get involved?

Hannah: The main reason for me was my growing frustration with the limited opportunities available to study music by women and non-binary people during the first and second years of my degree. Although studying this music would have been possible in coursework, they were literally non-existent when it came to lectures and supervision work. There was also a bit of a myth that went around that women didn’t really compose or that, when they did, it simply wasn’t very good… These frustrations inspired me to join the committee in 2018 as one of the recital representatives, so I could help show that this wasn’t the case and that it isn’t just men who deserve a place on the syllabus! 

Leia: Since starting my degree at Cambridge (and indeed moving to the UK!) I have been extremely aware of the peripheral position I occupy in the Western Classical tradition, being both a woman and a person of colour. Although I knew of women of colour who were actively involved in Classical Music, we were not reflected in history and did not merit admiration as composers. So when I heard about the Cambridge Female Composers Festival as a fresher, I was very excited at the prospect of being represented, and that there was a group of people trying to correct these historical injustices in the most meaningful way: by sharing music. I attended as many of the concerts as I could, and remember being really moved by the closing concert. I joined the committee in 2019 hoping to continue the great work! 

How has the festival been going so far?

The festival has been running since the end of January, and so far it has been going really well! We have held a number of successful events, including a jazz night, several evensongs and a coding workshop. We are also very grateful to everyone who has chosen to donate to the Cambridge Rape Crisis Centre (who we are supporting at each event), as our collecting tins are already getting full!

What are you hoping for the future of the festival?

We hope that Minerva will continue to run for as long as it seems to be making a difference! It will be a slightly bittersweet moment when we end as, hopefully, that will mean there is enough diversity in music being performed here that we don’t need to run a festival! In the meantime, though, we hope to continue running a successful recital and concert series and inspiring others to continue engaging with this music outside of the festival.

Is there anything in particular you’d recommend coming up?

Hannah: I am looking forward to our series of talks, beginning with Sarah MacDonald’s illustrated lecture on women and liturgical music on 21 February in Great St Mary’s.

Leia: I’m really looking forward to the closing concert on 8 March in St. Giles church – where we’ll be able to hear the choral work by the composition competition winner, alongside a whole Symphony by Alice Smith and the amazing Entr’acte for strings by Caroline Shaw. I’m a bit nervous, but I hope to do justice to the Shaw as a conductor! 

 

For more information about the festival, visit https://www.minervafestival.org