By Nadya Porokhnya, journalist in the making currently studying at Reigate College
Thursday the 12th of December 2019 was a night filled with new perspectives, ideas and insight at First Floor Space Croydon (a local art studio in the Whitgift Centre).
The opening night of the exhibition, Layered Interpretations, shared stories and raw pieces of life.
Not only did the art promote the work of a range of local artists, it also included an art show that displayed 10s of children experimenting with creativity and fearlessness while they painted on an eyeing, blank spread of paper (that many adults would find themselves much intimidated by).
“The exhibition is a celebration of all the artists that use the space, are resident-artists, or are local artists. It’s the coming together of all of that talent. We didn’t set out with a particular brief, we just wanted to celebrate each artists’ individual ideas and techniques. The way that they sit together, and having the exhibition and the private-view means that people will meet each other and there’s a sense of community.” says Charlie Henson, the woman in charge of First Floor Space, to summarise the night.
Emily on her artwork ‘Twinkling’
“I wanted to do some small pieces that were based on some shapes that I’ve been using for quite a while- I've been working on this concept of abstract and suggestions of figurative things for a while and trying to create a balance for openness on the painting so that there is a lot of room for interpretation, but still giving you some anchors. I really love using different kinds of materials and having different sections. I think of it as a view-finder for different ways of seeing reality."
On the painting can be found plastic, a blend of acrylic with sand, and even miniature bells. From afar, it looks like the canvas is composed of only one material. Emily, can you expand on this?
“That is a huge goal and inspiration- that it would be one thing from far away but when you come up close to it, you can pick up other little things and see something different every time you come close to it.”
What about ‘The Throne You Built For Yourself?’
“This one has a lot more personal meaning to me and it’s really about- well, there’s a certain amount of damage, I think, that occurs in everybody’s life and so it’s about owning that and arranging your life in a way that you hold the reins and you’re in control in terms of; you’re making decisions based on your own truth. This is like a little explosion (points to the central swirl found on the bottom half of the canvas) so it’s kind of about breaking out of whatever patterns and illusions were not helpful. There’s a lot of snapping threads (threads used on top left on painting), so it’s a lot about breaking out but also about respecting and honoring the death of the old stuff- the old life.”
I point to a section surrounding the throne: what are these? Onions?
“Garlic,” Emily corrected; “It’s about taking care of yourself. It kind of represents to me how food can be medicine.”
On ‘Folded Hearts and Dancers’:
These are very much about coming to a place where you can really enjoy something- and there are really beautiful moments and you can really be present at certain times. There’s also an element of, when the past kind of pops up and there is pain... So, this one (Folded Hearts) is about a relationship where there is a lot of love and these things (points to bottom of canvas and the different materials found there) that are always there.” About the thread seen going throughout the painting: “The path through a day or from thought to thought is the way that the thread works.”
And what about ‘Dancers’?
“This one’s about letting go as well. This (points at the top- left, broken thread) has just kind of broken. There’s some freeing happening and then there’s also some covering up (points to the hole and web-like moss covering it at bottom-left corner), covering something you don’t really want to think about.” Next, Emily about the central mugs of hot drink: “but then there are those beautiful moments of having hot chocolate with your family. That is central- I feel like I’m coming to a place where I can actually enjoy full days. I had to become an adult before I could really appreciate my life.”
Learning about these paintings was extremely relatable: self-doubts and subconscious limiting beliefs seem to have power over us, but really, they don’t have to. There is always the now, even amongst what we are willing to ‘cover up’ and the baggage or ‘stuff’ we carry from the past. It is our choice to rise above that, enjoy this life’s ‘beautiful moments’ and ‘build ourselves a throne,’ where we are in charge.
Samantha Warren and Danni Livett on their Croydon-inspired illustrations ‘Scene In Croydon’
Samantha on the South Croydon print:
“I kind of picked my favourite parts of South Croydon, kind of made of high streets- my favourite parts. The style we did here, because there’s so much intricate detailing in the buildings, we thought the more hand-drawn look would be more appropriate for that area.”
Samantha on the East Croydon one:
“With the East Croydon, we kind of went a bit more graphic and clean, because it’s a bit more office-y and we just thought Graphic would be more appropriate for that area.
Danni on the Thornton Heath art:
“I’m based in Thornton Heath, and I wanted to create a print that represented the area, so you’ve got more colours, it’s quite diverse, there’s quite a large Affro-Carribean community so you’ve got all the different textiles.”
Danni on the West Croydon print:
“Then West Croydon is quite built-up, quite higgledy-piggledy, well it’s quite chaotic really. You’ve got a mix of architecture, old and new.”
Next, Danni explained the print for ‘Croydon as a whole’:
“Then we designed the Croydon print on its own which has got a mixture of different landmarks in Croydon. We wanted to do one main landmark and we chose the Croydon Clocktower. Style-wise, we used a mixture of painting and hand-drawn elements. Some is more refined and hand-drawn, some is done on the computer.” It’s about what style best represents the specific part of Croydon.
Furthermore, the pair wanted to demonstrate Croydon in a positive light, as Danni told me:
“Colour-wise, we wanted to show Croydon in a bright, colourful light, since it’s kind of known for its concrete grayness and we don’t feel that that best represents the area.” “There is a positivity approach we are trying to portray,” adds Samantha.
Rarely, people see Croydon as full of light and energy, but these two trained print-designers see the borough with a happier image which many of us could benefit from adopting! Samantha and Danni’s work can be found on Etsy, and @sceneincroydon on social media. They sell the prints in post-card and poster form as well; perfect as a reminder of Croydon to anyone who has grown up or lived there as they perfectly capture the towns’ essence, and can provide a warm nostalgia for those who choose to see Croydon in that ‘positive light’ portrayed.
I then spoke to Michelle Martin about her works The Tree, Untitled Woman and I’m Here
“Well, I started off with Untitled Woman, I mean, this is my first-time using ink. I did it with a knife, a plastic knife. Normally, I’m very scared about drawing- I normally have a pencil and an eraser, but this you can’t rub out. This, you sort of have to go with the flow and I let my hand just guide round and it sort of ended up with the lady, yeah, thinking.”
“I mean the ‘Tree’ one (The Tree), I wanted to do layers. This one I sort of did with my eyes closed.”
“And, this one (I’m Here), back to the tree again, but it’s sort of around this lady trying to get this mans’ attention. So, it’s not ‘I'll just lie here naked,’ but, ‘hopefully, he will notice me’ and he still isn’t noticing her- he still doesn’t know she’s there: ‘I’m here, but I’m not being seen.’
Angela Okoe-Brown's work, Phenomenal Women and Me, consists of many cut out pieces of women's’ faces from magazines to make a whole new face, a whole new character. I spoke to her about her ideas behind the work.
I made a series of portraits of women of colour using these collages. I found these pictures of black women in black beauty magazines- mostly black hair. I just put them all together. They’re not necessarily people who I know or certain people, they’re just people I’ve made up. It’s about creating real women, but they don’t exist. What I’d like to achieve in the long run, I’d like to create portraits of real people, like my daughters or myself or a family member.”
“They’ve all got names. She’s called Denise (far-right), she is...(the middle collage in glasses), I haven’t got a name for her yet- probably Monique, she is Valerie (far-left).”
Do they represent anything else?
“Me,” Angela replies. “I remember being in University, I did similar portraits but a lot smaller. More images of black women who pose- more like fashion; I studied textiles. This is more to do with my journey through life as I’ve grown over the years. If you look at these, they’re mostly just face- not like that one posing, just that one in the middle (points to her middle collage who is sitting and seen in a dress)- that's how my portraits looked back in the day.” For Angela, the full face, that rawness is “about not being afraid to let the world know this is who I am. They’re a lot bigger now, so my next aim is to go much larger. I’ve also started doing some embroideries as well. If that all goes well, I’ll put them up for the next exhibition.”
In conversing with Angela, one may walk on the concept that we all evolve and change- we grow up more and more until ‘we’re ready to show the world who we are.’
7PM- Music strikes, children bustle around the large spread sheet, parents all crowding around taking photos: It’s time for the main show.
As everybody who came to the exhibition watches, the year 2 children (some dressed up in smart- clothes even in such a possibly-messy scene), grab their paint brushes and start smudging all their ideas onto paper. What started as a blank space ended as an abstract canvas which a professional artist could sell for thousands if they credited it as theirs.
I spoke to Penelope Gordon, the artist in the midst of this experiment, who painted on the sheet with the kids and encouraged them all to paint however they wanted. What was the idea behind this?
“I did a series of workshops here called Freedom to Create and the idea is to allow people who might be a bit nervous about making art or may have gone away from art and want to come back to it to play with materials. There’s a book called The Artists’ Way by Julia Cameron, and she talks about just playing like how children play. Also, for art, if you want to get unblocked, if you play rather than thinking ‘it’s got to be a certain way’ or ‘look good’, then it lightens you up to be creative. It’s just letting people be a bit light-hearted and have fun with materials. I did a painting performance on the last exhibition, on my own. It was about mindfulness, and listening to the sound of the music while painting. So, from that, because I did that on my own, I wanted to bring everybody into the artwork that I made last time. I really enjoy bringing people in. It’s not so much about the image- it's just about letting people have fun with colour, because I love colour as well.”
“The plan was just to get everyone to listen to the music and move the materials to the music.” That was the only plan. Nothing else of the show was rehearsed. Nothing was inorganic. All was unchained. Isn’t that how life is meant to be?
Once the art show was over, I had a chance to speak to Charlie Henson, the woman in charge of First Floor Space, to get to know a little more about the Croydon studio.
Does the studio being in Croydon make for something different?
“Well, as a Croydon born-and-bread, I think this is different because this isn’t anything I’ve known growing up here. So, this feels like the first time something like this has happened. For example, going to gallery spaces that are further away, there is maybe less of a community feeling. This is very much about the people that are here: they are creative, they have things to share and things that are brilliant- that must be seen!”
Do you often have exhibitions here?
“We have them about four times a year. We’re getting more used to it, so it’s getting easier every time. This time, this is actually the biggest number of works, we actually have about twenty artists that are involved this time.”
How long has First Floor Space been running for?
“We opened in September 2017 and we’re just going to keep going and keep going until we’re told to leave.” First Floor Space, however, is here to stay.
Even if you are not necessarily hugely into art, you don’t have to be an artist to enjoy the freedom of painting, or even popping into the studio to admire the works of certain Croydon-creatives. So, next time you’re in the Whitgift Centre, why not free your mind? Step into First Floor Space, Croydon and admire the art of our people.
By Nadya Porokhnya
This article was published on 21st December 2019 on the Young Reporters page of the Sutton & Croydon Guardian