Young London Painters Interview – Emily Herring
Originally published to accompany the group exhibition ‘Young London Painters’ at Arthill Gallery, presented by Admission Productions and curated by Hector Campbell (22nd - 24th November, 2018)
May 2019

Hector Campbell: Having returned to London after completing a BA in Painting from the University of Edinburgh, how do the London and Edinburgh art scenes compare? And differ?

Emily Herring: Edinburgh is a truly remarkable city, and I will cherish forever my experience of being at the Edinburgh College of Art for four years. The purpose-built painting studios are unmatched; great, open spaces with towering windows revealing our mighty neighbour, Edinburgh Castle; I am still on the hunt for a similar looking studio in London!

Edinburgh’s art scene is mostly bolstered by smaller, independent artist-run spaces. The City Arts Centre and Fruitmarket Gallery are both personal highlights of mine. Like many, they set out to develop and represent emerging local artists. In addition, Edinburgh’s National Galleries frequently put on superb exhibitions, such a major survey of the renowned British artist Jenny Saville.

Having only arrived in London at the end of September, I am in the initial stages of exploring its boundless art scene. However, what I will say is that due to the magnitude of raw, creative talent who live and work here, I have never been on a journey that is so incredibly enticing and daunting at the same time. 

H.C: To mark the 250th Anniversary of the Royal Academy of Art you took part in a two-week live art event with Temperley London, alongside fellow Edinburgh College of Art graduate Lia Chiarin. Could you explain this event? Where you excited to be part of helping to honour the Royal Academy?

E.H: Throughout July 2018, various shops in and around Bond Street came up with their own unique ways to partner in celebration of the 250th Anniversary of the Royal Academy of Art. I was delighted to be invited to take part, not only due to its outstanding reputation, but also because the first exhibition that I was a part of was held at The Royal Academy in 2013, and since then I have felt a strong connection with it.

The Alice Temperley Store on Bruton Street masterfully recreated an art studio in their shop front. Equipped with an easel, a very sparkly apron (a Temperley design), and a fascinated audience, I was commissioned to paint a portrait of the designer, Alice Temperley. The experience was certainly a unique one, and I am so thankful that I was given the opportunity to honour such an immense benefactor of the arts as the Royal Academy.

H.C: Your portraits are created by building up layers of wax, that are then scraped and scratched away before being painted over. Could you discuss your process further? And how this unorthodox process adds to the subject matter of your work?

E.H: The issues that I address throughout my work are often distressing and harsh. As such, I found that the aesthetic of these paintings merited a complex texture. I decided that this texture would be best created using a combination of paints and wax. The vigour at which melted wax attaches itself to a canvas is enthralling. By clinging to the canvas in a sporadic and unpredictable fashion, the wax gives each subject an individual and physical history.

The latter technique of scraping away at the wax to reveal further the paintings material layers serves to expose the aggressive and scaring undertones of the subjects in question. Furthermore, as the artist, it is a challenging and unnerving process, building up a substantial portrait, which you then must attack and remove from the canvas. It reveals to me my deep-rooted thoughts and attitudes towards the topics explored. 

H.C: Whilst in Edinburgh you initiated a campaign to stop street harassment by putting large prints of your work around the city. Where did you get the idea for this guerilla campaign, and how did it work to heighten the awareness of harassment?

E.H: Much like any campaign, this one came about because of an experience which I had with gender-based street harassment. After this personal experience, I began to question the issues surrounding inappropriate public behaviour, and the feelings of humiliation, intimidation and violation that are felt as a result of such behaviour.

I began to conduct my own research by sending a letter out to most of my social media contacts, detailing what had happened to me and asking whether they had experienced anything similar. This letter was also printed in Edinburgh’s student newspaper with a similar call to action. The response I got was overwhelming, I quickly realised that street harassment, particularly directed at women, is a considerable social and political issue in contemporary society. This was the point at which the campaign to end gender-based street harassment was initiated, later titled #IAMNOTYOURBABY.

With the permission of the courageous women who shared their story with me, I began to document their experiences through drawing, painting and by developing an ongoing Instagram page (@i_am_not_your_baby). However, although Instagram is beneficial in drawing a varied and wide audience, I wanted to engage with the culprits of street harassment themselves. By drawing influence from a series of posters called ‘Stop Telling Women to Smile’ by the New York-based artist, Tayana Fazlalizadeh, I began to make large-scale prints that were then plastered to public walls around Edinburgh, so as to place the work in the context of its conception.

The location for the posters was dictated by an online forum named ‘Hollaback!’, which maintains a map of Edinburgh where people can drop a pin at a certain location where they experienced street harassment and write about their personal experiences.

The campaign began to gain some attention and this was the point where we decided to put on the ‘I AM NOT YOUR BABY’ exhibition at DOK artist space in March.

I’ll be speaking about this ongoing campaign towards the end of the year during a radio discussion with Plan International UK, a charity which aims to advance children’s rights and equality for women. 

H.C: The ‘Young London Painters’ exhibition aims to shine a light on emerging artists producing work in that medium. What is it you like about painting? Have you ever explored, or are interested in exploring, other mediums?

E.H: I never excelled at school academically and for a long period of my life I felt very under pressure, and while experiencing the deep anxiety which came with that I found painting became my only real escape. I have a shed at home which I was able to use as my studio and it became my haven, I still get lost in there for hours experimenting

I love to see how different paints and materials react with one another, the expressive marks and textures that can be made that way. It reveals movement, not only aesthetically, but also in the artist’s relationship with the painting, how the artist moves around the canvas, dancing with their arm to create these exaggerated brush strokes. This is how I connect with most paintings that I see, by observing the history and relationship between artist and painting and not just what is on the surface.

In terms of other mediums, I would say that I love experimenting, and that takes me down many other paths. I have sketchbooks filled with collages and pen drawings, which have running themes throughout. For instance, I am currently building up one which has the concept of psychedelia at its heart.

Finally, given that we now live in a hyper-digital age, I have broadened out into graphic design. I am enrolled on a course that will allow me to become a qualified graphic designer by December. I am hoping to combine my love of painting with digital design, and through that discover new artistic inspiration.