Interviewed by Vicki Steward, February 2020
Vicki – Have you always been an artist?
Gail – I’ve always loved drawing and painting. I studied Maths at Bristol, and then had a long career as an IT consultant. Meanwhile, I carried on working on my life drawing and printmaking at night classes. So I just always really enjoyed it. I did portraits as favours for friends, landscapes, murals – anything! Also lots of crafts – knitting, crochet, needlepoint, tatting, dressmaking, printmaking, the list goes on. We went as a family to live in Dubai in 2014, and my youngest started school while we were there. So we had a totally different kind of setup, with the luxury of a housemaid. I thought “if I don’t try and fulfil my dream and be an artist now, then I’m never going to do it”. So I did a load of paintings of flamingos and dribbly camels, which were very popular with the expat community there.
I’m very interested in conditioning, and attracted to the grotesque. I think conditioning applies to all sorts of things, for example I did a lot of series around cockroaches and prawns, and the comparison between the two – They are, on the surface, very similar: they’re both crustaceans, they have exoskeletons and tentacles. They’re both edible and they’re both very ancient creatures, but one of them is repulsive and the other I would eat. I’m very drawn to that metaphor, as it extrapolates out to how we as humans judge each other both consciously and subconsciously. The human condition and the way we judge seems much more down to conditioning than reason. I hold my hands up to it myself: I really couldn’t eat a cockroach! I’m a bit about that, and a bit about truth. I like to record truth, and I see the beauty in what just is, without embellishment.
In Dubai, I did a few stalls at art and craft markets, and sold some work privately. We came back to the UK in 2017. Because I’d worked in IT I got into building my own websites, I’m very interested in entrepreneurial social media too: Instagram, Facebook and how the technologies are connected – it interests me, like doing a crossword puzzle. So I’ve started a YouTube channel, as much out of curiosity for the mechanisms as the actual content. Generally I make demo videos, with some timelapse, some chat, and some showcasing of my work. The websites have evolved into their current forms: www.gailreidartist.com (fine art commissions and studio sale), and www.soggyrabbit.com (soft toy portrait illustrations).
Vicki – It’s a superb website
Gail – Thank you. Well I think it really keeps you grounded, doing that sort of work, I don’t want to be in an ivory tower. I think everyone is qualified to judge artwork and everyone is equally entitled to an opinion. Some people may come from a more classically informed place, but we can all respond to art. Doing portraiture for me is very important. I am very driven to portray the figure. I do a lot of life drawing, drawing faces and things like that and so the portraiture is building my technical skill, as well as engaging with people.
Vicki – So you had no formal art training?
Gail – I did A level art. Then a post grad Diploma in Printmaking part time at the University of the West of England, which was one day a week. For the rest, I just go to exhibitions, meet other artists, night classes, workshops, and watch people’s process videos. YouTube is a fantastic resource – people are very open about their process and their references and stuff. It’s been quite an informal, self-driven education.
Vicki – You have so much subject matter. And you’re obviously very good at selling your work. What is the motivation behind it?. How much of it is about making an income and how much of it is just that you love portraying a really broad swathe of subject matter?
Gail – You’re right about broad subject matter! But I do have this common thread of realism, technical craft, and a love of the ugly. Realism, rather than idealism. I really don’t subscribe to beautification, and reject that quite strongly. I’m big on observation and truth, that runs through my work too, and yes, I am ‘subject neutral!’. Plus the whole thing about conditioning is always under there somewhere.
When I sell a piece of work it does warm my cockles. I’m definitely not oblivious to feedback, and I’m not an island, so I like the idea of selling work. I like the idea of giving people something that lifts them in some way, or that they can identify with. If it resonates with somebody I like that. If someone is prepared to pay for it then that’s an indication that it’s of value to them. I suppose like YouTube and Instagram and all that sort of thing, it’s all a game. Curating a show is a very creative process because you’re thinking about what it is you want to say, you can’t say everything in one show… They say that an artist is never happier than when you give them constraints. Having an outlet, whether it’s an art fair or a gallery or a private commission, it does give you that kind of constraint. Or a challenge, it may be a challenge. I like just exploring these sorts of things, it’s a curiosity thing.
Vicki – So I was going to ask you about your mediums?
Gail – I’m pretty traditional, I work in pencil, I use a dipping pen and ink and wash, occasionally I use watercolour but more pen and wash. I love linocut, relief printing has such a long history. I love working in monochrome, but also using the reduction method where you cut away at the same block for different colour layers. I love experimenting with other ways of layering and blending colour. Linocut is easy to do at home, you don’t need big paraphernalia like a huge press or screens. I like the simplicity of linocut and the pencil. I quite like colour but I could live without it!
Vicki – So do you consider social media, and video to be other mediums in your repertoire?
Gail – I think they’re a vehicle for connection with people. I don’t consciously curate my Instagram feed – some people seem to manage beautiful visual harmony on their grid. I think it automatically comes, a bit. They are a form of creative expression though: making a YouTube video you’re telling a story, essentially, so that is creative. I think when you’re writing posts on social media you’re putting yourself in the recipient’s head, you’re trying to think about what would be interesting to them and that’s a bit creative. But I also crave solitary confinement. Don’t tell my kids. I think after a year I might start to feel a little bit twitchy and think I could talk to somebody. I really would be very happy on my own Desert Island -.I wouldn’t need to bring anything just a pencil and paper.
Vicki – As you’re obviously such a talented natural artist why did you not go into it when you were younger. Did your family support you in your art?
Gail – Yes, I was very supported. My father died when I was very young. He was an architect, I think I take after him, my family even say I smell like him! I think he had a balance between logic and creativity, being an architect. I think maths and IT are both creative too. Maths was something I found incredibly easy and I was quite lazy. So I thought “I’ll do maths because you don’t need to learn anything and you don’t need to write any essays. All you have to do is understand it. That will probably get me a good job”… which, to be fair, it did! So it was a rather mercenary decision, as I was encouraged in all directions by my family.
My IT career did mean that I could practise art without the pressure of selling. But I do often wonder where I would have been artistically if I had done that from the start.
Vicki – You said you’re not a regular visitor to Glastonbury, How do you feel about Heart of the Tribe? Why have you chosen to exhibit there?
Gail – Well, I do like Glastonbury very much. I wouldn’t say I’m a spiritual person, but I spent many happy hours with family and friends on the Tor and in The Riflemans in my 20s. I turned 50 recently, and as my birthday is on the summer solstice I fulfilled a lifetime ambition to take a coachload of friends to watch the sunrise at Stonehenge. So in that sense I feel an affinity with Glastonbury. I like the gallery, I like the idea and the fact that they’re quite liberal compared to some galleries, which can be constrained by an existing customer base and by their image. I felt that Kim totally got me within five minutes, it felt like we had a complete understanding. As a life model herself she totally gets my work, and although that’s not a requirement in order to sell, it helps! Heart Of The Tribe feels like a very supportive place to take artistic risks and put interesting work out. I’m really looking forward to meeting the other artists because their work looks great from what I’ve seen.
Vicki – What will you be exhibiting, as you have such a broad range, are you going to concentrate on one particular subject or medium?
Gail – I took a selection in today for Kim to look at. The theme is diversity and that’s very much aligned with my ethos, so a diverse group of nude figures. Kim’s very at home with a bit of nudity! I love the thought of it all being juxtaposed with very abstract art. So for the opening I will be showing three lino cuts, which are anatomical, and one of them’s a bit comical. Then she suggested maybe three pencil figure drawings, and three oils.
I don’t want to overwhelm them with work, it just pours out of me. It’s quite hard for my family to live with because there just isn’t an off tap!
Vicki – One of your portraits is of a guy who’s obviously quite visibly disabled. I wondered about how that drawing came about?
Gail – Oh yes Daryl Hembrough. He is a life model, @darylhembrough on instagram, he has Pfeiffer syndrome. So he has had physical issues since birth and has had multiple operations. And he’s a comedian, he’s a brilliant guy. I met him as he was a model at my local life drawing class. I just asked if I could draw him as a personal work, as a portrait. That was really fun. He’s really interesting, fascinating to look at as well. I try very hard to reflect reality. I’m really enjoying working with another model at the moment, she’s had a mastectomy, and she and I have a very similar view of the need for that body shape to be normalised, for people to be aware of all the different kind of physical conditions that people are walking around with under their shirts. I hate the idea that some (not all!) people who have an unusual or asymmetrical shape are made to feel like they’re hiding some sort of unacceptable secret.
It kind of manages people’s expectations. As a parent of two boys and a girl, I’m really keen that they understand that people are all different shapes, that it’s part of the human condition and that it’s totally fine. But again it’s that conditioning coming into play – whether you’re conditioned to seeing diverse bodies, or to seeing idealised bodies all the time.
Vicki – Also the fact that nudity is sexualized in our culture
Gail – Which is an interesting one, as personally I don’t have a problem with sexualisation. We wouldn’t be here without sexual urges, so I feel it’s very important not to demonise the sexual urge.
Vicki – I think that’s the problem nudity outside of a sexual context is regarded with horror.
Gail – I’m loving that there is a lot on at the moment on the BBC, a massive revival and interest in modelling and the life model and nudity. I’m very happy that we have such a tolerant society, compared to much of the world, both to the exposure of flesh, and art featuring the nude. I’m the first one to get my revealing shorts out in the summer, just because I like to exercise that right. I think it’s really important, especially after living in the Middle East. We all have a bar of what we consider acceptable and obviously other places have their bar set different to ours. Not right or wrong, just different. But I do like our bar being fairly low. So I feel it’s my personal responsibility to keep our bar low, by expressing myself and doing work that challenges, that keeps those doors open.
Vicki – So what about the blue hair?
Gail – So, in 15 years as an IT consultant, and then with a young family and going to Dubai, I didn’t really feel I was in a context where it would be understood. But as soon as we got back from Dubai, I went for an undercut and blue, and I’ve been blue ever since. I just like it, it feels strangely natural now!
Vicki – Any other influences?
Gail – Well I know she’s very popular, but Jenny Saville – I like her a lot. I’m a big Lucian Freud fan and Egon Schiele. They were men with dubious attitudes, perhaps, towards women, but I think you can take what you can from it. You could judge them very harshly but I just look at their work and think what can I learn from it.
In the 1990s I joined Bristol Printmakers Cooperative at Artspace in the McArthur building on Gas Ferry Road in Bristol. I remember a really wet day and a really leaky building. I was trying to get in to print, and was new there. This lovely, tall, old man came, and we stepped over a giant puddle to get to the door, he unlocked it and showed me up into the print studio, and showed me some stuff he’d been doing. Amazing wood block prints of balloons over the suspension bridge. It turned out that he was Peter Reddick. He was an amazing printmaker, sadly, now dead, but he was very influential in Bristol, very well known for his fine art prints and book illustrations, and his leadership in the printmaking community. Later, when I was printing linocuts at Spike Island in Spike Printmakers, Peter gave me an impromptu lesson on woodcut. He showed me his tools and how to use the Vandercook Press, which is a huge old 1950s mechanical monster, that he used to edition his prints on. They’ve got it there, it’s an amazing machine. So I’ve editioned quite a few linos on that machine. He was a lovely man.
Vicki – Where do you see yourself going next?
Gail – Hopefully this is a permanent affiliation with Heart of the Tribe. I also have a collective “Stark Bollock Naked” www.starkbn.com with sculptor Lucianne Lassalle. We both work from the figure, and we look to exhibit as a pair. Our work is pretty complimentary, she sells through various galleries, but not in the HOTT gallery.
I’m trying to move more towards lower volume higher value work. I really like pushing the boundaries of censorship (society censorship as well as institutional censorship). I wouldn’t say I shock for its own sake, but I just don’t constrain myself.
See Gail Reid’s websites for more
www.gailreidartist.com fine art commissions and studio sale
www.soggyrabbit.com original portraits of soft toys
www.starkbn.com Stark Bollock Naked Collective
www.youtube.com Gail’s Channel
By Vicki Steward, writer of Normal for Glastonbury