08 Oct Rowena Draper – Interview with the Artist
What was your childhood like?
I was born in Wales, my parents are alternative artist types, I suppose you’d call them hippies, it was quite a ‘free’ childhood. We lived in a converted barn in the Cambrian mountains where my parents were pretty self-sufficient, even ground their own corn and kept bees. I remember Dad making his own tipi on our old Singer, we would take it to Glastonbury festival, he claims it was the first. I went to a Welsh speaking school at the age of four. Then we moved to Devon when I was six and I went to a Steiner School there until I was eleven. As I’m a creative person I was more relaxed in Steiner education as they catered for that sort of thing. It was very hands-on, about making things, I was knitting my own socks by the age of 9. I remember Mum would drive us to school in her old soft top Beetle, letting us stand up in the back and jump up and down on the seats to the music when the roof was down. Her and Dad were determined to let us have the free childhood their parents never let them have.
I was free-schooled from the age of eleven, there were six of us kids by then in the family. We had a smallholding, there was so much to do with the animals and land. We all started looking after each other. At the age of about twelve I decided to set up a school for my younger siblings in our shed and began teaching them about nature, because that was my passion. I loved delving into the little worlds of nature, pond life in particular. We used to choose an animal, tree or insect for instance and create a project on it. Luckily, I’d learned to read and write before being taken out of school. My siblings saw school as this glamorous thing out of their reach, a place where all their friends went, where they weren’t allowed to go, so they’d dress up in school outfits for our lessons! After I moved out Mum ended up sending them to school, where they flourished because they had a thirst for learning.
My Dad always had a dream that we’d move to Portugal, so we ended up travelling back and forth to Portugal looking for land, all eight of us living in a caravan, one time for a whole year. Campsites would let us stay in exchange for things Dad would make out of wood. He used to make wooden toys, we’d sell them on stalls at festivals. He inspired our entrepreneurial nature, and when I was about twelve I set up my own little company making jewellery and when my brother was eight he set up a convenience store in our bedroom, kids off the estate would come round and buy stuff off us. Now my Dad has built himself and his mum wooden cabins which they live in on land in Devon.
I think we’re all on the spectrum somewhere in my family, it was never picked up as a kid, so some of my siblings have had trouble adapting to the real world. We were all finding our boundaries in our own way. We were all pretty mature kids though and my mum always says she didn’t really have to impose rules much. But I guess being so immersed in the outside world helped.
I’m in awe of my parents’ bravery and patience to live in such a radical way while bringing up six kids on their own.
Dad met Mum at art college when they were 16, he’s always wanted to be self sufficient. This rubbed off on me, I’ve never wanted to be part of the system, I’ve lived hand to mouth on the outskirts of society, travelled, squatted, always been on the move. I love the adventure of life. I’ve always been in my own little world I guess, I wasn’t set up for living in the “normal” world. I’ve had a very different upbringing to most people I meet. But it’s made me open – we have a very diverse group of friends.
What’s your life like now?
I am a lot more settled these days! I got together with my partner, Owain when I was 31 and had two children, Rudi and Rosa. We managed to wangle a piece of land right next to the festival site in Pilton off the local grave digger, we’ve been living here nearly a decade now. When we arrived at Beggars Roost, it was a bit of field with brambles on top with a run down caravan. Now we’ve got a mobile home, a horsebox studio, a man cave and a no dig permaculture garden that we have properly established during lockdown.
Normally over Summer we’d be running our festival cafe, The Flying Machine. We put everything we had into it. I am the artistic director – I did all the artwork, Owen is the mastermind. It has been a great success, until this year when we couldn’t do it because of Covid. This year was meant to be our busiest year yet with our two cafes inside big top marquees, a stage and a fish and chip trailer too. When lockdown happened it was actually a massive relief, finally we could have a chilled out summer and come together as a family. We’ve become a lot more self-sufficient as a consequence.
When did you first start doing art?
Right from the word go! As a kid I was always lost in little worlds, I’d get into a character, like hedgehogs or aliens and draw loads of them in a landscape, I’d get lost in the story. When I was about 10 I used to make my own story books and comics. I had these characters called Tracey and Sharon, it was always humorous. Me and my brother used to make animations, we made our friends out of plasticine and created films about them, making fun of their quirks. Being taken out of school opened up this whole creative world.
I decided to brave Exeter College when I was 17 even though I had no GCSEs and had not been in education for so many years. I chose to do Art and Design for a couple of years. I didn’t enjoy college. I was told I would never get anywhere drawing things from my head and that I should draw from real life and plan, plan, plan! I felt like I was trying to be squeezed into a box. As if they had created a sterile environment for what art was and I had to abide by it.
At the age of twenty I saved up enough money to buy a ticket to Australia. I landed with enough money to survive for about a week before eventually using my creativity to survive for a whole year. I sold paintings on the street, busked and did performance art too. I used to collect random things I found along my way – bits of snakeskin, butterfly wings, I’d add them into my little paintings. It was then I realised I could make money out of my art, in my own little way. Still, I never thought of doing art professionally or selling from a gallery. I never thought big, happy living hand to mouth really.
When I got back to the UK I moved to Brighton and set up a little clothing company, putting my artwork of fairies and cyber-pixies onto clothes and pants (‘Pixie Pants’). I sold them onto shops in Camden Market and also on the streets and at festivals. I lived in squats in Brighton for years, I found it hard to hold down normal jobs, partly as I was such a free spirit and partly because my CV was really random! Then when I got a job it wouldn’t be long before I’d get the rambling itch and take off travelling again.
I ended up living in a Victorian mansion squat in Brighton called Medina House for a while with about 26 people, all massively extreme characters – punks, hippies, metallers, every walk of life. We’d have big meetings that would turn into mayhem every week.The building had been a Turkish baths, then a diamond cutting factory, I had the room where they cut the diamonds, it had bullet proof windows and a massive safe in it. A couple of us decided to turn the building into an art gallery, painting the walls, making it nice. It didn’t exactly help that there were a load of smack heads living in the loft in little homes separated with blankets, like vampires they would sleep through the day and come out at night to steal everyone’s food. Nonetheless, we did end up opening the gallery as part of a Brighton Open Studio event and I sold some paintings. The building now belongs to David Gilmore from Pink Floyd.
One of the most poignant points in my life was when I went to Mexico, having already been travelling for a year. Whenever I got money I spent it on travel, I had no interest in material things. I met up with some friends, we were in the jungle in a dormitory room, I had all my valuables next to me in bed, then woke up at 5am and my bag was gone, I had no money, nothing. I was distraught but the police weren’t interested. That night I went into another cabin, as I laid down on the bed and closed my eyes, I jumped out of my skin when I saw a vision of an old hag on my stomach with black greasy hair and black teeth. The next month was really challenging in every way. I went up to the White Monkey hostel and offered to paint them a mural for my keep. The lady agreed, I painted a big monkey mural, they fed me and gave me somewhere to stay for a whole month until I got a replacement bank card. So in the end I managed to turn this extremely challenging situation into the most empowering one. This was a massive life lesson for me and I decided to start living like that, becoming a travelling mural artist.
I’d seen the hag as a negative thing, but then I read Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés and I began to see her as the Wild Woman, the lost wild side of our nature, calling me to step up and empower myself.
Also I felt the spirit of the monkey followed me out of that jungle and into my next chapter as I began painting little red clown dots on my cheeks, wearing an animal hat and clowning about the streets with my guitar, singing for my supper and inviting people to break out of their ordinary lives and join in the music and play. A documentary maker I met while working on a farm in Costa Rica asked to film me one day on my mischievous antics and we made it into a song video. We snuck into some hotel toilets to record the song. You can see the video here.
What is your art about?
I feel like I’ve always opened a channel to let art through, I like to step out of the way, leave space for the mystery and stories to reveal themselves rather than impose ideas onto pieces. I think it’s always been a way for me to talk to my subconscious. Much of my work will start with a conglomeration of feelings and concepts I would like to portray about a certain subject matter, then as I let it come out I let it talk to me. Through this process I’ve discovered recurring archetypes, animals and other symbology and meanings that connect me to myself and my story. I believe everyone has a myth that can connect them to their powers and path in life. It’s a lifelong path of discovery for me. I also enjoy hearing other peoples stories and meanings they find within my work. One of my favorite techniques for letting art speak is to freely create brush strokes onto the canvas until I start to make out images, eventually the painting will reveal itself and I will take it from there. These pictures always seem very alive and elemental, almost otherworldly. Nowadays I’ve noticed I’m trying to bring a bit more foresight into my paintings though, be a bit more left brain, more organised. Ultimately though, I hope to inspire people’s wild nature as I feel this part of us is rapidly disappearing reflecting the loss of nature itself and connect them to wonder.
For many years I was called ‘The Raggamuffin Ball’ but eventually I changed to ‘Tales of Ro’. I love a good story, me!.
What media do you use in your art?
I work in acrylic paint on different things – wood or canvas, unless its vehicles and then it’s emulsion. I’ve started adding trinkets and found objects into my work, it’s becoming a lot more three-dimensional and multimedia.
I love line drawing and sketching too with pencils and pens, I love the freedom of it.
What inspires your art?
The magic and wonder of nature, especially the wisdom of the animal kingdom. Ancient shamanic and tribal cultures and the stories they hold through Myths of the land to connect us to it. Visiting other cultures on my travels has definitely influenced my art, I like to bring them all together in one picture sometimes to represent unity. I’m very interested in Jungian psychology and finding hidden meanings behind fairy tales, I like to create modern takes on them which empower. The dream time. My dreams inspire my art a lot, I began lucid dreaming when I was four.
My Mum is from an Irish family, so she got me into fairies and elementals. When I was little I would make little books and gifts for the fairies and leave them under trees. My parents always believed in fairies, so I never really got round to thinking they weren’t real. My parents thought I may be able to see them as I used to ask them who the little people were at the top of the garden. When I was twenty I’d sit in the woods, close my eyes and draw elementals, thinking they were coming through me. I’d wake up and hear laughing and was sure these little people were following me around. I never really spoke to anyone about it but I used my art as a tool to connect to that other realm, whether that is just my subconscious or actually other beings I don’t know. I was never trying to control it, I just let it come be and as a result it helped develop my creativity.
What are you up to now?
As we haven’t been able to do our festival cafe we’ve been running our gourmet, mobile fish and chip van called The Frying Machine around our local villages in Somerset. We’re in the Pilton Playing Fields next to the festival site on Fridays. It’s become quite an event for the locals with fish and chip picnics on the lawn.
I am also a self taught musician and singer songwriter. I play kind of funky folk story telling songs, a lot of them are comical. I play them on the guitar, ukulele and loop pedal. I like to perform on our in house stage around the festivals.
I’m really excited about the Heart of the Tribe Gallery, I’ve finally got a platform to show my work. I’m forty in a couple of weeks, everyone keeps saying life opens up at 40, so I’m quite excited about my forties.
To find out more about Rowena see her website https://www.rowenajdraper.com/