Isolation Interview with Jessica Jane Charleston

Updated: Sep 18, 2020

During lockdown we sent a few of our artists an isolation interview package at home to give us an insight into their new changed practice. We sent them a disposable camera and a list of questions. Here are the results...

S: How are you finding working from home at the moment, has your practice been drastically interrupted since the lockdown?

JJC: I am enjoying working from home. Lockdown has coincided with the birth of my son, Lowen, so I was anticipating a change in the weather. However it has meant my partner, Jonny, has been at home too, so we've been able to support each other having time for things on our own. There is of course a lot less to do; no people to visit or baby groups to attend so things have been simplified. I have had to get into a stricter routine with my practice. I make drawings of Lowen, and I paint when he is asleep. I like to think of it as my maternity residency. It certainly feels like I've travelled somewhere very different. 

S: Is there anything that you are missing during isolation that has surprised you?

JJC: I miss so much. But the thing that has surprised me is train travel. I miss getting on a train (not the underground, I really don't miss that) but a train leaving London or even the overground. I miss travelling somewhere and staring out the window whilst drinking a coffee and eating an almond croissant.

S: Is there any artist in particular who has had an impact on you and your practice?

JJC: The artists work I am currently dribbling over are Lisa Brice, Emma Talbot and Amy Sillman but the artists who have had an impact on my work are artists I know, like Anna Ilsley and James Dodds. Anna for her insight, encouragement and incredible eye as an artist herself, and Jamie for his commitment, clarity and for creating a dreamland studio set up where he works with painting, print and book making. I have been fortunate to collaborate with Jamie and share a studio with Anna. 

S: Can you tell us a bit about your process and how a painting begins?

JJC: My paintings are most likely to begin from drawings. If there is a drawing I've made in my sketchbook that excites me, that is a good starting point. A lot of my drawings are from life, everyday objects, self-portraits etc. Other times a painting begins with a colour. I will make continuous works on paper in paint until I find a way into the painting. Playing with colour is always a good launching pad. Although over the last year I've been working a lot in black ink. I've got into a habit of using A3 sized paper and black ink, I draw from life and imagination, for an hour to get the ideas going and get over 'messing up'. I have recently started to paint from these. 

S: Your work is often quite autobiographical or features yourself or depictions of women in your work. Can you talk about how this developed as a theme and do you think it will change at all since the birth of your beautiful baby boy Lowen?

JJC: He is beautiful isn't he! I want to gobble him up! My work is predominantly figurative and I am the most convenient model for this. The women in my work often being as self-portraits but get transformed in the process of drawing from my imagination. Of course my feelings and my life are all there whether I want them to be or not. That's what making the work is all about; these things reveal themselves in the work. My drawings and paintings were changed by Lowen before his birth. The pregnancy, the fertility, has played a big part in my work over the last year. Lowen is at the forefront of the work at the moment, I feel like we are one, and yet not, I am changed by him. Today I made a self-portrait with my face covered in milk before I realised what I was drawing. 

S: With Lowen in mind have you had anytime at all to make work at home?

I know you were setting up a new studio, can you tell us a bit about that?

JJC: The silver lining to lockdown is having my partner Jonny at home with us. It has been a very special and bonding time. It has also meant that because we haven't been allowed to do anything else things have been simplified and for now there is time to draw. I have got into a nice routine of drawing in the morning before Low is up. I am subletting my studio at the moment so have set up two small spaces to make work; larger works get made in the shed and smaller in the sitting room. It feels good to walk out of the flat in the morning and go to a separate space to make a lot of my own mess. 

S: Has your work changed since being at home? Either by the size or what you want to be making?

JJC: I'm working on a series of watercolour paintings, since being awarded the Young Artist Award this year from the Royal Watercolour Society. These works are gentler in tone than usual . Perhaps it is the tenderness I am feeling for Lowen coming out in them. 

S: Do you collect art? What is in your home?

JJC: I've got a great collection of art by artist friends including pastel drawings by Mary Herbert and Aisha Farr, a woodcut by Max Wade, a linocut by James Dodds, paintings by Anna Ilsley and Neil Packer to name a few. I have a lot of things. We recently moved to a smaller flat so I had to have a cull. I gave away 9 of my 11 typewriters. I've got some lovely wooden figures found in charity shops, I've got a bowl of broken and beautiful pipes, I've got a ton of books (many unread). I've got loads of bits of lovely material which I've kept for years and swear one day I'll learn how to make clothes.

S: What do you listen to when you paint?

JJC: Completely depends on my mood. I like silence of the morning to paint to. But I also like to listen to live versions of bands on YouTube. I get obsessed with certain performances and play them repeatedly. My current favourites are Big Thief and Aldous Harding on Tiny Desk Concert. I listen to audiobooks, I just finished Olivia Laing's Lonely City which was pretty appropriate, a book on creativity and isolation. Often I'll just pop radio 4 on, which I can zone in and out to, although the relentless news has made it less attractive these days.

S: Can you see any positive changes or developments coming from this time in isolation?

JJC: For the creatively privileged it's been a gift of time. For those of us unaffected by the virus it's been time we may never have taken for ourselves. It has allowed many people to take stock and remember/realise what is important. For myself - it may also be the new baby effect - but I can't imagine sprinting around London headless-chicken-style for a long while. I think the simplification has been useful. I've felt very connected to people in this new landscape we all find ourselves in. However I am very much looking forward to hugging and kissing family and friends again, and for Lowen to be properly embraced.

S: What collaborations if any have been most successful in your work?

JJC: Alongside painting and printmaking I make books. The last book I made was with artist Alice Gale-Feeny. Her work is grounded in performance but she writes too. My work is grounded in drawing and painting but I write as well. The book we made, As Parts, is a conversation between two, and between many. The body; its functions and its desires makes itself known, whether we want it to or not, in a voice that is once persistent, unbounded and pragmatic. The collaboration worked well for me because I feel energised by Alice. Here is an extract of my writing from it:

keep your temper and me

I invite 

You decline

when I leave

I'll laugh

All the way home 

I keep thinking there's a candle -

it's a cheap lamp


You'll be having young

Developing in the uterus


Wet soil

And quiet corners

Sprouted flowers


Now let me command skin

S: Thinking of your work outside the gallery, where would you most like to work or who with? Be it a residency, company or space to exhibit in?

JJC: I'd like to work somewhere hot again. I spent a really productive six weeks in the south of France a couple of summers ago, making paintings outside. My palette lends itself well to hotter climates and I loved having so much space in nature. Residencies offer a refresher and I would like to continue to go on them, further and further afield ( if the world reopens), and with my boys.

S: What has inspired you most recently? Be it a film, book, quote or person.

JJC: The Royal Drawing School's Ways of Drawing book printed in 2019 relit my love for drawing. It is full of exercises and insights from brilliant artists and teachers at the school where I did my post-graduate and now teach on the young artist clubs. 

S: And most importantly what is your favourite sandwich?

JJC: We call them Magical Sandwiches. Made by my partner Jonny and I. They come in all shapes and sizes. The key is stuffing nice bread full with everything you have in the fridge. My current favourite is toasted rye bread with hummus, egg, avocado, spinach, rockets, dates, apple, cheese, gherkins and chilli sauce... as many delicious things as you can pack in. Lockdown has been very full of them. 

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