Photo Credit: Julia Schoenstaedt
Describe your role/life work in one sentence.
I’m a painter of people who cares passionately about visibility, integrity and authenticity (and paint).
You are hugely successful. When did you realise that art would become your life?
I always hoped to be a painter as a small child. I was one of those children constantly drawing and colouring in or reading. As I became an adult, I tried to be a little more pragmatic and pursue a career in the arts more widely. I stopped making work. But, thankfully, my late twenties saw me reassess many aspects of my life and try to live more authentically. That included starting to paint again and setting up as a professional painter (as well as coming out!).
Has there been a single highlight of your career to date, or are there more stand-out moments? Please describe.
Getting in to the BP Portrait Award exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery last year with my portrait of Dr Ronx, and then again this year with a painting of Lola Flash, has been a real career highlight. Having said that, nothing beats the feeling of delivering a commissioned portrait to a client and seeing that they not only like, but love it. It’s always a moment of some anxiety for an artist but I have been really genuinely touched by people’s reactions. It’s one of the most gratifying parts of the job.
Who or what has been your main inspiration?
There are many artists both from the past and working today who have inspired me in different ways. Some but not all include: Alice Neel, Rita Angus, Colin McCahon, Paula Rego, Chantal Joffe, Ishbel Myerscough, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, Michael Andrews, Frank Bowling, Celia Paul, Cecily Brown, Jenny Saville, Andrew Salgado, Sylvia Sleigh, Gluck, Laura Knight, David Hockney, Nicole Eisenman, Michael Armitage, Maggi Hambling, .. & many, many more!
Sometimes it is directly about the work they have produced and my admiration for it – and in other cases more about their commitment to forging an individual life as an artist. Also, both my parents are self-employed and I’m sure this has had some influence.
What led you to specialise in portraiture?
After taking the short course in drawing that got me back into the arts in a more tangible way, a tutor mentioned my mark making might lend itself to portraiture. Whether or not this was a throwaway comment or not, I latched onto it and promptly enrolled in a full-time course in portraiture. So it was somewhat of a whim initially. I’ve stuck with it over time because people fascinate me and I believe that life is about people and connection. Portraiture explores this and the spaces between people. It’s rich territory.
We love your painting of Lola Flash – another of our inspirational role models – and congratulations on the painting’s selection for the BP Portrait Award 2020 exhibition. Of course, this is now online for everyone to see because of COVID-19. Can you share how you feel about people viewing your work (and others’) online, rather than ‘in the flesh’?
Thank you. I’m really pleased the National Portrait Gallery were able to go ahead with the show in some way shape or form and we’re all still holding out hope for a physical show at a later date, perhaps in another part of the UK. There’s no substitute for seeing the paintings up close. As a ‘painterly painter’ who likes to use a lot of paint and exploit the sculptural qualities of oil, I feel something is definitely lost when viewing work on a computer screen. This is one of the largest portraits I’ve ever painted too, so I had been looking forward to seeing it hung in a decent sized space. That said, the virtual exhibition is in some ways really nice, as you can spend as much time as you like and in effect have the entire ‘gallery’ to yourself. It also makes the show so much more accessible than before in terms of geography and access.
Have you found your creative process or thinking has been affected in any way by the pandemic – and, if so, how?
Yes, absolutely. Some weeks I have been very focused and energised while, in others, uncertainty about the future and lockdown exhaustion dampens any productivity. It helps that as a self-employed artist I’m very used to having to motivate myself and stick to a self-imposed schedule.
So much of your work focuses on our community – your subjects are so vivid and memorable. Is there a reason why you are so dedicated to this subject base?
There are many reasons but the most important is about seeing ourselves represented and acknowledged. It’s important for young people (and for all people) to see that individuals in the LGBTQI+ community are successful, ambitious, proud, confident and creative. It widens the spectrum of possibility for some. I also think double portraits of LGBTQI+ couples are important in terms of the history of portraiture which has its own associations of class, heteronormativity and status.
You are originally from New Zealand and have travelled all over the world. What led you to base yourself in the UK?
I’ve been in the UK since 2007. Previously I was living in Kuala Lumpur but my partner had a job offer in London come through and we decided to make the move (rather than head back to Perth in Australia, as originally planned). After the relationship ended, I decided I hadn’t yet finished with London and now I find that my life and career are based here. I love the diversity of London and the people you meet here.
Which countries, other than the UK, excite you most – both personally and professionally? And why?
My life up until this point has mostly revolved around New Zealand and the UK out of both choice and circumstance. I do have a longstanding interest in Japan and Japanese culture as well and lived there for a few years in my early 20s. Last year I visited New York for the first time and was really struck by the art scene there and the attitude to ambition and success. There’s a long list of countries I haven’t yet visited and would like to.
You do a lot of teaching, both here and abroad. What led you to start teaching and what excites you about it?
I started teaching as a way to diversify my income initially but have really grown to love it. I sometimes teach week-long intensive courses or one-off masterclasses but in term time teach a small number of painters just one day a week. It keeps me tethered to the world in a very real way, gets me out of the studio and also allows me to talk at length about painting to people who are very interested in the subject. Having helped someone work through a particular problem in painting is really gratifying and to see someone make progress and increase in confidence is a great feeling.
A horrible question for you! Is there one single painting/work that you would run to save over the others? If so, please can you explain your choice?
This is a really impossible question, not least because many of my paintings are in different collections throughout the UK and beyond. But if they were all in the same spot, I would likely save whatever painting I was currently working on. It’s a funny thing, but nothing is more important, seductive and engaging that the painting you’re working on at the time.
What exhibitions and projects have you planned for the rest of 2020 and beyond?
In a sense I’m lucky as lockdown happened just as I was going into a quiet phase of making work in isolation. I’m currently putting together work for a portraiture show that I hope to stage in 2021. I’m also working on another series about isolation and the environment. In terms of immediate exhibitions, there may be a virtual show of my work in the next few months and a few (hopefully physical!) group exhibitions too.
How, when and why did you come out?
As mentioned, I came out a year after I arrived in London age 28, as I had discovered I wasn’t as straight as I thought I was – it was also when I had my first LBTQ+ kiss. It genuinely surprised me and it took about a year to sink in.
What advice would you give to the younger you?
Worry less about what you should be doing and what your life should look like and spend more time getting to the heart of what you enjoy doing most.
What are the five words that best describe you?
Resilient, Committed, Approachable, Optimistic, Generous
What would you like to be if you didn’t do what you currently do?
I studied literature, Japanese and art history at university and so, at various points, thought I would end up as a writer, a translator or linguist, or an art curator or theorist. My Japanese is shockingly rusty, but I think the literature and art theory both relate directly to my work as a painter.
Do you listen to music while you work? If so, what do you listen to and why?
Yes, a lot when I’m painting. As well as the news, podcasts & audio books. My taste in music runs the gamut from 50s & 60s rock and 80s power ballads to jazz and electronica.
What is your favourite restaurant – or best ever meal – and who was it with?
Morito in Hackney is absolutely my favourite restaurant. It’s one my partner and I often return to if we have a special occasion to celebrate.
What is your favourite holiday place – and why?
The Bay of Plenty in New Zealand. It’s where I spent all my summers growing up and, although London is home, that particular stretch of NZ’s east coast is the landscape I relate to the most in the world.
Do you like to live in the countryside or are you an urban person?
I live in central London at the moment but find I love and yearn for both urban and country settings. I’m not sure I could have one without the other. Contrast is key.
Which charities do you support and why?
I regularly donate work or profits from sales to Terrence Higgins Trust, Stonewall, Pride In London, Gendered Intelligence, Black Lives Matter and Art For Youth, because they do amazing work. There is a long list of other organisations I’m hoping to support in the future and I’m always open to suggestions.
What are your biggest challenges in achieving an optimal work/life balance?
As painting is something I enjoy doing and also because I’m self employed and can set my own hours, it’s very hard to switch off or take a holiday. I find having a studio separate from home helps, but I still have to make an effort to schedule time off.
If you could change one thing in the world what would it be?
Systemic inequality in terms of sex, gender, race, class and wealth.