Artist of The Week: Eliza Hopewell
Since graduating from the Glasgow School of Art with a degree in painting, 25-year-old London-based artist Eliza Hopewell has tread the line of craft-making and fine art. In creating out of necessity, she found her niche as a plate painter (an activity that developed in China in the 7th or 8th century and carried over to Europe during the 18th century). What first began as a homemade birthday gift for her ex-boyfriend quickly launched into a business; her work has been featured in Sunday Times and Tatler, and can now be seen in all the new rooms at Soho Farmhouse. After an artist residency in Scotland, she’s begun to confront her body of work, juxtapose it to her filmmaking, and ask herself what it means to be an artist.
Close to Camberwell College of Art lies her studio where we spoke; filled with sawdust from the next room over (her neighbors are wood sculptors), Hopewell had most of her paintings covered in plastic. A Fernand Legér book was left open to the painting “Two Sisters,” while her studio mate practiced quickly recreating Matisse’s work. For our full interview accompanied by photos from Lauren Maccabee, see below.
I read that the first time you painted a plate, it was out of necessity. Do you still have the same process?
No. I mean it’s gone through so many changes. The first time I did it I was just super, super broke and I needed to give my ex-boyfriend a birthday present. Someone told me that if you drew on a plate or a ceramic with a Sharpie, then bake in the oven, it will stick. There was something about the fact that it was on a plate that he really liked. He cried because he loved it so much. It was like the only time I’ve ever seen him cry. I think he was just having an emotional day, but something about the plate, people really engage with. And then I got these Pebeo Porcelaine markers, which are specifically for ceramic, but I don’t make the plates myself; I just buy them, and then draw straight on to them. Supposedly, if you bake them, you can eat off of them off afterward but I’m always like, “Don’t do that…” Cause I don’t know, it could scratch off or whatever.
Medium-wise, my process has changed a lot; also just doing it so much, it’s changed. But I guess in the sense that I started it because there was a need there; like I needed to do it. And it was kind of financially related, it kind of carried on for ages about just being a way for me to have a job, like a way for me to make money. Rather than it being like, “I’m just in my studio, and I’m chill and I’m going to make whatever I want.” It was always for a purpose; a means to an end, which is now starting to change because I’m forcing space for myself to make my own stuff.
What did you paint on the first plate?
I actually did two plates. It was a very naive kind of drawing of me and my ex-boyfriend hugging. We didn’t really have many facial features; it’s quite abstract. On one plate if you imagine us hugging from one side, and then the other from the other side. And it had random stuff around the edge, like little teardrops. It’s very different to my stuff now.
What do you think of the idea or concept that “good” art only comes out of a struggle?
Well, I think that good art comes out of some kind of pain, or something that doesn’t fit together. When I was doing commissions every day for so little money, I started to hate them and don’t feel like they are by any means my best pieces of work. That’s different now because I have so much more time and space. Before, when I was doing them, I just wasn’t creatively stimulated at all. My ex-boyfriend is a lovely guy, but I was just in a very comfortable relationship, and everything was cool, and there was no kind of risk. I was never worried about anything, or trying to solve anything within my artwork, you know? It was just money-making. It wasn’t me being like, “What do I think about this thing?” or, “I’ve been feeling like this recently and how can I represent that?” Which really is pain, and struggle. This tortured artist thing, it’s cliche for a reason. I do think if you’re a super calm, happy, fine person—what do you have to make art about?
I think that good art comes out of some kind of pain, or something that doesn’t fit together.
A lot of your ideas focus on your identity. How do you portray your own identity and how, if at all, does painting help you explore that further?
I think it’s quite natural that they are all self-portraits, but I don’t mean them to be. In a painting I’m doing right now, I think even the men have something of my face in them… I dunno, just if you look at your face so much—I’m always drawing self-portraits and looking at myself in the mirror.. it just comes out!
While I’m doing something, I have no idea what’s going on, or why I’m doing it. And then a few months afterward, I look back on it and I’m like, “Oh, I’ve just drawn a painting of myself getting stabbed in the face by someone. Oh, that’s clearly what that’s about.” But at the time, I can never work it out. I never know what’s going on or why.
I went on this residency last week to this cabin in Scotland that had no electricity or anything, and my phone broke on the first day. So for three days, I had no phone at all. I ended up buying one and they had Wifi if you walked a bit away, but it was very, very basic. I just read loads and thought so much, and did loads of drawing, and loads of painting, and made this bizarre film. It was definitely very psychological, and to do with my weird shit. And after that, I felt like I was getting closer to actually making something that I would call art.
I’ve been treading this really weird line between a craft business and a fine artist. And for ages, it was very much craft business. It was very much about packing up the plates and sending them off. And now, it’s kind of both at the moment; I’m doing all the packing up the plates, but I’m also doing the tortured artist thing.
So for example in the residency, what were you thinking about? What were you trying to solve?
I was thinking about what being an artist is. I have this real aversion to calling myself an artist, and I’m sure it’s partly imposter syndrome. For me, I really started something that was a business. When I was at art school, I didn’t paint at all, even though I was on a painting degree; I was making films the whole time. I came out, and I hadn’t done the drawing even for years. And it wasn’t something I was interested in. I wanted to get into film, and I just did this plate thing. And suddenly it was like Boom! Everyone was like, “Can I buy one? Can I buy one?!” And I was like, “Oh great, I can make money off this.” Suddenly, I’m in this position where I’m running this business and everyone’s calling me an artist and I’m like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa.” I don’t feel like I’m like producing art; I feel like I’m producing a means to an end. Especially with the commissions, I was kind of churning out all the time. Since summer last year, when I stopped doing the commissions, I’ve been trying to move things more in this direction. At the cabin, I was looking at loads of stuff that I love: a book of like Alex Katz paintings (super into him at the moment), Nick Laird poems, David Robilliard poems; just all this stuff that I loved. And I just sat there with it and was like, “Why do I love this?” Where does this all connect in my work? What kind of films do I want to make? Where do they connect to the plates? There’s definitely a common running theme between them, so I just have to work out how to bring that back together. I was thinking a lot about portraiture and truth, and observation.
I have this real aversion to calling myself an artist, and I’m sure it’s partly imposter syndrome.
When’s the first time you made a plate?
First time I made a plate would have been October 2016.
Do you collaborate with other artists?
I find it quite hard to collaborate with other people. When I came out of art school and I wanted to make films, I did a couple of music videos and I found it really, really difficult. I think I need to have absolute creative autonomy over what I’m doing. It just really stressed me out. Although saying that, I am collaborating with my friend on some illustrated Greek myths, but it’s very much that I’m doing the visual, and she’s doing the words.
What’s your favorite environment to create in? I’m assuming here, in your studio.
Yeah, I love the studio. I actually really like having people around as well, working at the same time as me. I find that quite stimulating. I used to have my studio in my mom’s house and that just sent me fucking insane. Also, this studio block is great because there are so many different artists; I’ve got a friend who works down there who is a stonemason, Emma, across the hall, is a painter. There are jewelers and stained glass people. It feels kind of like an art school, in the sense that you can walk around and chat to people.
You studied painting in school, if you could go back for your masters, what would you study?
Fine Art. I would do a fine art course where I could do painting and film; because I’m interested in that relationship between painting and film. I think a lot of my paintings look like films and my films look like paintings.
Where do you hope that your pieces live?
Hmm, I struggle with making so many commissioned works with private buyers, because the idea of it just being for someone privately, to me it’s like a political thing. It should be accessible to people. In an ideal world, I want my work to live in an accessible, free gallery.
Now, let’s get to know you:
- Favorite London Restaurant? I really like Artusi in Peckham; It’s this cute little Italian place, fairly basic but really, really, really, really good food. And my friend is one of the chefs there.
- Favorite song of the moment? Oh my God, that is so hard because you don’t know how into music I am. I am obsessed with Jonathan Richman at the moment. He was the lead singer of “Modern Lovers.” His solo stuff was fucking amazing, and he has a song called “Her Mystery, Not Of High Heels And Eye Shadow.” That’s one of my favorite songs in the world. Also “Hard-boiled Babe” by Lizzy Mercier Descloux, who’s just my all-time favorite person in the world. I’ve been listening to a lot to “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” by Nina Simone.
- Favorite accessory? my nose ring.
- Favorite publication? I read the news a lot, “The Guardian.”