Behind The Art: An Interview With Charlotte Keates

Ennigaldi, December 7 2017

Charlotte Keates is a young London-based artist, represented by Arusha Gallery in Edinburgh, whose work was recently selected for the prestigious Columbia Threadneedle Prize, which is taking place at the Mall Galleries in London in January 2018.  Her solo exhibition, ‘Sojourn”, held at Arusha Gallery in May earlier this year showcased a body of work which was inspired by a 3-month trip around North America, completed the previous summer.  Her paintings, which are devoid of human presence, combine indoor and outdoor spaces, featuring swimming pools, palm trees and mountains. They emit a nostalgic sense of the American good life. Of her “Sojourn” exhibition, the artist has stated:

‘I am trying to negotiate a space that captures a sense of stillness and peacefulness that can be achieved from a temporary experience or place; even if only for a short while. I want to attempt to trigger a feeling or memory within the viewer, it's important that they feel something; whilst documenting my own personal experiences and observations, crossing the boundaries between nostalgia and the anticipation of the unknown.”

Continuing to work from the inspiration gathered on her trip around the USA and Canada and a mysterious set of slides indirectly acquired from a wealthy American family, which documents their travels in the 1960s, Keates has been building up an exciting new body of work, which she will be showing at The London Art Fair in January 2018.  We were delighted to meet the artist as she enters the final phase of preparations for the show.


1.     Are you an early bird or a night owl?

Night owl.  Definitely. I  previously had a studio in Westminster and you could literally see the Houses of Parliament from the window.  It was a ridiculously nice place.  But it was in one of those really big old buildings and it was in the attic space.  So it closed super early and I just found that really annoying.  I was trying to bring things back and then paint at home… It works better for me having a space at home I can just carry on with my work and have a more fluid schedule.


2.     Are you a tea or coffee person?

Coffee in the morning but then… Tea.  I would just have one coffee a day so probably a tea person overall!


3. When did you first feel your calling to create art?

I think I’ve always been really creative.  As a kid I was super arty.  My mum remembers when I was four years old, my sister would be doing these extra dance classes and she’d shove me in a corner with a notepad and a pen and I was just fine! So I think I’ve just always been creative to be honest… I don’t ever really remember making that decision to go and study it seriously – to go and do it as a degree… I think it just happened! Instinctively… I always just knew I was going to go and do it… It's strange because if I finish a body of work that I’ve been working towards and I’ve been really stressed about it, the first thing I want to do when all of that pressure is off is just do some drawing which is weird because you'd think I’d just want to get away from it but it’s like an outlet in that way as well!

I didn't enter my foundation year at university with a specific plan. I knew I had to do a foundation to get on this fine art course but I think it was really good for me to get to try out all the different areas because you forget, that even within a fine art degree, you have to specialize as well… so while I had previously done a lot of print making… linocuts and wood cuts… and installation work, which was far more conceptual… I hadn't really painted that much. So the Foundation course gave me the chance to explore that.  I then decided that I really just wanted to focus and try and get really good at just one thing instead of lots of things so I think it was there I decided that painting would be it.


4. Can you remember the first piece of art that you ever created?

I reckon it was in that dance class… Because I was four! And It’s interesting because even though I was very young, I wasn’t just drawing things like a house or things from my imagination… I was just drawing everything I was seeing… So I’d draw my sisters’ dance shoes or I’d draw the teacher.  And actually I think my parents were friends with the dance teacher at the time, they ended up giving her as a wedding present a tiny little drawing of mine that I did of her at that age with ringlets in her hair… She had really curly hair! They put it in a frame… I can’t think of anything before but that drawing is ingrained… The first piece of framed art I did!  My first ever portrait…


5. Where do you find inspiration?

Everywhere really…. You can find inspiration in so many places… Even when you’re just walking down the street, there’ll be something that triggers a painting! For me, it’s about spaces so I’m constantly thinking about this when I’m out and I think it filters subconsciously into my work.  It can be something as small as the shape of a lamp in an interior or just one corner of it beside a mirror and then the reflection in that… I think you can source inspiration everywhere.  But I’m also really lucky to have the galleries on our doorstep in London as well.  I try to visit lots of exhibitions and that’s always inspiring.


6. Do you listen to music while you work? If so, who or what kind of music do you listen to most?

I do listen to music… anything that’s kind of chilled out but I also listen to lots of podcasts… They’re really great because with music, you become really aware of time… And you become really aware that 3 and a half minutes or 2 minutes has just gone past and it’s a bit of a strange thing when you’re just focused on one thing solidly for so long but podcasts are longer and I find them really good to listen to whilst I work. And some of them are really inspiring like the ones from "The Jealous Curator" or like "How I Built This" and I really like Alec Baldwin… He interviews lots of creatives… Not just actors but lots of interesting people!


7. What is your favourite colour and why?

I like all colours! I can’t say…! If I had to pick… well colour is so important in my work and I don’t avoid any particular colour.  A colour that I really don’t like is purple but I still don’t avoid using it in my work…  I think I’d have to go with a turquoise or an orange… Like an aqua or a cerulean blue… It’s really hard to pick! Those colours I’ve just chosen would be my favourite in terms of paint colours. But I’d never wear them!


8. Do you have a muse or role model?

Possibly Mamma Andersson … She’s a Swedish painter and I’ve always found her work really inspiring.  She does painting and printmaking.  Hers aren’t just spaces… Some are very architectural…  She has the idea of bringing together the landscape – the natural and the manmade.  She also does figures… Her work is very diverse.  I somehow managed, as a student, to get into one of her private views at the Stephen Friedman Gallery and I met her and it was amazing.  I was only 20 and I should have followed up with an email so she might remember me… she won’t remember me now!


9. What is your most important work tool?

A paintbrush… Is that my most important tool? Yes… I think it’s as simple as that… So I use a bigger paintbrush for the ground… that’s the biggest brush I’ll use. Unless I’m doing a very big piece.  And I use sable brushes because they’re just the best, in my opinion.


 10. Is there a specific place where feel most productive?

Here, at home in my studio.  It’s funny, I think for me to create work, I always have to feel relaxed and calm and in the zone… If I’m hugely stressed… I don't know…. You have to be in such a good mindset. And when you're not, you’re always fighting… it’s such a struggle. It’s always harder… But then sometimes paintings are just harder anyway… And I don’t know why… You can go in with great intent… You can be like ‘Right, today I’m going to be really productive and I know what I want to do and I’m going to do this’… And I think that that’s what can make it more difficult on the day… If you’re too ready for it… That can create too much pressure! If that makes sense…


11. What piece of work are you most proud of?

Right now, I would say….  Well I got two pieces into The Columbia Threadneedle Prize, which opens at the Mall Galleries in January. I never thought I’d get in so I was enormously shocked.  One of the paintings is 2m x 1.2m and it’s called “Kaleidoscope”.  It’s a diptych, made up of two paintings placed together.  At the moment that’s the piece I’m most proud of because it’s got that far, if that makes sense…

But I don’t know maybe that’s not right to pick one because of where it’s gone rather than the actual painting… I was also very pleased with my very big piece that was shown at my solo show recently… 2.2 x 1.8m, which now resides in a client’s home in California… Working on that scale I need a lot of space… Because everything is painted on the floor because all of the paint is very watery and loose and then I paint on top of it in sections. 



12. What are you currently working on?

I am preparing a body of work for The London Art Fair, which takes place on January 17th.  And then after that, the gallery is thinking about doing one of the fairs in Miami in December 2018. Lots of the pieces do end up going to American clients so it would be really good to do a show over there… It depends on so many things! But that’s what we’re talking about at the moment…

It would also be great to go because I found Florida really good for inspiration when we did our three-month trip across the USA.  We’re actually planning another really big inspiration trip for 2019 – to go to Japan, China and Indonesia.  And there is an incredible artist residency in Indonesia, where you’re staying at a rice plantation and basically living up on the same level as the tops of the palm trees.  There are lots of things in the pipeline that might or might not happen but I really hope they do!


13. Do you look at the work of other artists?

Yes. All the time.  People like Mamma Andersson, Peter Doig, Matius Weishar and obviously the traditional artists like Vermeer… His work is very interesting to look at in terms of space and creating layers to create perspectives and how he places figures in them. Although my paintings are always void of figures…


I’ve always said no to putting figures into my paintings… But it’s something that’s been quite interesting lately.  I think it was one specific slide I saw the other day.  It’s titled “Bob Bodkin, Poolside, LA” and it’s the best slide – I started drawing out the image onto the board, I decided that this was the slide I was going to paint next. And even though I was initially like “this is going to be great!” It just wasn’t working… I felt like he had to be in the painting… I don’t know if that was because of the name given to the slide before I bought it but in the image, you can see the pool, you can see the palm trees and then you can see him standing on the diving board… And it’s almost like a scene from a Wes Anderson film – it’s so symmetrical and he’s slap bang in the middle.   He seems too important to leave out but then I wouldn’t… Maybe one day I’ll paint it but for now I’ve just left it… For now it's just a drawn-out board.

Is Bob Bodkin famous?

No! That’s why I love it… Just because it just says on the slide, “Bob Bodkin, Poolside, LA”

And you don’t know who owned these slides?

No. All of these slides were donated to a school in Florida by a really rich family and an art teacher took them all because the school was going to throw them out! So he’s got thousands of slides of this family’s trip around the world but he was like, ‘oh they take up so much room, I can’t keep them all!’ so he put them on eBay… And I found them and told him I was really interested in all the American slides and he went through and sent me a selection so I’ve got about 120.  He was really happy that they were going to go to someone creative who would use them… And part of the collection was called “The Kennedy Trip” and they’re from the 1960s and we don’t know if it was the Kennedys or whether the family was going to visit them…. We don’t know where the family was based originally but from what I can see, they had a holiday home in Florida and you can see them building the home.  You initially just see the structure and skeleton of the house and then it becomes theirs – a dream home…  Actually that’s what inspired this painting (will show) I mean it’s different… Those chairs weren’t there but it’s more about the view and the shape of the inside-outside space… One of the slides was taken from inside their holiday home that they built!


It would be great to somehow trace members of the family who donated the slides… It’s bizarre, isn’t it? To think that I’ve got someone else’s collection… Can you imagine someone in 60 or 70 years having all your Instagram photos or coming across a phone that doesn’t exist anymore and going through all your photos?! It’s a weird concept but I like the idea because for me, the show in May being called “Sojourn” meant that this was almost a nice continuation of that because it was almost like someone else’s first-hand encounter and a sojourn across America but it’s still very real.

And I like that the slides are all from the same family’s collection which makes feel very personal… Instead of me just trying to grab slides from all over the place that might work for me… but this makes it someone else’s first-hand encounter but it’s always the same… There’s a consistency.


 14. What do you think makes art good?

That’s a really hard question… I think you can’t really answer that… I don’t think there’s a ever a right or wrong… So I just think you can’t answer it.  For me, it’s hard because as an artist you don’t necessarily want to give away the reasons for making a piece… It might be very personal and they might want the viewer to… or even it might not be very important how a viewer feels towards the work!  For me it is important how the viewer feels but there are lots of people who think that it’s not.  But that doesn’t mean that the work isn’t fulfilling its purpose… I think all work can be good or bad but t’s just so subjective… it’s just not possible to say!


15. Do you have a favourite city to visit?

New York! I loved it.  When we did the big three-month trip, we started and ended in New York… We went down the East Coast and then up through Texas and New Orleans and over to the West Coast up and around.  We did a full circle … in a camper until it broke down on the east coast at Crater Lake and then we had to get trains and flights for the rest of the trip but that was kind of welcome at that stage because we’d spent so long driving and camping.

I felt quite at home in New York and I don’t know if that’s because now I live in London…  There are quite a few similarities I find… Weirdly, I’m not really a city person though! I don’t know how long I’ll be in London for… I’m from Somerset and then studied in Falmouth in Cornwall… London is the first city I’ve ever lived in!  But still, I loved New York.  There is so much going on and I feel like you’re never really done with it… So much to do!


16. Name your top 3 holiday destinations:

Palm Springs… And I really want to go to Japan, China and Indonesia but out of places I’ve been, Palm Springs is my favourite place on earth right now.  And I also love the South of France. They have a very good way of doing everything over there I think!  I really like Toulouse…


17. What is your favourite gallery or museum in the world?

I really love the Tate Britain and Royal Academy. Tate Britain tends to have my favourite shows but that is a massive generalization! Royal Academy, architecture-wise, I really love but also the Guggenheim in New York was really impressive to see and I really liked the New Orleans Museum of Modern Art… I really liked the space and the way they curated it.


18. How would you describe your fashion style?

Chilled out… Easygoing…  I like colour and don’t dress in all black or anything but I wouldn’t wear bright colours either.


19. What is your most treasured possession?

That’s a really hard one but probably a bracelet that my grandmother gave me and it used to be her grandma’s… It’s really unusual – I think she gave it to me because I have tiny wrists and I’m the only person it would fit… But she remembers it just being in her dressing up stuff when she was younger… I don’t think her mum particularly liked it and so just put it in there and she remembers playing with it.  I think it’s brass and coated in gold… It would probably be about 200 years old.  And I do wear it because it fits perfectly and with the safety catch, there is no danger of it falling off. My grandmother really encouraged my creativity as a child and we used to talk a lot about colour on our walks together when I was tiny.  And I’ll always remember something she said that really stuck with me, which was “Isn’t it interesting how nothing in nature clashes?” And it’s so true – we don’t even question colours when we’re out in nature but if you were to put certain colours seen side by side in nature into a painting, you might think “oh wait a minute… do they go?”


20. If you weren’t an artist, what would you be?

Bored! I really just don’t know…  I never had a dilemma… Well obviously I had a dilemma when I was working in the Chelsea Harbour Design Centre and still had a gallery so I was painting alongside my job and then I went part-time at work but making that jump to go full-time painting, that was a dilemma… I never went into that interiors job thinking oh this is what I would do but rather as a way to pay rent and stuff.  And it was still good.  It was still creative but it just wasn’t what I wanted to do. I was doing marketing and showroom work and they had big clients in the Middle East who wanted hand-drawn ideas for their rooms so I would always get that work and that was nice...


21. What advice would you give those wishing to pursue a creative path?

Just stick with it and keep making, even if you feel like you’re unsure or you don’t really know what you’re doing, just remember you are doing it for your own reasons and keep creating.  I guess this is advice to myself as well… When you get ‘creative block’, it’s very easy just to sit back and spend a lot of time thinking and that’s important but once I start making again, I find myself wondering why I needed so much time to dwell…and once you get absorbed back into the process, then you’re off again! So I think just keep going! A bit of an obvious one, I guess…