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Artist Talks: Lily Irwin

I first came across the work of Lily Irwin on Instagram (obviously) and was struck at how she uses mark making to create beautiful, intricate narratives within her work. The marks dance around the pages of the compositions and create something magical and full of life. There is a real sense of experimentation within her process and ability to convey this into something resolved is inspiring. I adore her chaotic marks which contrast with the more considered repetitive marks. I caught up with Lily to learn more about her thoughts and influences.

How long have you been drawing and how important is this to your work?
It is difficult to gauge how old I was when I first began to draw. What is certain in my mind is that by the age of three, I had already developed a great love and natural inclination to draw onto walls much to the despair of various family members. Another early memory that jumps out are of lessons with Lesley Fennell, a great friend of mine who lives down the road from us in Ireland – I must have been four or five when I first went to her studio. Drawing from life was central to Lesley’s teaching - whether we were building up layers of collage in her studio or drawing animals and plants in the woods or fields.
I loved to write and illustrate stories as a child. One imaginary story that played a continuous roll in my early life was a strange coming of age tale which involved rabbits, not a particularly happy world from what I remember, as the rabbits bade farewell to childhood, their ears would begin to droop and they were forced to wear clothes which seemed a preposterous idea to them.
I lost drawing in the midst of adolescence, like many others, it was a difficult time for me, lots of things that had been precious to me as child, disappeared under the surface.  However, it began to come back to life in the last years of university, it started quite naturally, I remember I was reading Carrington’s illustrated letters at the time which sparked something in me. The drawings were mostly on scraps of paper, all pen and ink, very fine and detailed. I have gradually broken away from that, experimenting with many different materials. Studying at Cambridge has brought many wonderful things, but most significantly it has reignited my love of drawing from life.

What does it mean to make art and communicate something to audience?

A difficult question to answer – I never approach my work consciously thinking of meaning or how to communicate to an audience. It is an instinctive act, and I believe it is up to the viewer to interpret, not the artist.  Drawing is a balance between being sensitive to your surroundings, present and aware of what is around you, whilst also being subconscious – a mysterious working of the imagination. I prefer to work spontaneously and quite quickly; if I think too much about a piece or work too long on something it becomes stale and heavy.

Nature is a recurring motif within your work. What parts of the natural world inspire you the most? 
My natural world is balanced between Ireland and London – the former is my backbone and where I feel most at home, however, London has been home for five or six years now and I am finally beginning to feel a sense of belonging and rootedness with the city. I live in North London which somehow feels wilder and tropical than other parts of London (lots of leathery, rich green plants, bursting with strange flowers and palm trees). I’m certain the air is fresher too and bird song remains constant, even in the depths of winter.

How does using social media allow you to communicate to an audience? Do you think there are negatives to sharing your work this way?

In the past, I felt quite wary towards social media and still do in some ways – for our first introduction to an artist’s work to be seen on a screen is a strange thought, how images can be distorted and manipulated through the many different lenses of social media is quite daunting. At the same time, it can also be a rich foundation for artists in terms of influence and community; I have found many artists through instagram whom I might otherwise have never discovered. One is also given the chance to see unfinished work and sketchbooks which I tend to find more interesting as you can get a greater feeling of the process behind a finished piece. On the other hand, sketchbooks are traditionally for the artist alone, a private world where one can explore and experiment, where one should not need to worry about judgement. This has profoundly changed in recent years; so much of the mystery has been broken. I wonder whether it is changing our ‘private worlds’, knowing that drawings might be open for the world to see.

What artists, music and writing inspires you? Do you find this feeds your work and process? 

I have raided the larders of many different artists; some influences remain constant, whilst others wash over one, yet always leave some debris of influence behind. Laura Carlin and Beatrice Alemagna have been a profound influence on my work, I discovered both of them around a similar time, their work is very different but I sense comes from a similar place, they approach illustration as painters and neither write consciously to children, it seems to come purely from the heart. They first inspired me to pursue children’s book illustration.
Aside from these two my web of inspiration tends to fall heavily in early and mid-century painters, such as Mary Fedden (I constantly return to her illustrations for Gardham’s The Green Man), Ben Nicholson, Matisse, Dora Carrington and John Minton. Literature is another great influence, poetry and prose – again, I love early and mid-century, however, Victorian and Romanticism too. Sometimes it is difficult to decide whether something has been an influence or simply a great love; but books & poems are so visual in their orientation that I am certain that everything I have enjoyed reading has directly fed my artistic imagination. I am working on two pieces at the moment, one inspired by Woolf’s Sketch of the Past and another sequence illustrating Wordsworth’s Lucy poems.

All images in this blog post belong to Lily Irwin. Thank you for letting me use them, to see more of her work visit her website here.


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