In the Studio with Clare Rees-Hales

In the studio with Clare, a contemporary figurative painter whose practice explore women's interior and exterior worlds. We met with Clare to tell us more about the influence of her artistic family, growing up in Nottingham, and her greatest influences.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?

Artist is such a precious term and to be honest, defining myself as such still makes me slightly uncomfortable. I make paintings and drawings and I am absolutely driven by the urge to do so but I don’t think there was a particular moment where I started defining myself as an artist. I am fortunate to have been encouraged to make art from a very early age, so art has always been part of my life and has always felt like a natural and fundamental part of my identity. I am very grateful to have drawing and painting in my life. I love it so much, it enables me to see beauty in the ugliest and meanest of things.

 Where are you from and what was your upbringing like?

I grew up in Nottingham in a somewhat chaotic artistic family, surrounded by beautiful, baffling and macabre things, often broken, ancient and mismatched: rock and mineral samples, anatomical models, specimens, reptiles, a butterfly and beetle collection, a baker’s cart, clocks, tools. These objects from my childhood make their way into my paintings. My mother painted and had taught painting and art history, and my father was always making things at home and at the museum where he worked. I have strong memories of my childhood, occasionally being allowed to miss school and spend the day with my mother painting and drawing in the garden and my dad teaching me how to carve a self portrait out of wood. Growing up surrounded by books, prints, paintings, and unusual artefacts, as well as visiting art galleries, museums, graveyards, and antique fairs. My childhood was a really creative time and continues to inform my practice to this day.

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice, artistic work? Was there a pivotal moment when you felt you were on the right track? 

It was a gradual evolution, where the need to paint got stronger and stronger. I have early memories of my mother setting up objects and scenes for me to draw and making studies from art books. I remember a hunger for representational drawing from a young age but also finding it difficult and having a determination to learn more and to improve. It was my Foundation year that changed everything. I had such an intense year-long exploration of art making, I was completely consumed, excited and energised to be able to make art full time for a whole year. Co-founding The School of The Damned, an alternative fine art programme, introduced me to the experience of art as a community and being a contributing part of something exciting.
At Turps, particularly towards the end of my two years there, I really found my voice.

What’s the message of your work? How would you describe your aesthetic? 

“There are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt”. This quote from ‘Poetry Is Not A Luxury’ by Audre Lorde inspires me to make paintings that have a greater presence and are permeated with feeling. My work is rooted in feminism and a desire to escape patriarchal dominance. I operate in visual images and not in ideas and storytelling. For me it’s the How that is important not the ‘why’. Images always form the root of my paintings and I take great pleasure scouring through the big boxes of images I have sourced and books in my studio, or the endless folders of photos clogging up my laptop and phone. Much of my work is characterised by a gentle handling of paint, layering, fragmentation, tension between the figures and their surroundings and a sense of expansion beyond the confines of the picture plane.

Who/what are your greatest influences? 

I am greatly influenced by the art and visual culture of the medieval and Renaissance periods,
particularly medieval illuminated manuscripts and Catholic iconography, for instance the frescoes and
panel paintings of Fra Angelico and Piero Della Francesca and the strangeness of Lucas Cranch the
Younger. As a female painter, I am appropriating and reshaping motifs from a masculine art historical tradition, borrowing from the language of Western art history, depicting subjects in a way that enforces a sense of claustrophobia, kicking back against the patriarchal forces that have brought them to be. The spartan quality, stillness and muted colour palette that, for instance, characterises the work of Della Francesca is also something that I see in the paintings of Gwen John. I am drawn to the work of Paula Modersohn-Becker, Elizabeth Siddall, Richard Dadd, Kitagawa Utamaro and to contemporary painters like Stanislava Kovalcikova, Kai Althoff and Lewis Hammond. My influences are by no means limited to art history. I constantly find inspiration in nature, particularly
in organic forms and in the reptile and amphibian kingdom.

An unexpected source of inspiration?

Since I was a tiny child, I was always fascinated by the figurines of the Virgin Mary and the assorted
Catholic imagery that filled my Irish grandmother’s house. Spending a lot of time at the museum where my dad worked surrounded by dead things.

 Do you have the audience consciously in mind when you are creating?

No, I am not painting with an audience consciously in mind, but I am interested in how people feel about
my paintings. Feelings, I believe, are undervalued.
The extremes of my character; the chaos and the reflectiveness are intensified whilst I am in the studio
and this is most evident when I am starting a new painting. I am full of contradictions; simultaneously unequivocal and full of self analysis. So no, I can’t add that to the process of making the painting. I am more interested in people’s interpretations of my work and how it resonates with them.

What events in your life have mobilised change in your practise/aesthetic? How has your art evolved? Do you experiment? 

My time on the Turps Painting programme and the mentoring that I received precipitated a huge change
in the direction of my work, and an intensity and focus of my working habits. Conversations that I had with my painting mentors allowed and helped me to forge the confidence to explore different techniques and ideas for creating paintings. Since leaving Turps, I have moved into my own studio alongside other painter-friends from Turps. Having my own space has allowed me the solitude, focus and my work has evolved and continues to develop. I am fascinated with researching old-painting techniques, it can lead to exciting new ways of working. I enjoy experimenting with different materials and surfaces to work on. I am about to start some new paintings on wooden panels.

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a good piece of work?

Being in the studio. Staring at the wall. Scouring through books. Frantic Google searches. Then crucifying myself with painstakingly detailed drawing. With mess, spillages, losing my train of thought. With CBD-infused demonic concentration. It all forms the stimulus.

Tell us about the inspiration behind one of your works?

‘Break The Wheel’ is the most recent of my consigned works and the closest to the route that my work is
currently taking. It was inspired by a museum job I had, that had just come to an end and how
challenging it had been juggling that job and painting. For a few months I was working endlessly, not
getting the time in the studio and that made me feel so disconnected and fragmented. I started to use my time at the museum, to take ideas and visually steal images from the very objects I was working with. The tilt of the woman’s head is from a Julia Margeret Cameron photograph and the skipping rope is from an old photograph that had been discarded, no longer serving a function. I am exploring notions and feelings of fragmentation and layering in the paintings I am currently working on, this is something I wish to further explore.

Something in the future you hope to explore?

The way Titian animates his paintings with every kind of movement, the way the painting flows really intrigues me. I want my paintings to have a stronger sense of flow and connection.