In the studio with Julie-Ann Simpson, a painter whose practice looks into the porous boundaries between interior and exterior spaces, dreams and reality. We met with Julie-Ann to tell us more about growing up in Aberdeen, their greatest influences, and unexpected sources of inspiration.
When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?
The term ‘artist’ is a funny one. I know lots of painters who prefer to be ‘painters’ because it speaks of the craft itself and doesn’t have the same baggage. But in terms of being an artist and seeing this as a profession, probably a few years after graduating.
Where are you from and what was your upbringing like?
I’m from Aberdeen, on the North East coast of Scotland. I had a great childhood; my family is really close and always encouraged my creative pursuits (drama, at that time, writing and art), even though it was a world away from their own interests. Having this support really gave me the confidence and energy to invest in my creativity.
Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice, artistic work?
From day one, I was a kid who was always talking, play-acting; casting spells, painting pictures and inventing worlds. I always knew that I would end up following a creative path. Early on I was particularly influenced by cartoons, manga, anime and video games. I thought I could design or illustrate. In secondary school I debated whether to study English Lit or go to art school. I wanted to be a writer for a bit. But in the end, I had to paint.
What’s the message of your work? How would you describe your aesthetic?
For me, painting is a kind of cycle. I often begin with the formal elements; shape, composition, colour. A particular combination of colours; layered – one thick, one thin – this shape next to that shape etc. Imagery is often secondary. But then throughout this process, the image can gain a kind of significance and as it is repeated through many painted incarnations, it becomes special to me. The implicit narratives in my work are drawn much of the time from folklore and mythology, as well as mundane personal things; the anecdotal. I hope they communicate something about transformation, connection, love, longing and womanhood.
Who/what are your greatest influences?
Reading will always be key to my practice. I like the distance words create; the space between the visual and the textual leaves a lot of room to play with material. Abstractionists such as Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, Clyfford Still and Kenzō Okada were very influential to my earlier work and are still much admired. Also painters like Bonnard, Redon… People you can always return to and learn something. I saw the Jennifer Packer exhibition (The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing) at Serpentine in the summer and I was floored. Incredible paintings, so moving.
An unexpected source of inspiration?
Food! Not surprising to those who know me, as food is another huge passion in my life. But combinations of colours, textures and surfaces stolen off a plate can end up in my work. Even smells, sounds. I like trying to capture these ‘unseen’ things in painting.
What do you want people to take from your work when they view it?
I honestly never think about the audience when making work. I have to make images for me, from me. How someone outside of that interprets the image is entirely up to them and, in my opinion, is one of the pleasures of enjoying art. Sometimes people get my influences/interests straight away whilst others give me a totally different read on the painting. It all adds value in my mind!
What events in your life have mobilised change in your practise/aesthetic? How has your art evolved? Do you experiment?
I experiment daily. I don’t have a formula as such for making a painting, so most of the time I’m changing the rules, setting myself new limitations and challenges. It’s so important to have fun and play. It makes it exciting and keeps you willing to take risks to improve the work. That is something that I really took to heart from my incredible tutors. The biggest change in recent times for my practice would be the reintroduction of the figure. Throughout art school I worked figuratively and it was only in my final year that I began paring down the imagery and working in an abstract way. The attention to colour and surface from those years definitely remains in my work, but it does mostly have a figurative element now.
What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?
Having a great study or sketch ready. Tubs and buckets of paint ready to go. Music, coffee and some nice indirect light. That’s the ideal conditions. What determines ‘good’ is probably a lot of drawing before I start; getting a satisfying composition. That’s the foundation. And a lot of redrawing in-between.
Something in the future you hope to explore?
I’d like to make a site-specific painting on a huge scale. A kind of installation, possibly with sculptural elements.
Tell us about the inspiration behind one of your works?
‘Imbolc’ was inspired by the Gaelic festival of the same name. People would often visit holy wells in the liminal threshold of the seasons, when snowdrops begin to emerge. The woman may be Brigid, considered to possibly be a triple deity.