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In the Studio with Lucy Ralph

Lucy Ralph's subtle compositions explore the delicacy and resilience of ones body, illustrating the sensitivity and complexity of fragmented memories. We met with Lucy to tell us more about her practice and journey to where she is now.

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

I still see my primary school art teacher today. She made me passionate about the subject and upon leaving the school she asked me to promise her that I would take art for A Level. The rest is history. Taking art as a subject was never even in question and when it came to applying to university this sentiment continued. I really wanted to take it further. Although no one from my school or family had gone on to study Fine Art in the past, it was something that I was about to change. From there on, through university programs, international exchanges and exhibitions, I have been immersed in an ever-growing community of artists and learnt so much about the art world.

From an early age I knew that art was very significant to me, however, to answer the question of actually seeing myself an artist is one that is harder to answer. I suppose that being a part of the artist community and mentally dedicating my next chapters to creating art and collaborating in creative projects is when I began to see myself as an artist.

Where are you from and what was your upbringing like? How has this impacted your work?

I was born in Yorkshire and then my family moved to Queens Park in London a few years later. At the age of about 6, we then moved from Central London to the suburbs. My Mother and Father are both doctors and my older brother and younger sister are now medics too. Due to the long hours my parents used to work, we children had a number of au pairs look after us, most of them French-speaking. We used to regularly try to speak French with them and I think this is what gave me my interest in the French language from a young age. This potentially played a role in my decision to go to Les Beaux-Arts for a Master’s degree. It is funny to think about how each small decision may have an impact on your life path in some way!

Being a member of my family, constantly subject to scientific language and immersed in medical conversations around the dinner table, definitely sparked my intrigue in the workings of the human body. Having undergone complicated medical surgery myself only developed this intrigue. My career path is very different to that of my parents and siblings, however medicine definitely does have a large influence on my work.

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. Have you gone through the traditional route of art school and what was your experience?

From school I went on to do an art foundation course at Oxford Brookes University. Very quickly I was reassured that Fine Art was the pathway for me to pursue. I was set on going to the Ruskin at Oxford university to study BA Fine Art. I didn’t really know a lot about the creative universities and I wanted to please my parents in going somewhere very academic. Having made it to the last round to be rejected at interview was disheartening at first. However, I do believe that all things happen for a reason and in hindsight I truly believe that being accepted at Central Saint Martins was a fantastic opportunity and was the best university for me to do my BA. I look back on my time there with very fond and encouraging memories and they opened up many doors for me. I also loved living in London, with ample art galleries, museums and exhibitions at my doorstep!

Central Saint Martins gave me the opportunity to study abroad for a semester and I decided to go to L’Ecole des Beaux-arts in Paris. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there and the different style of teaching enabled me to develop even further artistically. I told myself I would go back after CSM to do a MA in Fine Art. I applied to the Masters programme at L’Ecole des Beaux-arts and left for Paris as soon as I graduated CSM. Another fantastic opportunity came my way when I found out about the exchange scheme that L’Ecole des Beaux-arts offers to their Masters students. I was set on New York and was lucky enough to be offered a place at The Cooper Union School of Art for a semester. I then returned to finish my MA at Les Beaux-arts in Paris.

Having had the opportunity to experience these 3 very different, but equally fantastic, art schools and having had world class tuition from all three, enabled me to take the risks I needed in order to develop my practice. Living and studying in these three artistic and progressive cities also enabled me to widen my creative network of fellow artists, curators, collectors, professors and many more people in the art world, this has been truly valuable.

What’s the message of your work? Are there themes/narratives/purpose? 

My work explores the intricacies and interworking of the human body and mind. Throughout the process of its creation, I like to think of the canvas as representing a skin – something that we all have in common. Our skin envelops and protects internal bodily processes at the same time as being the site of exterior interventions. When I intervene and manipulate the canvas, I try to consider the complex bodily functions which occur under the skin’s surface.

I create subtle compositions which highlight the body’s delicacy and resilience, and its capacity to overcome the challenges it encounters, drawing inspiration from my personal life. At the age of 15 I underwent total reconstruction and fusion of my spine which, although fortunately not disabling, its restrictions and complications have influenced many aspects of my life. This, as well as the complicated medical climate, continues to spur my interest with health and its exploration through art.

Back Against Dawn, 2019

Oil on canvas
178 x 125 cm

Pulling Mud, 2018

Oil on canvas
160 x 130 cm

My work communicates aspects of my experience and traces of my memory. I illustrate the sensitivity and complexity of these memories by using fragmented, partially erased, or even entombed elements, which, at the same time, allude to an unreliable body.

My practice enables me to mentally take back control of my own body, whereby the surface I am working on becomes my anatomy in a symbolic medical operation which I am performing – an act of reparation. My work communicates my personal experience and more broadly makes us consider the healthcare challenges faced by all of us, both as individuals and as a collective society.

Where do they come from? How would you describe your aesthetic? 

The narratives and themes in my work are largely influenced by personal experience and memory. Having undergone complex medical surgery myself, being surrounded by medical discourse in the home due to the line of work of my family, but also taking interest in the global medical climate has spurred my intrigue in the human body. Over the years, I have intended for others to relate to my work by contemplating their own individual health challenges or challenges as a collective society. The current health crisis gives an even bigger insight into my practice and is a timely example of what my practice is trying to make us consider.

Clap For Our Carers, 2020

Oil, thread, and graphite on canvas
90 x 120 cm

My aesthetic appears soft and tender with soothing colours and an often minimalist or spacious composition. Through the subtlety of this aesthetic the content is accessible, giving the viewers, but also myself, the chance to speculate and realise the delicacy of the human body. The resulting aesthetic contrasts with the roughness exerted in the way the paintings were made. Stitching and stapling into the canvas, harsh rubbing to remove paint to then apply it again, scratching the surface with hard graphite to make marks which don’t always have to be legible – all this decisive and thorough manipulation of the canvas, or skin, makes me consider the body’s vulnerability and resilience – fluctuating between destruction and reconstruction.

Who and what are your greatest influences? 

Probably one of my biggest influences in Cy Twombly. His gestural abstraction, expressive application of paint, layering, use of erasure and scratching marks into the canvas are all aspects I work with. I have taken a lot of inspiration from Lousie Bourgeois, Kiki Smith, and other artists who are also influenced by the human body, pain and healing, such as Antoni Tapies and Lygia Clark.

L’Art Médecine by Maurice Fréchuret & Thierry Davilla

L’Art Médecine by Maurice Fréchuret and Thierry Davilla is a book that helped me to understand my own work further. The first half is about artists who use art as a therapy or medical object such as Matisse and Sam Francis, Tapies and Léger. The second half is about artists such as Lygia Clark, Mona Hatoum and Joseph Beuys, whose practice and process is the thing that heals

Are your works planned? What do you want people to take from your work when they view it? Do you have the audience consciously in mind when you are creating?

My works are very far from being planned. Often my final compositions are very different to what I may have envisioned before starting out. Sometimes I do not even have a preconceived idea at all. An important aspect of my work is the constant manipulation of the canvas and the material; the applying paint and rubbing it off again, or painting over certain forms to leave traces of what was there, or hide them completely. This aesthetic is often quite stressful to achieve, as sometimes I feel like I have gone forward 4 steps and then back 3. I try to reassure myself as I paint because I know that my aesthetic thrives from this uncertainty and the changes in decisions I make throughout painting.

I try not to have the audience in mind whilst I am creating, as my best work comes from when I am not trying to please someone in particular and instead am just experimenting and taking risks!

What events in your life have mobilised change in your practise/aesthetic? How has your art evolved? Do you stick to one medium? Do you experiment? Do you see any parameters to your work? 

I am sure that moving countries and being able to have unique artistic exchanges in Paris and New York, as well as here in London, has mobilised a number of changes in my practice. Having had lots of advice from an array of professors and other artists, from all different backgrounds and specialities, has enabled me to broaden my practice and has encouraged me to take risks and the steps I needed to develop. I started out in Central Saint Martins practicing sculpture, but decided after the first year that I was much more drawn to painting, so I changed paths. Having said that, I have realised that my process of painting, etching and printmaking is very sculptural and I do believe that these disciplines are very interchangeable.

A big evolution in my practise occurred early on in my final year of Central Saint Martins. I became reluctant to show my parents images of each work I finished as I knew it would have pleased them more to see realistic painting. I fought back and forth with this because I really wanted external validation and for them to like my work, but I knew that I was moving in a different direction and wanted to experiment more. I remember my tutor saying that I had had a sudden breakthrough with my work after I took a month during which I didn’t show my progress to anyone outside of the art school. Instead, I experimented on a large scale. Although my work is not realistic and is rather more abstract now, I do still consider it figurative, always relating back to the body. And my parents say they like it!

Silent Waters, 2019

Oil, thread, and graphite on canvas
142 x 182 cm

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

The best pieces of work I have created always come from a time where I have not put pressure on myself to create something in particular and instead have just tried out new ideas. I work better in a studio surrounded by other artists than at home, where you can bounce ideas off of each other and subconsciously immerse yourself in, gathering inspiration from all of the other projects in progress around you. My studio is not a painting studio. In fact, I am the only painter there. However, this does not discourage me at all. I get just as much inspiration from artists in other disciplines as I do from painters. It is really motivating to see all sorts of projects in the making.

The only other condition I can really think of is the ability to make a mess! My paintings are large scale and the process of making them is definitely expressive. Somehow, I always seem to leave the studio with paint on my face!

What are your goals for the future? (Projects, collaborations)

Exhibitions, residencies and more exhibitions! I think it is important to collaborate with other artists and be able to show your work to as many people as possible. For the short term I have a Master’s Degree show and a solo exhibition at Galerie du Crous to work towards, both of them in Paris. I have plans to collaborate next year with some artists in New York who I worked with in 2019 and would also love to be accepted onto the Skowhegan residency in Maine, USA, at some point in the future!

How has your art practice been affected by self-isolation?

It has been pretty tough over the last few months with no studio and with no other artists around to keep you inspired. Not being able to go to exhibitions contributes to this knock in creativity too. Luckily, I was able to leave my little apartment in Paris to come and stay with my parents in London to self-isolate where there is a bit more space to work on smaller scale pieces. It is a shame that my degree show in Paris this June will not be open to any visitors as universities are technically closed in France until September. But I am lucky that my solo exhibition has been postponed until November so I will be able to have an audience see my work then!

Are you creating new work while social distancing?

I am very lucky to be able to continue with my practice in the sense that I am not in need of specialist ateliers such as metal work for example. It has just been challenging to keep the area at home that I work in free from paint stains… so far so good!

How are you staying creative?

I video call with other artists every week where we share projects and critique them. I also read books of poetry, critiques of other exhibitions and about artists that influence me. I have never been very good with social media but I am trying to increase my usage on Instagram for showing my own artwork to people and being inspired by others. Lastly, I stay creative by keeping a routine and making whatever comes to me, because even if I am not certain about what I have made, it makes me want to make something else… and something else!

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