In the Studio with Zena Blackwell

In the studio with Zena Blackwell, a visual artist whose work provides glimpses into imagination, fantasy; story telling and sometimes surrealism, identity and gender definitions. We met with Zena to tell us more about growing up in the South of Wales, her greatest influences, and unexpected sources of inspiration.

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

 I think there were two defining moments for me – the first was during my Foundation course when I was pretty much living my best life and believed I was a bit of alright at painting. And then fast forward to quite a long time after my BA and MFA in Fine Art, and after having children, about four years ago. When I got back into painting since not really painting properly since those Foundation course days.

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

I grew up in a  village in South Wales called Rhoose and my upbringing was fairly normal. My parents didn’t really have a lot of money, so art materials were quite precious and involved recycled cereal packets quite a bit! 

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’s been quite a bumpy and an emotionally painful journey for me at times. As a child, drawing and painting was a constant and I didn’t question it, but after getting onto the BA at Wimbledon School of Art, I felt like any talent I had and confidence in myself was crumbling away. A few life events happened around the same time, just before I left home for London, and I was suffering from rather crippling social anxiety. Suffice to say, I didn’t have such a great time on my BA. Shortly after graduating (and I did well, in spite of everything!!), I started a live band and party night with my best friend which we ran for 10 years. I went back to do an MA at CSM around that time too as I felt like it was a now or never scenario, but then I fell pregnant with my first child. Fast forward a couple of years and I’m on my second child, back home in Wales, and I find an online drawing challenge: I participate and realise what I am supposed to be doing!! The following year I won first prize at the Cardiff MADE Summer Open and that was the pivotal moment for me when I thought, yes, I can and will do this. And I really want to.  

What’s the message of your work? Where do they come from?

 I don’t think my paintings have a particular or singular message as such but are more a comment on childhood. The paintings I create are an amalgamation of memories, feelings and shared childhood stories all held together with the glue that is the observation of my two children….I take a lot of photographs and these become the skeleton of the painting. 

Who/what are your greatest influences? 

 As a child, I was all about Picasso. Maybe because that was the only art book in the house. I have to give props to my mum’s friend/next door neighbour who looked after me after school etc. She always encouraged my creativity and literally kept everything I produced as a child. Also, when I was a bit older, in my early teenage years, my mum had an artist friend who lived in this amazing studio above Cardiff Market in the city centre and I knew then that I wanted a piece of that kind of life. 

An unexpected source of inspiration?

Children! I never anticipated this would happen. When my first born was about one – I was sat in the lounge on the floor, totally sleep deprived and suffering from some kind of bug, probably hallucinating, but as I stared at the toys strewn all over the floor, I noticed these inanimate objects presenting a dialogue in front of my eyes.

What do you want people to take from your work when they view it?

A lot of people recognise themselves or their children in my work and I love that. Although I base my paintings on my own two children, they are not portraits of them. I aim for them to represent a shared lexicon of childhood. I love that they evoke memories, emotions or feelings in people and one painting of mine even reduced someone to tears (sorry!). I don’t have an audience consciously in mind but I think my work appeals to a broad spectrum of people as, well, we were all children once. 

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

I don’t mean to repeat myself but having children. It made me realise how precious time is and also what can be achieved in very little time when you put your mind to it and forgot that procrastination is a thing..After winning the MADE summer art prize I had a year to prepare for a solo show but my youngest child was only at nursery a couple of hours a morning for three days a week. I had to drop the kids off, go to my studio and work like a mad woman for 2.5 hours until I had to collect her. It works for me though as I always find my best paintings are the ones I don’t labour over. My work has definitely evolved over the last few years. I constantly strive to better myself and my techniques and also get bored very easily so I like to move onto working a bit differently. I experiment with how I can paint faces quite a bit. Sometimes I think I overwork them but my ideal face is quickly painted and without too much information. 

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

I mostly start with photographs but never aim to copy them. I sometimes find a certain energy or feeling in photos that you can’t capture in real life (mainly because children never keep still). It can be to do with the composition, the colours or literally just an energy I feel when looking at it. I know how corny that sounds…but it’s true!

Also, sleep creates ideal conditions. I am rubbish at sleeping. But if I’ve had a good night, then I’m set! 

Tell us about the inspiration behind one of your works?

 Floppy Rainbow – This painting of a child that is in a heightened reality landscape questions children’s perceptions of situations and gently nods to my climate crisis anxiety, but also, I feel presents some optimism. Rainbows always capture children’s imagination (and they carry so many connotations). I wanted the painting to be whimsical but also something that could be a glimpse into a child’s imagination. 

Something in the future you hope to explore?

 I really want to make some sculptures – I used to make little sculptures years ago and paint them using harsh lighting to create dramatic shadows. These were more abstract paintings for me. Watch this space!

Describe your work in three words:

 Evocative, bold, subversive

What do you listen to while you work? Is music important to your art?

I mostly listen to BBC radio 6 and yes, music is very important. I find silence deafening when I’m painting! I used to be a DJ but shockingly, I don’t keep up to date with new music as much as I always used to. I like quite chill music and nothing too aggressive when I’m painting. 😉 

What is your favorite read?

Can I have two? Haruki Murakami 1Q84 and TJ Klune The House on the Cerulean Sea.

Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

 I’ve said this in interviews before but seriously, this one sticks in my head. My son Elliot said to me when he was about 5/6, ‘ I can paint anything I want’. I thought at the time, what am I doing?! I can too! 

What makes you laugh 🙂
My husband. He’s super clever but also super silly.

What makes you nervous?
Any form of public speaking and private views – even if I’m not in the bloody show! Oh and also, speaking Welsh to anyone. I have been learning for the last year but am so shy about actually speaking to anyone in the language! 

Is there anything you wish you were asked more often?
Why are you so awkward? Just joking…..

Is there anything you’ve recently tried for the first time? 

Um, not art related, but CBD infused drinks! I think it was called Trip.

Is there anything you’ve been hesitant to try in the past but you’d like to this year?

Maybe try speaking to someone in Welsh. 

Do you have any superstitions?

I believe in good karma.

Would you rather know what the future holds or be surprised?
I would rather be surprised for sure. 

What palace in your everyday environment do you go to for inspiration?

My stupid phone to look at other people’s art! 

What are some things you’re most passionate about outside of your practice?
My family, obviously, then cooking and food. Preparing food and baking seems to release the same chemicals in me as painting. And music. Of course! 

What is your relationship with social media?

I have ups and downs. I need to do a few social media detoxes every year. I now know not to get hung up on the number of likes etc as it’s all about those silly algorithms.