Lydia Blakeley works with her immediate influences, from British culture and beyond. Over the years she started internalising all of the traumatic experiences she went through in her teenage years, after being told for a long time that she was a lost cause, which has made her want to soften everything she touches as a way to work through it. Her art is influenced by photography, trying to capture detail and that is exactly was she does, she gives us a detailed story of her life.
You have mentioned in an interview that you experienced an ‘off the rails’ moment in your teenage years, and ended working in pubs and then in retail. Were you interested in the arts in those years? What made you decide you wanted to pursue a career in the arts?
I was always interested in art throughout those years, I just didn’t have the mentality to be able to allow myself to make art as my main occupation. Somehow it didn’t cross my mind that making art was something viable that I could do as a ‘career’ or to make a living from. I think it stems from school, the lack of career advice, the fact I was a difficult kid at the time.
I think maybe I was a lost cause, and no one knew how to deal with me and I didn’t know how to deal with myself.
What I did know was that I enjoyed art and it was the only subject I did well in, so a few years after I’d left school and I had a regular income from my job, I got the idea of looking for short courses at local colleges or classes at art groups near me. I built up a lot of work over the years and eventually, I was able to put together a portfolio.
Back in around 2012 I was in a toxic work environment and decided to apply for a Bachelor of Arts Fine Arts programme. Luckily at Leeds College of Art, one of the lecturers interviewing me saw something in me and I was offered a place. I started university in 2013 and it completely changed the trajectory of my life.
Did you suffer many struggles during the years before going to university? I have read this quote of yours that goes, “Painting is a slow medium, and for me, it’s all trial and error; it’s not always easy but I enjoy the struggle.” and maybe because of your experiences during those years, you finally got a way of understanding things. Martin Heidegger has taught us that art pieces are above everything, ‘things.’
I did and I am only just starting to process those struggles in my formative years because when I was living through them, I didn’t see them as a struggle, it was normality but looking back it was not normal. I never really discuss or bring up the specifics of the struggles I’ve been through because everyone faces their battles and I’m still working through mine. Plus, I’ve always had this awareness that so many people have it far worse than me and I should count my blessings.
Things began when I experienced trauma in my early teens and I didn’t know how to process any of it and this eventually caught up with me, and I am still feeling this grief. I was always trying to figure out how other people would expect me to deal with it, like what I perceived an adult would do, and this self-awareness meant I internalised the traumatic experiences. I presented as this extrovert optimist, always looking for approval, but always aware of people’s disapproval. A whole sequence of events during my teenage years saw me spiral and I had this addictive personality, in my late teens it grew into OCD and self-harm and that’s something I still battle with now. I felt that I was at fault during that period in my life, but I was just a kid, I know I made so many mistakes but I was lost.
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How do you think we can see this in your art?
When I started making work I tried to distance myself from my art, meaning that I didn’t want it to be autobiographical and didn’t want to delve into the self. Firstly, because that might be uncomfortable, but also because I don’t think it would be interesting art, meaning I believed that if I did the viewer might find the work contrived. Throughout university, I admired the artists alongside me who made deeply personal work. The art I made was more like the veneer, they are quite joyful or humorous but a mask to something sad, perhaps melancholia simmering beneath the surface. During this time, I was focused on developing a pearl of practical wisdom and painting is such a multifaceted skill to master.
Painting is a different kind of struggle, I enjoy the focus and the headspace that I enter in that state. It’s a way of blocking out all other thoughts or everyday problems, as it presents their problems and from working through it, by resolving and learning from that process, feels like a massive achievement. While I never really considered art practice as therapy before, from the daily struggle in the studio the action of painting can be very therapeutic.
Your paintings have a photorealistic look, were you interested in photography too while you were at university?
I have always admired and been influenced by photographers. As a teenager I was addicted to The Face magazine, I still have almost all the magazines from volume three in my studio, and that’s when I came across photographers like Elaine Constantine, whose images are so vibrant and fresh.
I was always in awe of David LaChapelle, I love the theatricality of his work. While at University I was constantly revisiting the photography of Martin Parr, his work is so quintessential of British culture and I am particularly fond of a series from 1996 in West Bay, a small seaside resort in Dorset. My grandparents lived there and we went down as a family for every holiday to stay with them. I like that familiarity and nostalgia I feel from that series of photos.
While I am influenced by photography and do try to capture detail in my paintings I’m not aiming for photorealism and still want to keep a painterly aspect to the work. I use photos as a reference point and then use the medium to add or remove detail and see how the paintings develop from there. From time to time I get over-reliant on the photograph, so I find it useful to step away from the initial image through the painting process and then improvise to keep the painting ‘painterly.’
You pick your references from popular culture, maybe I’m not wrong if I say, British popular culture. Can you talk a little more about that?
I find references from all over popular culture and it has shifted into British popular culture over the last few years, there is a familiarity to the references I come across, especially with what is presented through the tabloid press and online. I’m constantly saving images on my camera or taking screenshots from videos.
I get influences from all over, an accumulation of the content I consume day-to-day, and from this chaos of content, I can then be selective with the route I want to take with my paintings. The beauty of being an artist is having this freedom to draw inspiration from all over the globe, from the past and the present, and to be able to create new perspectives of the world.
Being in the UK right now it’s a real-time of upheaval, from Brexit to Covid, it is so chaotic. The Leave campaign slogan was 'Take Back Control,' but right now we are out of control. But on the opposite side, there is also this sense that the nation is fixated on nationalism and a return to the myth of what people perceive that this country once was. There’s this weird 'Keep calm and carry on’ kind of mentality, and an indifference to the real suffering that’s happening. I think that these events like horse racing are microcosms that mirror Britain as a whole, on the surface, it’s all finery and pageantry, by the end of the day it’s broke punters, broken glasses and passed out spectators, the unpleasant truth.
“While I never really considered art practice as therapy before, from the daily struggle in the studio the action of painting can be very therapeutic.”
I think you kind of react to your surroundings and daily events, turning them into paintings, is this close to your approach? I want to know more about your processes.
I spend a huge amount of time online and inevitably get influenced by so much I come across. I have files of photos, magazine pages, videos and I am very much aware that I don’t want to be pigeonholed and produce variations of the same painting for the rest of my life, which is a bind that I’ve fallen into in the past.
When making work I deliberately shift from subject once in a while, and I believe it’s important to do this every so often, it’s a way to test things out and experiment alongside the work I am making for specific shows, if anything comes out to be successful during these tangents, I can pick them up again or develop them further at a later date. When I do start a new piece of work, I will use the found imagery as a starting point then as the painting develops. I can factor in new elements or remove details that I don’t think are so successful. Sometimes I will refer to something a few years after I initially found it or some days the work will be instantaneous because I can’t wait to start it to see where it takes me.
Your painting titled The Pony Club depicts a group of four young women while they are taking care of one to them, seemingly going to puke. This particular scene takes place at Henley Regatta, a rowing event. You are interested in British events, like the Royal Ascot or The Grand National, with high doses of humour. Did you come across these themes because they are familiar to you? Can you explain the reason behind this?
I am fond of The Pony Club, and since making the painting I had one of the group get in contact and she has a print of it. The scene comes from the tabloid press, some articles about the aftermath of the Henley Regatta. In a typical tabloid manner, they were shaming the behaviour of these young women, but I completely relate to the paparazzi shots.
I’ve been in their shoes, so to speak, so my painting is more affectionate than critical. There is a humorous tone to the work. There is a lot of drama at these sporting events, it’s all action. I’ve portrayed people in fights or flashing their bum, but they are full of quiet and tender moments too, like friend groups looking after each other after too much Prosecco! Painting is a fantastic medium for softening these moments and suspend the moment in time.
Dogs are another recurrent motif in your work, is this reason motivated because of their beauty pageants? Another event so in tune with your body of work.
The dog show work came out of another moment when I was in a creative rut. I came across a news article about Crufts, it was due to a protest that took place one year due to selective breeding. The more I looked into the event the more I became interested in the scenarios. Each snapshot from the show was like a small scene, the action and the backdrop is somewhat cinematic. There is also something very intriguing about pedigree and status, the competition to be ‘Best of Breed,’ dog shows are a very specific world. These actors are also beloved pets, and despite the performance and pageantry, I am also drawn to the dynamic between the animal and the owner, but in these paintings, the Dogs play the lead role.
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More recently, you are painting spaces too. Especially mansions, but I think these kinds of mansions are more American than British, like in Kim’s Bins, understanding that you are referring to Kim Kardashian. How do you feel your work is connected to the United States too? I read that you work watching Mad Men on Netflix, trying to block everything else out, but maybe this influenced you to work on the American way of life too.
My subject matters are consistently changing, which mirrors the imagery I consume on a day-to-day. I’ve only ever experienced much of the world outside the United Kingdom, including the United States, my only view of the world is through the screen. I don’t think I have a singular vision with the work I make, the only thing that remains is that my practice is representational and mirrors the way I see the world, no matter how random, or banal it is.
 In the studio, I’ll be listening to music, streaming film and television... Tight now I’m watching The Great, Suits and RuPaul's Drag Race (UK and US) or watching a wide variety of films. Then there’s social media which I’ll flit between through the day. I always have something on while I’m working and I think this feeds into the work I make. There’s always something that jumps out and me and just clicks, I find inspiration everywhere.
While I was studying, one night I was in my room and just paused an episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians while between scenes. When I came back to my laptop I looked at the screen, which I think was Khloe’s house, and just thought, I’m going to paint that, so I spent the whole rest of the series looking for ideal views of their houses and went from there. The additional paintings I made of Kim’s bins, the interiors of the houses and the pets that inhabit these mansions are just other aspirational commodities or status symbols, even Louis Vuitton logo bin’s!
Can you talk about your experience exhibiting in Los Angeles in a solo show with your paintings of the Hospitality collection? And what about your experience in Italy?
Despite the apparent ‘Britishness’ of the paintings for both shows, there’s a universality to the subject matter which translated to new audiences. It is fantastic to have the opportunity to show these series of works outside of the UK, and the feedback has been encouraging. It has been an honour to get the opportunity to show work internationally. The work for Steve Turner in Los Angeles was almost a continuation of the work I had made for my MFA show, theatrical scenes from racing events in the UK.
I visited Italy for the show in Matera last year, it’s a stunning city and I was so fortunate to be able to travel out there between lockdowns in the UK. I was made to feel very welcome at the show, there was a very enthusiastic response to the new painting, and it was nice to meet so many people at the show.
You recently received two great awards, The Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation Grant from Canada, and The Minerva Prize. How did this make you feel?
Oh my goodness, it is phenomenal and I feel so proud to have received the awards and it has made such a massive difference to me as an artist especially at the start of my career. The awards were instrumental in my setting up my studio following university and also helps me to be prolific. Grants and Awards make such a difference for artists, it is such a privilege to be a recipient. Both The Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation Grant and The Minerva Prize are life-changing and there is no way that I would’ve been able to achieve so much without them.
“I think that these events like horse racing are microcosms that mirror Britain as a whole, on the surface, it’s all finery and pageantry, by the end of the day it’s broke punters, broken glasses and passed out spectators, the unpleasant truth.”
2020 has been a great year for you, with five solo exhibitions and multiple awards. Would you say there is happiness in the struggle, and maybe your work focuses on the struggles of happiness?
It’s been incredible and I feel so fortunate to have been able to exhibit and work on some fantastic projects over the last year, especially in light of Covid. I have been in the studio every day throughout this pandemic, not every day has been easy, the hardest part was that I still don’t think I’ve been able to process everything that’s been happening beyond the studio.
But I’ve always been hyperaware that with everything that’s going on I am so fortunate to have the chance to make work and be a part of shows. I definitely remain an optimist despite the struggle.
Could you tell us about your plans for 2021?
I’ve got a show coming up at the end of this month at Leeds City College, which is a collaboration with the students studying at their new Quarry Hill Campus. And then the upcoming group shows in Berlin and New York. It’s difficult to make many plans right now due to Covid, but I’m starting to miss education; I’m a lifelong learner at heart, so I want to learn some new skills. During the lockdown, I’ve started looking at short courses again, perhaps ceramics or printmaking, so fingers' crossed if and when restrictions lift that’s something I can do later in the year.
While I was at university I did a short course in leaded glass and have most of the kit now, so in time will explore some ideas and see where it leads. Painting will always be central to my practice, but I would like my work to be more interdisciplinary, hopefully, I’ll be able to use my studio time this year to be experimental, some more trial and error and (good) struggles!
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