Brixton-based Boudicca Collins makes paintings that are as rich in pigment and pattern as the hustling and bustling South London streets surrounding her studio. Abigail Moffat spent an afternoon with the artist and found her and her work to be an unabashed blend of dazzling colour and eccentric charm.
I’m walking through Brixton market with Boudicca Collins. As we weave our way through, stallholders are packing up for the day and she’s pointing out the best places to grab a bite, waving and chatting to various shopkeepers as we go. She’s brought me here to try out her favourite juice bar, Lucy’s Juices. As a newcomer to London, it was interesting for me to see someone so established and known within their local community.
There’s a tangible slice of the Caribbean entwined in Brixton’s streets, the atmosphere is constantly buzzing and energetic, but true to form, when we stop at the juice bar and wait for service, it’s laid back; there’s a TV on and lovers rock pumping from the stereo and, despite a queue, there’s no sense of urgency here.
Back at Boudicca’s studio the sun is burning through the window and I’m scanning the space, seeing pots of scenic paint, splashes of colour in the form of odd, eccentric objects such as an ornate, empty picture frame or a golden plastic hamburger. On one wall there’s a bookshelf full to the brim; one book, Persian Cats, catches my eye. I have always thought that an artist’s studio is a true reflection of their work, almost an artwork in its own right. The environment in which any artist creates their work can so profoundly affect it. Boudicca’s is no exception; the studio is as vibrant as the Brixton that we’ve just been strolling through and is certainly ‘lived in’. She tells me she’s been here for the last four years, pretty much since she left the Slade, with a short spell out for a residency in Bangkok.
There’s a general idea that the East End is where it’s all happening and where artists will find the best studios, although in fact, they’re often in the Hackney wastelands (the further out, the cheaper the rent), so I can’t help thinking it must be nice to be somewhere that’s got everything busy Brixton has to offer; somewhere artists haven’t yet been priced out of their workspaces by property developers. It’s unfortunate that this issue could soon be a reality for Brixton, with the “reclaim Brixton” movement acting as an anti-gentrification umbrella against the threats to the Brixton Arches, where longstanding local independent shopkeepers are now being moved out. Boudicca tells me about the petition against Brixton being gentrified and, as a local girl, she is clearly a supporter of the campaign, reinforcing her obvious bond with the area.
“My dad told me, ‘Look, use the Yellow Pages as your palette. Here’s the paints, here’s the water….’ From that time I knew I wanted to paint.”
As Boudicca unpacked her work to show me, I quizzed her on a large op-art style painting on the back wall (Marble Love, shown on previous page). “I was in Istanbul in the summer,” she tells me. “There’s this place, Hagia Sophia, which used to be a church, then it was a mosque and now it’s a museum. In Istanbul, there’s loads of marble everywhere, but in this place the marble was all painted. People had created imitations of the marble, too, and they were really incredible designs. What I liked a lot about them is that you didn’t know how old they were. They are essentially relics of humanity trying to imitate nature. So I wanted to take that and use those aesthetics and use those patterns that had travelled through people’s minds. I transcribed the marble imagery into my own aesthetic.”
Once she’d pointed out how the marble had given her a reference point, I started to see the painting differently. It stopped looking like a random pattern, and I could see how its initial structure of formal abstraction had been layered with Boudicca’s own transcription of a natural design. “I want to play around with patterns. I want the viewer’s eyes to play around with the image,” says Boudicca.
Shape, colour and pattern are all clearly pivotal to Boudicca’s visual language. As well as these decisive features, animals are present in many of her paintings. “From a young age I read The Tyger by William Blake and Henri Rousseau’s painting ‘The Tiger Surprise’ made such a big impression on me from the age of about six or seven,” she tells me. I smiled and interrupted Boudicca here to mention that my brother is an illustrator and has also made his own interpretations of William Blake’s The Tyger. It was interesting to see the comparison between two artists who have obviously used this influential work of literature to inspire their own practice but achieved very different outcomes. For my brother this poem was a starting point to construct his imagery and to create his characters, wheareas for Boudicca, it seems to be a more spiritual reference for her own practice, a way for her to connect with the metaphysical qualities of animals within her work. Boudicca responded enthusiastically, “Wow yeah! It’s crazy how some things can have such a big resonance and I don’t know exactly what it is but there’s definitely something about escapism and a yearning for something that’s exotic. I think there’s power in animals, definitely.”
From childhood memories to teen fantasies, Boudicca goes on to tell me about a series of small paintings she’s made on board that have been cut to the identical dimensions of an iPad. “My other works are really quite big, these ones are much smaller. The series is called Teenage Fantasies. I was thinking about when I was younger and when friends were going through puberty, from the ages of about 12-16, what you were thinking about at this age and the desires going through your mind. What you were lusting after. I asked a lot of friends what their teenage fantasies were. There were a lot of obvious ones, like boobs and wanking.”
Boudicca seems distracted as she continues to look for another painting from the series while talking to me, she blurts out “I’m missing one, I’m missing the female masturbation one. Where is it!?” The painting was clearly lost amongst her endless materials and collection of bric-a-brac. She decides to move on and shows me some paintings of what look like arrangements of exotic fruit. Looking at Boudicca’s abstract paintings and then back to these, I ask her how she feels about the differences between working in abstraction and the more realist style I can see? “I really enjoy having something that isn’t necessarily representational,” she says. “It’s more about a thought or thought processes. I use my abstract painting to experiment with colour.”
Most artists now freely merge and move between abstraction and representation. For me, abstract art still has the power to bring together forms that are generated from emotions, thoughts or simply a curiosity to experiment with the painting process in a much more direct way and arguably for the artist to fully submerge into their subconscious mind. This is the element of abstraction that Boudicca utilises within her own practice; she repeatedly refers to images based on her dreams. I find this very in keeping with her character; without wanting to sound too cosmic, there’s definitely a mystical aura surrounding her. Boudicca seems to apply a new layer of meaning to each of her abstract paintings, courtesy of the back-stories that have quite clearly shaped them. For me, this gives her abstract work much more substance than her representational style. I am drawn to the work involving shapes, patterns and colour, whereas her paintings that depict seemingly random objects and strange depictions of male and female genitalia, leave me a little cold. There is a sense that this subject matter is less genuine and less unique.
I get the impression that Boudicca’s experiences have motivated her to attempt to connect with otherworldly elements and transcribe them within her painting – something noticeable in her abstract work. This was also evident through her repetition of the words ‘exotic’, and ‘desire’ throughout our conversation.
Boudicca tells me that she now works full time as a scenic painter in a theatre (an ideal job for an artist to have alongside their own practice) but it doesn’t sound as if she has always fallen on her feet work-wise. “It was such a struggle before I found that job,” she explains. “I did part-time work for years. You do have to do those jobs. It’s always hard. Trying to find the balance. Working full time, now, is actually good. I can come into the studio some evenings and at the weekends. I maximise my time much more efficiently. Working full time makes you realise how precious your time is.”
How to balance working a ‘real’ job with the need to make work and maintain an identity as a contemporary artist is a familiar story. If it was financially viable, so many more artists would live from selling work. But, before the ‘big break’ happens, life is expensive, especially in London, and most artists have no choice but to get a ‘money’ job; it’s reassuring to hear Boudicca speak about something that offers her some creative output as well as being something she can earn a living from. “My dad was an artist and, funnily enough, he was also a scenic painter for the BBC,” Boudicca reveals. “My mum and dad split up when I was young. I went to see my dad every weekend – he was squatting in Bermondsey at the time. His house was just filled with rubbish and there was one room, the front room, which was filled with chairs up to the ceiling. He hoarded things. But for me it was normal to be in this messy house. You had to squeeze around things in the corridors. Junk everywhere. Upstairs he had his studio, with paints. I could go and make whatever I wanted. He told me, ‘Look, use the Yellow Pages as your palette. Here’s the paints, here’s the water….’ From that time I knew I wanted to paint.”
The more I heard about Boudicca’s life, the more intrigued I felt about her and her work. Her voice alone (something whimsical and eccentric about her accent) compelled me to dig deeper. I wanted to hear about her roots and she’s happy to tell me a few funny anecdotes, which, although amusing to me, she takes in her stride. In a way, Boudicca is the epitome of how you might imagine an artist to be: quirky, ditsy, incredibly knowledgeable, a little bit bohemian with a serious side when it comes to her work.
On a personal level I’m interested to know how Boudicca found the transition from working within the bubble of art school to having her own studio. What happens when the support network is taken away?
“It felt very natural. I’d been making such big work for my degree show; I needed somewhere to put them. In the run up to the degree show, you’re so on it with painting, and you just don’t want to lose that momentum when you finish. I knew I had to have a studio to keep me sane. Especially at that time, I was working in oils, so I couldn’t work from home.”
I asked her if there had been much reaction to her degree show, any sales, any offers of shows? “Not really, no”, she replies. “One collector came up to me but I didn’t know who she was, so many people were there, and then I turned my back for a second to say goodbye to a friend and when I turned back the collector had left. So that could have been one thing that could have got me a show, but I will never know. Then I went on to do a residency in Thailand for three months at Bangkok University, and I had a show out there. That’s had a big influence on my work. I’ve always been drawn to opulence and vibrancy of the far east. Places that vibrate with life. I think going out there, it was so over saturated with kitsch, plastic, glitter… Gold everywhere! I loved it all but I ended up making a painting called ‘Eight Black Things’, about this ‘god of the eclipse’. I had a dream about going to this amulet market, because they’re really superstitious in Thailand and I found this amulet. It was this demon god of the eclipse. My whole time in Thailand I researched this god, and I travelled really far to see this special temple where people go just to worship him. That was amazing. They gave him weird offerings of Red Bull, Coca-Cola, black jelly… It was bizarre. I was definitely on some sort of journey there. Even though this painting had black things in it, there was still a lot of colour in there. It couldn’t escape the colour!”
After a while the studio starts to feel baking hot, possibly something to do with today’s unexpected spring heatwave, so we head outside for some air. Boudicca walks me back to the underground, my souvenir bottle of freshly squeezed Purple Rain juice, which I bought earlier, in my hand. We pass food stalls, people on their way home pushing through the crowds, live music and African drums blaring out on the streets. I’m happily absorbing the Brixton vibes and wondering how much of this atmosphere inevitably feeds into Boudicca’s work and attitude to life.
As I head back across London, I think to myself how Boudicca has something quite special and endearing about her manner, and how her work is an extension of her personality, a way for her to feed her spirituality and to portray the issues or themes which are important to her in life. Her studio is like a sanctuary for her to convey her thoughts and dreams, and, after hearing about her concepts and getting a glimpse into her work space and background, I feel a renewed passion for the value of art in society. I can’t help thinking that as a society everything’s gone a bit grey, overcast by the shadow of austerity, Starbucks taking over, education cuts and everything else we have to think about day to day. What if we could use our spare time to travel, make paintings, hoard wonderfully random objects and materials, dip into Brixton market to buy freshly-squeezed juice and support the independent traders, perhaps we’d all be a little happier in life.
BOUDICCA COLLINS WAS SELECTED BY CEDAR LEWISOHN AS THE WINNER OF THE CASS ARTS ART FOR ALL COMPETITION.