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Emily Ball: Enter With an Open Mind

Emily Ball

Published on 6th October 2015

How Emily Ball is fuelling fresh creativity at Seawhite Studios...


EMILY BALL: Some 27 years ago, I set up an evening class with five students. I rented Billingshurst Village Hall and we were doing all sorts of weird and wonderful art. Gradually, word spread. Fast forward to today and I have nine tutors with 50 students every week.

I was always going to be an artist. As soon as my parents knew I was interested in art they were very supportive. My mother was a ceramic artist and would take me to various courses. I studied Art at Exeter University and a decade later took a Master's Degree at Farnham. I didn't know what kind of artist I wanted to be but gradually my classes developed and evolved in a really nice way.

For ten years, my classes have been run at Seawhite Studios on the Star Road industrial estate in Partridge Green. A teacher friend told me that you could buy painting materials directly from the Seawhite showroom, so I went along and became a regular customer. I came to know the staff including Managing Director Shaun Tobin. I was fed up with running a studio from the back of my car and was looking for a Studio, and one day Shaun offered me this incredible space. Everyone at Seawhite has been so supportive.

I run the classes with Katie Sollohub, and we have a team of experienced tutors. I met Katie when I was an
external tutor at Northbrook College and Kate was as outstanding student. Gradually, she become more involved in courses here and we've worked together now for 20 years. John Skinner, who taught me for years before settling in France, gave me equipment from his old studio and many of his art books, which were invaluable to us when we set up. John still comes over to present a masterclass occasionally.

Other tutors are people whose work I particularly respect. Their art may not be like my own, but I see a similar authenticity. They include Gary Wragg, Andrzej Jackowski, Garry Goodman, Nick Bodimeade and Simon Carter. We occasionally have visiting artists too including Tricia Gillman, Georgia Hayes and Matthew Collings, who presented a Channel 4 show about the Turner Prize.

I published a book too, called Drawing and Painting People, as I thought it would be a good experience. We are now on our seventh print run and people are coming on Emily Ball courses from far and wide, because they've enjoyed the book.

People who come here need to be prepared to experiment and be open-minded. People haven't stayed here for long if they want to copy photographs or do highly representational work. I don't have anything against representational work at all. We have artists who paint pieces that look like the source material, but we help people to widen their artistic practices and learn how to unpack the creative process.

The way we do that is by teaching people how to look at a piece in a different way through exercises in which they play and absorb themselves in different materials. The artists think that they are just having fun but gradually they arrive at a new way of thinking. The end result is that rather than the artist trying to impose an idea on the work, the work gives the idea to the artist. It takes a while for that 'flip' to happen. When people come in and say 'I' know in my head exactly how it's going to look' then we would say 'No!' You have to put that idea to one side because you can't let the painting lead you.

The art people produce here can be very different to what they have created before. Sometimes, we find that partners of people who come here can be quite dismissive . They say 'What is that supposed to be?' and 'I prefer what you used to do, drawing fruit bowls." This is unfortunate as you do need support because it is a long journey to find out what is important to you in your work. Within the classes, it is like a family and we support each other.

Outside of here, it is surprising how prejudiced people are still. Years ago, we put on a show and this man was sneering and said 'You've exhibited what I would put in the bin.' I thought 'How dare you judge so swiftly.' The artists here put their heart and soul into their work and you need to respect that, even if it might not be your cup of tea. The art people produce here helps them feel more alive.

This is proper stuff. Gary Wragg said that he had not seen the same level of work at any colleges he had been to. That boosted our confidence, because it shows that what we are doing is important. There are not many places teaching this way. It is special.

In terms of my own work, I've been a bit of a painting hermit over the last few years and haven't been exhibiting with the same frequency as Katie. Running the courses has taken up a lot of my time but I have the idea to exhibit soon!

DANIEL NICHOLLS: My art is a piece of film. The canvas in front of the camera is all battered and bruised because I don't see it as precious. It is disposable. That doesn't mean I will throw it in the bin; I may re-use the canvas as part of the performance. Perhaps I'll tear it up and hand out pieces to people.

The idea is to see how I respond to the space, so I am filming an initially blank canvas and when I step into the frame I'm within my own work. The film shows how I respond to the material and develop composition and colour. It's exciting because I can rip away a sheet and start afresh whenever I like, as I don't know where the project will go.

The end product is the edited film. I will have a lot of footage to go through! I will exhibit the piece in November with the video shown on a loop. You can't sell the piece like you can a painting, so it is a concept piece, but this is where I am as an artist at the moment. Some people, I suspect, would not appreciate what I am doing. This is a different approach to art and whilst it's not going to hang on a wall, it does have artistic intensity.

CAROLYN MACLEOD: I started this piece of work about a week ago. It was initially inspired by a floral display here, but at the moment I only like certain elements.

We did this artistic exercise where all of the artists went around the room and added something to everyone else's work. The idea is that you introduce something that the original artist might not have thought of. Sometimes you enhance a piece, and other times disrupt it, and you can be excited by a new direction or not. What is exciting is that you don't think about what the artist was initially intending to do.

However, in this particular case, I don't like the colour combinations of what I've been left with. I was bored of the piece, so I squirted the whole painting with white spirit and stepped away from it. I like some of the lines that formed and now I'm looking at bringing elements of orchid petals into it.

Emily's classes aren't about representation. When I started coming here, I was more of a representational artist and I still fight with this need to do detail. But I look at the freedom and speed some of the other artists work at and it excites me. So that could be the future for me too.

JIMMY MORGAN: I've been coming to Emily Ball for two years. I was going to an evening art class but felt I was quite limited in what I could do there. So I considered a part-time degree but really wasn't bothered about gaining any qualification - I just wanted to learn. Two or three people that I spoke to guided me here, and the moment I arrived and saw the space, I thought it would suit me.

We are taught techniques here at various courses, with different tutors coming in, but we are also encouraged to explore our own style of working. I find that, as well as learning on courses, you are always learning from everybody else as we all use different mediums and materials. In that respect, it is more interesting for me here when compared to being in a studio by myself.

You are limited at home, particularly in terms of the size of work, but here you can make a bit of mess and work on large pieces. That's the glory of the place!

For my current work, I bought three boards, sanded and primed them at home and produced layered screen prints, looking at each of them in different ways. One is an abstract image of a woman's face and the blue piece has a more recognisable image of a Native American. For the third piece, I did not want to have any defined image, so I'm working with freedom and letting the brush take me.

KATIE SOLLOHUB: I've recently been working on very big pieces. My current work came out of a project that I was working on at the former home of J.M.W Turner in Twickenham. I received a year's grant from the Arts Council to work there and created a series of drawings. The finished work was exhibited in May.

The classes here are about discovery, not about doing something you already know. We always argue with the word 'abstract' here. The work does come from observation and is inspired by the real thing, be it a tree, a landscape, a figure or whatever. We encourage artists to look beyond the copying of it, and in that way you have creative freedom.

You can invent and interpret a subject in your own way. You can write a piece of music about a stream and in that music you can hear and feel that connection to the movement of the stream. You can do that with a painting too. Once you stop copying, you begin your own journey and it never ends - you are always discovering things about yourself. It really is a journey.

The ways in which people can interpret a piece is limitless. If you give ten people a piece of charcoal and one sheet of paper and with the simple instruction of 'draw a line' you'll be amazed, when you look around the room, at what people have done. People look around and say 'how did you do that?' That is why the idea of working together is exciting.

For details about Emily Ball's painting classes call 01403 743537 or email info@emilyball.net www.emilyballatseawhite.co.uk/