30th October, 2016
This month we’re meeting Elizabeth Forrest
I was born in South Wales but now live in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. I spent my working life as an illustrator in the Education Department of the National Museum of Wales, in Cardiff, where I drew specimens from all departments and over all of the museum sites, for use in educational booklets and worksheets for schools. When I was employed, I had limited time to devote to my growing interest and love of lettering, which had to be relegated to evenings and weekends. It has made me really appreciate it now that I have retired from full-time employment and my time is my own.
Can you describe how and why your career as an artist began?
I became seriously interested in calligraphy in the 1990s when I began local authority evening classes (having never lost my love of lettering which began in primary school.) I had a fantastic teacher who inspired me to contact the Society of Scribes and Illuminators. From 1994-1997 I followed their correspondence modules, gaining a firm foundation in scripts, materials and layouts and in 1998 I was accepted on their three year part-time Advanced Training Scheme. This course was a turning point in my life and where my work began to develop.
What do you think people see in your work - what draws them to it?
I think that initially people are drawn towards my hand-made paper - the texture and the colours I use to paint it. They are intrigued that I make it myself. They also respond to the texts from a whole variety of sources that I paint onto the surface. I respond to language in a very emotional way and instinctively I combine words with imagery, colours and textures which I am drawn to and which I think compliment the words. I use text as a springboard for making my own personal visual statement and I hope that people can respond to this. I often use painted versal letters in my work which are a favourite of mine and which are elegant and impressive in themselves.
What’s your typical working environment?
My dream is to have a studio of my own, preferably with a gallery attached! But for now, I make do with a spare bedroom in our Chesterfield house. I work at a large refectory table bought from a Cardiff University Students Union sale for £1 many years ago!! There are framed prints, photographs and my own work on the walls and the window sill is crammed with bits of patterned china I can’t resist buying from flea markets and antique fairs. There are some hundreds of books on book shelves and in book cases. From the window I can see the crooked church spire and I can watch the changing sky and the trees. I have to have quiet when I’m working. I have tried listening to music but it is too distracting for me. Stanley the cat is never far away and he takes an active interest in what I’m working on. I make my paper in the kitchen where I press it flat on the table to get the water out. I then dry it on the dining room table before it makes its way upstairs for preparing and priming before painting. All this is far from ideal but somehow I seem to make it work.
How do you organize your time?
I am quite self-disciplined. I am a morning person and virtually never work past 4pm. If I have to make paper, I set aside time to make some. The joy of paper-making is that no two pieces will be the same and you cannot absolutely guarantee the end result, so I like to make quite a lot of pieces in one session so that I can choose which ones I want to use later. The paper I make is often quite thick and heavily textured (although I also make thinner fragments depending on the piece), so it can take quite a lot of time to dry out, depending on the time of year. When completely dry it has to be treated with a fungus repellent and then primed. I don’t add pigments to colour the paper during the making stage but prefer to paint the prepared pieces with gouache and acrylic paint after drying. I normally have a good idea of what I want to achieve, with the piece worked out in rough drawings by this stage. And usually the text I’m going to use will have come to my notice first - although not always. I would then spend time playing around with various layouts of the text - writing or drawing it out on layout paper to decide which version works best. So there is a lot of time spent making and preparing the paper and a lot of time working with the text prior to starting work on the final piece. After completing the final pen-written or brush-painted text I will assemble the whole piece. A piece could take up to a month or more to make, depending on the size and complexity of the design.
Do you have a favourite or defining moment during your career as an artist? Can you describe it?
Well, there are a few really so it is hard to choose between them. The first time I had my work accepted in a selling exhibition was a huge encouragement. It was in an exhibition called Text Messages at Rufford Craft Centre in Newark, Nottinghamshire in 2002. The second was in 2006 when I was awarded the runner-up prize in the Welsh Artist of the Year competition. I had to go up on stage at the St David’s Hall in Cardiff to collect my cheque - and give a speech in front of hundreds of people - all impromptu! My mother had died a few weeks previously so it was an especially emotional moment for me. I know she would have been really proud of me but not sure she would have approved of my piece of work. It was a bra that I had treated with fabric hardener so that I could paint text from an old Welsh love song on it. The third moment was being accepted as a full member of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists in 2013 after a rigorous selection process. And maybe last year when the 5 ft high resin and fibre glass owl I had painted for charity sold at auction in Birmingham for £8,000!
Do you attend exhibitions and shows? If so, what was the last show you attended?
I have regularly visited exhibitions since graduating. I think it’s important to see as much varied work as possible, for inspiration and for just standing looking in sheer awe. Living in the Midlands is great as I can visit many cities very easily. I try to see as much as possible on regular day trips to London and have been lucky to see many fantastic shows in Paris and Amsterdam. Making work is a solitary process so it is crucial to keep in touch with all the art and visually exciting work produced, past and present. Memorable shows for me this year have been the beautiful watercolours of Rome by Francis Towne at the British Museum, the massive nightmarish canvases by Francis Bacon at Tate Liverpool and the Stanley Spencer exhibition at the Barbara Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield.