Andy Farr’s Narrative Portraits : Interview

S: Tell me a bit about your background?

A: I came late to art, becoming a full-time artist in 2010 after spending the first part of my life in marketing and advertising. A serious illness and a damascene moment on the commute to London lead me to embark on a new direction. 

S: What inspires you?

A: I like telling stories. Not a literal, linear version of a “story”. But more an idea or a metaphor that expresses the essence and emotion of a situation.

I call my paintings – “narrative portraits” as the actual painting may not include any physical representation of the “sitter”. 

I used my MA to explore my memories of growing up, a time that was heavily impacted by my father’s bipolar condition. As I looked back it became clear that the strongest memories were of a feeling, rather than a precise, accurate recollection of place or situation. These investigations led to a body of work that proved to be both personally cathartic, and the paintings themselves acted as enablers to conversations about things that I had not discussed before. 

The MA triggered a desire to engage with others to tell their stories. Working with the Institute of Mental Health in Nottingham (IMH), again with Arts Council support, I created a series of “narrative paintings” each inspired by a one-to-one dialogue with participants who were recovering from Post-Traumatic Stress. 

S: How important is the quality of the materials you use?

A: The quality of materials is important to me. Buying cheap materials, especial paints are false economies as you end up using more paint because they have less pigment. 

S: Which is your signature work?

A: It is hard to pin down to one piece. But possibly the most important in my development was the final piece created during my MA. This was loosely titled SELF PORTRAIT and was the culmination of an exploration of my teenage years.

The ground had been created on a large piece of canvas on floor with the colours derived from a recently seen sunrise flooded into the un-primed canvas. The image painted over this was based on two pictures, an empty room with windows and one of me from behind looking into the canvas. It was painted after the works focused on my childhood and I felt it was suggestive of an artist (me!) now looking forward, having exorcised some baggage from his past.

This piece went on to win a prize in the 2018 Ashurst Emerging Artist competition.

Self-portrait – painting by Andy Farr

S: What would you advise artists that are just at the start of their artistic career? 

A: For me painting is how I express myself, its how I communicate, and so I start with what I want to say and then worry about technique afterwards – there are so many YouTube videos out there that can help you with the HOW, what is more important is the WHAT. So find your passion and the results will follow …

S: What’s the most valuable advice you’ve ever got regarding your artworks? 

A: In 2016/17 I did an MA in painting as Coventry University. My tutor, Graham Chorlton encouraged me to become more experimental, and less planned in my work, embracing a degree of serendipity.

S: Which is your favourite colour and why?

A: Either Jackson’s Cobalt Blue or Alizarin Crimson. I could almost eat the paint the colour is so luscious!

S: Do you paint more when you are happy or unhappy?

A: Neither.

A friend asked me why I paint such dark subject matter. A reasonable question as I have created work about conflict, depression, trauma, and isolation over the past five years! However even in my most recent series of paintings the Portraits of Isolation I found a mix of emotions, yes sadness and pain, resulting from feelings of isolation from friends and family, but also hope and transformation. So, for me the work is both rewarding and not as dark as some may perceive.

S: What was your biggest challenge in art?

A: My biggest challenge, which is an ongoing one, is finding ways to get works exhibited. Much of my work is not “commercial” so finding spaces that are interested in showing such works is a challenge. I first took up this challenge in 2013 when trying to get funding for a project linked to the WW1 Centenary. To get funding from the Arts Council I needed to have exhibitions set up – but for work that did not yet exist, based on collaborations with schools and colleges that would only happen with funding. 

With the help of the local arts officer and Sherri Horn, Head of Art at Trinity school I was able to make the project happen – able to work with schools and colleges to produce individual and collaborative work, not just paintings but photography, sculpture, music, drama, and public participation events, as well as exhibitions. One of the works from this series, The Response  is still on public display in Newcastle.

The Response – painting by Andy Farr

S: Who is your favourite artist and why?

A: During my MA I discovered some brilliant Eastern European artists – such as Miriam Vlaming and Daniel Pitín. Their combination of the more figurative with the abstract and elements of the surreal gelled with my own desire to communicate elements of human experience.

I also enjoy the power of the great abstract expressionist works to convey emotion just through the use of colour and form.

S: Do you think there is art that’s purely decorative?

A: Yes, but that is not in any way a negative. If a piece of art generates an emotional response, then it is good art. Creating work that is beautiful and evocative is a great talent.

S: Do you think you are born or made an artist?

A: I do think artists are born, but not in a technical sense – skills can be learned – but more that the desire to create or express through art is innate.

S: Have you ever created a piece of artwork that you were afraid to show? 

A: The first narrative paintings I finished was based on Rachel’s story. I was extremely nervous when I sent her a picture of the near finished painting, and so when she wrote back saying how moved she had been it was inspirational, encouraging and humbling for me to be part of that. 

Rachel:

I cried! the colours are perfect. The me looking round the corner completely sums up that feeling of lost in the grey world feeling frightened of everything. Welcoming Rachel is the old me too. It’s like you looked in my head and painted. It’s honestly amazing.

I went to bed thinking about the painting and it’s almost like now there is a third Rachel. The one I am now who is able to connect with both the figures in the painting. Which is really nice. Today also happened to be my last counselling session ever so it’s all come together really nicely. Funny how life does that.

Invitation – painting by Andy Farr

Sometimes I have been the first person that people have shared aspects of their lives with – and shared their deep emotions with – this places a huge responsibility on me – holding people’s hands as they put themselves out into the public domain – maybe not with their name but with something possibly more intimate that has come from their personal experience – maybe their portrait – their thoughts – their narrative – conveyed with my brush strokes …

S: Describe your work process?

A: My narrative paintings start with a dialogue between myself and the subject. This can be in the form of emails, phone calls and face to face meetings – although the latter has had to be substituted with video calls of late! During the process I try to get to know more about the person, and their situation, their memories and if the subject relates to a mental health challenge then I try to explore how that makes them feel. My paintings try to be about the feeling rather than an event so understanding that emotion is key.

During this process I will be gathering photographs and starting to think about imagery, colours and textures that could work to express the emotion. I will often play around with the images in photoshop, overlaying and blowing up parts of an image.

I generally have quite a few paintings on the go at any one time. Not all will be narrative portraits, I also like to paint nature and landscapes, which are less challenging intellectually and emotionally for me. And to some degree lockdown encouraged me in this direction. The restrictions placed on us encouraged me to appreciate some of the simpler things around me.

S: The first thing that gave you reassurance in your art?

A: In 2010 I spent a summer working one day a week with an artist/teacher – Caroline Hulse – she saw something in my work that gave me the self-belief to keep painting and developing.

S: What do people say about your paintings?

A: After finishing my MA I did a project with the Institute of Mental Health in Nottingham (IMH), again with Arts Council support, I created a series of “narrative paintings” each inspired by a one-to-one dialogue with participants who were recovering from Post-Traumatic Stress. 

Dr Elvira Perez (IMH) commented of the project, “Those that ‘donated’ their stories felt understood as if by translating their words into colour their sufferings diminished. Sharing alleviates pain and mental distress.” It was deeply moving to find that the cathartic effect I had felt personally was also present in their response to these works.

S: What would you advise an artist that has lost their way?

A: Just paint. Even if you don’t feel inspired just paint something – a sky or a vase of flowers or a cat!!

The process of painting in itself frees up your creative mind. I have my best ideas while doing. Sitting with a blank sheet of paper is the least creative time!

S: How do you respond to criticism?

A: Negatively and then positively.

There is a tendency for the barriers to go up, but then on reflection I often find that the criticism opens new ways of thinking about something. You may not agree with the criticism but the process of working out why and being able to justify your artistic decisions can help to move forward.

S: When did you realise you are an artist?

A: 2013 when I first got Arts Council Funding. Which may seem strange but the external validation of my work was important – especially as I‘d come to art as a second life.

S: Tell me about an artwork of yours with an interesting story…

A: I did a second series of paintings during the first 2020 lockdown. Each work was again based on a now digital dialogue with a participant. During this process I was still responding to their thoughts, feeling and emotions, but also seeking to understand a little more of the how and why the “portrait” process could provide a release for some of those involved.

One of those participants was Zara, a stay-at-home Mum. Her anxiety had started years before lockdown. She found that as we explored ideas for her paintings her understanding of her own feelings and thoughts changed. Her painting showed her as both puppet and puppeteer, a composition that evolved directly out of our conversations about her anxiety. She said in a recorded interview – “it revealed more and more to me about my own situation. I realised that the anxiety wasn’t bigger than me” … going on to say, “it has honestly changed everything about my life at this time – beauty still lies within darkness”.

The Puppeteer – painting by Andy Farr

S: Which is your favourite place and why? 

A: Hidecote Gardens, a National Trust property, has been a source of calm and joy over the past 25 years, but even more so during the last year of Covid.

Or my studio in the Canal basin. I moved in properly last summer and it is a place which I love being in.

S: Huge ‘Thank you’ to Andy for sharing this interview with us, please feel free to visit his website and see more of his paintings there: https://www.andyfarr.com.

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