Ann-Marie James is an artist working across the mediums of painting, drawing, printmaking and collage. James’s work explores two main themes: the idea of change and metamorphosis, of one thing turning into another, and the idea of connection or dialogue with art history, using found imagery and texts. She exhibits internationally, and lives and works in Suffolk.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and your art practice?
My practice explores two main themes. One is the idea of change, of metamorphoses. Change is a constant, and I am interested in the connectedness of all things, in a cultural conversation that stretches right back to antiquity, and to ancient Greek and Roman myth. The other is the idea of a connection with art history via the use of found imagery and texts.
I am interested in using the found to investigate my own responses to individual historical works, to the artists that made them, and to their themes and origins. I am particularly interested in the way in which the repetition of an individual image can, paradoxically, produce variation, by using a very constrained set of marks to produce a vast composition. I make paintings, I make drawings, and I work with various forms of printmaking.
Did you always know that you wanted to be an artist? how did you start out?
When I was young, I had an operation on my left eye and had to wear a patch over one eye for an hour every day to exercise it while it healed and do an hour of concentrated drawing. That’s quite a long time for a 4-year-old, but I got really into it. I remember being at my granny’s house and drawing a picture of me in the hospital bed, and her telling me that if I liked drawing so much there are people called ‘artists’ and they get to do nothing but draw and paint all day every day, and that was it, my decision made.
My mum taught me to draw using instructional books and relaying things she learned in evening classes. By the time I reached Central Saint Martins for my BA degree, I had acquired a skill for drawing but didn’t know what to do with it. I had decided that I didn’t want to use my drawing skills until I had found a good reason for them. I thought this might take me a few months, maybe the first year, but in fact, I didn’t draw or paint a thing for the entire time I was there.
Instead, I made 16mm film and video works in which I recut or remade famous books or movies. I came away from my BA degree with one thing that I would carry forward in my practice, which was appropriating the found. But it would take me another 6 years to translate that idea into the kind of painting, drawing, printmaking, and collage that I make today, it took a very long time for the idea and the form of expression to come together.
Where is your studio located and how does a typical day in your studio begin?
My studio is in Suffolk, it’s about 500 sq ft, in a purpose-built self-contained studio in my garden. My day usually begins with a bit of studio admin when I wake up (or on days when I am better disciplined yoga). My daughter is 6 and I’m a single parent, so the rest of the morning involves all the usual things that might entail. After which I usually start with a 10-minute meditation app and then either a walk or a run with the dog.
These activities usually make for a far more productive day in the studio. Once in the studio it depends on what I’m working on and what deadlines I have coming up – there’s usually a few projects happening at once.
Do you remember the first art material you were given or bought for yourself? What was it and do you still use it today?
Yes. It’s one of my most treasured possessions… a Winsor & Newton Watercolour set that my aunt gave me for my 6th birthday. I still have it, although I lost the brush years ago and all the paints have been replaced many times! I bought the same set for my daughter a couple of years ago. I’m currently using mine for ‘At The Crossroads’ – a series of letterpress prints, each uniquely hand-coloured in watercolour (see below). The imagery is based on Albrecht Dürer’s ‘Hercules At The Crossroads’ (1498) with a nod to Andy Warhol’s ‘Do it Yourself’ series of paintings by numbers (1962). The unique colour scheme for each print is shown in a key in the bottom right-hand corner.
What do you find exciting about painting as a medium?
My natural drawing style is quite neat and deliberate, maybe even a bit uptight! I like to offset that by incorporating all that painting can offer – it’s visceral nature and the degree of unpredictability that come naturally when working with paint and acrylic mediums. I want to make a painting that I cannot replicate.
How has your work evolved in recent years?
It evolves constantly. There are interests and process that I can’t help but return to, whilst hopefully always continuing to move forward. Each project develops differently, depending on the source imagery, my choice of media, and the general direction I wish to take it in. It’s always a dialogue with the source image I’m working with.
Your printmaking is clearly connected to your paintings. Do the prints lead to paintings or the other way around?
My paintings all begin with printmaking, with an image that I view just as any other tool in the studio – like a brush. The process for my editioned prints are made in a very different way – that’s a more collaborative process where I work with a printmaker to build a composition layer by layer, one colour at a time.
The paintings always begin with a work from art history that I feel particularly drawn to – in the past this has included works by Bernini, Hokusai, and Dürer. Typically, I begin by making a pencil drawing and then produce a silkscreen, and through layer upon layer of print, drawing, paint, and medium, the repetition of figurative elements gives way to a complex abstract composition. Precise drawing intersects with splashes of ink and gestural painterly marks, and figurative elements combine to form an implied landscape. When viewed overall, each painting oscillates between the figurative and the abstract, whilst also being made up of hundreds of fragments of a single representational image.
How do you start a new work, is it planned and thought out as a body of work or more of an instinctual process?
I collect things that I know I want to work with – sometimes materials but usually I source imagery from art history that I love. There’s a stack of things in my studio – antique books I want to draw in, postcards of paintings or sculptures, or drawings from art history that I have seen at museums or galleries. Eventually, the object and the project come together.
Do you have any go-to tools in your studio that you could not make work without? How do you use them and why?
I use a range of acrylic painting mediums, and I love how they offer the ability to create a massive range of consistencies and effects when working with acrylic paint. I had previously worked in oil, but when I discovered acrylic medium, I became hooked! I love its plasticity and range.
We have been speaking with artists about their ‘studio hacks’ and how they recycle items in the studio. Do you have any tips?
I reuse yogurt pots and jam jars – all the usual suspects. If you use dipping pens with acrylic ink for hours on end throughout the day and only rinse them in water, then the acrylic tends to build up quite quickly and the nib becomes unusable in a few days. However, if you wipe it occasionally with a baby wipe (biodegradable if possible) throughout your drawing session a single nib can last weeks or months.
One of my most used painting tools along with dipping pens and brushes are thumbs, fingers, the outside edge of my hand and the heel of my palm – these have the advantages of being both good for the environment and completely free!
Do you have a favourite colour or palette? If so, what does your palette include, and why are these colours important?
Colour is relatively new to me! Up until just a couple of years ago, my work was all either in black and white or greyscale. In 2018 I made a series of works in gold and white and shortly thereafter a series in Prussian blue. Colour is really where I am experimenting right now, which I am relishing.
What contemporary artists do you enjoy? And what historical artists do you look at?
My current favourites include Artemisia Gentileschi and Barbara Hepworth. My heroes include Susan Hiller, Cecily Brown, Julie Mehretu, Clare Woods, Fiona Rae and Linder.
What do you think is the biggest challenge artists face today?
Our biggest challenge at the moment is probably also our biggest strength, which is the idea of accepting change as a constant. Now, we find ourselves in an acute moment of dramatic global change, which whilst no less potentially disruptive, many artists are at the least very used to. Being an artist often entails accepting a degree of financial instability, and so we are often better practiced at simply accepting such dramatic global shifts and finding another way. Of all the people I know, it has been the artists that have been quickest to accept and to adapt to the radical changes in our perceived reality that Coronavirus has presented us with.
Do you have one piece of advice to share with an artist just starting out?
Work hard and be nice.
Are there any current or upcoming projects that you are happy to share with us?
I’m very excited that my solo exhibition ‘Alchemy’ looks likely to be opening at the newly refurbished Dorset Museum. It’s the result of a 2-year long residency project with the Wessex Museums Partnership, which included exhibitions at each of the 4 museums and 4 new series of works, each based on an artifact from each of the museums.
All images courtesy of the artist, click here to see more of Ann-Marie James’ work.