Judith Tucker won the Scenes of Everyday Life category award in the Jackson’s Painting Prize 2020 with her work Why destroy a thing of beauty. The atmospheric painting is from an ongoing series entitled Night Fitties that explores the transformative nature of place and identity. Here, Judith tells us about her extensive research process, the collaborative relationship that informs the titles of her paintings and shares with us some insight into the history of her studio and her own painting practice.
Above image: Night Fitties: and we’d walk down here to the beach, 2019, Judith Tucker, Oil on linen, 60 x 80 cm | 23.6 x 31.5 in.
Clare: Can you tell us about your artistic background/education?
Judith: My first memory of wanting to be a painter was when I was really young, perhaps three or four. My father would make large friezes on rolls of wallpaper for my sisters and me. Using a house painting brush, he started dabbing different coloured blobs of paint in rows: ‘There’s a crowd watching us’ he said, and suddenly it was the brush marks transformed into moving people, I could almost hear them cheering, and then back into paint again, astonishing. So, still, many years later, I remain astonished by the oscillation between the material and its referent, for me that is what is so compelling in representational paintings. I came from a family for whom ideas and creativity were highly valued, pretty bohemian in outlook and somewhat careless of material needs, so wanting to be a visual artist was to conform to expectation. So off I went to the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford when I was 18. I was one of the first cohort of students that was part of the University. We had spacious studio spaces to work in those days and I made large experimental paintings. I’m still in touch with artists I met there. After that I moved back to London and had a studio for some years in Metropolitan Wharf, Wapping. After that I had my studio where I lived. I still do now, it’s at the top of my house. Sharing with and learning from so many other artists, gave me time to rethink my practice, to try things out, I worked very hard on pushing drawing and drawing with paint. I used those early years to consolidate and build up my practice and to try to understand what it was that painting could do and perhaps more importantly what I could do with painting.
I used to go on trips and make lots of in situ drawings and paintings from the landscape, largely from the coast, and then work those up in my London studio. I showed a little at that time and was shortlisted for the Winsor & Newton young artists award and the Bayer Earth Art prize. I was aware of a disconnect for my deep interest in coasts and seaside resorts and living in central London. In the late nineties I moved to Yorkshire, first doing an M.A. in Fine Art, followed by a funded PhD in Fine Art at the University of Leeds: the title of which was Painting Landscape: Mediating Dislocation. I am really glad that I gave myself time to mature somewhat as a painter, before I went on to study again. By then I had found out what it was that I was interested in, I had a practice, and had some confidence, so while I was open to new ideas, suggestion and input, I was also grounded and not too easily swayed or deflected by criticism. I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed the theoretical. I had always thought through making, and during this time I then had time to make, read and think. What made even more of a difference though, was getting a three-year Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) fellowship in the Creative and Performing Arts also at the University of Leeds. Those three years were the most amazing chance ever, partly because I was able to work closely with the extraordinarily generous Griselda Pollock and her Centre for Cultural Analysis, Theory and History.
Clare: Where does a painting begin for you? Can you take us through your process?
Judith: That’s a really interesting question, and hard to answer, in one way. So where does it begin? Certainly, it all starts long before the brush comes into contact with canvas in the studio. Perhaps it starts when I’m packing my rucksack, with sketchbooks, pencils, thermos, all the paraphernalia to go and draw in situ? When I am painting or drawing outside, I have a sense of being completely immersed in and connected to the place. As Helen Frankenthaler puts it, “I had the landscape in my arms as I painted it. I had the landscape in my mind and shoulder and wrist.” What I enjoy so much about that sentence is that she links thought and action together seamlessly, that’s how it feels outdoors. I use all sorts of notebooks, some are long thin zigzags, so that I can make panoramic works, and some are more conventional rectangles. I always use sturdy watercolour paper, strong enough to take heavy overworking. Perhaps that connection with place begins when I’m walking through it, before I’ve even decided where to draw. Is it when I’m walking that the painting begins? Graham Sutherland used walking as source inspiration: “It became my habit to walk through and soak myself in the country.” When I am outdoors, I start by walking, looking and listening, and then drawn to something, I pause with notebook, pencils and camera at the ready. Is it at this lingering moment that the painting begins? Or does it start when, I punch in the name of the destination into my phone’s Sat Nav? Or even earlier, when I imagine the place before I’ve even looked it up?
However, when I’m about to start a painting in the studio I have all this source material around me, sometimes printed out: photographs, drawings and notes often my collaborator Harriet Tarlo’s poems. I’ve also got a disgracefully paint encrusted studio computer which has got all sorts of other materials too. I have a passion for the medium of oil paint and enjoy the smells, the feel and the chemistry and cookery involved. I have developed a personal methodology that combines my knowledge of chiaroscuro underpainting and glazing with direct mark-making. First, I block in the composition in monochrome, usually in Payne’s Grey, adding in Cassells Earth if needed. Sometimes I work over a coloured ground, sometimes red, sometimes silver, made with aluminium powder. Then I gradually build up my paintings in layers, using a variation on the traditional chiaroscuro technique, there is some intuition at play here, but I leave the paintings to dry between layers in the earlier stages and work wet into wet later on, adding colour as I go. I’m really interested in the ideas inherent in layering, The way in which each layer of paint affects the next is not only analogous to the way that places can be palimpsests but is also apposite as an analogy for the way in which generations of people are coloured by the previous ones. Time is very odd when I am working, quite often the first hour goes very slowly, the mixing of each colour and then its application seems laborious and deliberate, and then suddenly it is hours later and I have another painting ready to go, and no proper memory or understanding of how that happened. I usually have several paintings on the go at the same time, all at different stages of development. This helps build up the sense of a series, I paint surrounded by them all and I find that helpful as I can then see how the work is developing and work out how to develop the next one.
Clare: How do the Night Fitties series and the Dark Marsh series work together?
Judith: I’ve two ongoing current series based in the same part of the world: the Humberston Fitties in North East Lincolnshire, one of the last remaining functional plotlands in the UK representing the threatened phenomenon of urban working-class owned rural space. The word the “Fitties” originally meant saltmarsh. The self-built chalets, shacks, and sheds of the Fitties lie low behind marshy beach and dunes, always liable to flood, to return to their former state. Night Fitties explore the play of light and dark and the uncanny transformations of the chalets on a plotland in North East Lincolnshire, that take place after hours as well as notions of precarity, occupation and emptiness. The work considers, in the shadow of recent dramatic political changes, how notions of place and identity are constructed on domestic and larger scales, as reflected by the play on flags and other indications of Englishness.
The second, Dark Marsh is an ongoing series of paintings of the pioneering salt marsh plants from the adjoining Tetney Marsh area, consider plants that are both vulnerable to sea level rise, but that also help to protect the land from flooding. The work is intended to be seen in relation to the Night Fitties work and together it explores human and more-than-human worlds in microcosm and juxtaposition, touching on the play of light, tide and colour, uncanny transformations after dark, and notions of vulnerability, occupation, resilience and reclamation. It is precisely the relation of environmental change and the climate emergency to class and privilege that emerges when the two series are viewed together.
Clare: Can you tell us about the titles in your Night Fitties series? They seem conversational or like direct quotes from interviews? There’s almost a sense of sadness when they’re read altogether in a series.
Judith: That’s really perceptive, thanks so much for that question and you’re quite right, as you will find out. I mentioned above that I have a collaborator. I’ve been working on place-based projects with the poet Harriet Tarlo since 2011. Our work emerges from walking together, making work in the landscape and then developing drawings, paintings, and poetry in an ongoing conversation. This doesn’t mean that the work always has to be seen together, but the titles are an acknowledgement of that collaboration. When we present the work together in exhibitions and artists’ books, we do not merge text and image but allow for space and separation between word and image, inviting the viewer in to make connections and join the conversation. This allows for unexpected aspects of our collaboration to emerge. So for example silent, static paintings and drawings might become filled with the sound and movement of voices and language. We found ourselves drawn to the individualistic inhabitants of the Fitties as well as the place and began to get to know some of the people behind the chalets. Ensuing conversations and interviews with Fitties people about what the place means to them have been integral for both of us. So, the titles of the Night Fitties series all come from Harriet’s poems. These particular poems are all made from found phrases from our interviews with chalet owners and holidaymakers. It’s a way of bringing those voices into my work, the paintings have hints of the inhabitants but never picture them, their presence is implied not described.
We gutted it and done it all
ourselves, made this garden
from rubble, from nothing.
There’s a lot live here full time
well the full ten months.
We’re all very close round
here. We walk around in our
dressing gowns, help with
building, always a cuppa.
We hut dwellers look after
each other. We took that insult
and used it back. Why destroy
a thing of beauty?
– by Harriet Tarlo
We have continued our contact with Fitties people and have recently been involved in contributing to a new Fitties Festival, led by the Fitties Community Interest Company. We enjoy exploring our different disciplines and this challenges us to push the work further and consider the limitations as well as the possibilities of our different art forms in relation to the landscape. We are both interested in environmentalism also and this feeds into our work. Exploring the Fitties through observation but also interviews helps us understand how people relate to place and even the potential for a different way of living in the world. We became fascinated with its past, present and future, the people who live there, and its blend of natural and cultural features which, in microcosm, reflect many global and national issues related to place, environment and heritage.
Clare: I really enjoy the twilight / full moon light in your Night Fitties series. How did you approach your colour palette in order to achieve this?
Judith: Light is the most important driver of my work, build up the paintings tonally at first, gradually adding more colour, layers and glazes, alternatively wiping back and building back up again, light is usually the catalyst for the idea in the painting. I think of these as drawn paintings, in a way, as there’s so much about tone and mark making, erasure and addition. Colour is important too, of course, and it’s often an unexpected, unplanned or intuitive addition of a sharp, bright patch of colour that pulls the painting into a resolved state.
Clare: What can you tell us about your studio? How long have you had it? It looks incredible from the pictures.
Judith: My studio is at the top of the farmhouse where I live in West Yorkshire. I’ve lived in this house for about 13 or 14 years. It has wonderfully high ceilings, beams and mullion windows on three sides, letting in as much light as is available, depending on Yorkshire weather. In the summer the light is silvery and clear, in the winter there is often horizon. One of the aspects of this space that is so appealing is that it was always a workshop or store area for wool or weaving: it was never part of the living area, right from when it was built. When I’m painting in there, I like to think about all those who worked in it before me. I’m even luckier because my study is up there too and so I can wander in there and look at books when I need a break.
Clare: What are your most important artist’s tools? Do you have any favourites?
Judith: I am very attached to my paint trolley, it’s a stainless-steel chef’s or kitchen trolley. I have all my paints laid out on in, my palettes and brushes too. On the second layer of it I keep tubs of special pigments: iridescent, aluminium powder, graphite powder and smalt, and other tubs of ground glass. It’s rather wobbly now and can be a quite a liability when I wheel it around my studio, but I’m so fond of it that I shan’t part with it until it completely falls apart.
Clare: How has the lockdown of the last few months affected your practice?
Judith: As my studio is at the top of the house where I live, the space hasn’t been affected, it’s been great that I’ve had that continuity when so many artist friends have been disrupted. What has been less marvellous is that I had Covid 19 very early on in March and even now, in November, I still haven’t quite got over the lingering fatigue, so I haven’t made quite as many paintings as I would have hoped, but those that I have made have a real intensity. I heard about winning the category prize when I was still really unwell, and it was so wonderful to have some good news, it gave me a real lift. I would have been delighted in any year, but this year it helped me get back in the studio more quickly and working again with enthusiasm. Harriet and I have also been limited in being able to visit the coast, the chalets and the marsh, so new fieldwork has been slower too, although we have managed some summer visits and day trips in the autumn. However, to be honest I’ve so much source material from previous trips that it really hasn’t been a problem. I love to go there, it’s an extraordinary place and I hope that soon both Yorkshire and Lincolnshire will be out of tier 3 and we can return to that estuary, the plants, the birds and the people.
Clare: What are your art influences? Who are your favourite contemporary or historical artists and why?
Judith: The answer to this varies, I have childhood memories of walking to Kenwood House on Sundays and being enthralled by the paintwork on late Rembrandt portraits and just now I’ve been looking again at Albert Pinkham Ryder’s paintings. During lockdown I have been thriving on the Art from the Nordic Countries Facebook group. Last year I saw the Harald Sohlberg exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery and seeing these in person sparked a reconsideration of his compositions for me, when I went for walks or on fieldwork trips. During the last year, his paintings stayed with me. In an unexpected way, Norway has come to Yorkshire. There are so many strong painters who work with and against the genre of landscape painting in a fresh contemporary way. I had the opportunity to do an “in-conversation” with one of these, Graham Crowley, whose work I have long admired for his uncompromising belief in painting as discourse as much as for his fluid brushwork capturing light over and in places. I’m interested in how painting can work with large issues: the aesthetics of the climate emergency, what the geographer David Matless terms the Anthroposcenic (Julian Perry, Juliette Losq and Hannah Brown’s works can all be seen through this lens.) I’m involved with the artist run group Contemporary British Painting and have found conversations there have raised my game both conceptually and materially. There are so many, but Paula MacArthur, Barbara Howey, Narbi Price, Mandy Payne, Sean Williams, Day Bowman and Joanna Whittle have real resonance.
Clare: What makes a good day in the studio for you?
Judith: The two stages of any painting that are exhilarating are the very early ones and the last moment when the painting is resolved. The first day when there is so much excitement and potential and the last day when, after what might have been months of slow progress, I stand back, and realise that it’s done. To be honest, painting is where I ground myself so in one way or another, any day in the studio is a good day!
Clare: Can you tell us where we can see more of your work online or in the flesh?
Judith: I have a long and ongoing working relation with Cavaliero Finn, and Veronica Sekules and the extraordinary Groundwork Gallery and now I am excited to be involved in a new venture with Kath Wood called Art at Home. I’ve got some work in a current group show in London: Vitalistic Fantasies at The Cello Factory London, and I’m in another in the same venue in January 2021 curated by Robert Dunt of ArtTop10 which emerged out of a series of recorded lockdown interviews made earlier this year. Later in 2021 I am in a group show Where We Live curated by Trevor Burgess at the Alan Baxter Gallery in London, with some of the Night Fitties series. Tamar Yoseloff has invited Harriet Tarlo and myself to be part of an ACE funded project of poet/artist collaborations with an exhibition A Fine Day for Seeing at Southwark Park Galleries and events in the summer of 2021, I’m working on a large Dark Marsh painting for that in the studio at the moment. Harriet and I are also embarking on a whole new set of works for an exhibition Hideaway at VisualArts2021 in 2022. I’m also involved in an ongoing conversation with the painter and sculptor Alison Lochhead for a touring exhibition 2022 Cross Purposes starting at Oriel Mon in Anglesey.
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