In Conversation with Nell Brookfield
In Conversation with Nell Brookfield: I draw from a mixture of observation, imagination, memories, and now my dreams.
Written by Jessie Bromovsky
Nell Brookfield has just returned from a five-week drawing course at Rhodes Island School of Design in Providence. She came and met me to share her time on the intensive course, her recent work, her inspirations and her upcoming plans.
After graduating from the Royal Drawing School in October, Nell was invited to take part in The Drawing Marathon, an intensive course offered at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). The course is awarded to two graduates each year on completing their degree. “We flew into Boston, got the train to Providence and from there were taken straight to the studio where we would spend the next few weeks,” Nell explains. “We were all completely jetlagged but led straight into a room that was full – from ceiling to floor - of taxidermy birds, foxes, raccoons, owls, skulls, rusty tires and plants. It was a beautiful studio.”
What followed was a rigorous two weeks of observational charcoal drawings, followed by another three weeks of studio-led workshops. Only stopping to eat, sleep and critique, they drew morning till evening. “Soon we were dreaming in charcoal,” Nell says, “it was an incredible experience for me. The sheer size of the space allowed me to take on my largest drawing yet - Please no more floods.”
In Nell’s signature style, Please, no more floods, 2019, is inspired by a mixture of observation, imagination and personal experience. “I think something I search for in my work is truth. In my mind, the works that are most successful are often drawn from a place of embarrassment, a place that is very honest.” In Please, no more floods, a woman stares shamefully out of an overflowing bathtub at the viewer, as water cascades onto the floor and down into the room below.
As an onlooker, we are given a clear cross-section of the room allowing us to see the poor attempt that has been made to catch the water below. It is only on closer inspection that peculiarities in the situation begin to appear. Behind the pink-cheeked bather, a sink is also flooding but the woman makes no attempt to stop it. This is further emphasised by the objects chosen to catch the water; a colander and a percolator. Which begs the question – is this a deliberate attempt?
“But it’s interesting,” Nell remarked while we discuss the work, “I had gone half-way across the world and the only thing I wanted to draw was my mum’s bathroom. But I find once I’ve drawn it, I understand it better and I am no longer embarrassed. It’s a way of expressing those embarrassed feelings – and it doesn’t mean my work is only focused on myself - but it’s important for me to start from a very honest place.” Nell assures me however that her true experience of the flooding bathroom was definitely not deliberate…
Nell had a more unconventional route into the art world than most; she studied Anthropology at UCL and drew in her spare time. Unsurprisingly her passion for art crept into her studies. “I did a project that focused on football as a modern religion,” she said, “I went to loads of football matches to do ethnographic studies but I would just end up sketching the people. I preferred the drawing to the writing I suppose.” With a sketchbook on her always, her process entails taking quick preparatory ink drawings which she later returns to in her final pieces. One such example is a little preparatory ink drawing of a puppet that became the central figure in her drawings for the Royal Drawing School exhibition. Nell described how her studio was right next to the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green and through frequent visits she became fascinated with the puppets. In both her recent works, In her hands, 2018 and Casting Shadows, 2018, the imagery of a puppet plays a crucial role. “Both these pieces play with the idea of power.” She explains “They are born out of a frustration of not feeling empowered in certain situations and an expression against that.” The works show an androgynous female puppeteer, controlling the male marionettes from above.
In our current climate, where women artists have been undervalued in society and underrepresented, this seems a fitting contemporary commentary of female empowerment. Nell says her focus is not intentionally on gender, “I’m definitely drawn towards female artists and writers, but I wouldn’t say it was a conscious decision – I’m not drawn to them purely because they are female”. Her current focus is on dreams, sparked by seeing the Frida Kahlo retrospective in Brooklyn and her close inspections of Portuguese-born artist Paula Rego. Her works have a touch of the surreal; an exploration of the inner workings of the mind and a championing of the irrational. “I try to make believable spaces that the viewer can relate to and recognise and then I shift them slightly. The surrealists do a very similar thing, creating realistic landscapes and then combine them with totally unexplainable chaos. With the puppets, it is about creating an environment - mixing observation and dreams.” Dreams play a huge part in both Nell’s work and her life “I am intrigued by them, I like this combination of reality and unreality. I often wake up in the middle of the night and I can’t be sure whether it was a dream or not. But I have now taught myself to control my dreams, I can choose what happens when I dream – gosh maybe I have become like a puppeteer myself…”
Nell is always finding inspiration in different places and next she is off to Oaxaca in central Mexico for a self-led residency with a friend of hers. “I’m very excited to go and discover the art scene there, I'll be working with local artists and researching the traditional craft techniques.”
Follow Nell on Instagram @nellbrookfield