Zanny Mellor | b 1986 British visual artist, based in London
2015 - MA Fine Art, Distinction, City & Guilds of London Art School.
2009 - Illustration BA Hons - University of the West of England, Bristol.
2006 - Foundation in Art & Design, City College Brighton.
Zanny Mellor addresses themes of speed, light and time in a sensory exploration of place. The impermanence of material, experience and perception drive her painting and photography work. States of presence and remembrance are examined and a tension between control and chance is actively sort after.
Fluidity is a defining material concern in her process-led practice, where reductive actions create a measured, gestural language.
How formative was your MA in fine art?
I needed it, I had got to a point with painting where I was making for other people. I was making work about architecture and urban geography and the dynamism of the city, and ignoring an important area of my interest which was natural geography; the processes, systems and landscape. About a
year and a half before my MA I rediscovered that interest by going out for four months to South America; I climbed up glaciers and hiked in the mountains. That was life changing.
What kind of work were you doing when you were away in South America?
After 5 years of studio practice I really needed to challenge myself as I had got in a rut of painting commissions and needed to make something for myself. I spent 4 months travelling on my own and found a particular focus was the landscape of Patagonia.
I used to draw a lot in preparation for the architectural paintings, using maps and drawing on site and I decided to take a total break from it, instead photographing and writing.
What was it like making the first mark upon coming back?
It was difficult to return to drawing after I came back and interestingly I drew completely representationally. I started with a mountain in the Andes that particularly affected me while hiking around it and sorting through all the photography felt like the best way to digest it.
Why did you move away from representational work?
About a year after that trip, I travelled to Iceland which further invited process into my practice. Iceland is a place that is alive with tectonic activity and changing weather. I also live in London which has every kind of chaos and there was a challenge in my practice between representing the stillness of memory and speed of the present. Representational work was static and led me back to the memory of a place, a kind of melancholic art making experience, whereas working with process has invited a more present and physical kind of painting.
What characteristics have you seen in other artists that you don’t recognise in yourself?
It is dangerous to watch your peers too much but it is interesting as you can learn a lot about the approach you want to have. I have become aware that narcissism is something I want to avoid. Also I think it is important to use language which is approachable and familiar because that opens the doors for a wider audience and not just those in the art world.
How do you find time to be in the studio making work?
Over the last 8 years the amount of studio days has varied greatly depending on if an income was coming from the artwork or another job. I think learning to manage your time with a studio practice is key. At the moment I’m working nine to five so I have to be really organised and efficient for evenings and weekends in the studio, while also realising that you need to leave room for experimentation and trial and error. I work quite well to a deadline so I’m productive when I have a project to work towards. It is important though to have times away from the studio when you can digest what you’re working on.
A friend of mine said that ‘creativity is cyclical’, which I really agree with.
Were you creative throughout your childhood?
When I was younger I would spend hours on end listening to the radio and designing things in a sketchbook. Through secondary school I tried to spend as much time as I could in the art department. I was always happiest in my zone painting, drawing or printmaking with earphones plugged in. I’ve always associated making with listening to music and even now they are inseparable.
Why did you choose to carry out a BA in illustration?
When I was on my foundation course I found I could have specialised in any area. However, we had a very charismatic tutor who encouraged us to draw all the time, specifically when travelling. We were also taught to see drawing as something that can be done quickly; very fluid rather than it being something that has to be slow and considered. At that time the practical uses of illustrative image making felt more appealing than a fine art degree.
On the BA, projects in reportage drawing combined with my interest in geography led to a series of paintings that referenced Julie Mehretu’s work and I graduated as a painter and illustrator. The demand for paintings was high, so I focused on that for a number of years. Since then I realised that sometimes creativity cannot be pigeon-holed and I now enjoy working on projects across illustration, graphic design, painting and photography.
You seem to make considered choices, even with travel, what drives this?
Having made work for so long about the dynamism of London, I now seem to seek out places that are the exact opposite; wild, expansive, quiet and away from civilisation. I’m a very social person but these sorts of places offer aloneness and spatial freedom perhaps which are needed for creative thinking.
It is these opposites that drive my work and create the minimal, graphic language that has developed. There is freedom in gestural painting that there isn’t in geometry. Yet, I always employ restraint when creating compositions so that there is a balance and tension between quiet and loud, between stillness and energy, between urban and natural.
When did you realise you wanted to identify as an artist?
I didn’t consciously choose to identify myself as an artist, it just felt natural to pursue what excited me. I think if you are creative it is something that chooses you and can’t easily be ignored, it’s just how you see and process what is around you.
I would phrase myself as being a visual artist because I am led by visual curiosity primarily, before I am led by material or feeling.
If we had a training period and you wanted to see me succeed, how would you go about it week by week?
I would want you to see the breadth of what an artist does, touching on both the business and creative side. I think it takes a long time to get to know yourself creatively and is a process that can’t be governed by someone else but I would encourage photographing, writing, collecting and drawing things that strike you most. It is then important to return to these findings and spend time with them to understand what they mean to you and how you could use them. Some time would be spent in material investigation, preparing painting surfaces and allowing for periods of experimentation and failure.
It would also be useful to discuss how you want to share your works, what kind of platforms you would want to address and think about building relationships with framers, curators, etc. Going to exhibitions and artists talks would be essential to see what others are making and meet other artists. Maintaining friendships with artists is important because they are on a similar journey.
What books do you recommend to people?
One is by Rebecca Solnit called A Field Guide to Getting Lost. That sense of being lost both physically and emotionally can be a really productive space to learn from, to make sure you reach outside your comfort zone and keep moving forward.
Are you in London and interested in organising artist studio visits and discovering the active emerging art scene?