Wonder in the world I Q&A with Michèle Jaffé-Pearce
A sense of joy in the natural world inspires the vibrant abstract oil paintings of Michèle Jaffé-Pearce
London-based artist Michèle Jaffé-Pearce’s abstract oils sing with the energy of place and space. As her new show, ‘Rocks & Stars (and Everything Between)’, opens at For Arts Sake, she talks Japanese philosophy, Jewish mysticism, Boy George – and everything between.
Your exhibition is partly inspired by images streamed from space. But let’s begin small – tell us about your home and where you work.
I’m a Londoner, born and bred. I live in Brackenbury Village, Hammersmith, with my husband, son and our giant Westie, Jake, who has appeared in numerous books, blogs and magazines as he’s so fluffy, smiley and photogenic! My studio is in Acton Park. It’s in an old furniture warehouse, with upholsterers on the ground floor, and artist and music studios on the first floor. There are 18 artists in my section and we are lucky enough to have beautiful northern light, which makes up for the rain that quite often seeps through the roof!
And you originally forged a career not, in fact, as a painter but as a journalist…
I started as an advertising copywriter doing a lot of TV commercials, which was fun for a few years. I switched to journalism as I wanted to write about some of the interesting people I knew. I used to go to The Blitz Club, where people like Boy George, Spandau Ballet, Steve Strange and The Eurythmics hung out. The Sunday Times Magazine commissioned a feature from me on the emerging New Romantics, which was a turning point. For the next 15 years I worked as a features writer, mainly for The Sunday Times, but also for Cosmopolitan, Company, and The Observer. I specialised in youth and subculture, design and social trends. I interviewed many amazing people, from Benazir Bhutto, Rudolf Nureyev and Joan Collins to more recent interviews with footballer Raheem Sterling, Jimmy Wales [co-founder of Wikipedia], Donna Karan and, earlier this year, Iris Apfel. I contribute on an occasional basis to a column in The Sunday Times Magazine.
Tell us a little about where your love of painting began.
I started painting at three when my grandmother gave me a box of 72 watercolours, which was my doorway to a transformative world. I loved mixing colours, playing around with water effects, experimenting with different papers and surfaces. I painted what I could see, and what I couldn’t see! For my 10th birthday my parents gave me an easel, a lovely set of oils and a large block of canvas paper, which represented a serious step up. I taught myself how to use oils by copying some of the Old Masters, such as Manet’s ‘Girl With A Parasol’ and Monet’s boat paintings.
How did the leap from writing to full-time painting come about?
I’ve always been torn between painting and writing. I wanted to go to art school at 18, but was advised by teachers and parents to follow the writing path. I loved my time in journalism, but after 15 years I yearned to steep myself in art. I went to Sir John Cass in the City, which at the time ran a fantastic Fine Art course, followed by a year at Chelsea School of Art. I also took private lessons with a wonderful Japanese artist called Shurin, who introduced me to inks and abstract mark-making using Japanese brushes and tools.
What techniques and inspirations do you most treasure from your time at art school?
Art school really encouraged experimentation, which is something I continually bring to my work. I like combining materials in an unusual way. For example I dip thread into oil paint to make interesting marks, or in some paintings I combine silk organza with oils to create depth and obfuscation. I paint on glass with hot wax, then draw into it with electric calligraphic pens… and one of my latest favourite techniques is to use oil paint with cold wax medium, which provides a wonderful surface for scratching and carving into. I am an absolute junkie for art materials.
Since graduating what would you say your biggest break has been?
After art school I shared a studio with a friend from Cass, determined to pay my rent from painting. I’d already done quite a few commissions for friends and relatives, but desperately wanted to sell to strangers! I took part in various group shows at small galleries, and was lucky enough to sell a large painting to a very famous theatre director. Things snowballed, and I’ve since exhibited at many London galleries, including The Gallery on Cork Street, The Mall Galleries, Bloomsbury Design and a gallery in The Hamptons, USA, that sadly is no longer. In 2012 I was invited by Barclays Bank to have a 10-week, two-person show at their flagship branch in Piccadilly. The curator was Jenny Blyth, the curator of The Saatchi Gallery during the YBA period. I was teamed with Day Bowman, one of the UK’s leading abstract painters. It was a very exciting time, with open evenings, talks and social events around our work.
How would you describe your style?
I’m drawn to abstraction as it allows the artist to grapple with the unseen. All of my paintings are explorations in intense colour, inspired by my joy in the natural world and the hidden forces that shape it. Visually, I paint to take the eye on a journey through colour and space, but the deeper meaning always stems from my fascination with the connection between inner and outer landscapes. I believe that in our fast-moving, often alienated, world it is vital to keep a sense of renewal in ourselves, and a sense of wonder in the world about us.
How do you paint? Do you have a strict regimen for work?
I paint during daylight, and reflect at night! Having uninterrupted time in my studio is bliss. My approach is very experimental and layered. I play with a huge range of oils, sprays, inks, charcoals, pastels, threads, waxes, pens, and invented mark-makers. It’s supremely satisfying watching a painting take shape. Most paintings require many layers before they come to life! I go to the studio most days, but some days I just need to walk, watch, listen and think.
And what do you need to inspire you while you’re in the studio?
I always listen to music while painting. I like World music, in another language, so I don’t get distracted by the lyrics. My current favourite is Idan Raichel, an Israeli musician who works with a team of musicians of different ethnicities, and the sound he creates is exquisitely melodic and textured. It makes my mind wander, and ideas flood in.
Your new show is called ‘Rocks & Stars (and Everything Between)’. Could you tell us a little about the inspiration behind the work?
I’ve been awed by the imagery that astronaut Scott Kelly streamed to earth from his year aboard the International Space Station. I’m captivated by the idea of the cosmos in formation, flowing rocks, exploding stars, hurtling meteors, ice crystals, fire rainbows and all the celestial discoveries shaping our view of the universe. It’s heady stuff! Generally, I’m inspired by the natural world, organic shapes, light, space, the rustling of wind… the passing from day to night.
Do you work from sketches?
I’m an avid photograph-taker; my phone is always at the ready to capture plays of light, racing clouds, pre-dawn skies, blades of grass. I’m in heaven by the sea, snapping imprints on the sand, rusting bits of flotsam, weather-worn rocks – but I never paint representationally. I’m only interested in the feelings that nature brings to my mind’s eye.
You describe your work as exploring the connections between the outer landscape and our inner landscape, or modes of seeing. What do you hope the viewer will take away from your work?
I’m passionate about the power of paint to give a transformative experience. I hope the viewer finds joy in my paintings and that he or she will always sees something new. The beauty of abstract painting is that it works on two levels, the immediate colour and compositional level, plus the more hidden depth, which reveals itself over time, and can take the viewer on many journeys of discovery, depending on mood, light and circumstance.
You have spoken previously about the inspiration you get from Jewish mysticism and Japanese philosophy. What links the two?
There’s a fascinating link between Jewish mystical philosophy and Zen Bhuddism. Both place enormous importance on recognising the spiritual dimension of nature, and how important it is to respect the universe. In Judaism, there is an ancient Hebrew poem, ‘Perek Shira’ [Song of Nature], one of the earliest known ecological works recognising that every element of creation has its task, from dew on the grass to the ant’s teaching of industry. Similarly, in Japanese culture there are 72 micro-seasons in praise of the changes in nature from day to day, such as the first singing of the frog, to rotten grass becoming fireflies. Both emphasise the importance of walking lightly on the world.
Talk us through the importance of colour in your work.
I absolutely love colour. I get a huge kick from mixing paints, adding warm and cool tones until I get exactly the right balance. I see paint very much as a living material. It’s extremely important to me, and sets the mood of a painting. To achieve subtlety of shades, I always create an underlay of paint, rather like adding ‘notes’ and ‘ vibrations’. I imagine the process is similar to making perfume. I like to think of it like that, anyway!
Michèle Jaffe-Pearce, ‘Rocks & Stars (and Everything Between)’, For Arts Sake, March 21 – April 14, 45 Bond Street, Ealing, W5 5AS, Mon-Fri, 10am-5.30pm, Sat 10am-6pm, Sun 12-5pm; ‘Meet the Artist’, Saturday 6 April, 1-5pm. Email [email protected] for more.
Words: Alexa Baracaia