Our Intern Esme's thought provoking Q&A with Hannah Ferreira-Allen. Hannah expands on her receptivity to colour and form, and her perception of the divine evident in the landscapes she observes.
There are a lot of palms in your paintings - do you have a favourite plant?
I'm sure it will not come as a surprise to you that I am a plant lover. I think palms are an iconic symbol of 'exotic' paradise so I like to play with that concept sometimes. I love tropical plants. I like the reptilian leaves of Crotons (I just bought one as a houseplant) and I love heliconia with their almost creature-like, hanging flower, but on the other hand, I'm a big fan of English cottage gardens! I suppose that's an example of a hybrid cultural identity. In my paintings, I like to emphasise the botanical surroundings of Trinidad because I grew up in the northern part of the island where there is always a backdrop of densely forested Northern Range mountains. When you're walking or driving through them, it feels like you're engulfed in a jungle so I always return to lush greens of some sort in my work.
What is a normal working day like for you?
I have just started a new job as an art and design lecturer in a college so my work currently consists of lesson planning. Thankfully it is a part-time role and so I have enough time to dedicate to my art practice. Because I have just finished a body of work for the exhibition I am now in a reflection and thinking phase before I plunge into more making. During this stage, I like to read broadly, note down ideas, look at photographs and visit exhibitions. When I'm making paintings I tend to work on one painting at a time unless I feel stuck and need to return to it a few months down the line. I really like to feel engrossed in one work. When painting I like to work in 2-3 hour chunks with breaks and unlike my time at university, I tend to work during normal working hours.
Putting paint to canvas and committing to the marks made is often a daunting experience for any artist, could you talk us through your process and how you begin a painting?
If I am working with oils, I almost always work on canvas that I have died and stretched myself. That process began as a way for me to recreate a batik-like textile design to reference the traditional textile dresses that I wore as a child in Trinidad. That evolved into experimenting with different dyeing techniques. I like starting with a dyed canvas because it takes away the fear of a stark white, blank canvas. I sometimes create a preliminary sketch in oil paint on paper first to work out composition and to experiment with different painted marks but recently I have been working directly onto the canvas. If there are architectural elements I often draw a rough outline with very diluted paint to make sure perspective is working but with very foliage-heavy work I just go for it. I use oil paint and oil bars. I find oil bars are very helpful at providing immediate colour and texture and so I often begin my paintings with very free, gestural oil bar marks on canvas and then add paint and brushes. I think finishing a work can be harder than starting. I often have to stop myself from adding superfluous detail that may tip the whole painting into looking tight or heavy.
There is an emotional intensity to the colours you select and marry together, do you have a special connection to colour and does it affect how you view the world?
That's an interesting observation. I think I may have an intuitive sense of colour. I love the colour contrasts that are found in the natural world and I think that it points to a master Creator. I can be an annoying person to go on scenic hikes with because I'm always pointing out beautiful colour combinations - I think I get that from my dad. Even in man-made surroundings, I like the way that something bold like a traffic cone can add a clashing 'zing' to its surroundings. Trinidadians have very bold handling of colour which I love.
I love how the Impressionists pulled through and glorified, whatever colours were lying latently in the scene they were painting. I also love to look for those latent colours when I'm painting.
I am often using colour to evoke a mood that transports you to that place. The mood can be nostalgic or comforting or sometimes it could be an ominous or mysterious feeling. Colour choices can impact the reading of a painting in a huge way.
I love your smaller watercolour scenes of hillside houses and greenery. How does experimenting with alternative mediums change your practice?
Thank you very much. I enjoy using watercolours for their ease with mark-making. I adore David Hockney's watercolour sketches of East Yorkshire and living much of my life in Bradford has meant his work has influenced me over the years as he is a Bradford lad.
Watercolours are very useful. I suppose creating watercolour paintings keeps me going in between oil paintings. It can be a way of testing out ideas for compositions or colours but I also like to use its very different material quality. Just as I use oil paint for capturing lush dark greenery, I love the way the transparency of watercolours can capture the brightness of sunlight.
I read that Bonnard is an influence of yours, he often works solely from memory and relied on his imagination to fill in any missing gaps. Does memory have a basis in your work too?
Memory certainly plays a role in my work. I am actually pretty terrible at drawing straight from memory, you only have to play Pictionary or Telestrations with me to discover that. I do use reference photographs but the mood I want to create, or what I choose to include or omit, is all dependent on my memory of the place or time. I actually have a vivid memory of life growing up in Trinidad, even at a young age, and I can recount details of unphotographed events down to what I was wearing that day. I think hazier memory is often stored in the senses and so perhaps rather than the finely detailed memories of certain events, in my work I tend to tap into the sensorial memories of my time in Trinidad.
I resonate with sociologist Stuart Hall's description of how cultural identity is constructed through "memory, fantasy, narrative and myth" (from Cultural Identity and Diaspora, 1990) and I try to incorporate a sense of this in the creation of my paintings.
Can you tell us about where you work - what’s your studio like?
We have a studio/office space in the loft with two huge Velux windows which fill the space with light. I can often be painting when my husband is working from home but I always have headphones in, listening to music or a podcast, so we can be side by side but in our own worlds. I've had different studios over the years but I actually prefer painting at home because I feel much more relaxed and the private space helps me to focus and not think about what others are doing or thinking although I do miss the social side of a community studio and meeting other artists.
And finally what's next in your calendar, any exciting new projects?
I am going to give myself a couple of months to settle into my teaching role before planning anything very big. I need to see what life looks like first. A big but not very exciting job that I need to do is to finish my website! Apart from that, I would like to apply for some painting prizes, be more active with my work on a local level in West Yorkshire whilst still reaching out to galleries further afield that welcome submissions. I'm still learning how to best show my work, that's the hardest part of being an artist I think.
Hannah Ferreira-Allen's work is on at the Jam Factory Gallery 21th July to 19th September 2021 in the Boiler Room Gallery.
Don't miss her exceptional paintings showcased in this exhibition, titled 'Where the Air Clings Close'.