Jennifer Wright is a UK-based artist who recently graduated from Camberwell College of Arts with a BA (Hons) in Fine Art: Drawing. Wright has used the time during lockdown to expand her practice into oil painting, creating a series of self-portraits. Intended to portray an “honest, humorous side to her life as a young person”, the paintings question clichéd and stereotypical notions of femininity, offering a counterpoint to the ubiquity and throwaway immediacy of social media imagery.
The Net Gallery: Why did you decide to study at Camberwell and – other than the disruption caused by lockdown – did the course turn out as you expected?
Jennifer Wright: I decided to study at Camberwell College of Arts after a tutor on my Access to Higher Education Art & Design course at Norwich City College recommended it for me. She had also studied at UAL and thought that the Drawing Course would be perfect for me, as before university I had yet to start painting, and instead worked heavily with charcoal and expressive mark making within my portraiture. I also knew how prestigious UAL is in regards to the teaching of Fine Art, and the opportunities living and working in London provides (especially after growing up in the Norfolk countryside) which were too good to miss.
As anticipated, my course was fantastic. We rarely had any official set projects, meaning that we had complete autonomy over our artistic development, and due to the course being under the Fine Art umbrella, we were able to experiment with every process and material imaginable and utilise every workshop Camberwell had to offer. We were also lucky enough to exhibit regularly in various locations across London, which helped develop our understanding of the planning, publicity, curation and installation of a show. The help of our tutors, who treated us as professional artistic practitioners, as opposed to just students was also invaluable.
I know that Drawing specific courses are rare now within art institutions, but I believe that this course allowed me to strip back my understanding of Fine Art as a concept, and to appreciate my creative process and methodology in a way that hadn’t been possible before.
TNG: How did you find the experience of having to adapt to working from home during lockdown, without access to the College and its facilities?
JW: I started lockdown like so many others with the aim of learning a new skill, and in my case, this new skill was oil painting. I wanted it to be a way of dealing with the stress of both the pandemic and my degree being at risk, but soon found that what I had intended to be a fun ‘side’ project instead turned out to be a homeopathic coping mechanism. I had fun and lost myself whilst painting with this new medium, and unexpectedly found myself starting a completely new project and working style.
I was one of the few fortunate students that managed to continue to create work during lockdown as I was able to continue painting in my parent’s garden which I found to be more of a form of escapism that actual work. This, on top of regular encouraging Zoom meetings with my tutors, and more time than usual to be by myself and thoroughly reflect on my practice, meant I was able to create a brand new body of work that truly reflected my passions and interests regarding womanhood, and what we do when left to our own devices.
TNG: Self-portraits feature in your work. When did you first start to depict yourself? And, do you view it as a way of diarising or recording moments in your life, as well as a form of self-exploration?
JW: Despite always using portraiture within my practice, I only started exploring self-portraits at the beginning of my final year at university. To begin with they were a way of coping with points in my life that I’d found painful; not necessarily diarising them, but instead capturing them as a moment in time, which in turn allowed me to reflect and move on.
However, as mentioned before, the beginning of lockdown marked a fresh start for me both artistically and personally. In an anxious time, I turned to memoirs produced by prominent, contemporary female writers as a way of coping with the uncertainty I was feeling, including Dolly Alderton’s Everything I Know About Love, which explores what it is to grow up as a woman within contemporary society. The book was passed around between myself and my friendship group and became a source of comfort to us in acknowledging that all women are just as embarrassing, gross, fragile and funny as not only each other, but also our male counterparts.
The sense of comfort I felt through relating to these women inspired me to create art about my own private moments where I became aware of doing something that was unique to me. I realised that the portraits I created convey a sensibility of the world that only I understood personally in relation to my life, but this doesn’t mean that others won’t view them and similarly relate. I researched leading female portrait artists such as Chantal Joffe, Ania Hobson and Alice Neel and found a recurring theme of frankness towards vulnerability, humour and awkwardness in relation to being women, which is something I strive to exhibit within my own work.
I’ve always been fascinated by what other people do in moments of quiet when they are alone with their thoughts, even if the moment is incredibly mundane, as it is often, if not always, relatable. And if through me recording irrelevant moments of my life, such as reading a book in the bath wearing a ugly shower cap allows other people to feel comfort and laugh along with me, I feel like I’ve accomplished something.
TNG: How and where are you now planning to develop your practice?
JW: For my Graduate Showcase I produced a focused series of self-portraits based in my bathroom, due to the intimacy of the setting: constrained by being lock-downed in a small bungalow where the locked bathroom door allowed me complete privacy. So, for the future it makes sense for me to continue on with both this series and explore other new series of works, based in other different settings around or within the domestic household.
I feel I have more than enough material to continue to explore and develop these ideas, and have also managed to secure a place to study a Masters in Fine Art at Norwich University of the Arts. This return to studying in a city where I began my artistic studies after Sixth Form also seems a fitting and circular route to take as I continue to develop as an artist.