My advice is to get on and make art – Lesley Hilling

Welcome to our Dialogue #10

Lesley Hilling is an English self taught artist living and working in south London.

During a successful career as a graphic designer and illustrator, lasting over over thirty years, she was shortlisted for several awards including the Canon Digital Print Award and the Mitsubishi Digital Print Award and was also featured in The Best of British Illustration.

During this time Hilling became interested in a more art based practise and began to make box constructions heavily influenced by the work of Joseph Cornell and Louise Nevelson.

Lesley works solely with recycled materials. She finds her materials in skips and at car boot fairs. She is a member of Human Nature, a group of artists who care about the environment and share ideas about it that informs their work.

Tell us about yourself – where did you grow up? How was your upbringing?

I was born in 1958, so my childhood was in the sixties. Today people see that time as ‘the swinging sixties’ with London at the forefront of music and fashion, but for most people it was still a pretty drab and grey time. The war had ended only two decades before and for our parents it was still very real. I heard a lot about the wartime years during my childhood.
Like many women of her age the war years were my mum’s best time – looking back from the confinement of being a wife and mother she would tell me about her time in the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force). Mum and her friends would mend fighter planes and parachutes during the day and go out with the airmen at night! These stories gave me a longing for a time I never knew and a nostalgia for the past that is always present in my work. We would watch the Sunday afternoon film, usually a wartime romance and I developed a love of film that I still have today.
My grandfather was an avid collector – stamps, coins, cigarette cards, old newspapers. His collections came to our house and became a constant source of wonder to me. They are a rich source of material for my work.
My father, who worked in a factory as a maintenance electrician was also a keen builder so I grew up around wood and construction. He rebuilt a lot of our house and even built a boat in the front yard. As a child I was entranced by all his tools and his shed was a treasure trove of interesting objects. It was the mix of these two things, collecting and building that led me to make the work I do today.

What influenced you to get into this field?

I had originally trained as a Graphic designer and I spent the next twenty-five years working as a freelance designer from our home in Brixton. I’d always hated going out to work so working at home and having a certain amount of freedom really suited me.
In the early nineties the limits of graphic design, of always having to follow a brief, became constricting and I began to look for other ways to be creative. I had inherited the desire to gather things and to classify them and these collections began to feed into a new creative process. I began by making box constructions to house them.
Influenced by the work of Joseph Cornell and Louise Nevelson, I used salvaged wood from old furniture and pianos integrated with discarded objects. I had a certain amount of wood working knowledge that grew when I enrolled at an adult education evening class run by a wonderful teacher called Ron Innes. I learned how to use proper woodworking joints and acquired many skills that fed into my practice. Sadly like many adult education classes the wood work course no longer exists.
When my mum was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2003 I gave up graphic design to spend more time with her. It was strange that she was losing her memory, when memory and the passage of time were becoming the main preoccupation of my work.

Let’s talk about the untold stuff – how difficult was it for you to establish yourself in this field, was it easy to network and make contacts and get your art out there?

Really difficult – not having been to University or studied fine art I didn’t have the knowledge or the networks. My friend and neighbour Anthea Toorchen came from a background of illustration and then went on to do a fine art degree. This was really helpful to me as I was able to pick her brains and meet her friends from college. Eventually we did an exhibition together which was a turning point for me and I started to get into other group exhibitions. Ive had five solo shows now.
However I think there is too much emphasis on qualifications. It’s better to have drive and an overwhelming desire to make art than a degree or an MA.

What is the crux of your art – what do you wish to capture or the message you wish to convey?

Mostly I think my main preoccupation is the passage of time and memory. And its preservation.

How culture/history/identity influences your work?

My work looks back at an English working class background because it’s my past and my history. The photographs I am attracted to will be of working class families similar to mine, from my childhood or from my parents time. Once I bought a bunch of primary school photos of large groups of kids taken in the sixties. I showed one of them to each of my friends and asked them to pick me out. They all picked this one girl out and insisted it was me – even my dad thought it was me. So there is a kind of generic look to our past – a collective history and that’s what I’m interested in and somehow want to preserve. The objects I use in the work come from a similar place, the old mincer that our mums would use, various ornaments that were on everybody’s side boards. And this cuts across cultural borders – many of my friends whose parents came over from the West Indies or Indian sub continent share the same memories of similar items.

Can you name your favourite art piece and describe it?

Joseph Cornell’s ‘Untitled (Medici Boy)’ – it’s a cabinet construction, with the main picture a
reproduction of a renaissance painting, either side a grids of smaller pictures and numbers, on the bottom (shelf) small cubes covered in images, and some kind of spring mechanism, probably from a clock. All encased in rich dark wood. Intriguing, mysterious, beautifully balanced…just perfect.

‘Untitled (Medici Boy)’,Joseph Cornell’s

Any tips or advice you’d like to share?

My advice is to get on and make art. No matter how badly it’s going – there is always something good that can come out of failure. So, just keep working, working, working!
This quote from Stravinsky sums it up:
“Just as appetite comes by eating, so work brings inspiration, if inspiration is not discernible at the beginning.”

Do you have any upcoming projects that you would like to share with us?

I’m making a lot of work and fortunately I have some commissions. One is to make a door where I will use old wood from pianos and furniture and embed found objects inside. The other is for an Italian friend whose mother died recently. She left a lot of keepsakes which I will put into a large wall piece for his house. With Covid the possibility of shows are in the future.

Hilling has participated in many group shows and has had five solo shows including ‘The Enigmatic World of Joseph Boshier’ where she
masqueraded as 1930’s modernist architect Joseph Boshier and collaborated with film makers Ivano Darra and Walter Graham Reed to produce a documentary about the fictional Boshier’s life. Born in Reading in 1958 she has lived in Brixton for nearly 40 years.


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