Two years ago, the Brighton painter Becky Blair was diagnosed with the chronic autoimmune disease Lupus. After her triumphant recovery, her new work documenting her brave journey will feature as a new exhibition in Brighton, and will be her first body of work to be presented in her Brighton home town for nearly a decade.
Exploring her incredible journey through perpetual pain, the significance of human life, her experience through hospitalisation and her housebound state, and her courageous victory over her condition, the new exhibition entitled – ‘Enter – the Wolf’ – will appear at Gallery 40 from the 12th to 24th April.
I’m Becky Blair, I’m an artist and I’m forty-three years old.
When were you first diagnosed with Lupus? Two years ago, I started to get sick around the spring of 2014, but I thought it was just – I thought I’d been doing too many Zumba classes.
Then after my birthday I had a great party, but I woke up in the morning and I couldn’t lift the kettle.
And I thought this isn’t right, I spoke to someone and they told me I’ve really got to go and see a doctor.
So I went, and they told me I’ve been overdoing it, and I got fobbed for a long time. I was sent all over the place for blood tests and then eventually I got referred and still there was not a clear diagnosis.
Then I basically just got so ill that somebody I went to see privately called me up and said “I’m not charging you, just come in – I need to see you because this isn’t right” and as soon as he saw me he said “you’ve got to go to hospital” and he rang up the hospital and sent me there.
At that point I wasn’t getting any better, it was only going to get worse – I was losing weight by the day.
It was in hospital, just before Christmas, that they said they’ve worked it out – that all my blood tests got back.
But they were really amazing once I was in the hospital, everything got sorted out very quickly, and then I was happy to take the drugs because I was being given a definite diagnosis.
Before then, you just don’t know what you’ve got and they still want you to take all these hard core drugs, and I was like: no that’s nuts!
When you’re that ill, you don’t want to add anything to it unless you’re sure it’s the right thing.
How have you used painting to overcome pain, and that immense sense of suffering you experienced with Lupus? Are they, ironically, celebrations of life? They are definitely celebrations of life, and they’re a sort of vehicle, I’m still processing the experience so they’re a way of… you know the more I paint now, the more I understand – because it’s so personal no one’s ever going to actually know what I felt, and it’s hard to put into words a lot of the time.
It’s a kind of therapy – on some levels, it’s a personal therapy that allows me to explore the experience through paint.
How did you get introduced to painting, are your family artistic? Well, my dad was a photographer and very into art, and went to art college in the 60s, and my step-dad went to the same art college, and he’s a graphic designer. Both of them combined, and my step-brother and sister are creative.
We were always encouraged to paint on holiday and we were taken to art exhibitions.
For a long time, I didn’t like painting, I preferred drawing, but through the school that I went to that was very arty, I discovered painting and now that’s my preferred way of working.
What is your medium of choice, and why do you choose that medium? I work in acrylics mainly, and I’ve been working with them for over twenty years, I’ve got lots of different techniques that I use. It’s just my knowledge of them is so vast now that it’s hard to want to choose anything else, that would mean I’d have to learn loads of things again.
I used to work in lots of other things but I find I can get a lot out of acrylics, and they’re so good these days that a lot of people think that I work in oil, because of the good colours and the luminosity I can achieve.
Take me through some of those techniques you employ. I build up the layers quite extensively, and I use a variety of mediums to create glazes which also intensify the colour, and then I use techniques like sanding back and working wet on wet to create softness and interest in the surface of the paint.
Were your paintings a form of escapism during that period of illness? I didn’t really paint while I was really poorly, I couldn’t even get out of the house, I couldn’t lift my arm.
It was pretty intense; it almost seems like someone else’s story at the moment because of just how different I feel at the moment.
I’m on some great medication – I refused to take them for a long time but they really work, I can move like a regular healthy human being again!
Before, it was just awful – my husband had to get me out of bed, he had to lower me into the bath or get me out of the bath, I was just completely incapacitated by it. Other people suffer an awful lot worse, which I’m very aware of.
After my experience with my health and stuff I’m still very aware of how fragile it is to even exist and how everything can turn on a hairpin.
How bad things can come into your life from nowhere, and so while it’s good you’ve really got to love it as much as you can, and be in it as much as you can.
What do you think about the artist as sufferer? I never really saw the point, haha, that whole kind of artist freezing in their garret – why put yourself through that? But then again, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced so profound – I wouldn’t want to go through what I went through again, but I can see how it’s given me an insight into life that I would never have found any other way.
Being healthy became more profound? Yeah, because I wasn’t even able to paint when I was ill, I wouldn’t have been able to do the work that I’m doing. So being well is a big part of the work.
How did it feel when you returned to painting? Amazing. Well, I didn’t go back to the studio for another eight months, I just spent time enjoying my health coming back.
And getting over the stress of it all because I was so scared all the time. They call it defascia, my body had become completely rock solid because I’d been in such a state of tension.
So I took some time before I came back in. Then when I came back in I didn’t know what to do! Haha, I thought, “Well, I’m here but what do I paint?”
I’d been working really hard up until getting ill, and doing lots of exhibitions and having a lot of success with what I was doing. But I felt like I was in a bit of a rut.
And the work that I was doing was just more of the same, so I’ve been really wanting a change. It wasn’t my preferred choice of making a change, but having that time out meant that when I came back I was like – right, let’s not slip back into what was easy, let’s try something different.
That was a turning point? Yeah, it was, it was really scary, I felt unnerved by what I was doing because I didn’t know, I was just letting it happen.
I started thinking more about how I wanted people to see the work – I didn’t want the work to get split off and sent in all different directions. I wanted it to be seen as a body of work together because I think it’s really important to see them all.
I spoke to my agent Lara and asked if we could do something in Brighton and she was really up for it. So that’s what set us off, it wasn’t a “let’s do this and sell loads of paintings” it was more “let’s do this and show what I’ve been up to, and show the work as a body that I think is really relevant and exciting.”
Let’s talk about your artistic process, from conception to the finished painting itself. Well, there’s been a change from how I’ve worked since being poorly to now – but I still approach it with an idea, I’ve got certain symbols that I’m using at the moment, I’m sort of working through my own understanding of life and how I see life now, and how I use the symbols to make compositions to represent that.
I draw from my life experience, and I take the symbols that I’ve developed – like the birds, the triangles and the trees, and I work them out a bit in sketchbooks, playfully exploring through doodling, letting ideas flow.
Then I come to the canvas where I’ve been working on small… sort of like a sculpture – in sculpture you have maquettes – so I’ve been doing these small little canvas paintings that sort of work me through ideas, then I take them to bigger canvases and explore them further.
But a lot is done prior, then a lot is done during, so I stay open to anything that changes.
It’s like a conversation that goes on between me and the work, and I try not to over intellectualise the mark making or the process to try and find and allow a creative, organic response so that there’s a language beyond language.
I was thinking about that this morning actually: sometimes we ask ‘why?’ too much when we’re painting and actually that gets in the way.
Sometimes there are no answers, and it just needs to happen – and that in itself is enough. And that sort of shows a reflection to the world that we don’t get in our busy lives.
It’s a conversation, it’s like me chatting to myself, and me changing and adapting and rethinking.
Why do you choose the birds, triangles and tree motifs in your work? I’ve always painted birds for a long time but they’ve developed now because I wanted to find a way of describing, visually, the feeling of being trapped in your body, of being unable to move and being unable to do normal things. And that wasn’t an experience I’ve had before.
I was very active before I got sick, I was always going to dance classes, and the gym, and walked everywhere, and anything that was going on I’d want to be a part of, be involved with, and suddenly I couldn’t do anything. And the way that makes you feel, and the insight it gives to the different layers of what being a human being is.
I really felt I needed a symbol for the experience of the spirit – without it being a religious thing, you know?
Just the sense of a person, and that ‘essential you’ that uses your body to move and do the things your ‘essential you’ wants to do.
And when you take that vehicle away it makes you more aware of who you are – the human essence of you.
I felt the bird and connecting the bird to something fixed like the triangle, or a tree with roots going into the ground, was this idea that suddenly this spirit of yourself is no longer free to move, and it’s fixed, it’s held, and it’s trapped.
I use the triangle shapes to show more of an abstract sense of how little we are, how vulnerable and insignificant a human being is, and how your plight, and your pain, and your experience means nothing on the grand scale of the universe.
But also, being you is massive. It’s your life. It’s a whole human experience. The triangles I quite like because they’re an abstract form and I can use them to take over the whole canvas or make them into these tiny little units, and you can respond to them how you wish.
On another level for me, after having this awful experience I felt it was quite brave to strip all the figurative narrative away and explore a very simple shape, and explore colour, and be happy with that, and be okay with that. Because often the ‘why?’ comes in, but I say: why not just fucking do it?
Somebody will find value in it, and somebody will have a positive experience and that’s really nice. Because I’ve been putting them out there and loads of people love them, which is really nice because it felt like a really big step to do it.
If you had to relive your life again, what advice would you give yourself? Go for it, do what you do and love every minute of it.
What’s been one of your biggest challenge while making art in your whole career so far? One of the biggest challenges was starting to do the solo shows overseas, taking myself somewhere and painting really intensely, and doing all the publicity, especially after being so footloose and fancy free, that was a shock to the system and felt like a huge learning curve. So, kind of, becoming professional was a big challenge.
The work’s always a joy, but it’s getting it out there and getting people to see it – I think for a lot of artists that’s the dilemma because it takes a lot of energy.
And you can feel very compromised sometimes putting yourself out there because we [artists] aren’t naturally social creatures. We work on our own. We’re not out there. We’re not public people.
Generally, I think the people who are really successful probably have a bit more of that in them, a bit more showmanship. So that side of things can always be a challenge.
What art, or artist has influenced your work the most, and why? I could say… well, Picasso – he’s just a monolith of art. And I’ve seen his work in loads of different places and I’ve always been inspired by him. Then there are lesser known artists to greater and lesser degrees.
Peter Doig, he’s just phenomenal.
But I think I’ll go with Klee, Paul Klee, because that was the show I saw up in London a couple of years ago, because I can definitely say he’s been a constant source of inspiration.
I think it’s his ability to be incredibly authentic to yourself, and also there’s a humbleness to his work.
I mean, Picasso’s awesome but he’s got a massive ego.
What I like about Klee is there’s a gentleness and a softness but it’s strong as well. And what I loved when I saw his exhibition was that even his handwriting reflects his paintings – you can see the lines of his handwriting in his paintings, for me, that’s authenticity.
What can people expect to experience from your upcoming exhibition in Brighton? I hope people can still find a joy and a narrative of their own, the fact that this work has come out of a very personal and profound experience of my own isn’t going to make people feel that they can’t access it.
So I’m hoping that the colours, the composition, and the overall experience of the paintings leave people with an uplifted end, you know, to brighten their day – all you can want from anything I think: a spring in your step; like you’d quite like to have a go yourself – I think that’s a good sign of something coming from the right place; when you walk away feeling like it’s resonated and it’s given you something more.
What do you like about Brighton? My favourite place is in the North Laines, which is where the show is as well so I was really pleased about that, it felt like a really good synchronicity.
It’s where I like to hang out, where the cafés are that I like to go to, the shops that I like.
I like the fact that the North Laines is probably still the most creative – you know where the shops are – it’s all very home grown and local, there are interesting ideas about selling stuff, and there’s an independent vibe down there.
This is your first solo show in Brighton since 2009, how does that feel? It’s really exciting, I’m so happy, because most of my shows happen half-way around the world so it’s nice to think that all my friends are going to come and see the work, and because all my friends have been involved with my recovery I feel really excited about sharing this with them as well.
Thank you very much, Becky.
More of her work can also be found on her facebook page.
Interview on 16/3/16 by Marc Kis,