They used to be 22 artists to have their studios in the arches down at Madeira Drive, they’re now closed off and waiting for the council to finally set the big renovation plans in motion. A couple of meters next to it, Julie-Anne Gilburt has managed to save herself a little studio space in one of the arches. Former owner of the so-called JAG gallery, she is the last one of the artists to still paint down in this area of Brighton’s seafront.
It was twelve years ago when Julie-Anne decided to buy that little arch studio she is back to working in now. Two years later, she got that big space next to it with the plan to transform it into a shared gallery and studio space for Brighton artists.
“We had two floors. Each artist had their own style and own little studio space and there were beach huts on top. It was a lovely atmosphere”, Julie-Anne remembers the days when there was a whole group of artists working in the now fenced-off area. “And then, the council closed us down and that was it. The end of 22 artists having studio space!”
Although her business partner Gary had taken over the running of the JAG gallery by that time, the council’s decision hit her hard. Still, she didn’t go down without a fight.
“I fought it nearly to the death. It almost killed me. They didn’t treat us particularly well and we lost a lot of money. Gary fought it even harder than me. When it finished, it wasn’t just like losing your job at ASDA. I had put my whole life into it. It wasn’t just the gallery that I lost at that moment, but my whole identity because I had sort of become the JAG gallery over the years”, she describes her feelings after the gallery had been shut.
Luckily, she had kept the little studio space next to it where she could return to and although it took her a while to adjust to being back there, she is now quite happy with how things are. “I actually quite like it. It’s far better than painting at home somewhere alone in the attic as some artists do. And as it’s only me, I am quite flexible. If I want to close up the gallery and give my daughter a lift, I can just do it”, she says with a little smile sitting on one of the sofas in her studio.
Working 9 to 5 like most people do clearly is no option for her although there have been periods in her career as a painter when she has literally “worked like a dog”, as she puts it. Having always wanted to be a full-time artist, the trained illustrator, who spent the first couple of years after finishing her degree working as an art teacher, gave it all when she got the chance to finally pursue her dream. Her hard work was soon rewarded.
After just one year, she had already sold her paintings all over the world and was forced to hire two agents to keep track of things. Within her first couple of years as an artist, she had exhibitions in Copenhagen, Prague, New York and even in Dubai.
“It was good but it was exhausting”, Julie-Anne says looking back on thes early days of her career when she sometimes did up to a 1,000 paintings a year! Having known all this stress and pressure makes her appreciate the autonomy and work routine she has now even more although she is still in high demand for commissions.
Painting people’s beloved pets, seascapes, abstract paintings, illustrations showing Brighton’s Open Market… the commissions she gets asked to do range from highly figurative to totally abstract. When people walk in and see all the different types of artwork that cover the walls of her little arch studio, it is not unusual that they ask for a commission on the spot.
As she works with so many different styles and techniques, it is hard to say which one is sort of her ‘natural’ style that characterises her as a painter. “I think I am a bit of a chameleon. My moody seascapes are probably my first love but I never get bored of any sort of style”, she says.
Having originally trained as an illustrator, it is surprising to see that most of her seascapes and personal artworks are actually abstract, a style that she strongly opposed in the beginning of her career.
“When I started to work as an arts teacher at Brighton and Hove High School, I was probably the most anti-abstract person ever! Whenever one of the kids would put a big blue dot on a piece of paper and try to sell it to me as a piece of art I would say ‘I can accept the abstract eye if you learn to draw first”, the 44-year old says laughing.
But once she started working as a full-time artist, her perspective on things changed. What started off as a simple “playing around with textures” soon turned into her preferred style when doing her seascapes. However, the attentive eye might still discover the one or other little figurative element hidden in the acryl layers that cover her canvases.
The inspiration for her artworks mostly comes from the view out on the sea that she has when looking out of the front door of her little studio. “Another series of my abstracts was inspired by Venice. When I went there for a holiday, I started taking close-ups of the pavements or the textures of the doors and when I got back, I transferred them to the canvas”, Julie-Anne describes her way of working.
Other than allowing her to experiment with textures which she really enjoys, abstracts are also a lot faster to do than most of her figurative works, but the experienced painter knows that abstract painting is a lot harder than people think.
“The classic joke people make about it is Jackson Pollock because for them, it is just colour thrown at a canvas. But people have analysed his paintings and it’s very mathematical. It is very even and balanced. To get it to look good is not easy”, she explains.
When she is asked to do a commission, Julie-Anne knows how to adjust her style to her clients needs and play with the possibilities special requirements could give her when it comes to experiment with new colours and textures. While she has never had a problem doing so, other painters have criticised her more than once for what they call “prostituting her artistic integrity”.
Her response to the critics is quite clear: “When other artists say to me ‘You’re prostituting your artistc integrity’, my reply is usually ‘Would you rather be doing that or working at TESCO stacking shelves and not being creative at all?!”
The probably most outstanding commission she ever got asked to do was to design an album cover for no other than Brighton’s very own Fatboy Slim! It was her who painted the fat kid with the angel wings apparently walking in the sky that shows on the DJ’s Greatest Hits album.
“When we had the opening of the JAG gallery, I asked Zoë Ball, his wife, to come and cut the ribbon and as a thank you I offered to do a portrait of her little boy, Woody. After that, Norman and Zoë were sitting in the kitchen one night discussing what was gonna happen with his next album cover and she said ‘Why don’t you ask the artist who did the picture of Woody?”, Julie-Anne remembers how she ended up doing that incredible commission!
But designing Fatboy Slim’s album cover by far wasn’t the only time in her life when art brought her together with celebrities. A couple of years ago, the passionate painter launched her fundraising project Stars On Canvas in cooperation with the Willow Foundation. Every two years, they get artists and celebrities together to have them paint on little square canvases that go to an auction. Since its creation, the project has nearly raised £300,000.
“It’s a fun way to raise funds. Artists can’t always donate a lot of money but they can always donate a painting”, Julie-Anne says about “her little baby”, as she calls the project. She is already looking forward to 2018 when the next auction will be held.
Find out more about Julie-Anne and her artworks on her website or visit her in her little arch studio down at Madeira Drive.