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The luck of the draw

Words by Jilly Easterby

Finding printmaking perfection in Porthtowan.

Photograph by Ian Kingsnorth

If ever there was a time for us to boost our collective mood with creativity, that time is now as we emerge from the shadows of the pandemic and contemplate the future of our tumultuous world. Between Saturday 28th May and Sunday 5th June, 329 artists, designers and makers from across the Duchy will share their studio spaces and artistic practice as they throw open their doors and welcome visitors to participate in Open Studios Cornwall.

From Porthtowan to Porthleven and Lamorna to Looe, potters, painters and printmakers, textile artists and designers, sculptors and silversmiths will explore the boundless possibilities of composition, shape and form, inspired by the whip of the wind, the colours of the coast or the textural quality of trees, mosses and ferns.

With work that will inspire, delight and provoke in equal measure, the themes of human frailty, resilience, mental wellbeing and mortality will evoke emotional responses like never before. A profound focus on the healing power of the natural world, the very essence of being and a celebration of place also permeates much of the artwork on show during this year’s event, as does the urgent imperative to recycle, repurpose, rebalance and recover; to live sustainably and nurture our planet. Open Studios Cornwall also shines a spotlight on friendship, on family, on the ties that bind us irrevocably to nature, an authentic response to freedoms curtailed during lockdown.

The unprecedented events of the past two years acted as a creative stimulus for many participating artists who began to see the world anew, to peer into the depths of their immediate vicinity; taking pleasure from the flowers of the hedgerow, the bird in flight, the elemental majesty of the ocean and the primal forces of the landscape.

For others, it was a catalyst for change as Henri Villiers can attest. A printmaker who works predominantly with screen printing, Henri’s work is inspired by her environment, with varying degrees of abstraction and a strong emphasis on colour and pattern. Observing her world from a studio that is perched high on the cliffs that overlook Porthtowan beach, she can hardly believe her luck.

“Whilst I have links to Cornwall – my grandfather’s family was Cornish, my grandmother ran a teashop in Fowey and I spent lots of family holidays here – it was only during lockdown that we had the head-space to realise that there was no longer anything stopping us from beginning our next adventure,” she explains. “We had been tied to London for so long that we had not really had time to think about it but there is something so magical about Cornwall that we thought, ‘why not?’”

Henri was born in the capital and had studied, lived and worked there for most of her years, but in 2007, she and her husband purchased a property on the Suffolk coast to escape the rigours of metropolitan life and start afresh.

“David is a furniture and 3D designer, and had always wanted to design a house so we bought an old bungalow, knocked it down, built a new house and lived in it. We relinquished our full-time jobs and set up our own business, which gave me more time to pursue printmaking. “I have always been interested in the look of screen printing and the quality of colour that you get, and it was at this point that I really fell in love with it as a process. When you put one colour over another, creating layers, new colours emerge in the intersections in quite graphic shapes. I like the combination of something you can use, such as photography, with handmade marks and textures. I am not a natural drawer and painting isn’t for me, but screen printing removes you from that directness – like collage. It is about finding what inspires you and putting things together.”

Henri chose to study History of Art at university, rather than art practice, and became a designer by training on the job. “I did some print courses in my spare time. That’s how I got into it. I muddled along and then met someone in Suffolk who was a really good screen printer, who taught me a lot and was happy to share his skills.”

During lockdown, whilst Henri and her husband felt really lucky to be in Suffolk because it was so beautiful, with its snaking rivers, grassy marshes and mudflats at low tide, they had itchy feet. “A trip to Japan just before travel restrictions were imposed, to the island of Naoshima, not far from Kyoto, with its contemporary galleries, sculptures and art installations in tightly-packed dwellings, had inspired us to consider a different way of life, so we decided to make the move to Cornwall at the beginning of 2021.

Photography by Ian Kingsnorth

“We looked at houses but kept losing out to other people. We weren’t the highest bidder for the site we are on now, but the people who were dropped out and here we are. We moved in last December on the shortest day of the year and I can’t quite believe it. We are so lucky. The previous owners had even built a studio so it really does feel like we are meant to be here.”

And what a studio it is, with its panoramic views of the changing tides, cloud formations and abundant wildlife, at the mercy of the elements. “Part of my creative process has been influenced by my working life,” describes Henri. “As a designer, I was producing branding and packaging for clients, and that involved translating an experience into something that evoked an emotional response. My response to the landscape in Cornwall is different to how I relate to Suffolk, which has wonderful big skies, is very flat and invokes a sense of calmness, a rural-ness, a peaceful sort of feeling.

“In contrast, Cornwall is really dynamic. There’s a vigour to it. The ruggedness of the sea and weather create something different. There are similarities between Suffolk and Cornwall but each have a different feel. The colours are different. The sea is different. The colour of the sea here is so beautiful and changes all the time to reflect the sky. We are so lucky where we are on the north coast, to see seal pups being released from our clifftop location but we are equally lucky that it is so easy to get to the south coast, which has a gentler feel. There is just so much to explore and get to know, and I am excited to see how this plays out in my work.”

Henri’s screen prints are incredibly joyful and uplifting with their pops of candy colour, neon brights, geometric shapes and crisp lines. In terms of her creative inspiration, she cites Matisse as a key influence for his use of colour, shape and paper cut-outs. She finds Andy Warhol’s approach to screen printing and how he appropriated popular culture in his work engaging. “I also like the way American painter and graphic artist, Rauschenberg, who pre-dated Warhol, incorporated everyday objects as art materials in his work, blurring the distinctions between painting and sculpture, and combining photography, printmaking, papermaking and performance.

“Representing ideas and emotions through shape and colour have been a large part of my career so it seems natural to me to extend that way of seeing to my printmaking, seeing the pattern in nature, and in abstracting the environment through geometry.”

These are recurrent themes in Henri’s work as well as how the natural world fuses with the industrial past. “You see a lot of that with the old mines, the remnants of industrialisation; the juxtaposition of decay and nature,” says Henri. “I think that even if I am doing something that is pure nature, I will want to bring in some geometry to it. It’s part of the way I think about abstracting what I am seeing, part of trying to capture and simplify things to get to an emotional space that is accessible.

“When I look at man-made things, it is about seeing beauty in what is around you, like the part of an old engine house, the workings, the huge pieces of steel, when they get that patina of age on them. The contrast of the man-made and the natural provides extra depth – reminds you that someone else has been there before you and had an effect on the landscape. When you walk along a cliff path, you see where the miners have excavated shafts right on the edge and wonder what were they thinking. Those old ruins, perched on the edge, are fascinating to me.

“If I am thinking about the decay of buildings, there is something compelling in them. It’s not sinister; it’s about finding the beauty in things even if they are industrial or deserted. They represent part of somebody’s life, a human legacy, like in my Orfordness prints. This former Ministry of Defence wartime testing ground in Suffolk that is now managed by the National Trust is just so odd and strange. Even though the buildings are deteriorating and falling down, you can still explore them and the eeriness is absorbing. I enjoy responding to a space like that and would always want to try and capture that feeling. It will be interesting to see how this translates into my work in Cornwall. Cornwall has given me so much to work with.”

Like many artists, Henri found that the Covid-19 pandemic constrained her creativity. Enforced breaks from her artistic practice during house moves and relocation took their toll, and she found it challenging to reinvigorate it and find her flow. “The first work I created when I arrived at this amazing place was a simple print based on what I could see from my new studio window – the cliff, the beach, some grasses. I started to look at textures. I have created prints in response to some of the walks that we have done. They are a little bit abstract but incorporate stone, the texture of the cliff combined with graphic shapes. My colour palette is shifting to reflect how I feel about what’s here. It will be interesting to see how the seasons change it too. I like using bright colour for its optimism, but I want to reflect depth and texture too.

“At the moment, in my mind’s eye, I am working on something more industrial. I went to see the stained-glass window that Abigail Reynolds has created at Kresen Kernow in Redruth. The placement of the artwork within the industrial architecture sparked my imagination and the colours that come through her window have a wonderful quality; it was truly inspiring.

“For me, it’s all about looking around and being inspired by what you see, to moving on, progressing and changing, and to translating new experiences into something meaningful.”

For more information about Open Studios Cornwall, how to visit Henri’s studio and curate your own art trail, be sure to visit the website.


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