Emily Ponsonby, Artist

Reading Time: 4 min

Social Impact: Using a unique combination of mediums, painting a from a unique perspective that embodies the female gaze.

In a year that’s been defined by art and its appreciation, it seemed only fititng that we rounded off the first year of #ParadiseRowCurates in a studio of another London-based artist.

We were luck enough to stumble across Emily Ponsonby’s work via Instagram, which most artists use as a tool to transcend the notoriously stuffy art world, and were blown away by her weightless and yet warm and tangible life drawings. Having just completed a career-defining residency in Cape Town, the artist was kind enough to invite us to her Battersea studio, where she had only just moved into at the time of the interview.

In preparation for our interview, Emily felt inspired to put pen to paper to connect the dots in her life, years that have been typified by the discoveries of freedom, self-expression and a unique artistic journey. The last rays of sun in a short winter day mottled light through her cosy studio as she motioned to her paintings:

“These are all my friends or housemates from Cape Town. I always paint from models, so I always know exactly when and where every painting was made.”

She motions to each corner and recounts their stories:

“I made breakfast for these ladies, in this one, a girl was reading a book to us while we were working. I always find that you need a moment of relaxation before modelling. Because often, I ask for models through Instagram who I don’t know: some are younger, some had anorexia, one lady was physically disabled and had had this massive journey; and everyone was willing to get naked for me! It’s so amazing that people are willing to do that for my practice, so I always try to create them a feast for them if I can. They always say ‘I don’t want to be bloated’, but that’s exactly what I want to paint!”

So have you always done nude work? How has that journey evolved throughout your life so far?

“Well, when I knew you were coming it made me sit down and put things to paper in a really conscious way, it’s incredible how things go around in a circle in your life. I have always done life drawing, I picked the course I studied around it! When I went to Edinburgh, that was more about learning to mix paint, mix glue, the foundations to the techniques, but the Royal Drawing School was where everything changed. My whole perception of art and how I’d been trained was completely overshadowed. Until then my work was a good painting, but the teaching made me realise there was no reason behind it.”

You were good at technical drawing, but it lacked purpose?

“Exactly, I was doing a lot of commission work back then, I was great at recreating things visually but I wasn’t really educated beyond that, that’s where my time in South Africa comes in.”

Not just a big change for your work, but your life! How was it living somewhere where you didn’t know anyone to begin with?

“It was incredible, in Cape Town I was an oddity. Everyone was asking questions about me so naturally I started to ask questions to myself. It made me feel really out of place but it helped me to develop my voice and realise who I actually am.”

What kind of questions were you asking yourself?

“Well, it goes straight back to why I was painting what I was painting. I felt like for the first part of my life, I was doing things but not really understanding why I was doing them. I struggled to understand why I was painting in the past, why I was where I was. I got to the stage where life was amazing; I had a wonderful boyfriend, a wonderful studio, but I was just thinking— is this it?

I had a real itch, and I’m the type of person that if there’s something that hasn’t been spoken about or explored I can’t pretend it isn’t there. I felt the need to leave and experience something completely different.”

How long ago was that?

“That was two years ago now, I was in Cape Town for a year and a half. It’s just a creative thing, I went up and down quite a lot, and I can always feel when the next down is coming on. I’ve realised that it’s being around mountains and being able to plunge into cold water, being reminded of how tiny and wonderfully insignificant you and your problems are that gets me up in the morning. When I washed my brushes I could see Devil’s Peak; in Cape Town you’re always surrounded by amazing things. Here, you don’t feel the sun, you don’t feel part of it. Instead of creating a nice paining out there it’s like a state of mind; a new-found freedom and liberation really speaks through the paintings.”

How does all of this speak through how your work developed?

“That’s why I began to incorporate the chiffon in front of my paintings, if you pull off the top layer the painting seems to shift back. It’s the paint that sifts through and gives it this wonderful movement. It’s putting everything I am now into art; I’m an incredibly tactile person, I love hugs and feelings and soft dough. To have work that showed that was something I enjoyed making, everything suddenly made sense. I love letting materials do their thing.”

Let’s talk more about the materials you use in your paintings. You’re known for using things like soil, honey and egg in your work— how was this developed?

“I’ve found that to be a successful artist nowadays, you need to have a really good business acumen, but when I was in South Africa last year, I wasn’t thinking in a business mindset at all— I was just experimenting with whatever I would find to develop my style.

I was doing this for nine months with nothing really coming out of my work. I was cuckoo about the soil out there and the different hues of the rocks that I could see when I went hiking. There were these beautiful colours all over the place, so I began mixing it with egg yolk like I had done in Edinburgh. The soil was quite a breakthrough, some of my paintings are completely done with soil, you can get browns, blues, pinks yellows; it really shows how crazy the variation is. I would literally take a trowel up to my favourite car-park on Table Mountain to scoop up soil. I looked like such a fruitcake! The heat of Africa would always cook my egg.

When I was collecting all sorts of different materials in this time of experimentation, I acquired a piece of chiffon, but was only six or seven months in when I picked it up and started seeing how it seeped through in the way I use now. It’s crazy how everything comes full circle as I’d done a whole series of people sitting on the tube ages ago; drawings that hung on muslin and quivered with the air flowing through it. Ten years later it makes perfect sense.”

What’s in the future for you and your work? What sort of theme’s do you want to explore?

“Whatever I cover next and however poky my living arrangements will be, I was to have paintings that make you feel light; like you’re standing on the edge of the cliff with the rain blowing through your hair and you can feel the sea breeze, it’s how I want everyone to feel.

The next series will be centred around mental health, and the heavy cloak that comes over me and so many other people; mental health is such a huge thing now and I really want to address it. My relationship with my body has always been linked to it, but now that I do a lot of modelling, I know as an artist you want rolls, you want creases otherwise it’s just so boring to paint.

You’re seen in such a different way and you see your body in different light. You’re not a body, you’re a series of shapes and colours and negative space and forms. Trying to capture things that made endorphins race around the body is what I love; tracking the things that made us have that little leap in our veins.”

Stay up to date with all of Emily’s creations on her Instagram.