We have recently had the pleasure of visiting with Bath-based artist and illustration lecturer, Marian Hill and to chat about her journey into the world of art and her passion for collage. Inspired by the relationship of light with the natural landscape and by the history and atmosphere of dilapidated buildings, her collages are made from tiny fragments of paper from magazines and discarded books and are often based on sketches made on location. No computer is used in the making of her dreamlike collages; only scissors, glue and a lot of patience. No wonder that many viewers are often mistaking them for paintings.
Marian showed us some of her sketchbooks and original works and shared with us the story behind the illustration cover for What's Eating Gilbert Grape that she has been commissioned for. She has also talked about the perks of being an illustration lecturer at UWE Bristol and the rewarding process of guiding young creatives through their self-discovery journey and artistic explorations.
Later on, we went for a walk to the city centre, chatting about her Moscow experience and her love for Cornish fishing villages, and stopped by the Bath Artists Studios who were celebrating their 20th anniversary by opening their doors to the public and where Marian has been invited to exhibit one of her works.
Who is Marian Hill?
I was lucky to grow up right next to the Mendip Hills in Somerset, but moved away to study illustration at Kingston University, London, graduating in 1997 with a folder full of drawings, prints, collages and puppets. After working for a year as an animation model maker in London, I recognised a real need to live somewhere less busy and do more drawing, so moved back to the West Country and began my career as an illustrator. For the last twelve years I have been living in the city of Bath.
I divide my time between being a freelance illustrator/artist, teacher at UWE Bristol on the Illustration degree and being a mother.
As an illustrator I chose collage as my medium, producing images for magazines, book jackets, greeting cards and was thrilled to design a postage stamp in celebration of the London Paralympics. I also sell original pieces through galleries.
My collages are made from tiny fragments of paper which have been selected from magazines and discarded books for their colour, texture and colour gradient and are glued next to each other to build up images. I enjoy using the quality and colour of old printed papers, decaying surfaces and weather beaten textures, continuously collecting collage materials which I hoard and file carefully in thematically labeled drawers in my studio. I collage onto thin sheets of plywood, cutting with scalpel and scissors, sticking with a craft glue called Mod Podge, applied with a kids glue brush. I relish the fact that I can take a piece of paper which has been thrown away and give it a new lease of life by pasting it into a collage.
What are your major sources of inspiration?
My images are often based on sketches made on location which develop into collages when I return to my studio. I’m interested in the history and atmosphere of dilapidated buildings and how light falls on landscapes. I love going out location drawing and sit happily for hours sketching a view. Observing a subject intently whilst sketching gives a deep and lasting impression of a place or time which stays a vivid memory. It is this sense of a place which I attempt to capture in my collages.
How do you go about developing an idea for a new work? How do you prepare for it?
I love exploring places and watching the world go by, searching out interesting old buildings, which show their age and history. The extraordinary French Huguenot houses in Spitalfields and beautifully preserved Victorian Roupell Street (tucked behind Waterloo station) are particular favourites in London. I also find inspiration in working Cornish fishing villages such as Cadgwith and Coverack, where fishing boats are still hauled up on the shingle and you can smell fish in the air. Wherever I can, a project starts with a trip to make location drawings and take research photographs (I don’t like working from others reference material). I bring my initial sketches back to my studio, where I produce my collages out of the wind. As an image takes shape on my desk, the floor of my studio becomes covered with drifts of discarded paper fragments. I am a very messy worker!
Where do you source your materials from?
My studio is crammed with old books & magazines. I am always on the lookout for useful papers to use as collage material, but also photograph textures, clouds and landscapes which are printed into photo-books specifically to chop up.
What is the most frequent question people ask about your art?
I am constantly having to explain that my work is not painted but made purely from collage. I select the fragments of paper so carefully that it is not apparent that each image is made up from hundreds of joined fragments. When people realise how the work is crafted they then always ask how long each piece of work takes to create? My working method is cheap in materials, but very costly in time, meaning that my output of work is frustratingly slow! Despite being irritated by my own fastidiousness, I remain addicted to collage.
You are a Senior Lecturer in Illustration at UWE Bristol. What sparked your passion for teaching and what would your advice be for soon-to-be graduate illustrators?
I began teaching in 2001, first as the Illustration tutor on an Art Foundation Course and then later on the Illustration degree at UWE Bristol. I have always worked part time as a teacher so that I also have time to work as an illustrator & artist. However, the two parts of my working life are intrinsically linked & working with students is a two way process which definitely enriched my own practice. My job as a tutor is to help support each student in the development of their own unique visual language, a process I find both rewarding and personally inspiring. Many of the students I worked with over the years have become successful creatives and it gives me immense pleasure seeing them evolve and succeed after graduation. Those that do well are creatively talented, but also tend to display positivity, proactivity, kindness and adaptability. I think my best advice to new graduates is to keep generating work which you believe in, always strive to improve, seek out moral support and never give up!
I remember asking one of my foundation tutors how it was possible to earn a living as an artist? He pointed out that whilst many people think they want to be creative, they lack the total passion and commitment to succeed. He said if I wanted it badly enough, I would find a way to make a life as an artist. Like everyone, I have had difficult patches where I wasn’t sure how I was going to make ends meet, but by being positive and creating possibilities, I have found that opportunities arise and new projects emerge when you go out and look for them. I feel very lucky that I have earned a living from work which I really enjoy.
Do you always have a sketchbook on you when you travel?
Yes, but having children to look after means that I don’t always have the time to draw in it!
What book can we find on your bedside table?
There is a massive teetering pile of books on my bedside table, which I never have enough time to get through. Top of the pile at the moment is Natural Selection, by the garden designer Dan Pearson and London: the Biography, by Peter Ackroyd.
I really enjoy reading with my two girls every evening, taking it in turns to read pages of a carefully selected book. We all recently enjoyed Beetle Boy by M.G Leonard and Roof Toppers by Katherine Rundell. Until I became a mum I always regarded reading as a solitary and very personal activity, but now realise that there is something really wonderful about reading a good story together and I am surprised how much I enjoy reading out loud.
You are an artist, a teacher and also a mother. What would your advice be to other creative mothers?
As a parent you have to put the care of your children first, with all other things fighting for time around this. I could pretend that I effortlessly handle my workload, but the truth is that my life (like most mothers I know) is sometimes a chaotic juggling act. My Instagram feed is a true reflection of my work and interests, but it doesn’t feature our very messy house, or show the fact that I struggle to get into my studio nearly as much as I would like. I am learning to accept that there are times when my personal work progresses slower than I would like, but I don’t think I’m the only artist struggling to balance life with art! I feel relieved when I chat to other mothers who are experiencing very similar struggles to my own.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
My parents used to run an early music week in the Lake District for a special interest holiday company. This meant that once a year we stayed in the most wonderful house at the head of Coniston Water. My mum & dad were very busy coordinating choirs and groups of recorder players, so myself, my sister and our friend Helen used to run wild and build dens in the overgrown garden. I remember getting up very early, so that we could watch wild rabbits nibbling grass on the lawn and mist rising off the lake. The sound of recorder music would occasionally come wafting through the trees. It was a completely magical part of my childhood. I love taking my own children back to this part of the Lake District. This summer we kayaked across Coniston Water to Wildcat Island, from where we could see the house I used to stay in. I’m glad it is now a special place for my own family.
What are you working on at the moment?
I have a long list of images waiting to be collaged. Hopefully in the coming months I will produce a series of Cornish images and London streetscapes. I’m never short of ideas, but always short of time!
Can you recommend us a song, a book and a film?
When kids at my school asked what music I was into, it was always a cruel trick question to prove how totally uncool I was. I always tried to avoid giving an answer… These days I don’t care what people think of me, but I am aware that my taste is eclectic! I like music which brings back memories. To name a few examples: Sheryl Crow, Run Baby Run, playing on repeat in a bar in Prague, on a beautiful spring evening sometime in the 90’s. Bird House In Your Soul, by They Might Be Giants, blasting out in the school minibus, on a sixth-form trip to watch Shakespeare in Stratford. And Fleetwood Mac always brings back vivid memories of happy times in Cornwall. The list goes on and on...
As for books and films, I enjoy many and find it impossible to choose all time favourites. This year I got the chance to design a book jacket for the novel What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, by Peter Hedges. Until the publisher Fox, Finch & Tepper approached me with commission, I didn’t realise that the wonderful film staring Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp was based in an equally good book. I highly recommend both. It was a fabulous project to be part of.
Thank you, Marian for welcoming us into your home and studio and for the inspiring insight into your artistic practice.