It’s the end of February and the air seems familiar and cold. Making our way to a secluded stretch of land tucked away in the Golden Valleys, we catch up with artist duo and nomadic souls Nettle and George, who only a few months ago returned from their European adventure to the beautiful Cotswolds countryside with their rescue dog, Patata ‒ who was recently joined by Frida, and lots of creative ideas. Keen to find out more about their unconventional lifestyle and creative pursuits, we take refuge from the biting cold inside their recently refurbished home on wheels they named The BoonRig and, sipping coffee by the fire, we converse about Nettle and George’s journey into art, their collaborative relationship and the artist residency they set-up in rural Spain.
Later on we visited their nearby studio, where Nettle and George showed us their work in progress and told us how they grew up surrounded by art and how they developed an artistic style inspired by the likes of Matisse, Gauguin or Michael Armitage, and originating from the raw richness of their immediate surroundings. Mundane and spontaneous on the one hand, dreamy and introspective on the other, Nettle and George’s artistic personalities share common traits and secret affinities and express themselves in complete harmony with their unrestricted feelings and unpretentious creative instincts.
Looking from close by at Nettle and George’s art feels like being part of a vividly coloured, ever changing landscape that makes us dream of different realities, and what we love about their visual language is how they manage to tell stories about the world around them through the nonchalant disregard for spatial conventions and the energetic and subjective use of colours. And as we said goodbye under the hesitant sun, it became clear to us that Nettle and George’s universe is defined by warmth, tranquility and love, and being around them for a while felt like enjoying little slices of their life that seemed uprooted from their enlarged, forever new reality.
Who are Nettle and George, the people behind The BoonRig Studio?
We are painters who converted a removal lorry into our home. For a year or so it was our studio too but that turned out to be a hectic way to live, and now we have a separate studio. We both graduated from Brighton University with a desire to travel and work so we converted the truck and set off to Europe where we did those things and also found an opportunity to set up a residency on a disused farm near Granada. We did that too and it ran for 5 months accommodating lots of lovely early career artists. Returning for the English winter seems a little mad but we have done some work on the truck and renewed some long awaited paperwork. Another trip is in the pipeline for sure.
What are your most vivid childhood memories?
Nettle: I lived on an old farm that backed into some woods where, according to my dad, lived a woodland wizard named Cat Weasel, a character I now understand is in fact a fictional TV wizard. I remember finding carvings and offerings in trees which dad convinced us Cat Weasel had left. We had a huge long slide that went from the woods into our garden and I remember making dens all day and then sliding home. I remember the smell of my dad’s studio full of dusty stone and welding metal, and my mum’s painting trousers covered in oil and turps when she picked me up from school.
George: Also a countryside oriented childhood. We had a blind rook named Corky and we would make hats that were also a nest for him. Corky flew away happily ever after having stayed with us for quite a while. However after about 15 years Dad accidentally let it slip that he had in fact shot Corky on account of his extremely sharp beak and lack of sight. He was a great but probably not the safest pet for two young boys. Cardboard boxes were important things in my childhood. They always had so much potential. I had once constructed an entire robot suit from boxes. Complete with robot headpiece I was totally unable to see and thundered off into the garden to rule the world then fell down about 20 flights of concrete steps.
How did you two meet?
We sort of grew up together in that we went to the same school since we were small but weren’t really friends. George was already at Brighton university and I didn’t know where to go for my degree after a pretty dreadful foundation in London. I remember being in touch with George’s dad who said George loved Brighton so I just applied and we ended up in the same school again! (George's dad was head of art at our school, I wasn’t just randomly asking his advice) Then we made proper friends and got together on a bonkers art trip to Berlin.
How did you get into art? What or who inspired you to pursue an artistic career?
Well, as mentioned earlier we had George’s dad, Peter, teaching us and he is a wonderful painter with the best knowledge of colour and the history of art you can wish for. Actually, all four of our parents are artists so we both grew up surrounded by it. It’s like growing up and going into the family business, both of our siblings are working in the arts too.
Tell us a bit about your collaborative relationship. How do you influence each other and what are your strengths as a team of artists?
We collaborated on paintings at the beginning when we were wooing each other. Nowadays we collaborate when we aren’t getting along so well! For some reason it helps us work things out maybe because we both have to let go of control and appreciate what the other is doing. We do work in the same studio all day long, which seems intense to some people but we don’t mind. We help each other when a picture needs a critical eye and if it's getting too much you can always go for a walk or see a friend, George also likes surfing and I am scared of the sea so he can go there and know I will never be able to get at him. We have organised quite a few exhibitions together in the past and find it quite natural to split the jobs according to our strengths.
We have just finished collaborating on the residency mentioned above which to be honest was really easy because all the artists who came worked so hard and it exceeded our expectations as a supportive community. We had to be efficient in setting up the space and organising it all. Once the opportunity was presented we only had two or three months to see if anyone would be interested in the project, then actually build the spaces on essentially no budget and then get people to confirm. It was hard work but again, somehow everything came together in time so I guess we are an ok team.
You both draw, paint and make prints. What are your major sources of inspiration?
We both take inspiration from painters such as Matisse, Mary Fedden, Anne Redpath, Kitaj, Gauguin, Hockney, Daniel Spoerri, Tal R, Michael Armitage. Our actual imagery comes from day to day life. You can see why we needed to make our own home just as we like it so that we could get lots of paintings out of it!
Are there any recurring themes that run through your body of work?
Nettle: People in my home talking about things and eating. Food; things I have been concocting in the kitchen; seasonal plants and herbal remedies, things that grow where I live. I also love smells but you can’t necessarily get that into a picture. Also books and objects that mean something to me.
George: My immediate surroundings are the inspiration really. I try not to limit myself by deciding, so my work often mixes still life, landscape, portraiture and abstraction.
We’re curious to know more about the BoonRig Studio. How did you come up with this name and what was the driving force that initiated this project?
It’s a muddle of things; A boon is a beneficial thing, boondocking is when RV dwellers park up for free (also known as wild camping), and a boondoggle is a fraudulent/wasteful project. All great words and meanings. George is the driving force because I can’t even drive a car and he has a special licence to drive our house around. Getting a lorry was his idea originally but we both put the effort in to make it all happen.
What was the public’s reaction to this peculiar looking mobile studio home?
Mostly they love it and even some police in Barcelona wanted to come in and have a look and make sure we felt safe in the area. English police don’t love it, they leave passive aggressive typed letters on the windscreen when you aren’t in. When we travel we put a sign outside it in the respective language saying that we were an artists studio and please come in, people love that. Sometimes we get a real talker though and it can take ages to get them to go away.
Do you have any particular anecdotes you would like to share with us? What was the craziest situation you had to deal with while on the road?
Once we were living in a car park in the outskirts of Barcelona and it was actually huge and completely deserted at night. We woke up to a tremendous crashing sound and the truck was shaking loads, we looked outside and a couple of probably stoners had managed to crash into our rear end. Honestly, the car park was vast so we don’t know how they managed it. Their car was munched and they got out, looked at it for a while and then drove off. We didn’t even have a scratch.
More recently we got pulled over by some Spanish police who were friends of our crazy landlord from the farm we were renting near Granada. He had tried to get some money out of us before we left for something extremely dubious and unrelated to us and was threatening us with various things. We were quite tense because our truck wasn’t totally road legal and he knew. So a few minutes after we left they stopped us and were clearly looking for something to get us on (they were on the phone to the nasty landlord) and despite being traffic cops and our vehicle being illegal they somehow didn’t pick up on it because George confidently handed them an irrelevant bit of paper. They couldn’t find anything inside and proceeded to check the outside. The really ugly mean one on the phone to Juan surreptitiously got out a flick knife and was approaching the wheels but clever George saw and asked me to follow the guy everywhere. I followed him around and around the truck which got him all shifty and eventually he gave up and they let us go. It made us really nervous though.
Your blog offers the reader a detailed account of the BoonRig Studio conversion process with useful tips and great stories. What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome during this journey?
Ah, the blog! We haven’t updated that in a while... The challenges that come to mind differ depending on what mood you’re in, really. Sometimes it feels like there is just so much to do just to keep life ticking over, like fetching water and getting wood for the fire etc., but that’s just part of living a slow life. Obviously it can be a challenge living as a couple of two artists in a small space, and there was a point when we had so many needy Spanish rescue animals to think about too, which was probably our biggest strain as a couple and I kept bringing in more sad animals we couldn’t afford to look after and George was cross. Another challenge is that we spent two winters without hot water but now with our aforementioned remodel we can have a real shower!
What is the most valuable lesson that you have learned about yourselves during the conversion process?
Nettle: I came to this project with a few doubts about whether I would struggle with the instability of this kind of life but in fact it’s the opposite. This way of living offers a very clear link between the hard work you put in and the reward you get for it. I like the structure.
George: I’ve learned that you can if you put your mind to it.
You have recently remodelled BoonRig’s interior and structure. How does it feel like to be able to reshape your living and creative space?
That follows on well from the last question because it is a feeling of control over our own lifestyle that we feel very lucky about. It’s a lot of hard work but it belongs to us and we get to decide about everything all on our own. Lots of people are really struggling to support themselves and earn enough to pay rent to someone else for a place that they can’t even put a nail in the wall to put a picture up in.
What is the most frequent subject of your conversations?
The dogs, fantasy vehicles to live in and a fantasy piece of land to own so you can’t be told to go away by the council.
What is the defining feature of a travelling artist?
Maybe it’s learning not to take yourself too seriously.
What is your view on the opportunities for young artists living and working in the UK?
We are probably a bit out of touch with that subject having been away for a couple of years! Certainly there are difficulties, financially of course and also mentally and motivationally which is why we wanted to set up the residency. We tried to create a space where artists could live and work together on a very cheap budget without skimping on studio space or snacks, and also find the support that we all need. We also recognise that we have many tools our parents’ generation didn’t; we have the internet and our own websites and YouTube to teach us how to build a home in a van. The two of us are lucky enough to have grown up in the world of art so have had more opportunities than many, and we feel it’s important to share. I hate the idea of competition; there was a person on my degree course who once explained to me his practice of ‘sabotage’ whereby in a crit he would encourage the person being critiqued to go down a route that he actually believed would make their work worse in order to give himself a better chance or something. Can you imagine?
Now that you’re back in England, is there anything that you miss about your life in Spain?
The vegetable markets, obviously the sun, free food with your beer, the fruit trees.
How would you define home? What is home for you?
Warmth, dogs and and eating together. Home is wherever we park it but the best is being near to or in the woods.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
Never declare your intentions.
What do you do or where do you go to unwind and get inspired?
A lot of walking is important, nature makes us calm down and feel positive and George likes to go in the sea if possible to surf.
What are you working on at the moment?
We've been in our new studio since December, warming up the ol' painting muscles again and just enjoying being in the routine. Nettle has a solo show coming up in London in May with George’s brothers’ new project, Pygmalion Fine Art, which she’s preparing for now. George is busy entering for competitions and things. We are both keeping an ear out for exciting opportunities involving disused farms in warm climates.
What are your dreams and plans for the future and how do you see yourselves evolving as artists?
We talk a lot about owning a piece of land to live and work on one day, although we've promised ourselves no more really big projects for a while so for now we will enjoy painting and some more travel. As artists we both just wish to continue to be able to dedicate our time to the work we really love. It would be nice to start making our own paint and connecting more with the materials.
And now a question from Éric Poindron’s Étrange Questionnaire: What goes on in tunnels?
You have to say: tunneeeeeeeeeelllll for the whole time without drawing your breath or starting again until you come out of the tunnel.
Can you recommend us:
A book: Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins
A song: Sister Nancy, Roof over mi head
A film: The Little Prince