Zena Blackwell’s eye-popping paintings are difficult to miss. Featuring both vivid colours and sharp contours, Zena’s work is deeply rooted in the mundane immediacy of her domestic environment and draws its energy from the joys and anxieties of motherhood. We caught up with Zena at her home and studio to find out more about her journey into art, her creative practice and upcoming projects. She will be exhibiting her work at Viridis, the Spring group show hosted by Cardiff MADE that opens on Thursday 11th April. When she’s not painting or drawing, she curates Contemporary Cymru, an Instagram account promoting art made or shown in Wales.
For people who are not yet familiar with your work – who is Zena Blackwell?
I am someone who rediscovered the total joy and satisfaction of painting after quite a long hiatus. I ditched painting in favour of working in other mediums (sculpture, live installation, collage, film, performance etc.) as I had my confidence knocked on a few occasions and thought I was no good at painting. Even though I always knew deep down that I was a painter. Or at least that I wanted to paint. I didn’t really make much work at all for a long time as got involved with other stuff like working full-time jobs, promoting live band and club nights, DJ-ing and LOTS of partying. Then I threw a couple of kids into the mix.
I am someone who is always looking and waiting for the next challenge, always wanting to better myself, always on the move, never sitting still. Ants in my pants. I am rarely satisfied with what I do. Hypercritical. Trying to find my own voice. Constantly. I admire artists who find their ‘style’ and then stick with it, but my journey is about trying to find that ‘style’ or ‘voice’. But I think that if I did find it I’d get bored.
My current practice centres around the realms of family life and so I constantly document this, looking out for those weird and freaky moments children provide on a daily basis and photographing them. My kids are now 5 and 7 and I am amazed every day by how utterly exhausted I am and how no one ever warns you about how difficult parenthood is. On the flip side though, I really don’t think I would have gotten back into painting with such gusto if it wasn’t for them. I’ve never had a muse before but now I find myself living with two mini ones.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
Asking my mum and dad to draw a naked woman and man respectively at about the age of 6. And then drawing lots of bums and boobs on my bedroom walls.
What about your first memory of art?
We didn’t have many art books at home but there was a Picasso book I used to adore. I used to obsess over the image of the cat tearing a bird’s flesh (Cat Eating a Bird, 1939) and the nude Marie-Thérèse (Nude Woman in a Red Armchair, 1932).
How did you get into art? What was your journey like?
Drawing, painting and making were more or less done on a daily basis for as long as I can remember. If it wasn’t my bedroom walls, it was the back of cereal packets, collages on anything I could find, or paper mache over balloons. Money was tight growing up so materials were mostly always recycled. As a teenager, I was in my bedroom every night after school making work, rarely socialising with my family (sorry parents and sister!). It was only after going to do my BA in Fine Art at Wimbledon School of Art that things got a bit complicated. Ironically, it was after having children some 12 years later, when my time and energy were totally squeezed, and moving back to Cardiff, that I found a drawing challenge online and haven’t looked back. I thought I had no time but did a 10 minute drawing a day over two weeks and pretty much owe my life to stumbling across that challenge (run by The Virtual Art Studio). That was in 2016. I went back to do a Masters in Fine Art at Central Saint Martins in 2010, a decade after graduating from my BA but fell pregnant during the course. I bagged the MA and was about to burst out a baby at the degree show but art got put on the back boiler for a few years. I didn’t mind, I was in that blissful new-baby/on-a-different-planet/goo goo state.
Deeply rooted in the mundane immediacy of your domestic environment, your artistic language seems to be permeated with psychological tension, anxiety and introspection. Have there been any personal experiences that led you to integrate and explore these themes in your artistic practice?
When I started making paintings and drawings about my immediate environment and my kids, I didn’t see that tension! I was just telling it as it is / was. I really owe Zoe Gingell (Cardiff MADE) for articulating that colossal theme! So yes, I became this stay-at-home mother, keeping house and all that jazz – your archetypal housewife if you like, something I never thought I would never see myself doing. I was living in London when baby number 1 popped out (Wishful thinking. Baby number 1 did not pop out but was surgically removed after a 48 hour induction process) and fully intended on going back to work (Frith Street Gallery) when he turned one but the astronomical costs of childcare prevented that. And of course, after having baby number 2, I needed to be earning in excess of £40k to make finding a proper job viable. I guess some of the tension visible in my work is my rejection of that role. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy being a mother and don’t do a good job at it, I love it, but as with a lot of parents, the desire to do my own thing was palpable and I am so glad I’m now more than just a slave, I mean mum. I’m lucky, fortunate and super grateful to have an extremely supportive husband. Luckily my art practice is starting to sustain itself now and with both kids at primary school, I feel like there is light at the end of the tunnel.
“disrupt, reflect, care”; “hide, grow breathe”; “mom, brain, beige” – the minimal, riddlelike titles of your works are quite poetic in themselves. What is their relationship to the piece itself?
These titles came about after observing the trend in restaurants to pick out key ingredients for the names of their dishes, often giving little or nothing away about what the actual dish was. I pick out key elements/issues/adjectives with the aim for them to be ambiguous but also give the viewer little clues. I want them to be a bit humorous too.
Magritte, for example, sees painting as a metaphor about how we see, about the reality of appearances or the appearance of reality. What is it that appears to be real to you, both as an artist and as a mother, and how would you define your relationship with reality and the outside world?
Reality? Um, my reality is what I am dealing with, at home, with the kids. The reality is that I am bloody knackered all the time. I go to bed at 9pm and get up at 5am. This reality is very different from my reality pre-children. As for my relationship with reality and the outside world, I think it’s pretty much the same as everyone else’s reality… well, every sleep deprived person’s reality.
What would you like the viewers to take away from your work?
I’d like them to take away whole paintings. They can pay me later. Oh, right, sorry, I misunderstood. I would like viewers to think about the issues raised in my paintings. Be it gender identity, children’s safety, to believe that children are our future etc. There’s a whole host of stuff to ponder really. Everyone has been a child, knows a child, or is one. Everyone has a mother, a mother-figure, knows a mother, or is one. I reckon that makes my work universal and relatable.
What’s the most memorable moment you’ve had related to your art?
My solo show at Cardiff MADE, which happened a helluva lot sooner than I ever anticipated, and winning the Summer Arts Prize there the year before. Sorry, that’s two memorable moments. Working with Zoe Gingell last year on the body of work for the show was such a privilege. And then having my work displayed at the Senedd for the Eisteddfod that year was also so exciting. The calibre of the show was outstanding. I felt so honoured to be a part of it.
Where do you find inspiration, and what motivates you to keep going?
The daily grind… and always wanting to better myself.
What metaphor would best describe how you feel when you paint?
It sounds so corny, but I truly feel at peace when I am painting. The deliciousness of the actual pigment and the textures and the smells and the excitement of applying paint to paper or canvas. It’s definitely a meditative-like state, similar to the feeling of running.
What are three questions you don’t have an answer for?
Why has my seven year old never slept past 5am.
What will the World look like when my children are adults themselves.
Right now, Brexit… wtf will actually happen?
You live and work in Cardiff. How does the city influence you creatively and how would you describe its art scene?
It has really been a massive influence. Cardiff is small but has so much going on and is so supportive. There is obviously a diverse selection of galleries and spaces to show work and it seems that opportunities to get work out there abound.
Who are your favourite contemporary artists?
Chantal Joffe, Marlene Dumas, Daniel Heidkamp, Geraldine Swayne, Peter Doig, etc. SO many.
Any words of advice for aspiring artists?
Believe in yourself. Just make work without worrying too much about context, you can think about that later. Oh, and value yourself. And draw, no matter what your discipline is. I believe that drawing is the backbone of all artistic output.
Where can we see your works this year?
In May I am showing some brand new paintings (not even painted yet!) at a one night event called The Mutterscream and Other Indignations in Cardiff on the 17th and then on the 24th until the 9th June I’ll have some work at the Bath Fringe with four of my studio mates from Arcade Studios. Then, it’d be pretty nice get into the Eisteddfod again in August but no guarantees there obviously! I am also delighted to confirm that I am showing some paintings with Tactile Bosch in Tokyo in May examining the various social constructs of nightlife so this work will be a little different from my ‘normal’ work!
What are you working on at the moment?
As well as my own paintings and drawings, I run Contemporary Cymru which I started to promote art made in Wales or by Welsh artists elsewhere in the World. I’m just planning CC’s first exhibition which will take place at the new Elysium Gallery in Swansea early next year. I have some very exciting artists on the bill. I’m also planning on maybe touring this to London too… watch this space. As for my own paintings, I’m just trying to define things a little bit. Sometimes I feel like a packet of spaghetti that’s fallen off the shelf, so I’m really trying to think about what it is I’m trying to achieve with my paintings. ‘Just getting it all out’ has stood me in good stead so far but I know that can’t go on forever, heheh.
What are your dreams and aspirations for the future? How do you see yourself evolving as an artist?
I would love to exhibit nationally and internationally – and get better and better. I want to get to the point where I look at my own work and say, ‘Wow, that’s amazing!’. That will probably never happen, but one can but dream! My main aim is to maintain sustainability with my practice really, to be able to keep making work without having to rely on funds coming from elsewhere. Fundamentally, I want to to keep the momentum up and become more confident in what I do.