Scraps of fabric found at markets, toxic colours, and traffic cones – these are just some of the things that influence London-based collage artist Scarlett Bowman. Join curator Becca Pelly-Fry as she interviews Bowman, one of 11 contemporary artists whose colourful work features in our newly-launched Curated Editions collection, New Mythologies.
Q: Can you tell us about your journey to becoming an artist?
A: I came to art quite late. Initially, I went to university and studied ancient history and classics, did that for three years, and then I went to work for a gallery in London. After a couple of years, I realised I was on the wrong side of the desk.
I wanted to be making work rather than selling other peoples’ work. I sidestepped, momentarily, into a separate career in TV for a year, and then I took the leap and applied to do a master’s at Chelsea College of Art. I think, because I was in my mid-twenties by then, and I hadn’t taken the traditional art school route, I was more committed to my practice.
Q: How has your work evolved over time?
A: In the beginning, I experimented with lots of different materials: clay, resin, latex, metal, paint, paper and collage. Since then, I’ve become really interested in using materials that have a particular use, things that have had a history of their own. I love raiding the sink at home or the local hardware store and just finding stuff I can incorporate into my work.
Q: What is it that interests you about using household or found objects?
A: When I was doing my master’s, I was really into construction fabrics and materials, purely because they were really bright wacky oranges. Or really toxic-looking colours, dishcloths with really bright pink, green, or yellow. They had an amazing texture to them as well. I really enjoy using materials that have a use value to them rather than traditional canvas and paint. It’s more playful.
Q: In some cases, you repurpose old paintings, both your own and others, can you tell us a bit about that?
A: Yeah, I love the idea that a painting that was found in Spain, or the north of England, has worked its way to London, and then within my work. Naturally, there’s complications around authenticity, so I don’t do it too often. But, if the artist doesn’t mind, and it was in the bin anyway, then yeah, I’ll happily help myself. I wouldn’t mind if it was mine as well. It adds a nice cyclical cycle to the world.
‘Sometimes I’ll walk along a street and see bright traffic cones and suddenly a composition – from everyday life – emerges.’
Q: Do you ever recycle your own work?
A: Yes, during lockdown, I didn’t have all my normal materials with me at home, and I had a baby, so I started working in my garden. As part of the Artist Support Pledge, I made lots of small patchworks.
Since I’ve come back to the studio, I’ve been cutting them up and casting in plaster, because the lovely thing about working with plaster is that they’re done blindly – upside down – so you’re not consciously putting a piece there, and a piece there, and so on. The artwork forms itself and then you turn it over at the end and see the results. I love that.
Q: What are your references, where does a work start from?
A: I guess it starts with the material. Looking back at influences like Arte povera, work by Robert Rauschenberg, Warhol and many other artists that have used everyday stuff like me. But sometimes I’ll walk along a street and see the traffic cones and suddenly a composition – from everyday life – emerges.
‘It was interesting that the marks were already made by someone else. The composition had already started without me.’
Q: What elements need to come together to create a good composition that you are happy with?
A: Composition is a funny one. It’s weird, sometimes people will look at something and say ‘that would take five minutes to replicate.’ But, when you’re making it, it can take forever to make collages in your mind, or physically move things around on a table.
I’m often interested in the shape of the materials I find. I was recently given lots of beautiful leather from a brand called Paradise Row who make handbags. As I unravelled it all and discovered all the edges already had a particular shape, I decided not to change it.
For me, it was interesting that the marks were already made by someone else. The composition had already started without me.
Q: Can you talk to us about your use of colour? Is it representational, emotive, or structural?
A: I have a love-hate relationship with colour. In the very beginning, when I started making work at Chelsea, lots of colour was already within the fabric of the material. And then I started making these big latex panels – pure latex comes in this gross colour (it also stinks!) – and I would have to add pigment to it.
It was the first time that I was conscious about adding colour to something. At first, I struggled with that. It was a revelation to think 'So, I can make this pink? I can make it red, green, any colour?’ I’d never had to make that decision before and I loved it.
Now, my work is so colourful but I feel that it’s a decision one doesn’t necessarily consciously make. I’m just drawn to something and I work with it. Sometimes I look at my work and think, ‘Gosh! It’s nuts.’ But I do love colour. I can’t pretend.
Q: Texture and surface are important qualities in your work, are they informed by the materials you choose or the other way around?
A: I guess I’m drawn to different materials for both their colour and their surface properties equally. I recently went to Shepherd’s Bush market because it’s famous for textile and fashion, there’s so many amazing fabrics. 50p gets you a bag of really unusual scraps. I got things by Missoni and silk woven tapestries, material of all sorts.
Q: Can you tell us about the print you’ve made with King & McGaw for the Curated Editions, New Mythologies collection?
A: The prints were originally both patchwork paintings I made during the height of lockdown, initiated by the wonderful Artist Support Pledge. I made lots of them and really loved the process of cutting up old bits of my work and combining them together in wacky collages. King & McGaw had this wonderful idea of taking a super high res photograph of the collages (I believe it takes 24 hours).
When it’s finished, you’re left with the most incredibly detailed image. When they sent me the proofs in the post to review, it was like touching the original. The paper quality is almost woven like the original canvas. I’ve also added stitching on the edges of the prints, just like the real ones, and signed and numbered all 25 editions. I’m so happy with the result. I think they’re great!
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