Artist x Art historian, presenter and Head of Collections at Soho House
15/ Conversations with Friends - Christabel Blackburn x Kate Bryan
Welcome to the second in our Conversations with Friends series and this time we're a fly on the wall at a recent studio visit with art historian, curator and Head of Collections at Soho House - Kate Bryan, and PE artist Christabel Blackburn. Kate visited Christabel ahead of her online exhibition that launches with us on 4th November, Pavements, to see the new collection of works. The two first met when filming Portrait Artist of The Year, the Sky Arts programme which Kate was a judge on, and which Christabel featured on two years in a row - winning the 2020 edition.
We love hearing how these two inspiring women got into their fields, how they juggle motherhood and busy careers, and what their favourite era of art history is. We hope you enjoy it as much as we do...
KATE'S QUESTIONS / CHRISTABEL'S ANSWERS
Kate - When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
Christabel - Quite late. I loved art from a young age, my mum is a fashion designer and generally very creative. When I was young, she would create impromptu art classes, setting up a still life for us. I think my dad wanted me to be a writer in Paris! At school, my art teacher and I didn’t have a great relationship which put me off going down the art school route. I went to university and read classics, as my brother and dad had done before me. After that I was a bit lost so I did classical art training for a year, focusing on the figure. And then I did more training and learnt how to paint portraits.
Pavement #12 and Pavement #9 from Pavements
Kate - What made you apply for Portrait Artist of The Year?
Christabel - It was my favourite show - I watched them all from the beginning. I applied the first time and I painted a self-portrait with pink hair to try and catch the eye of you Judges. I don’t think I was quite ready the first time. The second time I felt more free to paint how I would normally paint, I did that submission work in a day.
Christabel Blackburn, Portrait Artist of The Year 2020
Kate - If you could go back in time to an art scene which would you go to?
Christabel - (Long silence!) Maybe Impressionist and Post Impressionist Paris. The birth of the industrial world playing out in art. That boom in everything must have been such a great time to be alive.
Rue Halevy by Gustave Caillebotte, 1878
Kate - What’s a big ambition of yours for your career? Do you let yourself think far ahead?
Christabel - I’d love to show internationally with a gallery who also works with artists I admire. And to be confident about what I’m making, but I don’t know that you ever really feel completely at peace.
Pavements #8 and Pavements #1 from Pavements
Kate - If you could get an official museum commission to paint anyone in world who would you pick?
Christabel - I immediately think of Michelle Obama who was already painted so incredibly by Amy Sherald who I love. It would have to be a woman. I think Michaela Coel actually, she made such incredible television with I May Destroy You and has the most incredible face.
First Lady Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald, 2018
Nile Rodgers by Christabel Blackburn, 2020
CHRISTABEL'S QUESTIONS / KATE'S ANSWERS
Christabel - You have an incredibly busy career and a baby at home. How do you manage not to get overwhelmed, are you very organised?
Kate - I think everyone is really busy, I just look more busy because I do what I do in more places. Everything needs to be in a one mile radius and I do it all in one day, so today is a West London day and I won’t do any emails. Then tomorrow is a pure email and research day.
I also make sure I carve out time for writing, I’m really precious about that. I’m just finishing writing a book and even on maternity leave I would write on Monday afternoons and Thursday afternoons for 4 hours.
I also make sure to prioritise sleep. Once you get in a good routine of sleeping you can do so much more in the day. One thing I would say which is really helpful is I don’t look too far into the future, I just say what am I doing this week. If I looked too far into the future I’d get overwhelmed.
Pavements photographed by Georgia Rothman
Christabel - Do you ever make art yourself? How did you get into the Career you’re in?
Kate - As a kid I was good at art, I got an A at gcse and A level - my parents still have all my paintings. I soon realised that I enjoyed writing about artists more than the painting itself. I was painting about Georgia O’Keefe because I didn’t have enough books to learn about her. Then I started reading about artists, talking about artists and I realised this was my sweet spot.
I didn’t go to a particularly brilliant school and art history didn’t exist, I’d only been to two museums my whole life. On my 17th birthday my parents took me to see the Monet exhibition at the Royal Academy and that was a complete life changing moment, I realised there was this whole world which people work in. Then I saw the History of Art stand at Reading University fair and I knew that was my dream subject, I didn’t even know it existed and immediately said “I’ll do that.”
My parents were so supportive, I was the first person in my family out of 70 first and second cousins to go to university. If I’d known at the time how hard it was to get a job in the art world and that it could be quite elitist, I might not have done it, but it was blind ignorance. I was just so passionate about art, I loved it so much.
There was no such thing as blogs, but I’d go to shows and write and talk about them; take people to the Tate Modern. I applied to 76 jobs without getting a single interview, then I finally got a job at the British Museum literally to make tea and do filing. I ended up working there for 4 years. They said they gave me the job because I knew more about the British Museum than people they’d been interviewing for more senior jobs. I’ve had interns come and work for me at the galleries I’ve worked in not knowing who the artists are. It’s just disrespectful. I think it’s tenacity and not expecting people to hand you anything on a plate. Just don’t give up.
Georgia O'Keeffe by Philippe Halsman, 1948
Monet, Royal Academy of Arts, 1990
Christabel - When is your favourite period in art history?
Kate - I want to say 1500 when Michelangelo goes to Rome. The competition between Rome and Florence is fascinating to me. But then I also love the sack of Rome in 1600 when Rome is on its knees and it has to be accountable for all of its sins. The artists had to find a new way to make art after the split of the church which is when you get Caravaggio.
My first great love was 19th century France and the birth of the modern world and the Impressionists, particularly female impressionists shining a light on the home for the first time in art. Then I’d also want to jump to London 1990s YBA, which is the birth of the art scene that I’m in now, which I’m continually fascinated by and I know some of those people.
But I think if I had to pick one then I’d do Caravaggio’s Rome, it’s a really interesting period. You can walk around the streets of Rome and see the paintings in the chapels where they were designed and I feel I can transport myself back.
If I could get in a time machine I’d probably go back to 1950s New York Women Abstract Expressionists and say to them you’re doing a cracking job. Peggy Guggenheim, Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning. And I’d get to go to loads of wild parties.
Lee Krasner in her studio, 1962
Christabel - What did you think of this year’s summer show?
Kate - I love this year’s summer show, particularly the first two rooms curated by Isaac Julien, I love his presentation and the clarity of his vision. I also really like Eileen Cooper’s edition rooms which were really interestingly installed.
I think it fell away a bit after that then it got really good in the final room with Ai Wei Wei’s amazing new pots. I think as always it’s just such a nice moment in the calendar and I think they were clever to turn from summer to winter and just physically make it happen. I think a lot of people didn’t think it would happen.
Royal Academy of Arts - Summer Show 2020
Christabel - Are there any other shows on right now which you’d recommend or any that you’re looking forward to seeing?
Kate - There’s a Theaster Gates show on at the moment which I really want to see because he’s such an important artist. Artemisia Gentileschi at the National Gallery, she’s an artist of singular importance from 1600s Italy. I’m just on my way to see a show that’s curated by Carrie Scott at David Hill gallery which is a photography exhibition.
I’m trying not to see too many shows because I’ve seen so many at the moment and I need to spend more time writing, but I always want to see everything. Yesterday I saw Cornelia Parker’s new work at Cristea Roberts. And I saw Stephen Friedman’s 25 Year Anniversary show which is really worth seeing. It’s so exciting to get into galleries at the moment I’ve become addicted to going.
Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1638-39
Theaster Gates: Amalgam
Christabel - If you hadn’t gone down the art route what do you think you’d be doing now instead?
Kate - It’s like sliding doors, if I hadn’t discovered that art history stand at that fair, I would have studied English or History. Maybe I’d be a teacher, I always wanted to be a teacher as a kid, I’ll talk to anyone that listens and children have to legally listen to their teachers, so that would have been a good captive audience for me.
Pavement #10 and Pavement #6
Pavement #4 shot by Georgia Rothman
Christabel - What’s your dream job?
Kate - I’ve got it.
Explore Christabel Blackburn's first solo exhibition Pavements
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