Practitioner Focus: Elinor Brass

Elinor Brass is an artist, researcher and teacher, Head of Art at a school in South East London, Director of Gerald Moore Gallery and founder of Sketchbook Circle. 

How would you describe your work?

I am interested in surface, layer, colour, history.  My work has tended to be responding somehow to the urban world and to places that show the traces of human life.  But not the figure.  I am interested in implied stories of what might have gone on, but mostly about the beauty in the overlooked - the everyday.  Over the years I have taken so many photos of old walls and abandoned or forgotten spaces that I continue to return to for inspiration.  And I do like a good building site.  I suppose I would call myself a painter but I work with a mixture of media and methods and often into 3D.  Whatever feels right.  I draw a lot.  I use my camera too.  I stitch and I use printmaking as a way to create layers.  I didn't study art at as an undergrad nor do a foundation mostly because my experience of art at school wasn't good and at the time I didn't understand what art could be.  So I ended up studying History of Art and History before my PGCE in Art and then did a Masters in painting once I was teaching.  It has meant that I have had to learn a lot of techniques through teaching myself.  

In recent years I have often collaborated with another artist, Emily Orley who is a lecturer at Roehampton University.  We are both interested in the history of spaces and have explored ways to respond through developing installations in places we found around London.  We begin the projects with the idea that 'places remember events' (words that James Joyce scribbled in the margin of his notes for Ulysses) to investigate and document the sites.  We spend time researching the place and then develop artwork back into the space responding to the history of the site.  

Sketchbook Circle enables me to keep my making processes constantly moving and I am lucky enough to have a space at home which acts as a small studio.  It means that the lines between life and art are blurred but that is the way I prefer it.  At the moment, I am in the forth year of an Educational Doctorate and so I have not been making big work or working on big projects as much of my time is committed to my research.   However, I continue to make every week somehow as it keeps me well.  I also consider my role as Director of Gerald Moore Gallery as a kind of artwork.  The gallery opened in 2012 and since then I have been leading the programme of exhibitions and events.  It has allowed me to commission work, to work with artists, galleries and curators and to explore different ways to use the gallery spaces and most importantly to place learning at the centre of everything we do.  

Hampstead Road

How does your process work?

I was lucky enough to do my Masters in painting on an artist teacher course at the beginning of my teaching career that meant I could still work full-time.  Studying and teaching forced me to develop a discipline towards making work that I have managed to sustain and is kind of where the idea for Sketchbook Circle came from.  There isn't ever enough time!  But I find the more that I make the more that I am thinking about making and the easier it is to dip in and out of making.  I don't wait for inspiration or to be in the mood, but just book in time to make sure that I keep things moving.

In my little studio space I have lots of materials that I like using and to which I often return.  I tend to get ideas moving through working small initially and using materials that I am confident with and then I build from there.  I am always telling my students that they need to see what emerges and I suppose I would say that this is what I like most about making work.  In life generally I am quite organised and I like a plan!  But I also like to be flexible and reactive which I suppose comes through in my work.  I like the way that Sketchbook Circle throws new things into the mix so that I am always developing as an artist and not only doing what I know.

I absolutely always carry a notebook.

I have lots of art books and a few favourite to which I regularly return. 

I draw a lot.

I love going on courses that push me around a bit and make me reflect more deeply on my practice.

I use my camera to collect ideas.

What tools and materials could you not live without?

I have a folder of collected papers to which I am constantly adding and which comes on all of my travels.  It is made up of old work, coloured tracing paper, scraps of vinyls, graph paper...  I really love drawing when I am travelling and so I also have plenty of different pens that allow me to build up surface as well as to work in line.  I love working with Posca Pens and have recently bought some more deliciously coloured Liquitex paint pens.  I also have a stock of washi tapes that I take with me.

Over the years I have stockpiled tester pots of emulsion which I use a lot in my work but recently have been using alongside lots of vivid drawing inks, bright acrylics and a range of fabulous Liquitex spray-paint.   I have also been working a lot with Gelli plates in order to develop surfaces and like the immediacy of that and the fact I can work quickly and be reactive.

I have lots of brown paper sandwich ties from Italy that I always get when I go to visit! I love using them as a way of drawing and I move into 3D playing with sticks and card and a glue gun. 

Tiger is my favourite place to visit for quirky materials but I am always checking what is in the stationary section of Poundland!  And I love a good wander around B and Q...  

What projects are you currently working on?

With my doctorate coming towards the end, most of my energy is devoted to that when I am not at work.  I chose to do it in order to make the most of my role in the gallery as it was such a big project and I felt quite isolated setting it up.  I wanted to make sure that it was a success and had to learn very quickly how to run a business, to develop a vision for the space, to programme events and to get as many people on side as possible!  I have benefited enormously from the support of my supervisor, Claire Robins at the Institute of Education.  She has given me a great deal of moral support, as well as given me the confidence to try new things and to stand up for what I believe in. 

At the moment I am exploring being an artist, researcher and teacher within my own institution and considering the impact of the galley on the students I teach.  I am hoping that I can complete my thesis by the end of 2017.

What is the best piece of creative advice you have ever been given?

I went on a creativity course at The School of Life in London which was led by Michael Atavar, who wrote 'How to be an Artist'.  I love going on courses like that as I am a bit greedy to learn new things and to carve out time to think about being creative.   One thing that he said was to not use the fact that you haven't got the space, time or money to do what you want, but instead to use what you have.  To turn it into a positive.  I think we are always doing this in schools anyway with the limits of time and funds, but I really like the idea of applying it to my own practice and I find it pushes me harder and I think I am a better artist as a result.  It kind of cuts out the opportunity to make an excuse about not making.  At the moment I am working small as that is what my space allows for, but in a way I think the work is more developed than it would be if I was painting large canvases.  It also suits my life at the moment.

The other thing Michael says is 'The only way to start is to start'.  Which I am often telling my students.  I am an advocate of using your body and creating energy to enable the work.  The most perfectly formed idea isn't going to emerge from nowhere.  Making work involves the right sort of energy.

What would your dream project be?

I am thoroughly enjoying running the Sketchbook Circle and would love for that to become an even bigger movement.  It would be wonderful to have the funding to work with more of those involved to run the circle: developing resources and a publication, offering on-line courses, more CPD, more support generally.  I really care about the circle but want it to be the best it could possible be. 

I am definitely going to write a book about the circle.  I have always wanted to write a book... Not an ordinary book, but something visual and which celebrates the circle community.  But I must finish my doctorate thesis first...

What are you reading at the moment?

No light reading for me at the moment!  I have been using a book called: 'Teaching Art in the Neoliberal Realm.  Realism versus Cynicism' edited by Gielen and De Bruyne, which is really satisfying to read as it gives such a clear account of the challenges we are all facing in school over the last few years.  But I am also using 'The Wander Society' by Keri Smith quite a lot at school and love Stephen Fowler's beautiful book on rubber stamps!  Oh and the 'Photographers Playbook'.