Alexis Soul Gray: I understood what art was from an early age!
What is art to you?
I guess I am lucky to have felt that I understood what art was from an early age as our house was full of art prints and books, both my parents’ studied art & design and they took me to see it in person regularly. Art was clearly my strongest subject at school ever since I can remember and I probably would have benefitted from going to art school from 14 or something, I found secondary education a bore, I didn’t enjoy any aspect of it except art. I have never felt other or apart from what art is however as I have matured my understanding of it becomes more complex as I make more and more. At present all I know about it is that it is my own language that naturally follows on from other images and ideas I have seen and felt, its only when I physically make work that the language extends. I understand now more than ever that I think through doing.
What is your first memory of looking at a work of art and having a sense of wonder about it—a sense that took your imagination to a different world? Do you have such a recollection?
Yes, I do actually, and it is such a clear moment for me still. It was a Lucian Freud painting and I viewed it in Liverpool, the painting is called ‘Large Interior. Paddington’, It was in the 1980s and I must have been 6 or 7 years old, the painting is quite large and the child who is laying on the floor was at my height. The looming absence of the male figure symbolised by the coat hanging up was even more powerful given my height. I knew Lucian Freud was somebody to look up to as my parents were fans of his work and we had multiple prints of his work in the house. This moment has never left me.
When I first saw your work, before reading anything about you and your work, I thought about sadness, disappointment, grief, and even trauma and memory, in particular memory that is as fleeting and as fragile as life itself, and then I read in your artist’s statement that your work is concerned with loss, memory and grief. Some of your works were like short poems of an image of memory but with something dark, as if from some past event, always permeating, always occupying its space. Personally, I believe that nearly all children and young people in the world, including many with privileged backgrounds, suffer some childhood trauma that they somehow manage to negotiate to the background or a hidden place. I think children are hard-wired that way, the way we’re all perhaps hardwired to react instantly to a snake or some other danger. Do you think that is true? Did you experience moments of trauma and loss as a young person? I know you talk about witnessing death through assisted suicide. Might you talk about that experience? How old were you?
This is a big question to answer but I will have a go. It is interesting to me your mention of all children experiencing trauma and burying it. I lost my mother when I was 25 following a very short (5 months) but intensely painful and complicated battle with cancer. She ended her life at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland on December the 7th 2006 which me and other family members witnessed. She was incredibly brave, and I am immensely proud of her for making that choice. Sadly, the period running up to this day was terrible and has left a very sever imprint upon me. Following her death, I became very depressed but managed to carry on to a certain extent, I was studying at the Royal Drawing School (then The Princes Drawing School) in London. Life wasn’t easy for a few years, I tried to rescue an on/off relationship with another artist I had met at the college but failed to, it was heart-breaking for me and possibly him too. I couldn’t really work, I had very little support and often felt alone. I suffered terrible nightmares and was treated for PTSD. One of the reasons I had such a severe reaction to her death might be because when I was about 2 years old, I was separated from the man I knew as my father. I cannot really remember it, but it was buried in my body, the loss of a parent had already left a scar, so when it happened again and in such a disturbing way, it felt even more intense.
Interestingly, all your works are beautifully composed with a quiet expressionistic quality to them that also is sometimes disturbing, yet other works portray emotionless or even faceless children and adults but so many of your works have a dreamlike and melancholic quality to them. Could you talk about that and what were some of artists who have influenced you, as well as what ideas have influenced you. And could you talk about how you have you seen your work evolve?
I don’t really set out to make images of any particular type, nor do I plan the work really at all. I often start with a found image, not always but in the main I do. This might be a ripped-out page from a 1980s knitwear book or a historical painting, so I guess there is intention there but it’s more of a way in rather than a plan. After working quite directly to start with, I will abandon the image and instinctively work allowing my imagination to complete the image.
I think what I am trying to say is that I do not try to make something melancholic but that the reason I paint at all is wrapped up in a need not to forget and therefore sadness and stillness repeatedly appear. In terms of influence, I am drawn to medieval religious paintings that depict mother and child, I have worked directly from Crivelli and Bronzino multiple times. Louise Bourgeois repeat concern with the trauma she experienced as a child and young woman, her unashamed discussion of this being the central theme of her work has inspired me greatly. My research at Royal College of Art I think will be concerned mainly with the aftereffects of trauma and making. Contemporary artists working now who have influenced me include Sanya Kantarovsky, Kaye Donachie, Mamma Andersson, Mathew Weir, Marlene Dumas, Cornelia Parker, Paula Rego, Lisa Brice, Laura Ford, Cathie Pilkington..there are more of course, but there’s a few.
In terms of the work evolving, the pandemic period was a real game changer for me. I was having a hard time like we all were, but for me the removal of my ability to work again and my youngest child having an episode of quite severe anxiety led to me feeling quite hopeless. I was shortlisted for the Mother Art Prize and then for an arts council funded commission run by the same organisation, Procreate Project. Dyana Gravina one of the co-founders contacted me to offer me some mentoring for free which scared me at first, I had very little confidence and could barely speak to anyone about my work let alone somebody engaged like Dyana. I agreed and we started fortnightly sessions, it was incredible to find somebody in the art world who not only told me that they believed in my work but also in me as a person, that I had strengths I needed to allow to come out. We discussed the flighty nature of my work, the way I will skip from one mode of working to the next, that sometimes it looks like another artist has made it. I used to feel that this was an immaturity in my practice but now I understand it in an entirely different way. Dyana and I talked at length about the nervous system and how trauma gets stuck in your body and mind, and through these discussions I began to see that the pattern of work in my home studio at the time was a reaction to anxiety and older deep-set trauma. In Jan 2021 I rented a studio away from home, I had a part time lecturing job and felt I could afford it, this decision has been the best thing I have ever done. It transformed my mind set having a space away from home, at the same time I was given a place at RCA and people started buying my work. Brit Pruiksma has been very supportive, as has many people across the internet. Most recently Benjamin Murphy and Nick JS Thompson have been really important too. I am always so grateful when people take the time to encourage me.
Of course, you make paintings, prints and photographs. Could you tell us a bit about your process of making art and why you chose your mediums?
I have always studied drawing rather than painting. I wanted to do a BA in painting but whilst I was at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts (then The London Institute) were offering unconditional places to their students at the new Drawing degree at Camberwell, so feeling flattered I accepted it. I’m not sure it was the right choice as I always wanted to paint. So recently I have chosen oil paint on canvas/linen and wood probably to prove myself a bit as a painter. I always felt like a bit of an outsider to the big scary world of painting so perhaps recently I have been testing myself.
Photography is an important part of my practice, I worked with it quite a lot in my degree but now I mainly use found photographs, however I would really like to take and develop my own photographs again, maybe I will get the opportunity to soon. I have also worked with film, installation and assemblage. At the moment though I am drawn mainly to printmaking, drawing and painting.
Because you are also a teacher of art at the college and secondary level, could you talk a bit about what you want your students to learn about art and making art? In the beginning is it about seeing? Is it first about the way they see the world around them or is it about craft and skill?
I have taught on and off since graduating, I did gain a teaching qualification but veered away from teaching in schools as I just didn’t feel the national curriculum had very much to do with art at all. I have taught mainly in the post 16 FE sector as well as mature students, including universities and colleges but also museums, galleries and in community art spaces. I specialise in teaching drawing and printmaking in the main but now painting too… with drawing is always about looking and learning to see, breaking learnt habits, embracing mistakes and the chaotic nature of materials. I think I should listen to my tutor voice a bit more myself in the studio as I would certainly say at times, I do not take enough risks. I plan to..hope to as I start at Royal College of Art this Sep.
I have two final questions that I ask all artists: What is good art? What should good art do? And who decides what good art is? And when I ask who decides, I mean who is it among those with real influence in the art world. Are they the art critics, curators, academics, art historians, art collectors? All of the above? Or has the Internet and mass media changed that? I know art is for all of us, but is art still the world of the elite, who decides what art is included in our museums and in top galleries at universities and elsewhere?
I don’t believe there is good art or bad art, I mean clearly, I think some art is bad but lots of the work I love you might think is bad so I’m not really sure there is an answer there…or have I answered it? Not sure! Good art in my opinion just hits me, needs no explanation. As I have got a bit older I can recognise more and more work that seems highly derivative which I find a bore but at the same time my work is sometimes completely ripped off other art works so…not sure I have a leg to stand on here, maybe I am talking about ‘style’…when there are loads of people on Instagram making colourful work for no other reason than it looks good in a digital square…you start to see through that a bit.
Before I had kids Instagram didn’t exist…I was curating shows and bringing artists together to make work in unusual settings and the only way to get the word out about these shows was Facebook and word of mouth. We never sold work because we couldn’t connect to a wide enough audience and clearly Instagram has changed that enormously. The followers an account has though clearly has very little bearing on real art world influence as some of the galleries I speak to have very few, others have enormous amounts. there are positives and negatives to both I would say. In terms of influence, it seems to be a mixture of all of the above. There is clearly a long way to go in terms of who decides where art is placed in museums and major collections, I do believe it is still the world of the ‘elite’ unfortunately and perhaps if my parents were very wealthy and exceptionally well connected, I may have had a much easier journey since graduating than the one I have had.