Interview with fine artist Rachel Walker
Through her sketches and paintings, Rachel Walker seeks to find beauty and powerful imagery within social and political issues. After travelling and working with young people in South Africa and Burundi, she studied painting at Camberwell College of art. Now living in Hackney, East London, her work is an attempt to visually combine diverse and disparate environments and, depict the social and cultural richness found on the streets and spaces of everyday life. We have conducted an interview with Rachel.
What challenges you the most when you try to visually combine diverse and disparate environments?
As an artist, I have always been drawn to the images and stories that transcend social and geographical boundaries. In my work, I try to foreground the universality of human experience by presenting the most raw and authentic aspects of people. For me, this is often revealed within fleeting and transient moments of reflection, within the most intricate details in expression. It is immensely difficult to capture this in my work, without reducing the complexity of stories and emotions to a singular value. It feels like something I am always reaching for and always struggling to grasp.
Which is/are your favourite media?
I love pen and paper. You can carry it in your pocket. It takes time to create detailed images with pen, so the work can take days or weeks. There’s a kind of intimacy to studying a human face for so long, it’s deeply personal and all consuming. I feel as if I am continually uncovering new dimensions and depths within the face that feels familiar and I love that process. My work has always had a photojournalistic quality to it, in the way that I am engaged by stories and inspired by honest accounts of lived experiences. Working with paper and pen, I feel that I can translate these narratives with a kind of raw immediacy. Aesthetically, I have always been attracted to the striking sincerity of black and white images, and I believe that working with simple materials allows me to create depth without making too much visual noise and detracting from the subject of the portrait.
Do you gain inspirations while you travel? Which ones remain as the deepest impressions?
I am always inspired when I encounter new people and new environments. When I am travelling, I love to study the art that has emerged from each country and gain an understanding of how social and political realities interact with that work. To grow as an artist, you need to be constantly learning and gaining awareness of the world around you, particularly the traditions and history of a place. My deepest impressions have been from the instances where I encounter a kind of alchemy between time and place and the individual, where I can perceive a myriad of human stories in a single expression or interaction.
Which piece of art that you have ever created is priceless? Why and how was it made?
A difficult one to answer as each piece I produce I become attached to, after the many hours woven into it. However, a body of work that has remained important to me in terms of capturing experiences and influencing how my style has developed, is a series of drawings on coffee bags. I started this project during my time at art school and continued it beyond graduating. I drew images of people in pen on these white paper coffee bags. People that I have met and taken photographs of, mostly while travelling. This was the first time I started using pen to create black and white portraits of people in this photojournalistic style. As the scale of them is quite small, I was able to produce them alongside bigger works, and they became a diary of where I’d been and who I met. The significance of the coffee bags relates to my work as a barista in coffee shops in different places across London, enabling me to meet the eclectic mix of people that make up neighbourhoods in this city, thus creating a link between my travels and my home.
What kind of messages do you wish to extend with your works of art consisting of powerful imagery within social and political issues?
I think the message that I want to convey, is that there is always more than meets the eye. There is another story behind a news headline and that narrative is never singular or simplistic. We have grown so accustomed to a westernised account of global history and social experience that it seems almost impossible to look beyond the paradigm of these systems. I want to explore alternative political and personal narratives through my work and dispel the stereotypes that are born of media headlines. My hope is to make people pause for second and have the desire to see the story beyond the person in the image. Not taking for granted what they see at face value, in the same way you might take for granted a news headline.
Which sort of impressions/influences do you wish to make on people who look at your work?
I want my work to inspire a different approach in the way that we view each other. I want people to look closer at the faces and minute interactions that occur around them everyday. For me, there is something so intensely beautiful about the history that is engrained within our skin, the words that rest unsaid in the curve of our lips. I try to focus attention on these important and infinitesimal details, to invite curiosity. I want us to be curious about each other and look beyond the external narrative that shapes our perceptions of beauty and worth.