Artist Ylva Kunze: Chance and Control

CatchingTheCometFinalWelcome to Catching the Comet’s Tail, a series of interviews with writers, artists and musicians discussing creativity and their creative process. This week,  I spoke to Swedish contemporary artist Ylva Kunze during her first London show, Artist in Residence. Her canvases, informed by the woods and lakes of her childhood in Småland, are deeply affecting, filled with kinetic fervour.  It was no surprise to me to discover that her name, Ylva, means ‘she-wolf’ in Swedish.

Ylva KunzeYlva on creativity and the creative process…

“For me, creativity is an urge that I have to act on. It’s a total body feeling, something I get if I see something that inspires me. I immediately want to act –  to experiment – there is a sense of urgency about it, like with everything in my life!  I don’t know where the urge comes from, but when I’m involved in the process of making a painting, I do sometimes wonder where the feeling begins. If, for some reason, I can’t get to my studio when I have the urge to create, I can put the feeling on hold and tap back into it. It’s a sense of wanting to try – like I am desperate to start the journey, the process. For me, creativity is about ‘finding out’ and the origin of it is not in my brain but my body. The urge might be to explore colours or experiment with the medium I am putting on the canvas. I never feel any fear around my process as it’s the actual doing that makes me creative –  it’s the doing that makes me discover new things.”

Was creativity encouraged in you as a child and who were your early inspirations?

“Creativity was all around me as a child, for example, my dad made all our furniture. It’s a very Swedish way I think, this idea of making things; you don’t employ someone, you do it yourself. In school we studied textiles and woodwork from a young age. My mum has a studio and still paints. My childhood home was full of paintings, and my grandma, who was from Vienna, went to art school in the early 1900s. Her father was an architect who the worked on Vienna’s famous opera house and mixed in Art Nouveau circles.

However, I never thought I would be an artist ~ perhaps it was something to do with being in Sweden in the 1970’s, but I just didn’t see art as my path and didn’t discover it until I was in my 20s. I was traveling a lot, living in Los Angeles, New York, Stockholm and  Gothenburg before I came to London. I was living in a squat with musicians and meeting artists, and decided to start a foundation course in art at Chelsea. That’s when I painted for the first time. I still have my first painting. It was a dead animal project; three pig heads!

My grandma was one of my earliest artistic inspirations but I also remember, when I was about 10 years old, being blown away by the vastness of the paintings in the Louvre in Paris. It was the sheer size of them that took my breath away – a strong bodily sensation that I remember very clearly.”

How long have you been working on Artist in Residence and is the final result what you originally planned? 

“I found my painting voice about ten years ago. This process of placing canvases flat on the floor, using buckets and buckets of paint, mixing the paint with glue and the way I drag the paint across the canvas has been with me for some time. This show, Residence, took around two years to complete. A few paintings came about at the last minute and were still wet while I was hanging them.

It’s important to me to know the space I am showing in because I plan canvas sizes and the way I want the finished show to look. Hanging the pieces is a very important part of the process for me, and original concepts will change according to the space.”

How do you know when a painting is finished?

“I get a gut feeling when a painting is finished. I feel exhilarated. It makes me excited and that feeling is the whole reason for painting in the first place.  A painting is done when I feel a sense of unity with it.”

Who, what or where always inspires you?

“Walking in the the vast, raw woods in Småland inspires me; the beauty of the heavy snow glimmering on the tree branches; hearing my footsteps crunching the snow or swimming in a lake with just the sound of the birds and my arms stroking the water. That tranquillity, emptiness and space, rawness and simplicity, is a necessity for me. Being separated from it influences my work. To create, I have to sweat and get my whole body involved so the worst thing for me is to be still. I often do body painting where I’m heaving paint around physically, it’s very kinetic process for me.”

Is there a collaborative element to your creative process?

“When I am painting, I am a very private person so I never have anyone watch me while I paint, but the hanging of a show is a different matter. I love having people to bounce off at that stage and having my representative (Sarah Smith) has been fantastic for me. I needed that support otherwise I’d probably still just be in my studio not showing anyone anything! I am confident as an artist but wasn’t that confident about showing my work in London until I started to collaborate with Sarah.”

Ylva Kunze: Overalls and ClogsWhere do you most like to be when you paint and do you have a routine?

“My time is limited because I am a mum, but generally I turn up at my studio and plan what I’m doing, then I mix the paint which is a very meditative part of my journey. Painting grounds me, quietens me down. When the actual painting process begins, I like to have loud music in the background, XFM radio playing indie rock. I find the energy of London more conducive to painting than the Swedish countryside although my work is completely informed by the latter. The first thing you are told as a child in Sweden is, “Don’t go out into the woods because you will get lost like Hansel and Gretel… you will disappear.”

In my studio, I need complete freedom to make a big mess. I use so much paint, there are huge puddles of it everywhere. The photo on the left shows my overalls and my clogs literally clogged with layers of paint. My environment allows me to lose myself, just like I was warned not to as a child, in the smell of the paint, the music I play, and the paint itself.

It can be frustrating having to stop painting to pick up my children, but I have to look at it positively. I am a daytime person now but before children it was different. I have bad days and good days, but I can bring it on… I can bring on the she-wolf!”

Please share a special object that connects with your painting.

Boken om Lyckan

“This is a book my grandma gave me in my late teens when I was on a journey in my life. She was a fantastic person; at 85 she was wallpapering her own walls, a total inspiration. She wrote a special message inside it and it means a lot to me. Boken om Lyckan means ‘The Book of Happiness’. It makes me feel like my grandma is still here and reminds me of her inspiring character.”

Are there other creative art forms you wish you could master?

“There’s nothing I want to do other than paint, but a nice singing voice would be good! I used to dance a lot… that and horse-riding are other art forms I love.”

How did becoming a parent affect your creativity?

“Becoming a mum made me much less self centered. It changed my work in that I didn’t care so much about what people thought. I was less afraid to try new things once I had been through childbirth.  I did some of my best work when I was pregnant and have photos of me, huge, in my studio painting frantically. I did some really key pieces at that time. John Cage said, “When you start working, everybody is in your studio – the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas…” Motherhood gave me perspective, it helped me leave all those voices behind.”

What are you working on next?

“I am just breathing right now. I am going to carry on where I left off, ideas are brewing. I definitely have things that I need to do.”

You can find out more about Ylva on her website www.ylvakunze.com.

Motion II Ylva Kunze

Motion II

Ylva Kunze: Artist in Residence is showing at the C99 Art Project Gallery, 99 Chamberlayne Rd, Kensal Rise, London NW10 until 9th May.  Open Monday-Friday 10-5, Saturday 10.30am – 5pm, Sunday 4pm-7pm. Contact 0208 969 6154  Furthermore, a limited edition range of clothes using Ylva’s paintings from British label Me and Thee is available from www.lovekr.co.uk.

Elizabeth Fremantle: Tea, Toast and Not Losing Your Head

CatchingTheCometFinalWelcome to Catching the Comet’s Tail, a series of interviews with writers, artists and musicians discussing creativity and their creative process. To launch the series, I am delighted to welcome English author Elizabeth Fremantle. Her first novel, Queen’s Gambit, based on the life of Henry VIII’s sixth wife Katherine Parr,  had me gripped from the first page until the last. I happen to know that, not only is she a gifted writer, she is also a demon at Scrabble. 

Elizabeth on defining creativity and the creative process…

Elizabeth Fremantle

Author Elizabeth Fremantle

“I am pragmatic about creativity. I am not of the view, for example, that I am the catalyst for some mysterious alchemical process. For me writing (and I’m talking here about the production of extended pieces of fiction) is more craft than art; it is something you teach yourself to do and it improves with practice. Certainly there are character traits that suggest a propensity for the craft, all rather dull, I’m afraid: discipline, a desire for solitude, swottiness and the ability to consume vast quantities of tea and toast, because when you are on a roll the last thing you want to do is come over all Nigella. No amount of talent can compensate for hard work but it is true that some people have an extra something that just makes them better than everyone else (not me, I might add) but even those people have to work hard. If I have a muse at all, it is the accumulated knowledge from all the books I have ever read and resides in an unwieldy and unreliably accessed conglomeration in my head.”

Was creativity encouraged in you as a child and who were your early inspirations?

“In my family ‘creative’ was what you were when you were not ‘academic’ and it meant that your education didn’t really matter; I was not considered ‘academic’. Reading was my refuge from an eccentric family and an effective mask for my social inadequacy. I read anything I could get my hands on from Jean Plaidy to Somerset Maugham, via Gerald Durrell and Agatha Christie. Often when I finished books I would start them all over again immediately. The only thing I ever wanted to become was a writer because I saw it as a way to create worlds for people to inhabit, who felt they didn’t fit in the actual world; but not being ‘academic’ made me believe it would never be possible. In my thirties I thought ‘sod it,’ and went to university. It turned out I was ‘academic’!”

How long did it take to write Queen’s Gambit and can you recall the first spark of inspiration? 

“I had written a number of novels, none of which had found a publisher and was beginning to think that perhaps I didn’t have what it takes to be a novelist. I was writing intense, writerly stories about young, messed-up posh girls, despite knowing that there was no market for such things. It was a colleague, a literary scout for whom I worked, who suggested I think about who I was writing for. It occurred to me only then to think of writing the kind of books I have always most enjoyed reading rather than the kind I thought I ought to write. I was intrigued by Katherine Parr because she was the wife everyone thought was rather dull and yet she was the one who survived. The more I researched her the more I realized that she had been miscast by history and I felt compelled to explore her story in fiction. Once I started, I was on a mission; it took me about eighteen months and I did really create the book I set out to write, which is actually more difficult than it sounds. I don’t know if you ever know that a novel is finished; in my case I simply have to decide that I must stop tinkering. There is not a passage I read in the ‘finished’ book that I don’t still want to change.”

Who, what or where always inspires you?

“My inspiration is most usually derived from reading but sometimes I will wander round an old building or look at a view or a portrait and the ideas begin to pop into my head. For example I was at a wedding the other day in Richmond Park and, driving through the deer park to get there, my mind started firing off. Once we were there I was mesmerized by the view from the back of the building, a landscape blurred by rain that I imagined had changed little in five hundred years. It is at moments like that when my characters begin to make themselves heard. Sometimes it flows and sometimes it doesn’t, there is no rhyme or reason to it.

I don’t believe in writers’ block. I have good days and bad but it’s just a job and the world would come to a halt if everyone else decided that they couldn’t do their job because they weren’t ‘feeling it’. I did say I was a pragmatist.

I write completely alone. It works better for me that way. I do, however belong to a writer’s group, the function of which is more moral than editorial support. It is necessarily a solitary business being a novelist, and sometimes it’s helpful to know people who are striving for similar ends. When you start banging on about your characters as if they are actually people in your life, they are less likely than your regular friends to glaze over, or think you’ve lost your marbles. I never, ever show my work to friends or family until it is ready for publication (which seems to annoy lots of people) but I have one or two trusted editors who give me notes on earlier drafts.”

Elizabeth's writing desk

Elizabeth’s writing desk

Where do you most like to be when you write and do you have a routine?

“I definitely work best at my desk with all my reference books around me and an internet connection to fact-check as I go along. I like silence and my dogs sleeping at my feet. I’m not very good at being portable. Comfort and warmth are key and the best thing about being a writer is that you can go to work in your pyjamas. I often think people are disappointed when they meet me because I used to be a Vogue fashion editor and I am never wearing the kind of thing they expect – its always a version of pyjamas really.

I’m absolutely a morning person but can, and do, work in any moment when the desire arises. I have been known to sit at my desk after a night out, having had one two many glasses of wine, and start thumping away at the keyboard – see above mention of wedding in Richmond – sometimes this produces diamonds but often drivel. When I am writing a new draft of something my rule is to write a minimum of 1,000 words a day. I am very strict about this and it suits me perfectly. I rarely sacrifice other things to write as there’s nothing I’d rather be doing.”

Please share a special object that connects with your writing.

“I bought this miniature (see picture below) to celebrate my first publishing deal and though I don’t invest it with any kind of talismanic powers, it does remind me of the joy I felt when I knew I was going to be earning my living doing the thing I love best. It is a Victorian copy of a Nicholas (who is in my next book) Hilliard original of Mary Queen of Scots by George Perfect Harding.”

Victorian copy of a Nicholas Hilliard original of Mary Queen of Scots by George Perfect Harding.

Victorian copy of a Nicholas Hilliard original of Mary Queen of Scots by George Perfect Harding.

Which other creative art form outside the one you are known for do you wish you could master?

“I’m hopeless at everything else though I did make a couple of rather good human beings once.”

How did becoming a parent affect your creativity?

“I really have absolutely no idea, though being a single mother has made me very time efficient.”

What are you working on next?

“Queen’s Gambit is the first of a Tudor trilogy. The second book takes place a few years later in time and though I don’t revisit any of my protagonist’s stories, there are a few minor characters who reappear. Queen Jane’s Shadow (out in May 2014) tells of the two younger sisters of the tragically executed Lady Jane Grey, one of whom, Lady Mary is a four foot hunchback. In the period physical deformity was regarded with great suspicion and often linked to the demonic in people’s minds, so Mary’s perspective on the court is coloured by this. Lady Catherine is the capricious beauty of the family and in love with the idea of love, something that eventually becomes her downfall. I intertwine their stories with that of a female court painter, Levina Teerlinc, who was remarkable in that she was earning her living from her work in a time when women rarely set foot beyond the domestic arena. It is all set against the backdrop of the turbulent and bloody Tudor succession.

The third novel, which I am working on now, focuses on the life of the ‘decadent’ Penelope Devereaux who scandalised the late Elizabethan court.”

You can find out more about Elizabeth on her website www.elizabethfremantle.com Twitter @LizFremantle Facebook Elizabeth Fremantle.

QGcoverQueen’s Gambit is available now in hardback, published by Michael Joseph.

Next week’s Catching the Comet’s Tail features Swedish contemporary artist Ylva Kunze talking creativity, kids and paintbrushes. Please follow #ctct on Twitter.