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In Conversation With Artists Chantal Powell and Melissa White

Picture of Jenna Meade
Jenna Meade
Updated: 25 April 2017
Chantal Powell and Melissa White teamed up as part of the Make/Create craft exhibition in St. Pancras Crypt, created by the collaboration between Griffin Gallery and QEST. It showcased how contemporary and traditional craft fusion is very much a part of fine art. Powell and White’s work ‘Veneer’ is a testament to how traditional art – taken from the Elizabethan period – can be replicated in a sympathetic and contemporary fashion. In a conversation with the two artists, we find out what collaborating for London Craft Week meant to them, what inspires their work and what their plans for the future are.
Veneer at Make/Create St. Pancras Crypt
Veneer at Make/Create St. Pancras Crypt © Kallaway

Was this your first collaboration on an experimental piece –– how did you find teaming up with Melissa?

A: Chantal Powell: It was the first time I had worked directly with someone on a piece and it was a really interesting experience. I’m not used to sharing thoughts about a work when it’s in its early stages as it’s a very nebulous process for me. Having to vocalise those thoughts in the collaborative discussions was challenging. The project also necessitated working in a new way, as practically we needed to agree on a final outcome quite early, which left less room for a process influenced by material experimentation. Having the opportunity to work with a scholar as talented as Melissa definitely brought a new dimension to the work. Her area of expertise was of direct relevance to the concepts I was already exploring and so the pairing felt very genuine and allowed for a natural extension in my thinking. The final piece was a site specific, stage-like installation that explored issues of authenticity and value.


You work a lot with sculpture, installations and you are inspired by Baudrillard –– his idea of signs and illusions. Do you think about how people will interpret your work when creating, or does it bother you?


A: CP: I think the ideas should inform the work and come out implicitly rather than explicitly. Making the work is a way of exploring aspects of the world that are of interest to me – aspects that revolve around what we label as our ‘reality’ and the role that illusion and façade play in our lives. Each piece is an exploration, part of the journey for me, in which the questions tend to be more important than the answers. In fact it’s more the case that in working through a piece I am trying to clarify questions rather than make a point or uncover an answer. I hope when people encounter the work, they are able to relate to this. I hope that rather than trying to uncover a hidden ‘message’ they can just enjoy taking it in, allowing any empathetic connections to occur instinctively.


Did you ever find it challenging having your work noticed –– do you feel events like this are a good platform for artists to be seen?

A: CP: What is challenging is investing in large-scale works without knowing where or if they will be seen once completed. It takes faith to keep making the work you know you should be making rather than scaling ideas back. That means some works have to stay as plans in the sketchbook till the right time. The Make/Create exhibition was great because I knew in advance the space we would be making the work for, so the environment became integral to the thinking and the piece itself.


You are inspired by J.G Ballard’s books –– was there any book in particular?


A: CP: Ballard’s books, in a way, feel like a literary equivalent of what I aspire my visual works to be. They are wonderfully poetic and metaphorical. I was captivated by the hypnotic visualisations of crystallising forests in The Crystal World and the hot primeval depths consuming civilisation in The Drowned World. Then there are the astute psychological observations that I find compelling in a novel like Kingdom Come. Much like the theatre, he invites the suspension of disbelief and encourages total immersion in his alternative ‘realities’.

In an ideal world what would your dream project be?


A: CP: I would love to create a project for Artangel. The projects they have commissioned have been extraordinary, enabling artists to create visionary works with key thought given to the environment they are created in. Past projects have created encounters within underground hangars, abandoned libraries, and department stores and have generated some of the most talked about works of our times. That would definitely be a dream project.


Red Chamber
Red Chamber © Chantal Powell

You deal with private clients for houses and you’ve worked on heritage pieces too––I’d imagine this requires taking a lot of other peoples opinions into consideration. Was there more freedom with this experimental project for the London Craft Week?

A: Melissa White: The freedom to experiment was one of the most appealing aspects of this collaboration as I mostly work to commission and therefore to a brief. The large cloth I painted for MAKE/CREATE combines three authentic Tudor designs from different parts of the country: a dragon frieze, a central grotesque and a dado of faux panelling. Normally I replicate historic wall paintings very precisely but here I’ve experimented with a mix-and-match approach that still reflects how these wall paintings were composed at the time. The impact of the bold black and white designs – called antiquework – is the same today as it would have been back then. I’ve also pushed the ageing and distressing of the cloth further than I would normally.


You studied and have worked a lot with recreating the Elizabethan style –– what drew you to this period? How was it teaming up with Chantal Powell whose work is Baroque inspired –– was it an easy collaboration?


A: MW: My degree was in art history but, unsurprisingly, we never touched on the niche subject of English Renaissance domestic interiors. I happened to meet and become apprenticed to an expert in Elizabethan wall paintings and became intrigued by these unusual, dramatic, bold designs that history seemed to have forgotten about. I fell for their rarity and dynamic, painterly immediacy. Teaming up with Chantal has enhanced my perception of these designs that have become so familiar to me. She looks for aspects of imitation and perceptions of reality and was drawn to the faux elements in the designs I reproduce. Elements like the trompe l’oeil panelling and faux architectural features that are common in Elizabethan wall painting. Together we explored how domestic interiors, then and now, seem to aspire to wealth and status by imitating expensive materials: from imitation panelling to cheap laminate flooring pretending to be real oak. Chantal’s signature theatre flats add to the pretence of the installation and behind them, sandbags are literally pinning down the whole charade behind the scenes. The collaboration came very easily since I share many of Chantal’s interests in perception and layers of reality. I just don’t often get to investigate them in the context of my commissioned work, which is generally purely decorative for interiors. Chantal already had an analytical appreciation of Baroque and Renaissance aesthetics so we were quickly hurling ideas around for this large theatrical piece.


How do you feel about the art world today? Do you think it’s more of a challenge to have your work noticed or do you find it’s becoming more accessible with events like London Craft Week?


A: MW: I’m not really involved in the ‘art world of today’. My professional practice is one of pure aesthetics, decoration and visual opulence. I’m more comfortable in the decorative interiors world, which is far more defined and much easier to pitch. This collaborative project for MAKE/CREATE has drawn me into the ‘art world’ with great enthusiasm. Wearing my ‘contemporary design’ hat (designing fabrics and wallpapers etc.) I fit into a much broader sector, which already has established trade shows and events like London Design Week in September.


What inspires your work?


A: MW: I’m unashamedly all about pattern and decoration and its immediacy and honesty. At every opportunity I’m collecting ideas and references to feed into my designs. When it comes to pattern there’s inspiration all around. What inspires me emotionally is more serene and dreamlike with a leaning towards the uncanny; Paul Nash, Andrew Wyeth, de Chirico, Hopper….

You work with cloth, wood, frescos, and patchwork too? Do you have a preferred medium?


A: MW: My fresco secco work and painted furniture lends itself best to my signature ageing and distressing finishes so I’ll always love that. My painted fabrics for soft furnishings have a lovely tactile appeal but I’m currently pushing the boundaries of what I can do with the heavier painted cloths like the one for MAKE/CREATE. At the moment that’s what I’m excited about – these giant tapestry like hangings. I did dabble in small-scale designs for patchwork but that was a world I couldn’t quite grasp so it fell to the wayside.


Who/What are your favourite artists or pieces from the Make/Create exhibit?


A: MW: It has been really inspiring to see (and be part of) the alchemy of pairing craftsmen and contemporary artists together for MAKE/CREATE. I think we’ve all been drawn out of our comfort zones. I’ve yet to explore the exhibition properly but so far I’ve been beguiled by Rosanna Martin and Gill Newton’s piece, which responds directly, and organically with the nooks and crannies of their space in The Crypt.


Are there any styles that you would like to branch out to, different from your current ones?


A: MW: I know it sounds naff but I’m keen to play around with the much-maligned craft of stencilling. I want to cut a series of stencils that can be built up, hand finished and distressed to achieve depths of pattern and texture beyond straight forward painting. I’m also keen to develop the craft of painted floor cloths. These would be similar to my wall cloths but I’d focus on more geometric designs and they’ll require more robust materials.



By Jenna Meade

Jenna is a creative writer, currently undertaking a dissertation based on her fiction-novel extract. She graduated from UCD with a MA in Urban and Regional Planning. She is also a freelance writer specializing in culture and travel and dabbles in photography.