In the latest in a series of interviews with Fierce Nice's partner artists, Wicklow-based fine artist and photographer Derval Freeman joins Ruan Shiels for a discussion about her work, inspirational rambles through her countryside surroundings, lifelong love of stargazing, (fantastic) taste in music, and a whole lot more besides.
Thanks so much for joining me for this interview, Derval. Can I start by asking you to introduce yourself and talk a bit about your background?
Hi Ruan, thank you for inviting me. I am a visual artist based in county Wicklow. I grew up in county Tipperary and our family moved to county Clare in 1990 when I was still in secondary school. I graduated from Limerick School of Art and Design in 1996 and in my first few years after Art College I prioritised my time bringing up my son and painted whenever I could. I had been painting on and off over the years and in the last approximately 6 years or more, I have been able to focus on my art almost every day.
How would you describe your art and the intent behind it?
My art is a constant exploration and response to life, the natural world around me and the wonders of the universe. Each new painting has a whole new set of challenges and a whole new set of problems to solve and this is what excites me about painting.
I have been told on a few occasions that my paintings look like you are looking down over something, like maps or that they give the sense of hovering and others describe them as having an underwater effect. I am happy to hear that and it makes sense if I think back to where this body of work began a couple of years ago. Anyone that knows the beautiful surroundings of county Wicklow will know that there is no such thing as a walk here without a hill or two along the trail. So I think it might be from my adventures out in the landscape observing different terrain from the hills and mountains. I have an interest in astronomy too and I love to gaze up at the night skies and that comes into my work too, it’s a view from a different kind of height I suppose.
I would describe my art as abstract that leans more towards abstract expressionism. I enjoy the adventure of colour, shape, movement and the challenge of finding a balanced composition that merges everything together in harmony. I want to be surrounded by colour, especially since COVID began, where I became obsessed with brighter more vibrant colours in my paintings and I’ve been creating a world of a lot more colour through my art over the past year.
I explore how one colour leads onto the next, finding shape and form that emerge from my drawings and scribbles beneath the layers of paint. Some of the under-drawings get lost into blends of paint and where ever the painting demands, these drawings are re-enhanced or further developed during the process.
My finished paintings result in washes of vivid colour that sweep across the canvas, layered upon by thick impasto oils mixed in cold wax. They have a rich matted finish and some give a candy-like sense or like icing on a cake.
Which artists do you most admire? And have they or others influenced your work?
I love the work of so many different artists from past to present. In terms of art movements I would say that abstract expressionism is one of my favourites in history. For many different reasons, the artists I admire vary such as Helen Frankenthaler, Rotraut, Wassily Kandinsky, Bridget Riley, Sean Scully, Maggi Hambling and both Willem and Elaine de Kooning.
I am not sure if I am influenced by other artists. I genuinely don't know and if I am, for me, I think it would be more of a subconscious thing. In an earlier group exhibition I had back in 2019 the curator told me that a mother came into the gallery with her 7 year old daughter and the little girl turned to her mother asking 'is that Picasso?' about one of my paintings and others I am told have seen Kandinsky in them. I was very happy to hear such great feedback and it got me curious enough to look at their work in more depth. Children have a wonderful honesty and innocence about them so I was very intrigued to say the least.
What does your workspace or studio look like?
My art studio is part of a converted wooden shed situated down at the end of the garden where I live. I had the shed partitioned and insulated with interior walls and a ceiling. It has three little windows and the light is best in the summer time which is why I painted all the walls, ceiling, floor and anything I could, in white.
The space consists of easels and storage shelving for my painting supplies and my camera gear. My paintings are all around me on the walls making a vibrant colourful surrounding and good environment to be in. I always have flowers on the window sill too and I love the burst of smell from them together with the oil paints whenever I enter the studio.
I have a computer in the corner where I play my music from and do all my admin work, photo editing and video work. I document all my own paintings and it is good to have them beside me to refer to when making sure the colours are correct in post-production after the photoshoot.
In another corner of the studio I have a small hot plate where I melt beeswax to make my own cold wax medium and I also borrow it to brew my coffee every morning.
Can you talk me through your process and how you go about planning and executing a painting?
I start out with loose gestural drawings and scribbles and from there the colour palette often begins with two or three chosen oil colours. I make loose washes and blend the oils using a squeegee which pushes the colour and I use torn off fabric to take up some of the paint. I build-up layers of colour mixed in cold wax and this allows me to make deep marks where I pull some of the thicker paint up. By pulling up paint and making deep marks in the cold wax, it adds to the composition and can bring through some underlying pencil and colour beneath. I like to cut through straight line edges linking the shapes and seeing where that leads to. I work from the blended colours that emerge from the first layers, for instance where the colour becomes transparent and the whites of the canvas come through, I will mix the actual colour I see and build it up from there. The shapes and composition slowly evolve over a period of time and where some pencil marks get lost to the layering, I mark them back in again where ever the painting demands.
With regard to scale, I like to work on different size canvases as I find it challenges me in many different ways. I often work on something smaller when I am stuck on a larger painting and sometimes I will have three to four works on the go. Working small in between the larger pieces help to bring me back to the larger paintings with new discoveries found. I like when that happens.
Where do you draw inspiration from for the various narrative and figurative elements that are so deftly incorporated into your abstract paintings?
My inspiration is drawn from wonders of existence in a universe so vast and infinite and by so many things under that umbrella. I would say that sometimes I am inspired by the very need to 'just paint'. It is something to fix, to solve and to organise, through the realms of self-exploration in a different language. Painting is my purpose in the world and a tool I use to celebrate my passion for life, nature and the universe beyond all existence. I have as much a need to go out walking in the landscape surrounded by nature, as much as I have the need to stargaze at night, which is a different kind of nature by which our planet is surrounded.
My drawings used to begin out in the landscape with quick expressive gestural drawings of rocks and the different terrain of the open hills and places I frequented and still do. The drawings were abstracted gestures of what I saw and I focused on the rounded uneven element in the landscape and from the divided lands and its boundaries.
I see the landscape as a continuous circular organic thing and I see a lot of the feminine figure in it. For example when I stand on the hill at the back of the Djouce woods in county Wicklow and look on out towards Maulin mountain, I see the shape of the female figure lying down as if it were a sleeping giant in a silent surrounding. There is a cycle in nature that resembles humanity and I see everything as circular from outside our solar system, down to the telling of their age in the rings of a tree stump.
There's a thrilling sense of exploration and journey to your work. Are you often surprised by the direction(s) a painting takes while working on it, and do you ever struggle with knowing when a piece is, for want of a better word, "finished"?
There are constant surprises, either out of mistakes I cover over or on occasion after a day in the studio where I feel a painting is not working out, when spending time away from it and by coming back to it again, there are lots of new possibilities found. The work becomes unfamiliar to me at times and that is where the small surprises pop into my awareness. During times like these I grow a fondness to the work in progress and sometimes enough to make the decision it is finished. Of course there are other times I change it completely and it turns into something I never intended. Other times though with some of my 'finished' paintings, I often re-work them again. It all depends on what the work demands and when it demands it. My paintings are in constant flux and so far I am enjoying the journey they are taking me on.
Your style has evolved considerably over the years that you've been painting, growing increasingly bold, colourful and abstract. Did this happen organically, or did you - and do you continue to - make a conscious effort to experiment and push forwards stylistically?
I would say that from my earlier work there has been a definite change between each of my series of works. Mostly that had to do with my personal life and what I had to prioritise as a mother, and willingly it dictated when I could paint or otherwise. I had been painting on and off since graduating from Art College and art has always been my passion so whether I went through years or months to weeks of finding moments to re-connect myself with my art, I knew I would always pick up between those gaps. The thing I discovered was that the wider those gaps the further apart my style became.
In these past few years I have only really found my feet in my painting and the direction I want to go. That for the very simple reason being life allowing me to do so and to paint almost every day now. In the past 6 years or more, my work has organically been evolving in a more consistent way. The music and soundscapes I play when painting often inform the work. So I consider music to play an important role in the process of making a work. When I first came up from county Clare to live in Wicklow with my now husband who I married almost 2 years ago, I indulged greatly in the forests of my surrounding landscape. I was completely taken up and overwhelmed by the woodlands of Wicklow and I wanted to bring that environment back into my studio by surrounding myself with trees and foliage through my paintings and to a point where I brought big branches and all kinds of forest treasures into the studio. Eventually I started to focus on the dead trees and it made me quite depressed for whatever reason, so I just stopped overnight practically.
I wanted to bring more colour and expression into my art and build an environment of brightness. My work became non-objective in ways for a while, it was free, fearless and expressive and I just let myself go with a new discovery into abstraction. I began to look at painters of abstract expressionism and I became obsessed for a small while, before finding my feet in the work I have been making the past two or three years.
Right now my work is organically evolving in a more consistent way more than ever and I am excited to see where it takes me. I feel very grounded and content with my current direction and there is always something new learned each day as the journey evolves.
Your paintings practically dance with passion, energy and rhythmic exuberance. Which got me wondering: Do you often listen to music while working? If so, what's on your playlist and why?
Yes, I paint continuously with music on in the background. I find it hard to paint without it, in fact I don’t think I have ever painted without music of some kind in the background. The music and soundscapes I play when painting often inform the work. So I consider music to play an important role in the process of painting. I have an eclectic taste in music and depending on my mood or what I am working on in the studio, the music I put on plays a part in that.
If I want to be energetic in how I paint I would put on a playlist that includes Chemical Brothers, M83, Aphex Twin, The Knife, Revival Consoles and lots more. Or on another occasion I’d put on my alternative playlist of bands such as The Cure, God is an Astronaut, Nirvana, Kolibrí, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and lots lots more. If I want more ambience and cosmic atmospheric surroundings as I paint, I would play stuff like Biosphere, Stars of the Lid, Hakobune, How to Disappear Completely and lots more musicians mostly whose names I usually can’t pronounce.
I couldn't begin to list them all even though I mention some above but I have several different playlists and each one was made to suit a mood or space in time. The types of music I’ve made playlists of are titled, Desert Dust, Art Studio-Cosmic Meditation, Abstract, Art Studio-Energy, Art Studio-Piano, Art Studio-Ambient Sounds, Art Studio-GIAA (God is an Astronaut), Electronic Ambient, Electronic Slinkey, Electronic Song, Acoustic Song, Alternative Rock and Electronic Rock, just to name a few! I am constantly finding new music to add to each playlist and you could say they too are a growing work in progress.
I love ambient soundscapes and I often mix and play music from my music collection alongside YouTube videos with sound recordings of nature or NASA recordings of planets and other sounds captured in space. I adjust the volumes to a balance I want to hear between YouTube and my music playing.
Fierce Nice's readers and customers will probably know you best as a fine art painter, but you're also a keen and very talented night sky photographer. How and when did you get into astrophotography, and does it scratch a different kind of creative itch for you than painting?
Ever since I was a child as far back as I can remember I have always been a stargazer. I used to gaze out my bedroom window most nights before going to sleep, making out shapes in the stars and constellations and watching the moon drift position over certain periods of time in the night. One of my fondest visual memories as a child was when I travelled home with my family in the car at night after visiting relatives, I would watch the moon from the car window as it seemed to follow us flickering its silver light through the trees. That really fascinated me and my love of stargazing and astronomy has always stayed with me.
About 13 years after graduating from art college, I decided to go back to study photography full time and it was there where I learned all aspects of photography both analogue including the darkroom and digital SLR photography. At the time I touched on a small bit of astrophotography but not much. I went back to painting almost straight after finishing the 2 year course and it was only in the last year when COVID hit that I started experimenting and photographing the night skies.
I wouldn't say I am an astrophotographer per se. I just got the itch when lockdown started to really affect me and because of the restrictions and not being able to venture too far, in a funny way you could say I decided to venture ‘up’ to the nature above and beyond our planet instead! The more the pictures started working out the more I became obsessed with capturing the night skies. In my painting I like to mark cosmic events and I managed to capture some of them that took place in 2020 such as the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. I didn’t have the correct zoom lens so they look more like lone stars just above the horizon than planets but some day when I can afford it I will invest in the right lens and then maybe capture the planets and nebula even.
After a night shoot, I could spend hours afterwards zooming into my raw photo files on my computer screen looking for details and finding things that weren’t visible when taking them. I will definitely keep it up because there is such joy in both photographing the night skies and in the editing after where many treats and surprises are discovered.
I love the time-lapse process videos that you post to your blog. They're a mesmerizing pleasure to watch and provide a fascinatingly insightful glimpse into how your paintings come together. What's your thinking behind creating and sharing this kind of content with your audience?
Making videos of my art is my way of inviting the viewer into my studio and closer to the work. So much detail is lost in photos online and on websites and social media. With video you are getting a closer look at detail and seeing the work in its own environment and in an almost three dimensional way. I think when people see how a work is formed in time-lapse, it helps them understand the process a little more and where certain marks and colours may have come from. I often like to watch them over again myself because there is always something new to be learned while looking back on them. The music I choose to accompany the work are soundscapes and they can be quite meditative, empathising with the slow flow of the camera as it pans across the paintings with the soft in and out of focusing I do with the lens as I video the paintings close up details. I am experimenting with creating my own soundscapes at the moment and it is very enjoyable too. I want to bring the viewer closer into the work in the way you would if you were studying a painting in a gallery by taking the viewer up closer to the textural surfaces, before taking a step back to take it in and observe it in its entirety.
You're very active on social media, particularly on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. How useful do you find these online platforms in terms of promoting yourself and your work, floating new ideas, networking with other artists/galleries, etc.?
I think social media is a great way to reach a wider audience both nationally and internationally. It goes without saying, there is no better way to truly experience art other than in the flesh, standing in front of the work in its environment, be it the artist’s studio, the art gallery or in the collectors home itself.
For me, I have mixed emotions about social media. I feel it is important to go to the galleries and spend real time with art, weather you are the artist or the viewer. Finding solace in a gallery with art all around you can often be the only outlet you need, similar to how solace is found on a walk by the sea, climbing a mountain or simply exploring a forest. With social media, time away from it is a good thing as an artist and not overly relying on the responses you may or may not get from your online audience. It is a great tool for marketing which is very important and without it I wouldn’t have reached a lot of the curators and buyers I have met to date. The great thing about that is, if you are lucky, the work will eventually reach the walls of a gallery or person’s home and I have some of my social media to thank for that. It is also a great opportunity to see what other artists are doing and to interact with each other with different thoughts, ideas and feedback. As solitary as the art studio is in all its bliss, it is nice to have the small door of social media you can open or close in your own time.
We're currently in the midst of another COVID-19 induced lockdown here in Ireland. What sort of impact has the pandemic had on you professionally and personally over the past year?
Working in the studio hasn't really changed or affected me too much, apart from not being able to get the art supplies I need as easily. I love the solitary world in the studio, it is my favourite place to be and my own little corner in the universe.
For me, the hardest part of lockdown is not being able to be with my son who is living in Berlin and also the rest of my family at home in county Clare. I come from a large family of six brothers and one sister, one who was our dear foster brother who passed away October 2019 (RIP James).
With regard to exhibitions, yes it has had a huge impact both negatively and positively. I have had a lot of great opportunities in 2020 and all have been moved to the virtual world on online exhibitions or they have been postponed. It is continuing into 2021 but I hope not for too long more. Having an online exhibition is not the same as being in the gallery and I feel a sort of numbness about it. I miss the openings and meeting the curators and people who come to the exhibitions.
The positive thing about online exhibitions is that they get to a larger audience across the world who otherwise may never have gotten to see your work. I think in these times people are turning to art more and want to be surrounded by colour. I have had a number of online sales and it is encouraging. People want to invest in art right now to brighten up their homes and I have even seen people take up art as a hobby discovering it for the first time as a creative outlet. We need colour more and more these days and there is nothing wrong with that.
What are some of your proudest moments or achievements as an artist to date?
Just recently I was the winner of one of the ‘Enlighten’ fortnightly art challenges with the online artists group called Imagine, in association with Hambly and Hambly Gallery, an online Facebook art group which was formed in the mists of COVID and an art in lockdown initiative. I was also highly commended on 3 separate occasions.
Another recent artistic highlight for me would be for being an invited artist to participate in multiple group shows with Hamilton Gallery, Sligo, to make a painting in response to the poetry of William Butler Yeats. Eva Gore Booth was one to mention which was exhibited externally in The Museum of Literature, Dublin. The other was Among School Children exhibited in Sligo and currently I am in the progress of making another work due for summer 2021 as mentioned earlier.
Juggling the creative and commercial sides of being a working artist is no mean feat, but you seem to manage it well. Is there any advice you'd offer to up-and-coming artists who may be looking to jumpstart or successfully manage their careers? Perhaps something you wish you knew back when you were first starting out?
I have come to realise only lately that the most important thing in your life as an artist is to believe in what you do and just fight for it. That is what will encourage you to get it out there, to be seen by the world. If you made something you believe in, don’t let the dust gather on it. In saying that, it is very easy to have your confidence shaken as I have experienced in the past where once I received a very negative response when I emailed a respected gallery a sample of my work where I was told in an almost berating manner that I have no talent what so ever. It took me months to overcome it and regain my confidence. It is important when you put your work out there to remember that art is subjective and to continue to believe in what you are doing.
I think it is important to make art as often as possible especially if it makes you happy, and art that makes you question its next move. Aim to perfect your technique all the time and never think you’ve made your best work but believe it is yet to come. Always be open to new things and let them happen naturally. Loose the fear but keep a small bit, there will always be a new set of problems and new ways to solve them, or at least there should be. That is one of many reasons that drives me to paint. If you ever doubt that making art is for you then stop and you will soon find out the answer. If it is for you it will never leave and so it is important to make it work for you when and where ever possible. The same goes for musicians, writers, and actors.
I believe it is important to use social media in the right way to get your art seen. Keep it consistent and relevant and use tags that are relevant to the work and to the market you want to reach. I find that making short videos or posting pictures of work in progress for instance, gives your audience an insight into your work and who you are as an artist. The bonus to that too is that you will learn a lot from watching back on footage of you at work. Having a website and keeping it updated as much as possible is very important too. I find that an art blog of your work is a good way for people to see what you are up to and to follow the journey you are on. Being open and honest about yourself is important too and sometimes it might be hard to talk about yourself and your personal life but it is also the place where your art comes from, or at least most artists. I think some call it 'wearing your Art on your sleeve'. Without giving away too much, by letting down the barrier can bring people closer to you and will help them understand and relate to your art more too in terms of the person behind the art.
Are you working on any exciting projects or pieces at the moment that you'd like to talk about?
Yes, I am working on another painting project that I was invited to participate in by the Hamilton Gallery, Sligo which will go on exhibit this summer 2021, alongside many other artists who I am honoured to share a gallery wall with.
It will be a painting in response to a poem by William Butler Yeats, titled 'Meditations of a Time in Civil War', a very lengthy poem about Anglo Irish war times. The poem is hard going in its seven sections but I have so many different visions coming from it the more I read it. The painting is a work in progress and it is at the very early stages just now, so I have no idea how it will finish and I am excited about that.
How do you envision your work and career evolving over the next 5 years or so?
In 5 years if I am still in the same place I am right now, I’d be very happy. It is hard to predict how my art will evolve but I am excited with its current direction and exploration of vibrant colour, so I think as I develop my understanding and curiosity of colour, my work will be a lot more vibrant and adventurous.
Career wise, I guess I’d like to exhibit in bigger galleries someday, both at home in Ireland and in the UK, across Europe and all over the world. To have my work reach a wider audience and gain a lot more opportunities, would mean a lot to me. However, if that doesn’t happen I am still happy and content with where I am right now and I am grateful to all the galleries so far who have exhibited my work past and present. I am very grateful for all the opportunities that they have given me and for all the new friends I’ve made and fellow artists I’ve had the pleasure in getting to know.
So, quel che sarà sarà!
It was an absolute pleasure chatting with you, Derval. Thanks so much for taking the time to answer all of my questions in such detail!
An exclusive range of Derval Freeman's work is available from Fierce Nice at the following link: The Derval Freeman Collection.
Fantastic interview Derval great read . Well done to you on all your many achievements so far xx