Please tell us a bit about you and your artistic background.
I haven't actually had any official art training but I’ve always done art since I was a little child. My Grandma used to sit me in front of a vase of flowers and give me some child watercolour paints. I’ve always enjoyed the practice of art. I did do Art at GCSE and A-Level but I got a bit sick of it so I didn’t take it any further. I remember thinking my passion and love for art was completely eradicated. I was creating art not for myself but for the examiners and teachers. I really had to take a step back. I didn’t have a pencil or paintbrush in my hand for nearly 2 years.
I studied History of Art at University so I was still in the art world a bit. In my 2nd year, we had an assignment to go to a gallery space of our choice and write about it, which pulled me back into art. I saw this exhibition called ‘Folds’ by Nicole Farhi, which was essentially a little room full of different sculptures of female bodies. They were all voluptuous and showing the lumps and the bumps and the folds and it was gorgeous. I remember walking in and thinking ‘wow, this is stunning, these works are beautiful!’ I really wanted to be a part of that as well. On the train back to University, I started doing sketches and planning photoshoots and prep for some paintings. That passion was reignited! And here we are, still painting women’s bodies a couple years later.
Could you share a bit about the different media & materials you use in your practice?
When I was at school, my main thing was painting. I tried sculpture and drawing but painting was always my favourite. Since picking up the paintbrush again, I’ve gotten a lot more into sustainability. So I started creating my own paper and realised it works best with certain pens. Along with doing paintings here and there, I try to focus a bit more on pen and paper. I think the varied textures of the natural-looking paper with the harsh blackness of the pen works really well for the type of artworks I’m producing.
Could you tell me about the process of making your own paper?
It’s relatively easy but there are a lot of stages. Any envelopes that come through the door or spare bits of paper that would usually get thrown away, I keep it all. I have a giant bag under my bed full of scrap pieces of paper. I chop it all up, soak it in water for 24 hours until it’s really soft, mix it up until it makes a pulp and then put that pulp in water. Then you use something which is like a frame that has mesh wire where the glass would be. You use that to sieve up the paper pulp. It’s kind of like when you’re younger and you’re looking for pieces of gold in the sand - it’s quite fun! So you flip it over, press it down, dry it out and then usually wait about 4 to 5 days for the paper to completely dry.
'Untitled' (2020), biro on paper, A4 (right). 'Twist' (2021), ink on home-made paper, 16cm x 14cm (bottom). 'Untitled' (2021), ink on home-made paper with gold leaf, 16cm x 14cm (top left). 'Reach' (2021), ink on home-made paper with gold leaf, 26cm x 16cm.
Each piece of paper looks so unique. None of them are perfect, which makes them all so gorgeous. Whenever someone wants a commission, I send them a picture of all the different pieces of paper that I have and they get to pick the exact one they want. That in itself adds such a special and unique touch to their artwork. It’s such a personal thing to have your own figure drawn, so I think being able to choose exactly what you want within that artwork makes it that little bit nicer.
Absolutely! It relates to your artwork as well because every body is different. There’s such a variety of body shapes that you draw and it’s so nice to have paper to compliment that.
You’re so right! No bodies are the same. You can have bodies that are similar, in the same way that my paper is all the same colour but they’re also so different. It adds another layer to the artwork which I think is really lovely.
Could you tell me a bit more about how your work is informed by mental health or body image?
It comes from quite a personal place I suppose, stemming from that exhibition I went to. I wanted my work to contribute to modes of representation. I’ve spoken to many of my friends and it’s so sad to think how many of us go through issues like disordered eating and how we struggle to love ourselves because there’s a voice in our heads telling us that we’re physically not good enough. It makes sense because of the society we’ve grown up in, with diet culture and how people can be quite quick to comment on other people’s bodies. I think increasing the representation can hopefully diminish that voice in your head telling you that your body isn’t good enough.
I really try in my work to be linked to the body positivity movement for the people who are able to celebrate their bodies, and the body neutrality movement for those who aren’t, so that they can at least look at themselves and realise that it’s just a body, it’s normal.
I think that mental health is such a tricky thing to really look into. People eat food everyday. It’s something that I’ve struggled with and had friends struggle with. When you’re faced with your body and you’re faced with food, it’s so easy to slip into disorderly patterns. I’d like to think that my work can contribute to calming that down a little bit and reminding people that their body is good enough, it’s beautiful or at the very least, it’s just a body. I feel very honoured that I’m that person who can bring people a sense of joy and self-love.
There was a girl on Tik Tok who asked if she could send me a photo of herself because she’d love to see herself in my artwork. She had struggled with self-image for many years and she said she loved being a muse for different artists around the world. I drew her and sent her the final piece and she loved it. All the people who get commissions from me love seeing themselves in artwork. Just because you can look at yourself in a mirror and criticise yourself, it doesn't mean that there isn’t any form of love there. Art is one way that you can stimulate that form of self-love, and hopefully from then on it can grow larger and larger.
'Untitled' (2020), biro on paper, A5.
There is definitely something really significant about that mode of connection. Art is one of those things that holds such an emotional potency that it can really bring people together. There’s the connection between you and the person you’re creating artwork of or for, but also the link between that muse and the other people who see that artwork. It’s a connection that’s almost endless and can also make you feel less alone. When mental health is involved, that’s really what you need. It’s a beautiful thing.
Do your creative practices help with your own mental health and wellbeing?
One million percent! For me, art is like going on a walk or doing some yoga or diary writing. I can just get lost in art and forget my worries. I remember there was one evening where I felt a panic attack rising. I thought: I need to paint! I went and painted a piece, which is actually one of my favourite paintings. It stopped my panic attack in its tracks. It was the first time I had used art as a kind of therapy but it was amazing. It’s now something that I constantly do and it helps in a practical manner.
In terms of body image, it’s strange because I sometimes feel at a crossroads. If I’m having a bad body image day, I'm able to criticise myself so easily but I’m also able to draw these beautiful people and not criticise them in the same way. It pulls me out of that space and helps me to love myself, because if I can love and appreciate other people as an art then why can’t I do the same for me?
Please talk through one of your pieces with us, outlining the materials used and the intention behind the work.
The piece is an oil painting on a canvas. I love oil paints! It was actually the first painting I did as part of this series exploring the body. The painting is of one of my really close friends. After the ‘Folds’ exhibition I went to, I remember I messaged her to see if she wanted to model for me. She was really interested, which was so lovely of her.
I remember we sat for an hour pushing her body into all these weird positions that she would never usually sit in to create different rolls and textures. That prep work in itself was such a brilliant experience. Having that strange but beautiful intimacy with one of my friends was so lovely, and I think it was quite liberating for her as well. I went through all the photos with her and the one we both picked out was this one. I think it’s absolutely gorgeous. It’s so soft and I love the intimacy of it being closely cropped. It’s called ‘Curled’ and the way her body curls round and you see her breasts and her thigh and stomach. These are parts of our bodies which we often cover up and feel the need to hide or change.
The painting is quite large, it’s on an A2 canvas so it’s bigger than human size. It’s saying don’t look away, this is my body, this is me. I think the textures of the oil paints work well with the colours of the image, which are quite muted. It’s an intimate shot but it’s also saying this is me, I’m right in front of you.
'Curled', oil on canvas, A2.
Do you have any lessons that you’ve learnt from making art and your artistic journey?
Do what you want to do! I still do some commissions now which don’t follow what I necessarily want to paint, and they’re never as good as the ones I want to create. I think that it’s so easy to fall into a pattern of thinking that you’re getting paid or graded for this art so you have to do it in a certain way. That’s not what art is about. You have to do what feels right and go where your passion leads you. Ultimately, that’s where you’ll get your highest emotional connection with both your artwork and your audience. To ignore that will completely ruin your artistic path. If you want to do something, just go for it! So now if I have even a slight inkling to experiment with something, I just do it.
What was the transition like to go from making art to selling it? Was it quite a big jump or did it feel like a natural progression?
It’s strange. I feel like even now I’m still in some form of progression. Before I started painting bodies, I did some portraits for my family. I didn’t sell them, I just gave them as presents for birthdays and celebrations. I think the first person who paid me for a piece of art was a family-friend and I remember thinking that I don’t deserve money for my art. It was really scary and weird and all my confidence suddenly dropped. Even though I knew I had skills and was able to create unique artworks, I was questioning my own artistic identity.
Even now when people want commissions, I get nervous and think I’m not able to do what they want me to do. There’s so much pressure! That’s where following your passion really comes into play. When I have done commissions that aren’t from the heart and aren’t something I really love to do, that’s when it feels a little bit wrong and like I’m cheating the system. It’s a business after all and sometimes you have to look at it from that perspective. But it’s equally important to not focus on the money, instead focus on the fact that you’re creating a gorgeous piece of art. You’re creating an emotionally driven visual for someone else.
It’s been a strange transition and something I'm still in the midst of, but it’s also a necessary one. Being able to make that step in the first place is something I should be congratulating myself for. As a woman, I think it’s so easy to doubt yourself and doubt your worth. When someone is literally saying you are good enough that I want to give you money, it’s weird that our first thought is to say no, definitely not. But I think it’s something that as a society we are unpicking. The fact we can even recognise that is significant.
What’s next for you? Are you going to continue with your body series or do you have any other projects on the horizon?
I’m going with the flow at the moment. I’ve just finished a Masters so I’m having a bit of a break in general. I’m still keeping art going to keep me going.
Last year, I really wanted to expand my horizons on who I draw as I didn’t want to limit it to just female bodies. But then COVID-19 came in and put a huge spanner in the works in terms of contacting people to photograph. I would love to expand to all genders and also draw people who’ve had mastectomies and pregnant bellies. Not only draw lumps and bumps but also some scars, because I think there are so many things that people can feel ashamed of with their bodies. I would love to expand my space and include them in it.
Find more of Jemma's work on instagram.
'Subtle' (2021) ink on home-made paper, 26cm x 16cm.