Artist Interviews

Artists Interviews with members of the Federation of British Artists and exhibitors at Mall Galleries. Featuring essays, Questions and Answers and lists of artists recent work.

Interview with Ed Burkes: Winner of the Jonathan Vickers Fine Art Award 2019

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On April 10, we announced Ed Burkes as the winner of the eighth Jonathan Vickers Fine Art Award. This biennial award, established by Foundation Derbyshire in 1998, will see Burkes take up a nine-month residency in Derbyshire from October 2019, where he will produce work inspired by the county’s landscape, heritage and people, under the broad theme “Sense of Place”. 

Since graduating from Falmouth University in 2016 with a BA in Fine Art, Burkes’ work has been selected for a number of group exhibitions, including Saatchi Invest in Art and FBA Futures 2017, shortlisted for Bloomberg New Contemporaries and exhibited at London Art Fair with Arusha Gallery. In 2016, he won the Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Travel to Italy Award.

Burkes is currently living on the secluded Isles of Scilly, located 30 miles off the southwest coast of Cornwall. We spoke to the artist, between capricious WiFi-connections, about island life, how it's influencing his artistic practice and his plans for his upcoming residency in Derbyshire. 

Ed Burkes, His Master's Voice

Tell me about what you've been up to on the Isles of Scilly? 

Ed Burkes: There are five islands on the Isles of Scilly and the island I'm on is called Tresco. About 150 people live here permanently. There's only one pub, and there's no roads or street lights. There are these sub-tropical gardens here called the Abbey Gardens, which is where I'm living. I'm also working three days a week within the gardens. I'm not paying rent and I've got studio space, so it's an opportunity I had to take really because it's a wonderfully peculiar place. 

How has being on the Isles of Scilly impacted your artwork?

Ed Burkes: There are a few prongs to that actually. I'm big into my history and a lot of my paintings over the last year or so have come from various fifteenth and sixteenth century tapestries and things like that. So coming to the Isles of Scilly has been interesting. In about 500 AD, it was a single island but since then the waters have changed, so now you have this cluster of islands. It feels like you're still living on ancient Celtic hilltops. The landscape is very sort of rugged. 

Being outside is fruitful for art making. As a contemporary artist, I don't sit outside with an easel and paint a landscape, but there are definitely artistic secrets to be unlocked here. Traditionally all of these Old Masters and Impressionists and guys like that, just by being outside they’d take in the environment. Having that kind of response to work is really intriguing to me. There are all kinds of little weird flowers here. There's one called a yellow horned-poppy, another called a dog-rose and there's also a flower called love-in-a-mist. So there's all this language and the poetics of language is very anchored to how my images come about. There are so many visual stimuli but also just reading into things and looking into the history of the place. There's so much to latch onto.  

Ed Burkes on the Isles of Scilly (2019)

Have you thought about the Derbyshire residency and what you're going to do there? The "Sense of Place" theme ties in nicely with the Isles of Scilly. 

Ed Burkes: It ties in beautifully. Some of the works on paper, the "Dance Like a Lioness" ones, a lot of the motifs are from a tapestry in the V&A made by Mary Queen of Scots when she was under house arrest from Queen Elizabeth. She did these tapestries of elephants and fish and birds. In Derbyshire, there are lots of National Trust properties and museums. So I'm keen to explore all of that and find a peculiar little corner of history there. 

Can you talk a little bit about your creative process?

Ed Burkes: The work comes about in quite a hodgepodge. It's like a patchwork blanket and through the process of painting, images and text all lock into each other. It's something I can't quite articulate, but I think that's the magic of it. It's like music, when you listen to a song and it hits you in the feels and you can't quite explain it to someone. That's what really fascinates me: the problems of articulating things. 

I also enjoy contradictions. For example, one of my paintings is called "Hug Until We Catch On Fire". That is just one sentence but it could mean the seductive heat of a relationship or the impending implosion of one.

The titles of your paintings are very evocative and often humorous too. How do you name your works? 

Ed Burkes: I just write sentences and then maybe put two sentences next to one another. The title of the work changes as the work changes, and then it gets to a point where it doesn't change anymore, and that's when the work is finished. 

The text is just as important as how the work looks. I'm quite keen, when people look at a work of mine, for them to read the title. It's a little snippet, a little whisper. I don't want to tell the viewer anything, I just want to give a little hint. 

Ed Burke, Hug Until We Catch On Fire

There's a real sense of spontaneity to your paintings. How planned are they? 

Ed Burkes: I wouldn't really plan a painting. The work comes from drawings and sketchbooks, but there's very much a vacancy when I start making an image. The whole process is art making for me. It's almost like a stage waiting to be filled. I enjoy when an image comes about as if from nothing at all, from the subconscious. I listen to music a lot and I just zone out. One thing I like to do is have quite an eclectic playlist of music on. So one minute I'll be listening to Ozzy Osbourne and next thing it'll be Prince. This creates a contrast in the mood of how I apply brushstrokes. It's all very intuitive. I'm not thinking about what I'm doing. It all just feeds in. 

How long do you spend on a piece, or does it vary?

Ed Burkes: A lot of the time the work is in my studio and they won't get touched for two or three weeks, then they might change completely or they might change slightly. There's a recent cluster of works on paper, titled "Dance Like a Lioness". That's the most recent body of work and they're all 15x20cm works on paper, so they're really quite intimate. 

With the residency I’ll be starting in Derbyshire, I'm hoping to keep that intimacy but transpose it onto a larger scale. It varies with works. The larger paintings I do which are 2mx2m, they take quite a while, but I never just work on one thing. There are usually around six canvases I'd be working on alongside smaller things. 

Ed Burkes, Your Kind of Necklace

There is an immediacy and freedom to your work that is reminiscent of Rose Wylie's paintings. Are there any artists that you're influenced by? 

Ed Burkes: Yeah, Rose Wylie is amazing. I had some works in the London Art Fair in January and there were three or four people who had feedback and said it's like Rose Wylie, which is something I'm working on – developing my own voice, to a point where I own what I make visually. Not ownership in terms of copyright but “owning” in terms of doing something very well. I'm quite aware of that and that's something, talking to artists who are older than me, that just takes time to achieve. It's mad that she's 85 and she's making these huge paintings. They're just so visceral, aren't they? 

In your artist statement, you point to "the pitfalls of language" as a source of inspiration for your painting practice. You define your work as being "anchored around that inability to articulate, or at least the attempt to articulate." It seems you really understand what your practice is about. How did you come around to that realisation?

Ed Burkes: I think I came around to that realisation because I find it really difficult telling people what the work is about. I find that really frustrating when people ask, "What does this bit mean?" and then, "What's that?" So I tried to pin it down and ask myself what is the premise of my work and yeah it's trying to articulate things. Even just the attempt to articulate that is enough for me. 

Ed Burkes' Studio on Tresco, Isles of Scilly (2019)


The nine-month residency runs from 1 October 2019 to 30 June 2020.  The final exhibition will be held at Derby Museum and Art Gallery in late 2020 and at Mall Galleries in January 2021. Watch this space for updates as Ed’s residency unfolds.

Find out more about the Jonathan Vickers Fine Art Award

Celebrating Older People in Portraiture

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Melodie Cook PS and Penelope Milner explain how a desire to portray compelling emotion led them to select older sitters.


'I want my portraits to possess an emotional potency, and older sitters tend to project a lot of emotion because of the wealth of life experiences they have' says Melodie. 'I love the challenge of portraying those emotions with pastels. I also find it fascinating to map out the wrinkles, understanding how they are all connected and why they are there.'

Maria Vajente by Melodie Cook PS: Pastel, 107 x 107 cm - £2,950

'My two portraits in The Pastel Society Annual Exhibition 2019 were inspired by Maria Vajente, a long-time friend who'd wanted me to do her portrait for quite a while. Maria had seen my portrait of Nancy Trotter Landry and Bobby and absolutely wanted me to portray her with a chicken on her head.'

Nancy Trotter Landry and Bobby by Melodie Cook PS

'When we finally got together there was no chicken to be found, so Maria produced an amazing bandana and wrapped it around her head. Maria was three years into treatment for cancer and was awaiting the results from her latest tests. All of this really showed on her skin and in her expression, and I wanted to capture that, despite the pain of it. I put a lot of my own emotion into that drawing. Maria died just a few months later and so never made it to the exhibition.'

'Rosemary is 70 and a ceramic artist. She’s a lovely positive woman and has had a fantastically varied life, from owning a riding school to breeding and showing dogs, whilst running a French restaurant with her Italian husband. I wanted to portray Rosemary's strength of character and her love of the outdoors, hence the determined expression and the hair blowing away from her face.'

Rosemary Delfino by Melodie Cook PS: Pastel, 107 x 107 cm - £2,950

'Both ladies loved that I had done their portrait but hated to see all the wrinkles! They were both convinced that I had added extra ones, whereas the opposite was true. I am yet to find an older sitter who likes to contemplate the reality of their ageing - myself included. My self portraits are usually brutally honest. They reflect the ageing process rather than attempting any self-flattery or delusion.'


'Older people are physiologically complex and interesting to paint' says Penelope Milner. 'When the sitter is able to be themselves and allow the artist access, it's both a privilege and a fascinating discovery. I am less concerned about documenting the degenerative effects of age on the skin and the blemishes, than in understanding the individual.'

'Unfortunately, older women can be harder to paint than men; they often feel less at ease with their self image. But what happens to the muscles and the lines in the face tells much about the way a life has been lived, and there can be a real beauty in that. While painting the portrait of my mother, Harriet, I saw glimpses of her child self and young woman self as well as the person she now is.  The onset of my mother's dementia has made her less self-conscious about her physical appearance too.' 

Harriet by Penelope Milner; Pastel, 69 x 54 cm - £1,600

'Social media and adverts can feel dominated by perfect images of youth, often airbrushed, edited in photoshop, or filtered. These images seem to be concerned with a very narrow version of exterior beauty. In contrast, the process of painting someone is essentially slow and contemplative.'

'The presence of the individual makes itself known to the artist quietly, through a direct exchange. Perhaps art has a role to play in portraying something deeper about the human condition, something we as viewers can recognise about ourselves as we look into the face of a painted portrait.'

Image credit

Maria Vajente by Melodie Cook PS