Extracts from the Creative Spotlights interviews with Emma Tooth 2011
What inspired your passion for art and who has been there supporting you from the beginning?
I think this was what I was always going to be. After school I studied art at college, then university, so it’s been quite a direct path. I had a wonderful art teacher at A-level who introduced me to oil paints – introduced – not taught! He told me that the Pre Raphaelites painted over a white ground and that you wash your brushes in turps. With the words “have a play!” he passed me a big tray of twisted, filthy, rusty old paint tubes and that was it!
My parents always encouraged me and did their best to pay for my art materials growing up and helped me survive university how ever they could, and my husband who I met just as I was leaving school has been enormously supportive in every way, while growing his own practice as a filmmaker. He really pushed me out there when I came out of university and I was at a loose end because they teach you nothing at university that can help to live as an artist after you leave! Things were hard for a while, but he pushed me out there. He said "if you can’t make a living doing this you’d better give up and get a job in a supermarket!" – he knew nothing would terrify me more and that way he galvanised me into action! Pure scare tactics!
Have you always aspired to be an artist, or did you ever dream of following a different path?
I would have loved to be a singer – or follow in Steve Irwin’s footsteps… but no, from very early on art was always my thing. As a child I loved animals just as I do now and I think I went through the usual stage of wanting to be a vet... I have a certain amount of guilt that I don’t devote all my time to battery hen rescue... but I encourage everyone to support my dear friend and personal heroine Wendy Bull who is an artist herself and runs a wildlife hospital from her home. I really do admire her.
How do you feel about your industry today?
To be honest I feel pretty distant from any industry, I’m just an independent... very reclusive. In terms of the British art scene, which I suppose I could call my industry, it’s pretty awful isn’t it? It’s very much symptomatic of a dying - or stone dead - culture.
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
Well, if we’re not living like Mad Max by then, I hope to be doing pretty much what I do now but on an increasingly large scale. I’d like to do more in America and Japan. Otherwise you’ll find me painting murals on the side of my tank.
Is there any work you are currently working on that you would like to tell us about?
... I’m looking at ideas of heredity and the changes our faces undergo during our lives. It’s pretty fascinating. For my book, From Pig Farmers and Show Girls, I researched my family, I was looking through a lot of old photographs which I hadn’t been much interested in in the past, and I started to think about all these faces, how I can look at a photo of my dad as a boy and in it I can see him now, as an older man, I can see his brothers, I can see my own features... All this is there in his face. Also, several times when I have painted people’s portraits the sitter has become very emotional because they can see their dead father or whoever in the face I have painted. Obviously I have never seen their father, but I have inadvertently captured more than just the one sitter in the painting...
Who have you always dreamt of working with?
I would love to work with Royal Deluxe, the French epic street theatre people who did The Sultan’s Elephant in London and La Machine, the giant spider, in Liverpool for the biennial a couple of years back... I think they are the greatest artists of our time. I will never forget when we rushed down to London to see the giant elephant puppet walk through the city. At first she was just stood still breathing and eating her hay, while all these tiny Frenchmen in red velvet frock coats bustled and swarmed around her, but when she took her first steps I began to cry. Really. It was just too beautiful for words! I walked alongside her all day and she seemed so alive. Magic was real that day. I believed it with all my heart and soul. If you’ve never seen their work this probably sounds very, very silly, and I am not normally the emotional type, but they’re just incredible artists. Don’t take my word for it, look them up on Youtube.
What is the greatest thing about working in the your industry?
I think the freedom is the greatest aspect. The hours can be very long, you have to put a lot of yourself in, but it’s so flexible. At this moment for example, I have a few months till my next show so I know I have to produce a lot of work, but at any given moment I can go out for walk with my husband if he suddenly arrives home early, or nurse an ill pet or make a costume – or do an interview. As long as the work gets done -and it always does - it’s all my own responsibility so it’s not a rigid 9-5 thing. I like that a lot. And the fact I work from home means I’m never far away from the things that I really care about and that inspire me.
From your experience in the arts, what advice could you offer people looking to get to where you are today?
Get out there, do everything, follow every lead, meet everyone and never let anyone down. You must always deliver.
What courses/classes would you recommend someone take if they want to be a professional in the creative industry?
Well, as a matter of fact I teach occasional painting classes at Pear Tree Farm arts centre in Derbyshire – so I would recommend those!
How many years were you fighting to get to where you are today? And what was that time in your life like?
All through university was a struggle cause they were so unsupportive and/or threatened by traditional painting – after all, how could they teach something they knew nothing about? That was a daily battle for about 4 years. Then another few years afterward trying to get established... It was hard to motivate myself when no one was seeing the work I was doing...
From your experience so far, what have you found to be most challenging? And how are you dealing with it?
Those times when we couldn’t afford food or heating or anything nice at all – that really was a challenge. It was a challenge for our relationship too. But things picked up for us both gradually, and now I go in for a lot of retail therapy to recover! I’m a real nest-builder now; I can’t resist beautifying my home. It looks like the Moulin Rouge in there!
Share with us your proudest moment in your career so far?
I felt very proud on the opening night of my show Concilium Plebis at the Customs House in South Shields. So many people came and it was a great night, and the amazing break dance team, Bad Taste Cru, performed an astonishing routine based on my paintings of street culture. They’ve actually gone on to tour that show all over the world now. On my DVD you can see their performance and me gushing afterwards! I felt faint! I would love to work with them again – we keep talking about it – so who knows!!
Perhaps the most amazing painter ever, and almost completely unheard of here, is Remy Cogghe. I came across his work in La Picsine gallery in Roubaix and his portrait of his mother just blew me away, utterly. I must also mention the incredible costume artist and my dear friend Olivia Barnard-Firth, also known as The Wicked Lady. She created my black jet-encrusted wedding dress and the “hoody” ballgown I wore for my show Concilium Plebis at Lazarides in London last year. She constantly amazes me with her work – not only for its intricate beauty but for it’s sometimes almost animatronic functionality... She is a genius.
What equipment do you use?
I have the most beautiful easel my father made for me when I was a teenager which I would never part with – it’s a work of art in itself. I use mainly oil paints by Windsor and Newton and Daler-Rowney, they always work well for me. And I’m not to fussy about the brand of brushes but they must be very smooth and flexible and springy – I buy them by feel rather than by name. I just never ever touch those scratchy “hog” type brushes which are usually intended for oil painting. I hate them!