British Artist Claudette Johnson started her career as part of the newly formed BLK Art Group which she joined in 1981 as a student at Wolverhampton University. Her work is currently held in many public collections: The Tate, British Council Collection, Arts Council Collection, Manchester Art Gallery, Rugby Museum & Herbert Art Gallery & Museum.
Where did you grow up?
Manchester. I was born there.
How did it all start?
There have been many beginnings! I have always loved drawing. I first began to imagine my life as an artist at 17 years old. I attended an interview to study BA Hons Fine Art at The Slade (UCL) which my teachers had told me was impossible to secure: they were very impressed as I was the first girl at Levensulme High School (for Girls) in many years to be selected. Despite not being offered a place, the private interview with the principal, Lawrence Gowing, was very special. He paid close attention to my work and listened carefully to what I had to say. It was the first time that I felt I had been taken seriously as an artist. That feeling remained with me, and propelled me forward.
Where do you live and work currently?
London. My studio is in Hackney Wick, and flooded with natural light which is very important to me. I also love the area as it’s full of artists and creatives. Despite the changes brought about by recent redevelopment, there are still a number of warehouses that remain affordable for underfunded creatives.
Favourite room in your home?
The kitchen, which has recently been redecorated. I find the colours and the view of the garden very calming. I’ve planted almost everything in the garden over several decades including an oversized prunus, several climbing roses and an out of control wisteria sinensis. The garden is much too small for my ambitions but at times in midsummer, when everything is in bloom, it feels like a tiny oasis.
Who or what inspires you?
I have numerous works that I consistently reference, ranging from Congolese sculptures to Rembrandt’s Sleeping Woman and Vanessa Bell’s Studland Beach.
How do you research and plan your work?
Sometimes it's spontaneous: an in-the-moment affair. However my starting point is always identifying an underlying theme i.e. how women use space or how men express vulnerability.
What are you working on at the moment?
Three large-scale studies in pastels and paint. I am exploring a moment whereby one woman is absorbed in a dance. It's very private, a moment only for herself. It reflects the kind of silent connection that artists experience when making work, and represents the wider associations between black people, dance and performance. Synchronised movement was a way for enslaved Africans to retain their culture and has become celebrated within our culture.
What can we expect to see from you over the next six months?
I will present work in The More Things Change, a group show at Wolverhampton Art Gallery in spring, plus contribute to The RA Summer Show and then I have a solo exhibition at Courtauld Institute planned in London this autumn.
Do you have a daily uniform?
I wear overalls when I am in the studio. Currently black rugged relaxed coveralls from Carhartt which are very robust, with lots of useful pockets - deep enough for my paint brushes. In the summer, I wear simple cotton ones, from a DIY store. I keep a pair of messed-up trainers under my desk as I always manage to spill paint or step on pastels when I am working.
Who is your style icon?
I like what Isabella Rossillini wears, she seems to go for bold but relaxed shapes. Loose swathes of fabric, comfortable shoes- nothing too fussy.
What would you have been in another life?
A novelist. Writing was my first love. When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I began a story about family life which I kept hidden under my bed. When we moved house it was left behind and I was mortified.
Which work of art changed everything for you?
Les Demoiselles D’Avignon 1907 by Pablo Picasso. I saw it at MOMA recently. It didn’t disappoint.
Last item of clothing you added to your wardrobe?
A beautiful black and white silk jacket by Duro Olowu.
What is your personal style signifier?
I tend to wear hats quite a lot. I almost always have a black lambswool beanie hat on, plus my signature burgundy lipstick.
Best book you've read in the past year?
I enjoyed Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I loved the blogs written by the protagonist, Ifemelu, which she titles: Understanding America for the Non- American Black. Her observations on race, class and politics in the USA, Nigeria and the UK are searingly honest.
What is your most treasured possession?
Letters- something of a dying form at the moment. I have a small archive that remind me of the early eighties: the friendships, plans, achievements and the challenges. My son's early drawings and writings are very special to me, as is a Chinese temple jar given to me by a friend nearly forty years ago- it is a painted ceramic (possibly porcelain) decorated with orange and yellow plums and butterflies against an exquisite turquoise foreground.
Favourite artwork or artist?
I admire so many artists and have numerous works that are important to me, it’s impossible to select one. In my formative years, Rembrandt, Egon Schiele, Modigliani, Suzanne Valdon, Toulouse Lautrec would have been up there.
What is your most marked characteristic?
Procrastination- apparently an important prerequisite to the creative process! Whenever I find myself daydreaming or spending lots of time on insignificant tasks, I know that there's work waiting to emerge.
What would you like your legacy to be?
That people found humanity in my work.