Swamper, 2018 © Rebecca Harper
Acrylic on canvas, 180 x 250 cm

Artist Spotlight: Rebecca Harper
March 1, 2019
In the latest instalment of our 'Artist Spotlight' series ACS member Rebecca Harper takes us through her approach to creating large-scale acrylic paintings which explore ideas around identity and displacement.

Harper also discusses how winning the £6,000 ACS Studio Prize in 2018 has helped her professional career ahead of the opening of her new solo exhibition 'Chameleon' at the Anima Mundi gallery in March this year.

Q. How would you define your work in three words?


Voyeuristic, contemplative, compassionate.


Q. What medium do you mainly work with and why?


I normally work with acrylics as I am often sitting/lying/crawling/walking over my large canvas which sits on the floor like a carpet. Acrylics dry quickly and allow me to build up sections. I enjoy working predominately on un-primed canvas because I like the absorbent and translucent nature of the paint as it sinks in. Dependent on how wet it is, I can play with the seductive nature of moving the colour and marks around in various ways, and allow for the paint to have an element of chance – enabling the paints to bleed into one another.


Once it is dry I can achieve a build-up of drier brush marks over the surface. Sometimes I like to use oil bars over the top as I enjoy the variation of applications, with the delicate translucent and subtle watercolour interacting with the heavy and creamy oil bars.


Q. What has winning the ACS Studio Prize 2018 meant for you as an artist?


Winning The ACS Studio Prize has been an absolute honour and a privilege. It has had a very beneficial impact on my practice – giving me wide ranging support and acknowledgement, and a seriously wonderfully encouraging, unique opportunity to help sustain my practice out of the art school environment at Turps.


Being based in London in the current climate and winning the Prize as I joined APT Studios is enabling me to solidly continue to dedicate time to developing, making and showing new work. It has been essential to have a consistent studio practice in order to build a coherent body of work for a new solo show with Anima Mundi Gallery launching in March 2019, which of course is incredibly productive and has helped me focus and prioritise making.


The Prize has helped to structure and nurture a method of working and making that suits my needs currently. The benefit of having my own studio space opposed to sharing one with fellow peers at this moment in time, is that I get to examine on my own terms how my works ‘sit’ next to one another, rather than viewing its context amongst and amid a group of painters, which allows me to push the work forward. Not only that but it has been incredibly useful as a base for accessible studio visits and meeting a new community of artists.


Clambering Rock Pools, 2018 © Rebecca Harper
Acrylic on canvas, 180 x 220 cm


Q. Where do you find most inspiration for your work?


The conversations I often have with artists who came before me are (to name a few) Veronese, Velazquez, Schiele, Munch, Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet, Soutine, Gauguin, Freud, Helen Frankenthaler, Sophie Calle, Francesca Woodman.


The experience of watching the theatre of the everyday, a hint at some kind of narrative that one can never really read. I draw from life, travel, colour, human interaction, culture, material. I look at art, people and spaces, I trawl Instagram, take from advertising, and often read books on psychology and human behaviour.


I believe that life and art are synchronised, that we learn about life and its events by discovering ourselves and that equally we learn about ourselves after having endured life. For me the prompt for making work is normally a reactionary event to its life source, for example a reflection of the time and a desire to have an argument with it.


I look for moments observed and distilled, I try to inject a feeling. For example, ‘the world speeds up, so I try to slow it down, or so my work does’, or that I am a painter who feels out of place often, so I try to place it in the work to feel at home, and am lucky enough to play the contradiction out in the making.


Insight, 2018 © Rebecca Harper
Acrylic on canvas, 180 x 250 cm


Q. Take us through your working process.


I start by reconstructing drawings and water based studies taken from life, events, beliefs, dreams, memories and mediated imagery whereby seamless, sometimes fictional fragmentation are rearranged and presented as plausible happenings as very large scale ‘drawn paintings’.


Often I am addressing ideas around displacement and duel cultural alliance. A sort of ‘diaspora view’ presents itself in my paintings as an unfolding, wandering, allegoric commentary on its life-source.


Fictional characters travel like chameleons, morphing through varied cultures and classes – taking on different guises in different places, through different paintings. The many versions of ‘oneself’ and the way one’s identity could be viewed or ‘framed’ proposes ideas about associations, often in order to explore the notion of relationships that exist between identity and displacement (the action of moving something from its place or position).


That’s what I am really interested in – that gap in displacement. I am motivated by subjects of cultural dispersion, exile, the wandering public space, host society’s, alien status, human adjustment, and cross lands. I see my paintings as a sort of theatre in which human instinct looks compassionately at settlement, both a dispersion of un-at-homeness and groundlessness held by the fixed image.


Painting as a medium becomes, I think, a feedback loop mirroring society; a malleable surface to slow down, playing with preconceived ideas. In a busy world painting seems necessary as a reflection to slow down and re-negotiate how we see the world today.


Exile, 2019 © Rebecca Harper
Acrylic on canvas, 180 x 180 cm


Q. Can you remember the first work of art that you created? What was it and why was it so memorable?


I can’t remember the first work of art I created exactly, but I think I always prioritised ‘becoming an artist’. I have always had a sketchbook to hand ever since I was very young, the most essential and urgent thing to be doing has been drawing/making; at primary school I used to come home and draw everything I had seen that day.


I would often depict all the buggies, the parents and their children outside the school gates, mums and daughters, their relationships to one another and the very particular clothing/trainer brands that they wore, or I would draw the emotion between my own relationships in my family.


I remember being aged 10 on a summer tennis camp and at lunch drawing this girl who had been a bit pushy and mean, the rest of this tennis camp saw the drawing and said that it looked just like her. What I was recognising at that point was that drawing was a tool and held the power to hold a conversation with an audience, that it was a communicator, and that was when it became not just necessary but also a dialogue.


Guys hanging out by the lily ponds, 2018 © Rebecca Harper
Acrylic on canvas, 180 x 210 cm

Harper's new solo exhibition 'Chameleon' opens at the Anima Mundi gallery in St Ives on 2 March and runs until 6 April 2019.

The show highlights a body of work created between 2017 and 2019, and features many of the works seen in the interview above. For more information about the exhibition, please visit the gallery’s website here.


2 March – 6 April 2019

Anima Mundi, Street-an-Pol, St Ives, Cornwall TR26 2DS