Painting, Public Art and Wild Drawing with Bryony Benge-Abbott
I love the idea of beacons of light in dark times, sparks of creativity in long years, flashes of inspiration in tough days.
As a positive action to meet the tough winter of 2022, I decided to do a series of interviews with different kinds of artists, about how we make art, and why. How we give voice to what needs to be said. It's intended to soothe, encourage and inspire the creative in all of us - the energy that keeps us going.
The first person I wanted to interview was Bryony Benge-Abbott, a British-Trinidadian artist exploring nature, identity and our interconnectedness, working at the intersection of art and science. I could have talked with Bryony all day about her beautiful oil paintings, street art and Wild Art Drawing practice. Here are the highlights of our conversation for you.
How did you first start painting and creating?
It goes way back to my early years. Apparently as a little tot, when we used to go out on day trips, I’d always have my rucksack with pencils and paper. I loved going on adventures and doing drawings on the journey.
I’ve always loved art. My mum was a community artist and then later an art psychotherapist. I loved art at school and I did a foundation course at 18, where I got to try everything from furniture design to textiles. My primary medium will probably always be painting though – I fell in love with working in oils at university.
What inspires you, and how has that evolved over the years?
Art is such a powerful form of self-expression and my work has always been about identity in different shapes and forms. At university I became particularly interested in the male gaze, particularly around the time women were fighting for the right to vote. In my final year I focused on paintings of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, looking at how women were depicted and what that said about women’s roles in society and masculine fears and desires. I became fascinated by how paintings reveal more about the artist and their perspective than they do about the subject.
I went on to do a masters in Museology at the University of East Anglia, studying within the Sainsbury Centre with its amazing collection of world art. My interest in the gaze continued into my work in museums as I became interested in how we acquire, interpret and display the heritage of other cultures. I became aware of the colonial gaze and the Western gaze. The politics of display – who speaks for whom, who defines whom - became a central theme throughout my work as both artist and curator.
About ten years ago, my art started to get far more focused on the natural world. I was unsettled by the rising climate and ecological crisis and started to develop work that focused on the botanical world. This led me to street art, as a way of claiming space for plants in the urban landscape – a small act of activism, tagging each mural with Plants Were Here First.
Working outside with the public developed my thinking about the stories we tell about ourselves in relation to nature. I started co-creating murals with different community groups, linking plant symbolism with how we see ourselves in relationship to the landscape – our social, cultural, historical connections – and the stories we want to share with others.
My first mural was a really big piece in Greenwich, a private commission on a public road for a family with strong connections to India. I focused on the rhododendron, which is an alien species that is native to Asia, and I interwove a sub-pattern of Indian mandalas.
The next mural I painted was with residents of a homeless shelter in Hammersmith. We designed a mural together for their garden area, selecting plants to represent their personal stories. They chose the dandelion – typically considered a weed, but a very resilient and hopeful flower that holds memories of blowing seeds and making wishes as children. They also chose the fern for its adaptability and symbolism of self-protection through furling and unfurling.
What are your most recent creative projects?
The last mural I did was with scientists at Grantham Institute of Climate Change and the Environment, in the lead-up to COP26. I worked with schoolchildren and ecologists to co-design a mural that I then painted in an underpass tunnel in Twickenham.
I ran workshops for the schools in the urban woodlands at Orleans House Gallery and brought a practice I call ‘Wild Drawing’ – outdoor drawing activities that tap into our sensory experience of landscape and explore our emotional response to it.
In collaboration with the ecologists, we investigated the invisible connections and communications between different species and talked about the fragility of the ecosystem, how it’s being impacted by climate change. The scientists helped explain the importance of tackling climate change in relation to the students’ everyday lives. Through drawing and creative writing, I supported the students to articulate their emotional response to the crisis and craft messages for their community.
The resulting mural focuses on the oak tree and blends art and science, moving between studies of mycorrhizal networks to expressions of love and care for the natural world through poetry and story. The students got interested in the wounds on the bark that look like eyes, so part of the mural features those eyes looking out and asking “I see you, you see me, why don’t you acknowledge me?”
What drives and inspires your current work?
I’m interested in the space between science and spirituality, and the potential for transformation that lies there. At the moment I’m thinking a lot about how we activate ourselves to respond adequately to the climate and ecological crisis. So much of our energy is either looking outside ourselves or looking up, in religion and faith, for the answers.
I think there’s a lot of power inside every one of us and I’m interested in how participatory public art can help us unlock that – recognise our own instinctual knowing that we belong to something bigger, that we are part of nature, and to feel empowered by that. A lot of my inspiration right now is coming from embodied art and somatic movement, which helps to tap into internal sensory experiences, and combining this with a fascination with the dynamic forces of nature.
Recently I’ve found myself drawn to observing sunlight pouring through trees, birds synchronising in flight, rolling waves crashing on the shore and mosses slowly overtaking rotting wood. Change and growth and motion. So much of how we learn about nature comes from the colonial, western belief system that nature is something other, to be bought, sold, collected. And a big part of my work is unravelling this and searching for alternative ways of relating and being.
There’s a great quote in ‘Wild’: “Violence comes from being outside nature.” That’s really stayed with me over recent years. Essentially I am interested in wild nature - our own and beyond. I find the push and pull between internal and external intriguing.
What do you think your art means to others?
I’m hoping that my work is empowering. A lot of my public art focus is on working with marginalised groups – as a woman of colour growing up in a really white, wealthy area, I know about feeling like an outsider. There are a lot of people directly impacted by the climate crisis who are not included in the conversation but have something valuable and meaningful to contribute. My murals are about encouraging people from many different backgrounds to find their voice and story that they can share in a public way, and highlighting our interconnectedness.
My intention is to offer a little portal into another world – a fleeting moment of colour, an invitation to look at things differently, an opportunity to hear some different voices. My use of colour is what draws most people in. A woman on the way to hospital told me I’m taking the grey away. One man in a suit who passed me as I was painting a streetscape on Caledonian Road cried out “Oh! I’m taking all of this colour with me and I’m carrying it as inspiration into my day!” I loved that.
A group of young girls told me the rhododendron mural made them feel like they were in a magical palace. An older woman said the mural was bringing the street alive and helping her talk to her neighbours again. These responses make the experience of painting murals so incredibly moving.
Can you tell us more about your latest paintings?
In my studio work, I’m exploring a more personal idea of identity. That involves my experience as a mixed-race woman in relationship to the landscape, my ancestry, folklore and stories, and memories of my parents.
I’m working in oils, inks and acrylics, and starting to integrate textiles. There are currently two series of works underway. One is a far more personal, embodied experience of the landscape. It’s really about the internal landscape, my lived experience. Wrestling with change, playing with the word ‘disintegration’ and the idea of letting go of the systems of oppression, the stories we’re told about our reality and our understanding of our place in the world in order to reintegrate into something far bigger.
The other series zooms out to explore ancestral landscapes. Some paintings move through tropical rainforest landscapes, others rural Kentish woodlands. What unites them is a mining for different perspectives on the land. Different ways that many people have looked at the same landscape – referencing mythology and folklore, and considering the land through different dimensions of space and time. For example, the painting Gang Gang Sarah is inspired by Tobagan folklore, while one of my new works is inspired by the Greek myth of Delphyne. I’m fascinated by all of the different meanings and memories one landscape can hold.
Most of the work is still in progress; you can see finished paintings on my website and I will be sharing these new works in a solo show in April.
What would you like to pass on to others?
Don’t let anyone stamp on your sense of wonder, or tell you there’s only one way of looking at, understanding and relating with the natural world. Keep that childlike sense of awe alive! As kids, we allow ourselves to play in the dirt, rummage in the undergrowth, to look at flowers and bugs and leaves up close. I want us adults to give ourselves permission to engage with the world like that.
Wild Drawing is a practice in play and mindful drawing, without the pressure of expectation or display. It emerged out of the first lockdown as a way to tap into the rhythms of nature and ground myself in the continuing cycles of life. I’m planning to do some more Wild Drawing walks and workshops this year, so sign up for my newsletter to hear about how you can join. It’s open to all levels of experience and abilities, and all ages.
You can find out more about Bryony's paintings, public art and Wild Drawing at bryonybengeabbott.com. You can also subscribe to Bryony's newsletter to be the first to hear about upcoming Wild Drawing walks and workshops.