Carol Robertson has lived in East London since the 1980s, so is well place to discuss how it’s evolved – and the artist takes us inside her home to offer an insight into her latest exhibition at Flowers Gallery
East London artist Carol Robertson’s spacious ACME studio is housed in a wonderful old building near the Regent’s Canal. This month she has a new exhibition on at Flowers Gallery, Circular Stories, which brings together a powerful new series of paintings. She is also launching a new book with her partner, Carol Robertson & Trevor Sutton – French Paintings, on 6 December.
How different is East London today compared to when you first moved in?
East London has been completely transformed in recent years. When I first moved to an ACME artists’ housing association studio near Bethnal Green in 1983 the whole area was full of buildings in need of restoration or conversion. Public areas were poorly maintained and after dark, parks like London Fields or the Regents Canal, where I now walk at any time of day, were definitely ‘no go’ areas in those days. Eating out was very limited although there were always plenty of pubs. Now there are cafes, bars and restaurants of every culinary persuasion and new independent businesses and retail outlets springing up everywhere; it has also become a major location for galleries and artists’ studios. It’s a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic community, truly cosmopolitan. And of course the proximity of the Olympic Park has brought in huge investment as well as much better transport links.
What attracted you to the converted warehouse that is now your home?
My husband (Trevor Sutton) and I are both artists and we were looking for a place to buy that had plenty of wall space to install our art collection. We already had studios near the Regent’s Canal and we were looking for a converted industrial or warehouse space to live in that felt more like the loft spaces we saw in New York in the late 80s. Our building was built in the 1850s as a carpet warehouse and later became a shirt factory in the 1930s. It has beautiful brickwork and lovely original floors and windows. Columns run throughout the apartment and it has high ceilings. There is a private garden for residents. We loved it the minute we saw it and it wasn’t expensive. We moved in there 1994.
There is so much to look at – does the art you bring into the home constantly change its dynamic?
We change the work on the walls quite regularly and as our collection grows we certainly don’t hang everything all at once. That would make the space feel too busy. We like to leave some wall space empty and we frequently move the objects around that sit on windowsills or shelves.
Does it also bring you great joy to have artwork all around you?
Every piece of art is an important part of our life history: some pieces are purchased, others have been given or exchanged with works of ours. I love making art and I love living with art. I always hang one or two pieces of my own, and Trevor does too. The pristine environment of a gallery is very different from the context of home. Seeing each work in relation to another and experiencing it in every kind of light at any time of day is definitely a joy.
What other accessories or little treasures do you have dotted around the house?
I love picking up things I find beautiful and bringing them home to look at: it might be pebbles and fossils, leaves, feathers, anything that catches my eye. We have a collection of sea floats, picked up on beaches all over the world. There are always lots of cards propped up that we’ve been sent by friends or galleries. We like having ceramic objects around us too, pots, bowls and little knick-knacks that might have an interesting design.
Would you say you have a particular design style at home?
Yes, I would say we have a Modernist sensibility and we like to live with mostly abstract or minimal work.
Your work is on the wall at your home, which brings us to Circular Stories – what can we expect to see?
I don’t exclusively paint circles but the upcoming exhibition at Flowers Gallery Circular Stories speaks for itself. It will only feature my recent circle paintings, and in particular, five huge paintings made in my London studio. These works are inspired by a series of residencies in France over the past few years, working high up in the hills of the Midi Pyrenees. I’m responding to nature’s seasonal patterns, to the landscape, the quality of light and ambient colour. I want the paintings to evoke the atmosphere of this beautiful location.
The circle is the most archetypal and pure geometric form. It has a universal resonance, found everywhere in art and architecture and in ritual. It can be an evocation of so many things: the universe and the heavens, the journey inward, or outward from the centre. It’s a symbol of wholeness, completion and infinity: the unbroken line with no beginning or end, the eternal cycle. Using geometry, and particularly the circle, takes the chaos out of what would be an impossibly vast set of visual options to pin my existence upon. It allows me to concentrate on the essential and gives me the freedom to channel sensory or poetic material through it.
What role does colour play in your work?
Colour is like music, it’s a fast-track to our emotions. A mixture of memory and sensory experience.
You also have a new book coming out – again, what can we expect to see in it?
It’s called Carol Robertson Trevor Sutton – French Paintings. Essentially it’s collaboration, mixing photographs and texts with our artworks. All the material relates to working in a studio in the Midi Pyrenees that I mentioned earlier. We’ve been there on four occasions, between September 2008 and June 2014. Although we’re both abstract artists I think the book shows very clearly how this location feeds our imagination and influences our work.
This interview will be appearing in the Christmas issue Carol – will you be in East London over the festive period?
Carol Robertson: Circular Stories runs until 10 January at Flowers Gallery, 82 Kingsland Road E2 8DP; 020 7920 7777; flowersgallery.com