Welcome To My World

Emma Brophy meets artist Joanna Brendon MBE

Artists At Home

“The voyage of discovery is not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes”
Marcel Proust


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Artists At Home was launched over 30 years ago with a £5 grant for tea and biscuits from Hammersmith and Fulham Council.

This year 64 artists will open their homes and studios to the public over the weekend of 18th and 19th June (some studios will also be open on the evening of 17th June see www.artistsathome.net for full details).

Artist Joanna Brendon has been coordinating this increasingly popular event for the past 10 years.

"When I took it on, there was a need for the open studio scheme to be run much more professionally" explains Joanna who will be stepping down this year.

Joanna began working in her late teens at the New Art Centre in Sloane street where she become influenced by the likes of John Hubbard. She went onto to work at St John’s Smith Square for 16 years and was there when Rostropovich performed his first concert in the West. After a stint as Development Director at Sadlers Wells, she became "poacher turned gamekeeper" as she puts it taking on a sponsorship role for Rio Tinto.

These days the self confessed workaholic not only holds the position of Artist in Residence at Brantwood, she has just finished exhibiting works in Aylesbury and is preparing for an exhibition in Oxford.

I visited Joanna as she was getting her house ready for the Artists at Home weekend. Chatting in her kitchen, I admired the two art works on the wall from a series called Sightlines [original digital images created from a series of photographs of people's irises] which prompted her to tell me about how myopia and cataracts impaired her vision to such an extent she felt she was living in a 'bowl of brown lumpy gravy' and how meeting a number of blind artists gave her the courage to have incredibly risky but, as it transpired, sight saving surgery.

“Meeting these wonderful people gave me confidence to have the operation, they made me realize that it would be better to be totally blind than hanging on,” explains Joanna. “So I let go and took the risk they inspired me.”

“When I hailed a fire engine mistaking it for a bus (it didn’t stop but apparently I was given a cheery wave), and a week later very nearly pruned my cat’s tail – then I knew the time had come to have my cataracts removed and, at the same time, my high myopia corrected.

“Six years earlier, I had been advised by the ophthalmic consultant Jonathan Dowler, at Moorfields Eye Hospital, to wait until I had ‘nothing to lose’ and that phrase kept haunting me as my vision grew murkier. I had still got something to lose, and knew that the chances of doing so were statistically increased in extremely high myopes like myself, but life is full of risks and we would cease to live meaningful lives if we pondered too long on them all.

“Colour deterioration is obviously a gradual process, and apparently some people are better at making a mental compensation than others. On a sunny day, I think I still saw the sky as blue, because I knew it was, yet overall the effect of the brunescent cataracts was like looking at the world through thick, lumpy gravy. The colour scheme was depressing and I was having an increasing number of accidents because of reduced acuity.

“I was still working as an artist, but had introduced wax-resist and collage into my paintings so that there was a tactile element in the process. I was frustrated at not being able to work more efficiently, but I never seriously wondered how differently other people viewed my work. Sighted or not, no artist can really know that, at the best of times.

“And so, on 25th July 2007, I sat nervously on a bed in Moorfields, still agonising over which eye should be ‘done’ first. I was walked through a seemingly endless maze of corridors which became increasingly white and ethereal as the dilation of my eyes took effect.

When I reached my destination, I was greeted by a cheery anesthetist and invited to choose the level of sedation, from ‘nothing’ through to ‘complete oblivion’ – an impressive range of cocktails. I opted for being awake and aware, but not minding what was happening. After what seemed like four minutes but was actually more like thirty, “Well done, it’s over!” There was no pain, no nausea, no fear; I felt lucid, relaxed and hungry.

“In the morning I unwrapped the best gift I could have wished for; my sight was better than it had ever been in my life.

“From then on it has been one discovery after another, like an ongoing game of I Spy: trees have individual leaves; my garden is delighting me (except for the weeds); my little tabby cat has exquisite markings; I can see the green parakeets in the pear tree; I can paint my toenails. I am less enthusiastic about my wrinkles and the kitchen floor, and after 60 years of groping for my glasses as soon as I open my eyes in the morning, it may be a long time before that Pavlovian response is stopped.

“I had been apprehensive about viewing my artwork, but strangely, the difference in colour seemed less marked than in the world around me, and I wonder if it is possible that my ‘mind’s eye’ had been more dominant where I had a compensatory control over the palette. But I am excited to discover new texture in the work, and the whole experience has certainly been a motivating force. Before the operation, I had produced a series of prints as a way of confronting my deteriorating vision. The digital medium seemed appropriate for this subject matter, the facility for magnification being a good metaphor for my extreme myopia. The works included a set of prints - Sightlines - where tiny fragments of irises were displayed in a series of vertical lines, acknowledging the diversity and beauty of human pathology."

One appreciative visitor to an open studio wrote in a visitor's book last year "thank you for letting us into your world” which perfectly sums up the spirit of Artists at Home.

"We don't just open our doors; we invite people to explore the hub of our creativity, whether this be a purpose-built studio or the living-room."

Unlike in commercial galleries, where the creators of the work are often invisible, the artists in the open studios are themselves very much part of the visitor experience. People really seem to enjoy learning about the techniques and the whole creative process.

Joanna encourage visitors to take a look at Artists At Home website to plan their weekend. “The website gives public the opportunity to do their own curating. Even with AAH’s strict geographical boundaries and criteria, it would be impossible for visitors to get to all the participants so it is important that they are able to make informed choices.”

Open Studios in Chiswick, Hammersmith and Shepherds Bush

Friday June 18th, Saturday June 19th and Sunday June 20th


June 10, 2010