Her skin was tender. She lost her mother at the tender age of 25. Make speaks to fine artist Alexis Soul-Gray about her life and work.
Q. Tell us a little bit about yourself (your history, how you started, any formal training, any artists in the family, etc?)
A. I grew up in the southeast of England in a village called Stock in Essex, I am very fortunate to have spent the vast part of my childhood there as I was very free and safe, before mobile phones, etc! I would walk and play with my friends for hours and hours with no adults anywhere, it was heaven! My mother trained as a textile designer at The Royal College of Art, but due to family/financial commitments and life complications, she committed to a career in arts education instead.
There aren’t any artists in my family that I know of but apparently, if you go far back enough in our family tree there are plenty of ‘sign writers’ and we are also of French Huguenot descent, my family being silk weavers in Spitalfields, London. I have had a pretty standard art education I guess; I took the normal routes as most UK art students. A Foundation, BA, no money for a very long time, teaching…post-grad, MA which I am now in my final year of completing finally at 41at Royal College of Art after having had my two girls who are now 7 and 10.
Q. Who or what motivates you to pick up your brush?
A. I think probably the biggest motivation for my work is heartbreak. The practice itself is almost a distraction from pain, maybe it is my own sort of therapy I’m not sure. I think about, what makes and unmakes us. How do we love and grieve? Who do we long for? What do we repeat and seek to repair? In essence, how were we mothered, and how might we mother ourselves? These are the questions around which my images on canvas, paper, and linen revolve.
To be tender is to be loving, gentle, and attentive; it is to be young, innocent, and soft too (like a tender morsel of meat that melts, delicious, in the mouth). But tenderness also describes a state of pain, of delicacy, and frailty; tender skin is burnt skin, broken skin, bruised skin, skin so thin it tears, it weeps, it flakes. I like to activate these multiple meanings not only through my selection of subjects and adoption of materials but also through my modes of creation by destruction.
Q. The very ‘classic’ theme (in art terms) of the mother and child is the central but very strikingly original concept in your work. Can you explain the significance of this theme for your work?
A. Yes, it is there for multiple intertwined reasons. I believe on one hand it can be simply read and understood as a yearning for a lost mother, a broken abandoned child. Family life is torn at the seams, shattered and transformed by illness and death; therefore, images of The Pieta are a natural cultural resource that I return to. At the same time, I interfere with and de-construct knitting patterns, idealised fake images from catalogues, often there is a mother and child, or multiple children and again it is a form of iconoclasm, there is a need to destroy, and re-make these idealised, idolised scenes.
Q. We feel a slightly melancholic subtext narrative from your work and particularly your use of colour, would you agree? Is this a conscious choice?
A. My work is deeply melancholic, but I believe there is hope too. I use a great deal of blue in my work which you may have noticed, I recently wrote about the colour blue in my dissertation titled ‘Immutable Fragments’, here is a beautiful quote that I love:
‘It calms me to think of blue as the colour of death. I have long imagined deaths approach as the swell of a wave – a towering wall of blue. You will drown, the world tells me, has always told me. You will descend into a blue underworld, blue with hungry ghosts, Krishna blue, the blue faces of the ones you loved. They all drowned too’. Nelson, Maggie. 2017. Bluets. (Jonathon Cape, London)
Q. Painting is a very personal form of expression, how attached do you become to your work, is it sometimes hard to give away?
A. I do occasionally feel an absence once a painting is sold, but more frequently I am finished with it once it leaves the studio and sometimes absolutely sick of it, often the ones that have pushed me the furthest, and made me feel uncomfortable are the ones I end up feeling sad to say goodbye to.
Q. Was there ever another career path you considered?
A. I remember saying that I wanted to be a doctor when I was about 6 years old but really from about nine or ten years old I knew I would be an artist. I enjoyed theatre studies at A-Level and shocked my parents and teachers when I performed a monologue crying on demand effectively throughout! So, there was a brief ‘theatre or art school’ moment but I always knew I would be an artist really. After graduating in 2003 from Camberwell, I worked in fashion for a while and became part of the creative team at the flagship Oxford Circus Topshop store, we worked on exciting projects with Kate Moss, Zandra Rhodes, etc. I received tickets to fashion shows etc but I found it highly competitive and not my world at all, but I do love beautiful clothes!
Q. We love the variety of media you work with, has your work always been that way, or is it a recent development?
A. Using household cleaners is more of a recent development, this came about through frustration in 2020, having no studio, then in 2021, I had studios all over the place, moving work from one place to the next. I ended up working in the garden, picking up anything I could find and throwing it on my work, rubbing it in… doing anything to transform it, destroy it even. I have always made drawings, paintings, photographs, used printmaking, and collage…this year I made my first 3D work during my residency and solo show at Exeter Phoenix Gallery working alongside curator Matt Burrow. The whole experience there was incredible for me.
Q. Is social media important to your work or the way you communicate it to the world or is it more of a necessary evil?!
A. I think I am beginning to really appreciate the channel of communication it allows. I feel very natural when using it although I do struggle sometimes like most people, everyone I know spends too long on it and it can be negative but for me overwhelmingly it is a useful tool. I think over the years I have used it more like a chatty blog and I like it that way. I have made genuine friendships on Instagram, and many are now people I see in ‘real’ life regularly. A gallery director I am working with now has encouraged me to continue using it as I naturally would and always have done, to try and forget who is watching and just be myself as the voice behind the work is integral to the practice.
Q. Can you name a work of art you would love to own or that means a great deal to you?
A. I would love to own a painting by Pauline Boty. She was my original art hero who tragically died very young. The painting I would choose would be ‘The Only Blonde in the World’
Q. What is next for Alexis Soul Gray?
A. I have a solo show opening on November the 10th in Stockholm at Wetterling Gallery which runs until Dec 17th, it is the largest solo show I have ever had. After this, I have three group shows and one more small solo show before the RCA degree show in June 2023, after that I have a solo show in July in Los Angeles.
Soul-Gray will graduate from the prestigious MA Painting program at the world-leading Royal College of Art, London, in 2023. She is the recipient of The Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation Grant in 2021 and 2022. Her work is in collections across the world.