IN CONVERSATION | PAINTER – PEN DALTON

01.04.20


“I would be happy to pay twice as much what I pay for my studio if it meant a younger artist could stay in London and pay less and make it more affordable for them. “

-Pen Dalton

Pen has worked in the arts all her life; creating her own works and teaching at universities. She took early retirement and decided to leave the lecturing and academia behind her so she could focus on her own artwork. She is deeply interested in contemporary art and has a particular interest in the concept of “Late Style” – looking at artists who, as they’ve gotten older, have developed a whole new style. She noticed that her work had completely changed over the years and has decided that she is going to embrace the paradigm of practice – the practice in which most art history has been written about – painting. Whilst she has explored a variety of mediums, she now tends to stick to paint, however, not always using a brush.



 What is your definition of studio space? 

A studio space is any space you can carve out that fits in with your living circumstances. We’ve all got ideals, you know, I’ve got this lovely picture of Rauschenberg’s studio which is absolutely wonderful and in reality, its the best you can do with your finances and your time and the space you have available, you know, you have to find a way. and sometimes it means you have to change your practice because it doesn’t fit the parameters – basically it’s your economic situation; it’s an old Marxist idea you now, your work will follow economic realities. I think I’ve had every variation of studio there is really, its been a pain because I seem to spend all my life white-washing walls, building shelves, and I really would like to have, I suppose, a permanent studio where I don’t need to think about moving again or renting a van, and not think about how I’m going to do my work. 

I used to have a big studio when I lived in the country and I have a separate room for screen-printing, a workshop area, and it was all lovely but moving back to London, I had to think again. I remember when I was teaching performance art, we had to get rid of all the studios because of the economy during the Thatcher years, and we had to get rid of all the technicians and staff, and how can you teach a BA in fine art? You get rid of all the painting, drawing, etc and teach performance art because they can do that out in the fields, you don’t need studios. so, the old idea of the studio is sort of like a master image of an artist and its reality for some, but not others. So, I have changed my practice to fit what space I’ve got and you can see with people who do it, their work gets smaller because they have smaller spaces. 

If you think of it as limiting then it is sad, but I remember saying to students “look you’ve got all these spaces and all this expertise, make the most of it, because when you leave, its not like this”, but yeah, I have a studio right now where I mainly do small work, but it actually works really well for me as theres much more of a market for small work at the moment, so its been quite interesting to me as I’ve never done it before. Ill probably carry on doing them and I don’t think anything is a limitation – I started doing print-making in my marital bedroom, and this was oil-based as well. You can make a space anywhere and if you feel you’re really mean to do art, you will find somewhere to do it.  

Collaborative and communal spaced are on the rise in London – do you believe this formula can work and how should we let people know about it? 

I think an ideal would be to work in a studio have a lot of different skills and everyone is doing something unique. Also a gallery space as a part of it. There’s always this catch 22 of how you pay for it – the studios I’m in at the moment, they’re cheap and we do have a waiting list, and my heart bleeds for them because they need to have work to pay for where they live and then they’ve got to pay rent for their studio, and the studio space I’m at, you have to work there for 20 hours a week, and they have to close at 5pm in the winter as its in the middle of a park, so how anyone can possibly work, earn enough money to live and find 20 hours a week to keep their studio space, is crazy. I think every studio I’ve been in, I used to be in Bow and they were great, but you close the door and you’re on your own, it didn’t have any communal facilities. They had some really interesting artists there who I knew from outside the studio but I never met them at the studio, there weren’t even any cafes nearby, so something with somewhere to hang out seems to be pretty crucial. Also, where you have a chance to use other peoples facilities and share skills, which the studio I have now enables us to do a lot. Our studios are really sociable and I would miss it a lot if it wasn’t like that, but they are mainly inhabited by retirees because we are the only people of our generation who have got our own homes and can afford it, even though it’s cheap. so, I don’t know what the answer is to that when I had the studio in Bow, there were quite a lot of younger people who were really successful, and then people like myself who were on fairly well-paid part-time work in the arts who could afford the rent which was quite high – so you do need to have a high-paying job to be able to do it. It was mainly lecturers and well-established artists who worked there. I can go where my interests take me, and I’m so lucky to be able to do that and that is a big problem in London at the moment. 

Of course now there are on the other hand,  a lot more temporary spaces – like if you want to do a project like performance or an installation, what I was able to do was use a space in the university during the summer months, which was great, but there are more spaces for artists to rent like my son who is a photographer he can rent a space for a particular shoot; he would rather rent an equipped studio rather than dragging all his stuff everywhere as he has a small flat. 

Parking is what finished me off in my last studio and I’m going to scale down the one I’m in because I cant park and people who visit us and want to buy the work cant park. ideally, you want an area where you can welcome people because they’re working spaces. 

I lived in Devon for about 25 years and I had a big studio and although I had a wonderful studio, theres a kind of work that people associated with the west country and whilst its not impossible to do radical work there, it is difficult. Also, its not the sort of place where young people go to start up their creative career. I was brought up in London and grew up there so I was pleased to come back. We came back and I find that the proximity to other artists and I think just the motivation, as soon as I moved back to London I became a part of a group called “Contemporary British painters’ a lot of whom live in east London, so although it wasn’t specifically a London thing, its motivating to have a lot of people nearby who are interested in the same things. 

The galleries and opportunities, whilst they are available across all of the UK, I think London does it the best, and of course east London is the mecca really its just amazing and its really sad that people are moving out and thats why I don’t like to think of this lack of studio space as a total negative as it really does force you to think outside of the box; people have been doing graffiti and performance, conceptual art, digital art, so I think if we carried on with the typical studio structure of including painting, drawing, and sculptures, then thats what everyone would still be doing, but students have had to think really hard about how to make things work and have been forced to collaborate. I think it would be a mistake to think of it as a negative as I think art work comes out of the circumstances and they’re never perfect and I think its Time we got rid of the old model anyway, you know, its still there and I’m still a part of it in a way, but I’ve had to change quite radically too, so I think these sorts of things open up new ideas. 

Would you ever consider leaving London again? 

Absolutely not, I’m very happy in east London, I love it here. 

Do you think it would impact your art if you were to move out of London again? 

Yes, it’s just not the on the cards. I never got to hear about new things happening or offered new opportunities, so I think people moving out could be a great thing as it expands the horizons. If I moved, it would be like a coastal region.

I would be happy to pay twice as much what I pay for my studio if it meant a younger artist could stay in London and pay less and make it more affordable for them. 

For me, travel time becomes very important – im converting my loft into a studio space as theres nowhere to park in my current role and it takes me too long to get there. The studio is always the first thing I have to have, and I think serious artists will always want studios, but we do have to subsidise it for people who cant afford it. 

How do you think artists can collaborate and communicate with developers to maintain the cultural community? 

I think your initiative is really good – what’s really good is you’re offering something back like an exhibition and the profile and I particularly often like to find myself amongst other painters who are nothing like myself as its great to see whats going on. I think you’re starting off well so I don’t really know how to answer that – I think developers often have a rigid, old-fashioned idea of an artist and I mean that in the broader sense and how they use media but also thinking about how potentially they could use media, its a wide question.