Inspiration can be found in everything and everywhere: Having a heart for oddities and forgotten objects other people would carelessly discard, I can relate to Rebecca and imagine her whimsical space – a manifestation of a beautiful, bizarre fantasy world within four walls. Painter, wearable art designer and filmmaker Rebecca Jo Lesley herself is a deeply inspiring and exciting creative, as versatile and multifaceted as the collection she describes.
I love my creature comforts and fill my space with intriguing things: My grandma’s prayer book, a scrapbook made in 1935, flowers, antiques and oddities, bones, artwork, religious iconography and costume pieces.
Rebecca works on various creative projects simultaneously and manages to juggle not only her time commitments but especially the qualities each medium requires. She finds connections that the outsider easily might overlook. Each medium informs the other, becomes a suitable fit in different situations, connects with her energy in a moment, and offers another perspective and layer to the very same interest and topic.
While we sometimes get stuck in the monotony of one activity, Rebecca can always escape to another medium’s world. And let’s be honest, especially in the beginning, being an artist can be a struggle, and it is no harm to train your hands and mind within different practices.
Rebecca has it all; her work is enriched by multifaceted perspectives and approaches, finding productivity and inspiration in versatility. I am sure you will be enchanted by all this energy translated into different physical manifestations.
Art has always been a very cathartic process for me.
Exclusive Interview with Rebecca Jo Lesley
You are a versatile artist, exploring different realms of creation and mediums. What draws you to a particular creative practice, and what is appealing to you in each medium?
For me, painting is about personal expression, and the process is very private and therapeutic. It’s precious time alone without the rest of life’s physical and digital distractions, which are getting harder to come by.
My work as a costume textiles artist for film and TV is satisfying because of the combination of costumes and painting in one job. Being part of a team is great and being visually creative without over-thinking is a relief. In addition, it’s fun to be using my hands without having to get stuck in my head. The downside is the hours and travel can be demanding, so the rest of my creative practice gets put on hold.
Making small costume pieces like headwear in my studio is fun. I don’t need to be disciplined like I am at work, and it can help me break into the mythical ‘zone’ when I’m struggling to get stuck into a painting. Right now, I’m finding rhinestoning bird skulls a nice hobby that breaks the ice with my practice.
You create personal and intimate paintings, selecting a subject seems really important for this energy. How do you choose a topic or the right person to portray?
Art has always been a very cathartic process for me. The initial idea often comes from something in my private life, so I then work away from that to find a more universal way of conveying the theme. Taking note from some of my favourite painters, Dali and Mark Ryden, I have found that tarot is a good source of simplifying topics into symbolic imagery since its storytelling is used to illustrate both life’s complex and mundane situations. However, I lack the confidence to clearly and concisely show the more personal sources of my ideas, which I’m trying to work on in my practice.
I tend not to have a direct narrative. Instead, I toy with the themes and emotions through the subject’s facial expressions, the paint application and the emblematic motifs. So finding a person with a vulnerable and emotive face is vital to me when choosing a subject, that or it’s someone I have a close relationship to. I tend to paint women as my themes are usually tied to those experiences. That said, I try to keep it somewhat playful as I have a penchant for being tongue-in-cheek.
Could you point out one painting that was especially important to you? Any work/experience that impacted your practice significantly?
I guess my painting Rebirth, which was part of a series of the same name, was very significant in multiple ways. Apart from symbolising a crucial period of my life, it was also my first solo exhibition and a catalyst for my career. Following the series, Channel 4 television’s Random Acts commissioned me to write and direct a short surreal film based on the Rebirth series. It was later shown at the Institute for Contemporary Arts, and Levile TV listed me as one of the top rising filmmakers living outside of London.
For my costume textiles work, my first time learning on the job with Mission Impossible will always be significant because I was taught a lot, and it paved the way for me to be doing the work I am now. I met my would-be boss by chance on a TV job. I was stuck in a small room watching the washing machines, and she was hired in for one day; she got my number and took me under her wing onto her next job.
What does your creative process usually look like? How does each medium differ from the start to the end of creation?
My sketchbooks are less and less pretty nowadays, more a scribbled mix between a diary, brainstorms and quick composition drawings that form a specific list of themes, words, methods and imagery that play together to express the narrative. Half of my ideas never make it to the painting stage, and more than half of my paintings are never finished. The final piece is a very brief part of the process, and I worry that many of the ideas are lost in that last stage as I’m not brave enough to articulate them fully.
Film is a similar process to painting since my first short film ‘Rebirth’ was inspired by the painting process itself. Plotting out the themes, storyboards, emotions, pace and symbolism.
The costume textiles and dyeing work are great for discipline. You have to get it right, there isn’t a backup canvas to paint on, and the costume department needs it done by a set time. Colour matching with dye is suitable for training your eye to be exact, which then helps with my portrait painting.
What inspires you in your environment to be creative?
I love my creature comforts and fill my space with intriguing things: My grandma’s prayer book, a scrapbook made in 1935, flowers, antiques and oddities, bones, artwork, religious iconography and costume pieces. I have a mix of books dotted around covering art, Greek mythology, catholicism, folklore, poetry and a mixture of novels. I have recently found a surprising interest in comic books, especially Alan Moore’s Promethea, which has some clever and creative artwork by J.H Williams. Being surrounded by street art in Bristol has influenced a more layered and loose style in my work, which I want to keep developing as I’d like to find a balance between classical, urban, and surrealist approaches.
Does the company of other artists also inspire you? Are you in a collective, or do you prefer to work independently?
For the most part, I work alone, especially concerning my paintings. Although, I am part of Jamaica Street Studios. Although, I like to paint in private – I like the quiet and meditative aspect, and I’m pretty shy about it – I would love to be part of a collective of similar visual artists one day. Before Covid, I did some costumed life drawing classes with the performance collective Mama Jinx. I also painted the performers for Modern Panic X’s exhibition at the Old Truman Brewery. I’m always part of a team for my costume textiles work in film. I enjoy the company, and when you’re part of a team, you learn a lot. I’m part of Pearl Boheme’s dance troupe ‘A Conspiracy of Raven’s’, whom I’ve also painted a couple of times.
What projects are you currently working on, and what are your ideas for the future?
I’ve just finished helping out in the textiles department, painting the costumes for a period film coming out next year – so I’m in that weird phase of adjusting to the other side of my life. I’m at the beginning of creating a new series exhibited in Bristol at the end of the summer. I’d love to find the money to be taught at the Florence Academy of Art in the next few years.
I didn’t study painting at university, and since I started seven years ago, I feel I’ve hit a wall and being trained in the classical academic methods could help me overcome that. As I mentioned earlier, I also want to be more confident and bold with my painting concepts and use a more surrealist style. After my practice being in the hermit phase, I’m now ready to push outwards and get exhibiting again, which feels difficult when the spare time between film work is precious. I’m also in the early stages of thinking up a small dance choreography for later this year and planting some ideas for directing another short film, but that’s a long way from fruition.
Not thinking of any boundaries and limitations, what would you love to experiment with in the future? Where would you like to see yourself?
I want to make my work more surreal, macabre and bold, creating a series that includes paintings, sculpture and film. It would be great to start getting representation in commercial galleries in London, and one day I’d love to be involved in shows in countries like Japan and America, where this style is thriving and evolving.