Interview with Joy Hillyer

Can you tell us a bit about you? How did you come to art, or how did art come to you?

I’ve always been haunted by the desire to paint. But very academic schooling (which required giving up art aged 13 or 14) was followed by 25 years in law and legal education. But the desire to paint was too strong to be suppressed, and with a change of career, I finally had the opportunity. I began art classes with an inspirational tutor. At the same time I took a degree in garden design. When I then moved to London my painting developed further with two years on the Advanced Painting Practice Course at Morley College. I now have a growing professional practice, and exciting opportunities to exhibit.


Curtain, 2015, acrylic, oil on canvas, 60×60

Has your approach and process changed throughout your artistic career?

From the first my painting has walked a tightrope between abstraction and a more representational approach. I see it as a way of sharing how I look at the world, both large vista and small scale detail. Originally I kept my developing art practice very separate from my garden design practice and in some isolation from the work of other artists and movements in art history. However as my artistic voice has developed I have found inspiration in the work of other artists and have positioned myself more securely within the tradition of landscape painting. My work is characterised by contrasts of shape, colour, texture and meaning and by fragments of image, thought and feeling. The ‘Nonet’ (which was based on images of the Swiss Alps) is a contemporary, fractured, re-imagining of the Romantic Sublime. I have also been able to bring elements of my garden design background into my practice, particularly in using an underlying, often loose geometry. Deceptively simple paintings have layers of memory and meaning. Sometimes an underlying complexity is hinted at as in the Flower Market series, recently exhibited in Winchester Cathedral, where a highly contrived interaction between nature and humanity is the unseen backdrop to the intense colour of the ranks of flowers at New Covent Garden Market.

When working on a new project, what are the first steps you take?

Although a painting may be sparked by an event or social or political concern, my practice has its roots in the landscape, whether rural or urban. Inspiration often comes from trips away from home to the Southwest Coast of England, the Scilly Isles and the Swiss Alps. Last year’s travel to the American desert of Utah and Arizona has been a recent source of inspiration. Some paintings are a direct expression of feeling and vision of a place. Others are more considered: an idea sparked by the landscape may be ‘brewing’ for a while, then explored in small sketches and research. I often use my photographs as a ‘shell’ or structure within which to paint but the resulting work may be far from the original subject. A critical moment is the choice of painting size and format. I find painting a series is a good way of exploring different aspects of the same image or idea.


Thames Steps series 2:ii, 2016, acrylic on synthetic, 13×18 cm

What have been the highlights of your artistic career?

The first time a complete stranger bought one of my paintings was an early highlight. Since then watching people look at my paintings, think about them and discuss them remains immensely rewarding. That moment just before an exhibition opens when the paintings have been hung and await their audience is exciting. Being selected for a national exhibition was another highlight.

Can you tell us something about your series “Thames Steps”?

A recurring theme in my practice is the interaction between the natural world and the built landscape. This found expression in the Thames Steps series which arose from frequently walking along the Embankment of the River Thames near my home in Central London. Huge tides swirl in and out twice a day, bringing and revealing layers of memory, history and experience, images of continuity and change.


Painted Desert II, 2018, oil on wood, 20×40 cm

Joy Hillyer on Singulart:

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