Horses, braids and the colour blue are just some of the themes that appear in the work of Dundee-based artist Jen Robson. After years of working with portraiture, she has now developed her own unique style. She spoke to Jennifer Cosgrove about her first solo show — and why she's embracing all inspiration.
"I honestly don't know what attracted me to horses," Jen tells me as we sit in her studio at Meadow Mill in West Henderson's Wynd. "I asked my mum, because I was trying to work it out. I could show you drawings I did of horses when I was eight or nine years old. They were just magical from the start and I always loved them."
Her first solo exhibition Telling Tales (Tails) opened at The Outbye Gallery by Pittenweem last week — a giant step for any artist.
"I knew I had to get a solo show because I have so much work and, together, it all makes a story," she explains. "I was also really pleased to receive a Dundee Visual Art Award for £250 to help with the cost of the show."
It's been a productive time for Jen, who was chosen late last year to be lead artist on a production by Scottish theatre company Poorboy entitled Blood and Roses.
An audio play, it led audiences through the public streets and hidden spaces in Glasgow, visiting sites and art installations around the city. It featured specially-commissioned works by up-and-coming Scottish artists, and Jen created around 20 pieces for the production.
Blood and Roses was praised by critics and Jen recently discovered the play is to be reprised as part of the Made in Scotland showcase at this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
"This was brilliant news," she says. "We were so bereft when it ended, so we are happy we are getting to do again."
Jen (29) was born in Dundee and attended Braeview Academy before preparing her folio for art college at Dundee College. She studied at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee, graduating in 2004 with a BA (Hons) in Drawing and Painting.
After college, Jen decided to try and make it as an artist, funding her way with jobs in calls centres and supermarkets. The simple fact is making it in the art world is tough, and she admits it was difficult to stay in a creative mindset.
Then, out of the blue, she was contacted by The White Gallery in Dundee's South Tay Street asking whether she'd be interested in taking on the position of manager.
"I was just so lucky because I happened to be showing my work at the gallery — then I received a call."
She spent three years at the gallery, which started out as The White Gallery run by local architect Peter Inglis, but was then taken over by Nael Hanna, becoming Hanna's Contemporary Art Gallery.
Throughout her time as gallery manager, Jen continued with her own art, exhibiting at establishments in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Kinross, Forfar and Crieff. When Hanna's closed in 2009, she went back to art full time — but took with her valuable experience of the art world.
"What I got out of the gallery was people skills. I learned how to sell art, interact with people and also how to promote myself," she explains.
Love of portraiture
Portraiture is Jen's bread and butter, and she has shown a number of self portraits over the years, also taking on commissions.
"I do all sorts — people, pets — but many people don't think buying art is open to them. I'm hearing from some of the galleries I work with that they are not selling as much as they usually do. People somehow have the idea that art is very expensive because of the price famous works go for.
"Art can be a personal gift and the way I paint and draw, you can tell I love it. The movement of the hand — especially when I draw hair — it's a beautiful thing to have someone do for another person."
Another of Jen's favourite subjects is horses, and it is from this fascination that her style has developed, with references to mythology and even Surrealism.
"It's funny, because I used to look at artists and wonder where their inspiration came from. What I am doing now just started around two years ago; I began picking up things I liked and then I realised I was starting to form my own world.
"I also found my sky. I love blue sky and the way the colour makes me feel — it cheers me up."
Breaking away from traditional pastels and paints, Jen now works in a variety of media including drawing, collage, embroidery, installation and jewellery. Storyboxes are also new to her work. These are the sculptural pieces contained within upturned drawers and other recycled pieces of furniture, providing a platform for the arrangement of figurines and found objects.
"I experiment with blue a lot and I do blue drawings. I recently found an old book I used to love as a child and all the horses in it were pink and blue. These are the exact colours I keep obsessing over now, and it's strange to look back and see these," she says.
"While I was at art school, I always stayed away from horses and glitter because I thought it might seem cheesy, but now I've had a change and I try to embrace everything I can, not worrying about what other people think."
Talking to Jen, you really do get a sense that she has settled into her art. Instead of searching frantically for inspiration, she is now happy to let stories and themes run their course in the knowledge she has found her style.
"There are animals that feature regularly in my work and they've all started to take on a character — but I'm not sure who they are, yet. I'll have to wait and see.
"The horse keeps metamorphosing and the more I draw him, the more I find out about him. There are different horses, as well. One is strong and is protector, whereas there's another with wings who is like a prince or a king.
"Art is a language and animals are part of this language and it's something you have to learn and develop. All this is really new to me - I didn't know about all of this stuff and I went through art school! I'm more about the right medium for the right work and it can be nice to go back and do self portraits.
"For me, it's like play - I can do anything and I can work out ideas. All the different things I do feed different parts of me. One day, I might play about, and another I might draw. It's just fun. You never know what might happen."
with thanks Jennifer Cosgrove.