Denise Wyllie on Art, Craft, Gender and Class

Artist Denise Wyllie is a London-based visual artist whose roots are in working class Haringey. In this interview with Eddie Saint-Jean, she reflects on her experiences at Kingston University, where she studied Fine Art and Printmaking, and discusses how craft, class and gender intersect, feature in and inspire her day-to-day work. From presenting lectures on famous women artists, to work celebrating Rosalind Frankin’s scientific achievements, Wyllie’s practice explores the legacy of female artists whilst also highlighting current need for better representation on art gallery walls.

Being Together, Estando Juntos Series by Denise Wyllie

Does your working class background or gender feature in your work?

As a subject matter, class has featured in my artworks and thinking about class has always been part of my life. Last year I showed original prints at the Espacio Gallery in Shoreditch showing working class Londoners in an urban scene. At the top of these prints was a wicked City banker flying overhead, defying the laws of gravity, as well as the law set for the poor honest working people below.

Does class affect your work in other ways?

On my foundation course I met a different class of people, both staff and students. There were lovely middle and upper class students who lived in a totally alien world. They were able to without a thought grasp opportunities. They bought wonderful expensive materials without fear or caution. I recall a wealthy student who went to Mexico for a couple of years after graduating, while I worked on the haberdashery counter of the Co-op in Tottenham every summer until I got a job teaching. This student referred to me as the little Cockney girl!

I was the first and only person in my family to go to university. My father and grandmother encouraged me while my mother had assumed that I would get ‘a nice little factory job’ where I would have my own money and dissuaded me from staying on at school. She thought my attitude immature and just did not want to grow up to become a woman.

Being from a modest working-class home, I could not for a second entertain the idea of not having a ‘proper job’ or have a studio/workspace, so I always had a part-time teaching job and painted in my dark attic flat or outside in the landscape.

As a woman artist I have been continually made aware of how I am still not considered to be a ‘real artist’. I am fired with endless drive and commitment to my creative life and my anger fires also fired me onwards too. From the very beginning I purposefully did not develop a ‘feminine’ painting style as I felt this was considered less valuable, and ‘decorative’ meant not serious. It is only very recently I have engaged with beautiful scenery and depicted the cherry blossom of Japan and the rose research fields and gardens of David Austin Roses where I’ve visited and painted the last 3 years.

However, during my formative education a senior lecturer on my degree course said to me and another student: ‘You women are not creative. The only creativity you have is here…’ as he dug into my friend’s stomach, ‘in your belly’. The other talented and feisty student was Pauline Barrie, who went on to develop the Women’s Art Library.

We, the young women of the Fine Art Department, were excluded from the camaraderie of the college bar, while the guy students drank in the bar with male lecturers were always given preferential consideration and assumed to be wise.

Gender is represented in my on-going series of prints called ‘Being Together’. Some of the portraits are self-portraits in this series. They give powerful insights about my view of how men and women relate with each other in deep and subtle ways, contrasting avoidance with deep engagement.

I have made paintings and prints highlighting the work of scientist Rosalind Franklin who made the first clear crystallography photographs showing the structure of DNA. I believe Franklin should have been awarded the Nobel Prize along with Crick and Watson, so I made this work that pays tribute to her achievements. Last year on the anniversary of Franklin’s birth, my print titled ‘Discovering DNA’s structure’ was presented to the Crick Institute at Kings Cross London. It makes me smile knowing that she is now housed in the magnificent building and institute that pays homage to Professor Crick’s in its name.

As Wyllie O Hagan, artist Clare O Hagan and I, have collaborated together and created many artworks that resonate with our feminist views. One important project resulted in an artwork series, ‘The Hope That Surrounds Us’, that is now employed as the logo for a women’s cancer awareness and activism group called GOCA in the USA. Our logo is used on their merchandise, their racing car team and their ‘bag of hope’ – gifted to all newly diagnosed women with ovarian cancer at the beginning of their treatment. We, Clare and I, have worked with women’s science groups, medical organisations, cancer charities and have written a book that documents a textile project that supported people whose lives have been touched by cancer, Whitework- A Gentle Path. Another piece that was developed and made during a residency at a Cancer Research UK laboratory is called Transformations in Science and Art. This also includes Rosalind Franklins iconic Photo 51 and hangs on permanent display at the Royal Mint. When we completed this monumental tribute artwork the story of the duplicitous Crick and Watson was still sciences’ guilty secret.

Denise Wyllie

What are your views on the representation of women’s art in galleries and museums?

After graduating I did a series of public lectures about famous women artists throughout history. People had kept saying throughout my life that there were no women artists and I was sick of hearing it!

To return to the historical question of women’s representation in galleries and museums, London’s National Gallery represents only eleven women painters and half of their works are hidden away in a vault. More concerning is that women are often portrayed as the subject matter of rape – some fifty paintings in the Nation Gallery’s collection are about this topic. The rapes are shown in the style akin to a family picnic – highlighting the historically presupposed importance of a male audience and their, in my opinion, twisted view of sexual titillation.

Personally, my viewpoint that is usually at odds with what is written on the walls of museums and art galleries. I am angered by information that appears inadequate, lazy or incorrect – these panels are supposed to be educational, and people accept this information as the truth! Whilst I can admire the technical prowess and creativity on show in public galleries and museums, like anyone not well represented by these establishments, I connect more with ideas and images that relate to my own experiences and beliefs. For example, it is difficult to admire paintings of rape scenes, however famous or well painted they might be.

How about the contemporary art market? Surely that must be better?

Unfortunately not – report that 78% of galleries represent more men than women, and only 5% represent an equal number of male and female artists.

But, I am delighted to see that a new generation of gifted, witty women are seriously investigating female artists, and continue to give lectures and workshops sharing their knowledge with energy and good humour. I am a great fan of the ‘Big Art Herstory Project’ highlighting women artists through ‘history’, so please investigate their website, and mine here

Words by Eddie Saint-Jean and Denise Wyllie. 

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