“I think I’m one of the only people from uni still doing art exhibitions. There’s only a few of us,” explains Chantal Poppy Elwood one afternoon during her two-week exhibition in Christchurch. “A few [fellow students] are doing MA’s and stuff and maybe doing exhibitions on the side, but I want to continue with this because so many people have told me not to. It feels a bit wrong, but it’s right.”
If you’re wondering why it feels wrong for this Fine Art graduate of Bath Spa University to pursue her goal in creating and showcasing her painting, all is told by Chantal who informs me that, as a student, her practices were discouraged from the start by college and university tutors. “They didn’t like me painting in general. They’d rather I do media, videos and graphic design. And that stuff interests me a lot, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I felt like when I was painting, that was what I’m supposed to do. This is what I’m supposed to do in life, is paint, and they just kept telling me that I shouldn’t paint any more, that I’m not a painter and that I can’t paint. It kind of spurred me on a bit actually. I was quite rebellious then,” she laughs.
Admirably Chantal continued to stay true to her early convictions and keep painting, despite the opinions of her educational advisers. Surely it would become difficult not to doubt yourself under chronic pressure from your professional superiors? Yet Chantal assures me that it’s not these opinions which matter to her. “I don’t care about what certain people think, you know, like strangers. But with friends and family I think it’s really important that they like your work. It’s encouragement.
“If everyone told me that my work was crap every day, I don’t think I’d do it any more. That means I must be quite concerned [about what people think], but I’ve still got those people who are encouraging me, so it’s all fine. Even if it’s just a couple of people that’s fine by me, I’ll just keep going.”
As Chantal pro-actively sets out to gain exposure for her art through solo exhibitions and gallery spots across the South, it’s easy to understand why support and encouragement from family and close friends is so valued. Thankfully the ambition to create emotive and engaging work from the outset is very much alive and Chantal’s appreciation for her close circle of allies seems indicative of an artist who wishes to create work that’s personal, truthful and a well articulated manifestation of her thoughts, as opposed to superficial, socially pleasing art to get eaten up by the masses.
Chantal reveals how, while the desire to create and sell paintings remains firmly intact, a singular or consistent message is yet to be established throughout her work and that she feels as though she is still finding herself artistically. Of course this is not out of the ordinary at such an early stage and such initial creative turmoil experienced by so many young artists may in itself be evident in Chantal’s enigmatic paintings, particularly her self portraits. When questioned further about this fascination with portraits, Chantal goes on to outline the link between the subject and a specific psychological process – of self exploration or analysis: “I think self portraits, specifically, interest me even more than just portraits because painting yourself is such a task and the way you portray yourself says a lot about you and what you think about yourself and what you think about the world.
“I think I look at myself as a bit of a joke and I do a bit of theatre and make it a bit more dramatic. I paint myself but with stupid expressions on my face and stupid make up and stupid hair. I don’t really know if it is judging my mental state. It probably says a lot about my mental state though.”
The paintings are cryptic, beautifully vivid displays centred on female portraits, usually of herself, friends or anyone willing to have their photograph taken. To me, Chantal’s work brings to mind specific emotional states that often reference darker issues.
As well as these personal explorations, it seems that broader subject matter is becoming more visible, specifically in relation to society and politics. Chantal’s recent trip to Russia and the imprisonment of three Pussy Riot members inspired the piece ‘Pussy Riot’. “That’s the only political painting I’ve done. It wasn’t actually meant to be political at all; I just wanted to paint pictures of… Ah well it was actually. When I went to Russia there were so many people who just can’t – don’t have an opinion. They get brushed over – with the girls and them getting arrested. I looked at a lot of Russian propaganda posters. There’s one, I don’t know how to pronounce it, but it means ‘Don’t speak’ in Russian and had a woman with her finger across her lips and that’s what inspired me to do that particular painting.”
The decision to highlight such topics and portray the women involved in a particular way, as victims for example, suggests a developing social commentary throughout Chantal’s work.
“I’ve done one about eating disorders and models – ish, not directly. It’s not directly linked to eating disorders as such, but I was looking at pictures of women in magazines and then I would paint them. Then I would paint the word ‘pressure’ on their neck and have all this gloomy background and have her crying.
“One of my biggest things in life is that I absolutely hate what people expect of everyone, you know? What they expect of young people and what we’re supposed to do, what we’re supposed to look like, what we’re supposed to eat, what we’re supposed to wear. I wanna convey more and more of that in my future paintings. I wanna put more of a clear message forward.”
Perhaps these new messages could be interpreted as a young woman’s attempt at making sense of themselves and their place in the modern world. So far, remaining true to her creative instincts has proved to be beneficial to Chantal’s artistic development and in light of her future goals and inspirations it’s safe to assume that any new ideas will only enrich an already promising body of work.