Fiona Hawthorne

Artist Fiona Hawthorne discusses 
Public Art, Art in Schools, Carnival, Notting Hill, Community Work and the Power of Art and Music

How did you first start in the creative field? And what do you like most about art?
I never wanted to do anything but draw. I went to art college in London and throughout my degree I drew what was happening around me – Notting Hill community, the young London jazz scene, and eventually that led to illustration commissions – record covers, editorial pieces and occasionally paintings for individuals – it hasn’t been an easy route but it has been an exciting one. I am mostly interested in people - recording and capturing them interacting with each other, and showing a side of life to others who may not get to see it, whether it be steelpan players practicing for Carnival, or long legged ladies watching polo. I love it when marks and colour somehow capture life itself – it could be the relationship of two blocks of colour in a Rothko painting or the economy of a Picasso etching that somehow captures the ‘it’  - though its hard to put into words what the ‘it’ actually is. Mostly I draw simply for the love of drawing, and it goes well when a drawing somehow captures that ‘it.’

With your style of illustration, you quickly capture movement and emotion of your subject, could you share with us what emotions art evokes in you when you draw? 
I rarely draw from stationary subjects – I mostly draw busy scenes or capture people in fleeting moments, and I have to be fast and focused. A drawing will be more honest and have integrity if the lines are true and not ‘made up’ - because I am practiced at drawing and know how the body fits together, it’s easy to draw what I know rather than what I see, rely on motif rather than draw lines that are really there. So a drawing goes well when the subject is captured in a few honest lines, and when lines reveal surprises, and when I learn something new while drawing. The path of an artist can be filled with turmoil – of course I question should I be doing this, should I have taken a more sensible route? But when a drawing goes well I feel exhilarated and know this is what I should be doing. 
Your portrait of Barak Obama hangs in the Library of Congress, how does this make you feel? And what are your thoughts on portraiture, art and politics? 
I love doing portraits and felt compelled to capture that unique joy and exciting hope for change so palpable at the time of the US 2008 election. I wanted to put it into Obama’s portrait, and represent him in a way that he is every mother’s son, but someone bringing the powerful feeling of hope to so many worldwide. I made the portrait out of lines embedded with the words “Yes We Can” which summed it up, and I was very happy with the piece. I want to do more portraits like this – with words within – and I am thinking about who at the moment, and drawn to the idea of portraits of ordinary people who are passionate about something in their own lives, who care and bring hope, alongside well known people who do the same. Politics in art for me is capturing the underexposed, representing the underrepresented, just showing people’s lives for others to look at and think about.
What does Public Art represent and mean for you? 
Art should be out on the street for people to see and interact with and we could do with more public art in UK. In Barcelona there is much art in posters, signage, graffiti, flyposting – even interesting blocks of colour like powder blue and acid yellow in painted areas of hoardings on building sites  - it is inspiring and nourishing and sparks ideas and lifts spirits. We don’t seem to have many channels in the UK for artists to get their work out there except through the gallery trajectory. I wish this would change and developers/councils/shops would become more inspired and courageous in use of space for art.

What inspires you from the Notting Hill area and how have you seen it change? Do you think creativity can help bring communities together?

Notting Hill has certainly changed in that it has gentrified but that seems inevitable with the style of UK politics that has widened the gap between rich and poor. I feel for young people now and just do not see how they will have a fair chance with housing and getting up and running. I started in London in a low rent housing trust flat in Notting Hill and housing benefit helped me and my husband get though the difficult early years of having our first baby while trying to continue with our work as an artist and an musician/actor. That little bit of help meant we got to spend time with our baby, we didn’t have to give up our art and work two full time jobs and put her in daycare like so many people are having to do now. Though it was often a struggle we could keep our energy and enthusiasm so we had ideas – I had no student debt on my shoulders and the ‘tenants incentive scheme’ later gave us a lump sum to give back our housing Trust flat when the time was right to leave and buy a place on the open market, which we did, and now we are able to give back to our community that nurtured us. I just don’t see how young people stand a chance these days. I hate to see communities broken up the way they are, and I applaud those in our society that give time to community activism to help others, and who tirelessly raise funds for youth projects to help fight despair. What inspired me about Notting Hill is that, despite challenges, a heartbeat continues to run through Notting Hill and there is a genuine feeling of community. I do think though that if you are someone lucky enough to have the funds to be able to buy into Notting Hill now, that you enter the community with an obligation to give something back, use your noblese obligue, rather than just use the trendy bars. There are schools and community groups and people who have made this area and taken it through many struggles – people who can should get out there and bring ideas, contacts and skills to put something back in.
Through your art, you have worked a lot with your local community, such as on the Wornington Green Estate in Ladbroke Grove, can you tell us about the work you have done there? How did the local community react?
Project Ramp was an inspired idea that came from the residents to put art on the access ramp area of the Wornington green estate, that was previously a bit of an eyesore. I was selected as the artist to do the job because the residents liked my previous installation on Portobello Road, “Aspects of Carnival”. I was given free reign but the brief was to include the residents. I liked the curved shapes of the ramp and felt it could be turned into a thing of beauty, a walk-in sculptural piece, especially aimed at children. I wanted to fill the ramp with colour so we painted it bright red and mounted the art, which was printed on metal, on every surface. I truly loved doing this piece. I decided to paint on computer where there is possibility for abundant bright colour and you can draw fast as you literally do not have to wait for paint to dry. I knew what I wanted to include in the images – local landmarks, the texture of the architecture of the buildings in Wornington Green, the diversity of the community, the camaraderie of local people, children, market stalls, skateboarders, building work, a little bit of nature. I split the 100meter wall into eight sections which would have different expanses of art on, but I didn’t plan the piece image by image; through a six week period I simply returned to the screen each day and responded to photos residents had given me to include, layering in photos I had taken, and drawing freely and playfully, not really knowing where the journey would take me. It was an exciting adventure and I look back on that time fondly. I decided to include the photos given to me by the residents just as they were, so I put them in frames in stalls, as pictures on walls – celebrating them and giving them status in the piece. It was very important to me that the piece had integrity. There could be a danger of repelling people by offering art too abstract or inaccessible – I wanted it to be honest and simply bring joy in colour and line and content. It could not be patronising, but reflect high expectations from the audience – in my experience people respond warmly and intelligently if you give them honesty. All the characters I drew are made up, imaginary – no one is drawn from life; the ‘real people’ are in the photos given to me by the residents. The piece has been up for 18 months now and there has been no vandalism what so ever, only kind comments – I couldn’t ask for a higher accolade and I feel truly privileged to have had the opportunity to place public art in a busy neighbourhood in Ladbroke Grove.
The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea commissioned you to have your work up on a public wall for the 150 years of the Portobello and Golborne markets. You documented the area and the markets, how was that experience?
It was a really exciting opportunity to showcase that art is not just something that hangs in art galleries, but it is also a part of everyday life and should not be confined to just one space. The local community responded really well, and many recognised the area or themselves, which brought people together as it was a good conversation starter. In my drawings, I went for the people rather than the buildings, shops or businesses – I did not want to take away anything from the people of the community, as the markets to go beyond the boundaries of time and space and come alive through the local community. I did include just a few recognisable shops: the Afghani Row on Portobello opposite Tesco, where you can buy everything from a roll of gaffer tape to a beautiful mirrored cabinet, as well as ‘Honest John’s’ and ‘Falafel King’ which have been part of Portobello Market for so long. And Alice’s Antique shop which I drew from my car parked outside on a hot day with the radio and aircon on, which flattened the battery, so there was much detail to capture while I waited for the AA.

There are so many different developments and proposals going on in the area but I like the market as it is, however, I didn’t want to make an obvious political point, I didn’t feel it was the right place to do that, because it wasn’t about my political opinion. I drew what I saw and I wanted the work to represent what the market was about, showcase the diversity of the area with integrity and no stereotypes. I wanted to capture a time, to draw what was in front of me, but also to transcend time, so that it is about the people that live in the area or come and go through the area and not about the shops that come and go.

Can you tell us a little about the work you do in schools with art?
For 17 years I ran a Carnival arts project that was started in the grass roots by parents in a local primary school. They rightly wanted the children of the school – which was within the carnival footprint – to play a part in the art of carnival. It started with expectations of emulating the sequinned splendour of carnival arts presented by some of the larger carnival groups who work year round on their costumes. I got involved when I realised that schools do not have space, time or resources to do this amid a busy curriculum and the pressures of learning aims and targets they have to delivery daily. So I advocated simply parading children’s art. It took a few years to be accepted as ’carnival art’ but “Fox Carnival” went on to become a maverick and very cool carnival mas band that involved the artwork of thousands of children, had high impact on Notting Hill Carnival, and was one of the most exciting things on the road at carnival. Our projects were supported year on year by the Arts Council of England, RBKC arts and any other bit of funding we could get our hands on to create more workshops, involve more children, put on a splendid show and delight audiences. I just loved the idea that all this work involving all these people simply culminated in dancing freely on the streets – it nourished and allowed people to see possibility – if you have worked as a team and taken your art out into the public as a collaborative display, and danced on the streets for eight hours at Carnival, bringing infectious joy to the audience, you can do anything… it was a recipe for bringing unashamed joy and I am so thankful to have been part of it. As the project grew it involved more schools in the borough and I learned so much from working with children. But over time the project became so big that fundraising and administering it alongside my own work became all-consuming, and eventually it was the right time to stop the project, go out on a high.
What reactions have you seen the children and students have from drawing and being creative? 
I have four children myself, so I was fortunate to have felt very comfortable working with children and learned along the way how to bring art out of them, how to treat them as equal artists. I have learned so much from working with their art – their courage to express boldly and just make marks freely and strongly is humbling. I think every artist should work with children – it is as valuable as doing a degree.

Could you tell us about the UFO steelpan band, why you started this project and how it felt playing at the closing weekend of the 2012 Olympics? How have you seen music bring people together?
Music is a joy, getting together and dancing helps ease the stresses of life. There are definite links with art and music, the best situation to be in when drawing, is with music, the pencil or brush just goes with the flow of the sound. In the 80’s I worked alongside a classical orchestra – The Royal Philharmonic – and it was a very interesting journey into demystifying classical music, an opportunity to see each musician as an individual, a cog in a machine, the music uniting them.
The preparation for the Notting Hill Carnival unites kids and parents and communities and through it there is a great sense of team building. Most performers do not live in the community of Notting Hill, but are attached to the sense of community giving that carnival parade creates. That is what art and music can do - it brings people from different areas and backgrounds and creates a collective element. Carnival is an opportunity to showcase costumes, showcase the arts, and I feel it could be more involved with local schools and with art schools. The work that goes into making costumes and large intricate structures and the rich heritage involved could really be more highlighted at carnival. Perhaps, like any art show would have, the Carnival procession  - which is the core of Carnival -  needs a creative director and some kind of artistic overview to curate some of the procession, which would ultimately help to give the audience around the entire route – not just at judging point - a fantastic show, and attract more funding to help carnival reach its full potential. I do not mean change the nature of Carnival in the grass roots – people interacting with people, following a truck, lost in music, letting go, experiencing the freedom of the streets – Carnival should never become a ticketed event. But there is room for developing artistic integrity in many aspects of the parade so we sustain Carnival into the future.
I started UFO (Urban Fox Orchestra) because I love playing steelpan, and also because my steelpan teacher – Jason Constantine - told a few of us to start our own band and that he would stick with us and help, so we did just that, and he is still with us, co-leading with me. I have played steelpan for the last four years, and I feel it should be celebrated as an instrument that is both highly sophisticated and offers great access to music – and is one of the most beautiful musical sounds you could ever hear.
The Olympic gig was something I created for another steelband before UFOs and was simply an opportunity to take 60 young people into the Olympic Park for London 2012, to give them an opportunity they would never forget. It was an administrative nightmare getting 60 young people – many of whom did not have passports or driving licences – security accreditation, but it was worth it as they played superbly on the stage in the Olympic Park while Usain Bolt was running the 100 meters.
One Thousand Pans was something else the same year - an art/music installation in Jubilee Gardens under the London Eye, which was my husband Colin Salmon’s idea. He saw that several different steelbands played “Brasil” as a standard and he though “why not get one thousand steelpans playing Brazil together for the handover?”
‚ÄčI ran with the idea, created it into a proposal for the closing weekend of the Olympic Games, got the Arts Council and Thames Festival behind it, and then I produced and art directed  - and played in - the event. It was about creating an opportunity to raise the profile of steelpan, by getting a group of 1000 steelpans playing together in a public space - one tune, one band, all together. It was transmitted live to Brazil. Steelbands usually only come together to compete against one another, but I wanted them to come together and just play - be one. I wanted the installation to be about the music, to create a shared history that would showcase the instrument outside the Trinidad Carnival culture that it is synonymous with and create an opportunity to showcase the virtuosity of the players, be seen with the same high esteem as a violin or cello, which pan is worthy of. Steelpan playing is not as widespread as it could be - people don’t realise it is the only acoustic instrument invented in the 20th century and it is not a drum, but has notes with sharps and flats and several octaves – it can play anything from simple cords to complex runs, calypso to classical, a chordal rhythm to Rachmaninoff.  The world would be a better place if pan was heard more, played by more people and not confined to the margins. One Thousand Pans was an attempt to help enable that, and it was such a joyous moment for so many pan players to play together. I hope it will inspire other collective events which make powerful music outside of competition.

What are your thoughts in general on how art can be used as a tool for good? And do you think art can create a form of dialogue and peace?
There can be some snobbery regarding what is seen as high art, low art and street art and yet they are all art, and all types of art can be a positive tool used for good, in communities and in one’s own life. To link how these different arts are seen, and what art can do, the secret probably lies in schools and art classes as much as in galleries. Unfortunately not many schools have art rooms, or space or find it important.
The opportunity to paint is really important, we do a little in primary class then it stops, why? Art can help at all ages and all stages of life, help with anxiety, and become a form of dialogue. We are living through tough times, kids are needing to find themselves very early on, art can be a language they can use to express themselves when life gets difficult. Strenuous times can fuel creativity, as well as creativity be a tool used to deter negative times.
Art should also be more present in the public sphere. There are plenty of empty spaces that could do with some art, and enough artists to fill them. The issue is with funding.  With the rise in property prices it is difficult for artists to find space to work, so art needs patronage and sponsorship. If carried out with respect and integrity, there could be sponsorship from banks or private backers to get more art in the public domain, more on a grass roots level involving children’s art or emerging artists, within and at the heart of communities. Art is a vehicle for activism. It can have a strong message through a peaceful manner, in in public spaces can create a dialogue among local communities as well uniting different communities across the country, uniting different social classes in a time when the gap seems to be widening. Through art, understanding and empathy can be born.

Any projects or art works you are working on next that you would like to share with us? 
I’m about to do a project with the Instituto Español Vicente Cañada Blanch – the school on the other side of the wall to where my exhibition is sited on Portobello Road. It will involve the children from the school and be inspired by the idea of drawing freely from life, like art I drew in the market in simple, fast line.
I grew up in Hong Kong and go there as much as I can and it is currently one of the subjects in my new paintings, so I am planning to go again soon to continue the series. I am also working on putting together a book of drawings I did in 1985 inside Hong Kong’s notorious “Walled City of Kowloon”, a fascinating and visually exciting 6 hectare highrise area of vernacular architecture, an almost favella home to 60,000 people. It used to be a traditional Chinese walled city but over time and outside of the law grew to become an area of extraordinary haphazard architecture and compelling beauty. It was taken down in the 90s and replaced by a beautiful park, and I have realised that my drawings inside the Walled City – done over three months when I was 21 - have become a piece of heritage worth sharing. I am also continuing on a series of portraits and preparing a book of drawings from the Portobello wall series – lots to do on this ever-evolving adventure.


Fiona Hawthorne was born in Northern Ireland, grew up in Hong Kong, and lives and works between London and New York.
Hawthorne began her career as a reportage artist capturing London’s emerging young jazz scene, a body of work profiled in Thames and Hudson’s 80’s dance floor style anthology “Design After Dark.”
Hawthorne’s drawings regularly graced the pages of Tatler, capturing the English Season’s polo matches, the Henley Regatta and tearooms of Harrods.
She spent a year as the first artist in residence to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, culminating in a solo exhibition at The Royal Festival Hall.
Her love of steelpan music saw her learn to play the instrument and draw it.
She created and produced “One Thousand Pans” a huge musical installation for the closing weekend of the 2012 Olympic Games.
A love of Carnival led Hawthorne to win a National commission to cover a 100 meter wall area in West London with her interpretation of Europe’s largest street festival, Notting Hill Carnival. The exhibition was seen by 3 million people and was extended a further 6 months, the images also reaching many corners of the world as film and TV backdrops.
Hawthorne’s digital portrait of Barack Obama hangs in the Library of Congress and she has two public art exhibitions currrently open in London – “Project Ramp”  at 300 Ladbroke Grove,  and “150 Years of the Market” on world famous Portobello Road.