Interview with Michelle Heron
Michelle Heron is a painter whose recent works depict the British high street and in particular fast-disappearing old London shops, capturing the individuality and charm of these places as they are rapidly lost to modern development.
“I like the idea that I’m immortalising these places in paint”
Michelle is interested in overlooked or abandoned subjects on suburban streets, such as street furniture. She has also been commissioned by Transport for London and the National Literacy Trust, amongst others, to create work for public art trails.
Born in Norwich (1980), Michelle studied Fine Art at the University of Hertfordshire where she completed a BA (Hons) in Fine Art in 2002. Her paintings have been exhibited at Mall Galleries, London, Hampton Court Palace and The Royal Academy. Her work is currently available at DegreeArt.com.
Hailed as “the future of art” by The Guardian, following her The Other Art Fair appearance in 2017, Michelle’s work has been selected for the prestigious Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. We spoke to Michelle as she prepares for the Talented Art Fair in March.
OA: What’s the most valuable part of exhibiting at art fairs for an artist?
MH: I think it’s in reaching new audiences, and the interaction with the people who recognise the places I paint. I always come away with a huge list of shops local Londoners are fond of and I really enjoy hearing the stories of shops that are gone and what they meant to someone.
Being a painter can be quite isolating so to get out of the studio and meet people is invaluable for my sanity!
OA: Your works are increasingly becoming historical documents, as the locations you have used have since disappeared. Did you foresee your role in capturing history like this?
MH: Not at all. Initially, I just wanted to capture local icons simply because of their distinctive typefaces and how much they stood out to me aesthetically. But now, almost every time I take a photo or make a painting of a building, within weeks it’s either being painted over or has closed down – even if it stood vacant for years like Zodiac Records in Wandsworth.
Now, I like the idea that I’m immortalising these places in paint but at the same time I’m sad that the high street is changing so rapidly – and not just in London. Will those stories continue when there’s just nail salons, vape shops and supermarket chains? But then again, these old shops used to be different shops once before, so I guess change is inevitable.
OA: We first caught sight of your work ‘Coin-Op, Brixton’ via Twitter and we thought it was a photograph because the light looked so real. How do you approach/achieve this kind of light effect?
MH: One of my favourite painters growing up was Edward Hopper and I can remember the first time my art teacher showed me his iconic painting ‘Early Sunday Morning’ and immediately I was drawn to the shadows and light. I think the contrast adds an almost theatrical atmosphere to the empty buildings and when I go about London with my camera I have to plot where the sun will be positioned at a particular time in order to catch the right effect.
I find winter sunshine the best as it’s unlike the light at any other time of year. I guess also the shadows from the low position of the sun produce a more three-dimensional form which gives my paintings their realism. Sometimes it will take me weeks to find the right composition due to the weather or if there are any parked cars, you need a lot of patience!
OA: We’re hostinga debate at Mall Galleries next month about how figurative art can stray into the interpretive and abstract, given the realism in your work, how far is what we are looking at your interpretation?
MH: Well for a start, I always work from photographs that I have taken. I had thought about using others’ photos mainly because I just don’t have the time to document all the places I want to in London and all over the UK. But it just felt like I would be cheating and just recreating a photo.
Having been to the places themselves and seeing them in situ adds to my experience of the subject: seeing the people who live there, who owned the shop, what’s happening to other shops there and getting a feel for the area. It all builds up a picture in my mind and I think that it comes out emotionally in my painting. It’s another layer to the paint that a photograph can’t capture.
I’m also adding my interpretation of what’s currently going on from my own experiences of living in London. A hardware shop a few doors away from me closed down recently after over 80 years in business. When I saw it being painted over, I got quite emotional as it was a shop I saw every day, and it was handy if I needed to buy paint brushes. I think that sadness gave the final painting an emotional warmth.
OA: How do you find your subjects?
MH: Usually from just getting lost or sitting on long bus journeys. I’m constantly looking at shop fronts now, it’s become an obsession.
I sometimes receive a recommendation from someone or if I see a news story about somewhere about to close I’ll add it to my list.
With the development of Crossrail I’ll be going down to areas like Tooting that have so far remained untouched – but with the inevitable rise in rents, there’s bound to be a few small businesses struggling to stay alive.
OA: What would be your ideal public commission?
MH: That’s actually a difficult one to answer as I get so swept up in the places I want to paint that I find it hard to paint a place if it doesn’t resonate with me on some level emotionally.
I guess it would need to be a community that is close to my heart that I’ve not got round to painting yet and something that would provide me with lots of time to research the history/memories of the place.
Maybe somewhere outside of London to compare what’s going on, perhaps even other cities around the globe like New York.