Inspirational Woman Wednesday: Lily Greenwood

I’m not sure how I first met Liz Evans, artistically known as Lily Greenwood. Like many people I know in Manchester, our initial introductions are long forgotten. But I’ve always been a fan of her gorgeous canvases which hang in her studio in the Craft and Design Centre, and as soon as Chris and I moved in together, we wasted no time in skipping along to purchase one of them. Her red butterfly canvas now adorns the wall of our living room and we know we will take it with us wherever we go.

As another highly inspirational woman, I thought I’d be cheeky and ask her how she began making art and what lies ahead in the future.

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So how did your interest in art begin? Was it something your parents do and so seemed a natural path to follow?

My mum is very artistic, a really good photographer amongst other things, but never followed that route work-wise and perhaps wishes she had pursued it more, so my parents were always very encouraging about me following what I wanted to do, as opposed to what I ‘should’ do, whatever that means. My dad isn’t artistic in a traditional sense, but is a ‘maker’ and creative when it comes to the technical side of things. He and my mum have now been self-employed for a number of years making bagpipes.

During school, I always hated that moment when teachers would go around the room asking what children’s parents did for a living – which seems an odd thing for teachers to do, but they did. I was quite shy anyway and just knew the mention of the word ‘bagpipe’ would encourage a barrage of questioning! It would also make me cringe if a friend called to the house only to hear the strangled cat noises in the background of my Dad testing and tuning a set. These days I don’t know why I was so embarrassed (teenagers eh!) and have real admiration for the workmanship involved. I also saw how tough it was to build up a business (alongside other jobs for a number of years), but saw how much they appreciated being their own boss and following their interests, so that obviously rubbed off on me – and more than that, showed me that it was possible.

I’m not sure I can say when an interest in art began - as clichéd as it sounds it feels like I always was, and I was always happiest when making, drawing, painting, and so on. Through school it was art classes I looked forward to, and in earlier school years I couldn't wait to be working alongside people who wanted to be there as much as me ('doss' lesson for many!). I viewed any hard work I put into other subjects as 'back ups' and supporting roles to the main aim of doing art.

From the work of yours I know best – I have one canvas hanging in my living room! – you seem to favour paint and collage. Has this always been the case? Have you other artistic skills (i.e. ceramics, photograph, drawing) that you haven’t shown off to the world just yet?

I always struggled to pin down which element of art to focus on, and avoided making any decisions until the decisions were practically made for me. Degrees are usually designed for specialising, however I picked a degree course which allowed freedom to move between different arts practises, and used the time to try and work out what suited best. I experimented with film work with a friend but I wasn't a natural. I ended up focusing on children's book illustration, which I loved doing. After graduation I would have liked to pursue it further, but was determined to try to pay my rent and bills through creative activities, and book projects can take a long time, and may never come to anything financially. Nobody wants their creative activities to be ruled by money, but to me thinking about the money and business side was an enabler, to make sure I was doing something creative all week (eventually, hopefully). Painting fit the bill better than children's books in that sense, and I'd always loved doing it (just as much as the children's books) - so that's how I ended up focusing on it. At all costs I wanted to avoid going for a non-creative job to pay my bills then being too afraid to leave it.

I've been painting professionally for seven years now and feel I have a truer understanding of the term 'practising artist' - I'm constantly practising the painting and collage techniques I use, and so they slowly evolve and develop over time. It takes that practise time to become proficient in anything (as with your violin playing for example) so I'd never presume to be proficient in another discipline without those hours put into the practise.

Did you have a formal art education? If so, did it live up to expectations, challenging you to work in other mediums or inspiring you to try different techniques? 

On paper I very much had a formal art education, following the route of A-levels, Foundation diploma (in Cumbria), and BA degree course (in Manchester). 'Formal' to me seems misleading though! I found every stage of my art education very loosely structured to the point where work and briefs were almost never set, and I was never 'taught' materials, techniques or processes in a traditional sense, with the emphasis very much on experimentation and self-driven work. It would have been very easy to drift. At the time it did make me wonder what I was paying all that money for, but in hindsight I think it did benefit me greatly in the long run. By the end of my degree I was so used to getting on with my work and setting my own projects that the transition from degree level to 'real life' was relatively easy – I just carried on with what I was already working on. It probably also helped me to use materials however felt right to me rather than being taught what other people do.

As I mentioned earlier I purposefully selected a course which allowed freedom between artistic disciplines, so the subject matter and mediums of my coursemates were very eclectic. That probably did help me expand my ideas about what was or wasn't possible. I really appreciated that – again it was more like the 'real' world.

Who have been your artistic influences? Have you had a teacher that has been particularly inspiring?

I had a lovely teacher at school, Mrs Dodd. She was very encouraging and positive, along with a healthy amount of constructive criticism. Looking back at some of the things I did she must have seen it all before, but she was usually enthusiastic nonetheless. My tutors at foundation and degree level were generally very good too. One thing which stayed with me was a particular tutorial when I was stressing about feeling that I had too much to do and too little time - even though it was work I had imposed on myself. My tutor looked very thoughtful for a while and simply said to me 'you have all the hours in the day'. On the surface this is not new information, but somehow it made me feel better, and at busy times I sometimes find I'm saying the same sentence to myself in my head.

Much of your work seems to be influenced by the natural world. Why is this, do you think? Have you ever fancied tackling the human form, so to speak?

I grew up mainly in the countryside and my parents are both very interested in nature so again it has been somewhat passed on from them. My brother was also very interested in nature and I remember his bedroom when younger being full of bits of rock or fossils he'd found and wildlife posters on the walls. It seems quite logical to integrate personal interests as subject matter in artwork so in simple terms you could say that's all there was to it. Looking back it seems that I really focussed on the natural world as subject matter after moving to the bright lights of Manchester – so perhaps it was my way of bringing the countryside with me. Perhaps if I had remained in Cumbria I'd be doing paintings of the urban landscape and businessmen – who knows?!

Those who know my work often associate me particularly with butterflies, which have been consistent subject matter for me since graduation. Looking at the number of butterfly canvases in my studio at any one time, you might not believe me when I say I was never obsessed with butterflies, and weirdly I still don't feel like I am. Don't get me wrong, I do love them (and certainly wouldn't still be doing them if I didn't) – but to me they were originally chosen as subject matter as a vehicle for playing with colour. The butterfly world is so rich with colour, it gives me huge scope for playing with different palettes and combinations, and I'm still playing!

As I mentioned, the techniques and processes I use for my paintings have very gradually changed over a number of years as I have done more and more, and I think it helped me that the subject matter stayed pretty much constant in that time, a thread through the work. Now that I feel quite comfortable with the techniques and processes I use, I feel like I'm ready for that to stay more constant as I apply it to new subject matters – though I'll still be doing the butterfly work alongside any new experiments. Whereas once upon a time it might have been the butterflies which marked out a work as done by me, I feel like the technique/process I use is perhaps now recognisable and individual enough itself to mark out a piece as done by me, whatever subject matter I choose. (That remains to be put to the test!).

I think there is another aspect to leaning towards nature and particularly butterflies in my work, which is slightly more philosophical. I like the aims/purposes for my paintings to be simple, and that ultimately boils down to me wanting to create work which I enjoy making and which hopefully other people can take enjoyment from in viewing. There is something simple and honest in the butterflies which people seem to connect to and find happiness in. I always feel disappointed if people feel that they are somehow not qualified to enjoy or understand artwork, or have been put off by wordy explanations of pieces in galleries which in many cases can sound very intellectual but be fairly meaningless. Occasionally I get people who come to my studio to look at canvases and say 'they just make you happy' or 'they've put a smile on my face' – which really is all I want to achieve. (Cheesy but true!) I'm aware that nature in the raw is not all pretty butterflies and I'd never claim to be portraying the gritty reality of the natural world. I think of it more as picking out elements of beauty in nature and then running with it and seeing where I end up.

I saw a short video clip about Grayson Perry recently and what he said certainly resonated with me. “I think there is a desperation with people with art, they look at art and they find it very hard to just enjoy it, they have to interpret it, and understand it. They don't just ask themselves 'do I think it's beautiful?' - I think there should be more of that.”

You’re a full time artist. Is this something you’ve always aimed for? Was it a hard slog getting to this point or have you had luck on your side? Were there ever any moments when you were petrified about whether you could take the plunge?

I think I touched on this in an earlier question – I wasn't always sure I wanted to be an artist in the traditional sense but I knew pretty soon after graduating that I wanted to do something creative full time, preferably self-employed. As I was used to being fairly poor it seemed completely logical to try and make a living from painting, illustrating, or similar at that point – the only way is up! My reasoning was that if I didn't try then, when else would I. At that point I could have looked for some kind of full time non-creative job with a more comfortable wage than I was used to, but I knew I'd potentially get used to that income and be afraid to leave. In that sense I never 'took the plunge' – I was just used to having no money and ever so slightly made more of a living from my work as each year passed. I'm very thankful that the 'normal' job is still plan B and that plan A still seems to have legs!

Although I feel lucky to be able to paint for a living the luck has been fuelled by hard work – I've always been glad to work hard on something I enjoy so much. I never had handouts although my family would have tried to help if I had asked. I worked part time in the Whitworth Gallery alongside the painting for the first few years, which helped cover my rent while I was making next to nothing from my own work. Leaving that safety net was a little scary but it was a measured risk and fortunately I'm still painting!

How did you arrive at the name Lily Greenwood?

My real name is Liz Evans, however after graduation it became apparent that there was an author with the same name, who seemed prominent in google searches. My partner's mum suggested I choose a name based on my family history as a pseudonym – a bit of fun, and also intended to help people find my artwork online. Greenwood was my great-grandmother's family name, and Lily was my grandma, which is how I arrived at Lily Greenwood. It can be a little confusing at times as I'm not good at just being 'Lily' and explain it to people quite a lot – but I'm sure it has helped people find my work and I do like having that constant reminder of my grandma. Though I'm really Liz I don't mind being called Lily – both mine and my grandma's names are a derivative of Elizabeth.

It's had a secondary use which didn't occur to me at the outset – that of self-promotion. Most artists I know aren't particularly comfortable marketing themselves and bigging themselves up, and I'm no different. To make my living from painting I do have to think about promotion to some extent though, and somehow it's much easier to promote Lily Greenwood than it would be to promote Liz Evans – that slight removal from myself oddly does help a little!

How did you go about setting up your studio at Manchester’s Craft and Design Centre?

After graduating I continued working a couple of days a week at the Whitworth Art Gallery, alongside developing my artwork at home and looking around at what options were available to me. I’d never heard of Manchester Craft & Design Centre during my time at university, but I discovered a studio was available a year after graduation (in 2006) and was excited at the prospect of setting up shop. Sisters Ruqqia and Alia Ullah also worked at the Whitworth at that time and were keen to share the space to work on textiles and embroideries.

I can’t say we really knew what we were doing but we went for it and got started. Since then I’ve shared the space in different ways, and currently run the space myself but also stock the work of Kathryn Edwards and Rachel Saunders in exchange for their time manning the studio a day each a week.

It’s been quite a learning curve but a great place to get going as a maker. I’m surrounded by lots of talented creative people who can empathise with trials, tribulations and triumphs. The fact that the studio is open to the public to come in and out while I work means that I get invaluable and instant feedback on my work every day – whether I want it or not! I’m very lucky the opportunity to move in came up at that time, to have the chance to give it a go. Something about having premises made painting full time a much more realistic prospect.

Alongside your studio, you also exhibit. I can’t imagine how this even works! How did exhibitions become a possibility for you?

It’s great to get work out there when I can in exhibitions, and it has been a case of making it up as I go along really, and trying to build on it year on year. It’s a mixture of me approaching places, and sometimes them approaching me. Last year I had a great experience exhibiting overseas for the first time, with two exhibitions in Barcelona and Amsterdam. Exhibitions can be very hit and miss from a financial viewpoint, but are great for meeting interesting people and reaching new audiences, and usually fun, too. This year I’m holding back on exhibiting to invest the time in revamping my website, to have better provision for customers buying my work online. It’s a work in progress, but getting there. Next year I hope to look for new exhibition and gallery opportunities – who knows where!

When I saw you last, you mentioned you were spending more time on extending your repertoire and thinking about your next phase of work – your next collection. Can you give us a bit of a clue as to what this might be?

As I think I mentioned earlier the thread of using butterflies through my work has been a constant while gradually developing techniques, and I feel as though it would be nice now to experiment with subject matter a little more. I’ve made a start on some work featuring Koi Carp fish which is only in early stages. I’d also like to work more on larger scale canvases. Also I’d love to try applying my painting techniques to a children’s book! Basically the ‘want to do’ list is long and I have to try and accept that I can’t do everything at once!