Zena Blackwell | Seen Not Heard | MADE Gallery

Zena Blackwell: Seen and Not Heard

Artist Zena Blackwell explores the thinking behind her latest exhibition, Seen and Not Heard, which is currently on display at Cardiff MADE Gallery.

Zena Blackwell | Seen Not Heard | MADE Gallery
Zena Blackwell | Seen Not Heard | MADE Gallery

The inspiration behind my work is the experience and anxieties surrounding motherhood and the daily rigmarole of family life. The chaos, humour, beauty and dark days of these areas provide a wonderfully rich and continual source of stimuli.

We never stop worrying as parents. This anxiety can be heightened at times, but generally, it is an evolving entity. Personally, this started at pregnancy and has continued up to the present stage of having two school-age kids.  I worry about their use of technology (not just of my own children’s usage, but the impact on children at large and their collective mental health), gender equality, Brexit, economic and political uncertainty, their safety, the future generally and what would happen if I were to die…etc etc.

I moved back to Cardiff three years ago after spending 19 years in London where I went to study fine art. Ironically, It was only after leaving that I realised the impact the daily grind of the big smoke had had on my creative energy. Wales has made me feel creatively free again (without wanting to sound too cliched). I never managed to forge a proper studio practice in London as in addition to working full-time, I co-promoted a successful live band/party night and DJ-ed for just under a decade. In 2016 I started sketching; the sketches became ideas; the ideas started keeping me up at night and I knew that I wanted to paint them. I hadn’t really used paint properly since I was on a foundation course in Pontypridd where Brendan Stuart Burns was my tutor, but now I was rearing to go. Only, a small child was blocking the translation of my creative ambitions into tangible work! So, a few mornings a week at nursery provided me with the time to get going.

My port of call initially was to work from the 5,000-odd archived photos of my children, as well as my immediate environment, the family home. It is often difficult to articulate how I choose the images to work from, but they are the ones I find to be poetic; ones that have their own dialogue; or that provide an interesting or thought-provoking composition. Nowadays, I snap those moments when I encounter them in real-time.  My finished paintings are often amalgamations of faces/bodies/objects from different sources. Plants feature quite heavily in my work too and these have become symbolic of the domestic/maternal.

Zena Blackwell | Seen Not Heard | MADE Gallery
Zena Blackwell | Seen Not Heard | MADE Gallery

It’s an organic process when I make a painting. I choose the images/sketches I want to work with and sometimes I will sketch it out on the canvas but more often than not, I just jump straight in and start painting. My paintings generally evolve over a few weeks or even months and I tend to work on about 10 canvases at a time. I used to be extremely self-conscious when painting and was so highly critical of myself that I couldn’t actually get anything done. Now, I think I have achieved that fine balance of having equal measures of self-belief and self-doubt. It’s quite an art in itself actually.

The use of Instagram has been really helpful. Although highly addictive and pretty hideous on many levels, posting and getting reactions has been a major tool this year, as well as discovering tons of amazing artists I’d never heard of. I did have a home studio over the past couple of years and it felt pretty isolating at times, but getting work out there daily was a great tonic. I have now moved into Arcade Studios. Last year I started an Instagram blog called Contemporary Cymru to showcase and promote art made or shown in Wales and by Welsh artists working elsewhere in the World. That too has been another constant source of inspiration.

Zoe Gingell at MADE Gallery has been a massive catalyst. She was able to articulate the central theme in my work before I was even fully aware! I won the Summer Open Prize there last year and this is when this journey properly commenced. Without her support and encouragement this year, this body of work would not exist. My youngest child only just started full-time school in September and I hadn’t really anticipated getting going properly with my studio practise until then. I guess I was thrown in at the deep end but that has worked to my advantage.

My son also provided me with one of the most invaluable lessons when one day he piped out, ‘I can paint anything. I can paint anything I want!’. I thought, damn, so can I.


Seen Not Heard continues at Cardiff MADE until Sunday 25th November and was made possible by a £5k production grant from the Arts Council of Wales

Zena Blackwell will be in conversation with Zoe Gingell on Saturday 17th November for the ‘Maternal Attitudes’ Symposium taking place at the University of South Wales and MADE Gallery.  Check the website for details.