An interview with The Art of Resilience’s Pie Herring
Lewa Next Gen’s The Art of Resilience will premiere in New York City from September 1–11, 2021 at the High Line Nine in partnership with Montague Contemporary. The exhibition captures the stories and faces of individuals living and working around Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in northern Kenya.
Pie Herring’s oil portraits have been exhibited in a number of exhibitions, with notable highlights including the ‘Young London Painters’ group show in November 2018 and the Royal Scottish Academy’s New Contemporaries Exhibition 2019, where she was awarded the Carnegie Scholarship. Predominantly working in oils, Pie’s paintings depict tender portrayals of human and societal issues.
In October 2020, Pie and filmmaker Charlie V. Rose approached Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and Next Gen chair Laura Day Webb. Their idea was simple: To visit the communities surrounding Lewa to document and give a platform to those directly affected by the drop in tourism due to COVID-19. The work would highlight the importance of Lewa’s community-driven conservation model, with their sale benefitting Lewa’s much-needed efforts.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background. What techniques and subject matters do you work with? How did you come to enter the contemporary art world?
My name is Pie Herring, and I am a London-based painter predominantly working in oils. In 2018, I graduated with first-class honours degree in Painting from The Edinburgh College of Art. Since then, I have exhibited work in a number of shows, most notably the Royal Scottish Academy’s New Contemporary Exhibition, where I was thrilled to have been awarded the Carnegie Scholarship.
Figuration is a key focus in my work and I am constantly exploring ways in which oil paint can be rendered to enhance atmosphere, human emotion and connection. I have always been interested in telling the stories that don’t get told within mainstream media and pop-culture. In 2018, I underwent a two-year project exploring gender-based street harassment, where I interviewed over 150 women and created a series of portraits which I then took to the streets in the form of protest posters. The past year has seen me exploring the modern female and rebellion against traditional social narratives regarding womanhood. In addition to this, I have co-founded an initiative which aims to work with nonprofits to bring them closer to the art world, putting on contemporary art and film exhibitions as a means to raise awareness and funds for a particular cause.
What inspired you to get involved with Next Gen’s art exhibition for Lewa Wildlife Conservancy? Why is this project meaningful to you?
During the 2020 pandemic lockdown, videographer Charlie Rose and I began talking about the challenges presented by the lack of tourism for African conservation parks. We approached Lewa with the idea to get on the ground and begin to tell the untold stories of people living in and around their park. Lewa strongly invests in the communities surrounding its park by giving access to water, education, medical care, and more. This project is incredibly meaningful to me, not only because of the respect that I have for those we were privileged enough to meet and learn their stories, but also because Lewa does incredible work to support them and the land. It was a truly humbling and eye-opening experience for me and I hope my paintings can do their hard work justice.
Do you have a particular process you go through when beginning a new piece? Where do you draw inspiration from?
Other artists, predominantly figurative oil painters, are a huge source of inspiration for me. I so admire artists who use the viscosity and fluidity of paint to create a form that energises you as the viewer. I pour through Jenny Savilles work daily, and am transfixed by her gestural and dynamic brushwork. Flora Yuknovick, Justin Mortimer, Mian Situ, Sorolla, the lists goes on.
In terms of process, each piece begins with a dynamic landscape of paint; unstretched canvas is laid on the floor, and by channelling my inner Pollock, I energetically move around the material incorporating large brush-strokes and layers of turps, which eventually dries to form unpredictable meandering marks. The figural composition is then considered in relation to this field of paint.
What role do you feel the artist plays in society?
Artists, whatever the medium, are constantly putting something new out into the world, new experiences, new visuals, new worlds, and new languages. They continually observe, examine, and critique every aspect of our lives, and by doing so they decoratively inform us of the world that we live in. To me, art is about identity — it has the ability to move you and repulse you, it brings to mind memories of the past, translates a dream you once had, or reinforces a belief you hold strongly.
I recently sold an artwork ‘Goodness has Nothing to do with it’ (2019) depicting a black woman in a powerful stance. The collector is in an interracial relationship and is pregnant, and she wanted her daughter to see the piece everyday and to feel empowered. Art can do that — it can empower you and transform the way we think. I think art is a vital way of expressing ourselves and that should be cherished.
Tell us about your pieces that will be exhibited by Next Gen. What inspired them? What do you hope viewers will take away from them?
Eight large oil paintings of mine are on display by Lewa Next Gen, alongside a number of sketches and studies. The deep orange/brown background was inspired by Kenyan soil, and this aesthetic is translated across each painting. I was lucky enough to spend time with each of my sitters, gaining an understanding of their livelihoods and the challenges they faced due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the main goals for the exhibition is for the viewer to be able to gain a genuine understanding of who these people are and their story. We hope that by viewing the paintings alongside Charlie’s beautiful film, the viewer will be able to build a relationship with the character, and subsequently the artwork too.
How has COVID-19 impacted your work and have you seen your work shift in the past year?
As an artist, I spend a lot of my time alone in my studio. I am grateful to have had access to my studio during the COVID-19 lockdowns. It gave me the chance to paint completely unencumbered for a long period of time. It’s actually crazy how much my artwork has transformed in the last year. I have seen a shift away from large-scale portraiture to multi figure scenes, full of patterns and props. Having a lot more time gave me confidence to explore with my process further — my figures are becoming more de-constructed by the day and I am playing with abstraction. Prior to the pandemic, I was creating fully rendered images from corner to corner on canvas. The pressure to be producing and selling work grounded to a halt, which enabled me to play about more.
Through a range of mediums, art can inform and inspire viewers to explore new ideas. How does art — particularly African art — connect viewers with conservation?
It’s very known that we are living in a time in which the conservation of our environment and the protection of our animals is more paramount than ever before. All across Africa, substantial efforts are being made by conservation nonprofits like Lewa to ensure this is happening. I believe art too can be used as a social vehicle to harness a positive impact on conservation — in particular, African Art as it is created in the context where these initiatives are taking place. If we take this exhibition as an example, Lewa Next Gen has a strong focus on the future generation of conservationists. By holding The Art of Resilience exhibition, they are opening the doors to a new and exciting way of engaging people with their transformative efforts.