How Creators Create: A Q&A With Abstract Artist Shelley Thornton

Attracted by the vibrant light and beauty of St Ives, Shelley Thornton moved down to the Cornish coast to raise her children and pursue her passion for painting. Today she is known for her abstract and geometric style along with the use of bold colours and textured paste.

Recently, we had the privilege to sit down with Shelley at her Artlantic studio in St Ives and hear about her personal journey with art and abstract painting. Join us in conversation as she talks about what inspires her, how her painting style has evolved and the women she admires and thinks should be more prominent in the history and future of art.

Celeste and Shelley at her studio in St Ives.

Celeste: You were born in Yorkshire but have made St Ives your home – what is it about this place that you find particularly stimulating and inspiring?

Shelley: It’s true what they say about the purity of the light and the way it bounces off colours and makes everything very bright and vibrant. St Ives is beautiful, very idyllic, and quite versatile. It’s got different little features that all have their own characteristics. Porthminster is quite gentile, Porthmeor is wild, and then there’s the countryside as well the seascape – it’s just a beautiful, magical place.

Celeste: Porthminster, Porthmeor, they do have their own personalities. Do you have any favourite places that you tend to return to for inspiration?

Shelley: Those two beaches, I’ve got series on both of those: Porthminster which was my first love, then Porthmeor where I went with my kids to surf – they’re both very different and I love them for that. I also like a very sweet little cove called Porthgwidden Beach.

Celeste: Can you remember the first time you felt inspired by art? Or the moment you decided that it was going to be your life path?

Shelley: There were two key things. As a young child, I used to see birds in the garden and draw them. They were really good, intricate, and quite accurate drawings with all the birds’ colours. I liked colour. I turned to really bright red bits or really bright yellow bits, not just brown birds. That was when I realised that I liked drawing, painting, and colouring. Sadly, I can’t find any of those drawings now.

I returned to art as a young teenager. As we went on occasional school trips to London galleries, I discovered the surrealists, (Salvador) Dali and (René) Magritte. I thought wow, how interesting, to paint recognisable objects and people in unrecognisable situations. That was my first love of artists but I soon moved away from them and started liking (Wassily) Kandinsky, (Mark) Rothko, then (Pablo) Picasso, and the cubists. From there, from painting still life, I went more abstract. But I didn’t really properly come to abstraction until I started coming to St Ives regularly.

Celeste: I’ve seen some hints of your more realistic paintings; you weren’t always an abstract artist. Did coming to St Ives influence the change in style?

Shelley: Yes, it was slightly before I had had my first child. We were spending a lot of time in St Ives before we bought a house here in 2003. It was then that I began abstracting a bit more, my colour palettes changed, but it really clicked into place after Scarlett was born. I would escape down here for a week or so with her as a baby and worked around her sleep patterns.

Celeste: Oh, I am impressed with your multitasking skills!

Shelley: She was a very good baby. When she stayed asleep for an hour or two, I needed to work in a way that I could pick it up and put it down as needed, so I wanted something that would dry quickly. I used to use oils but they’re quite noxious. I love the smell but it’s not a very good thing for your baby.

So its quick-drying nature (acrylic paint) and Scarlett, that’s why I came to abstraction and that’s why I started my more “bounded” style. My work was more organic before, then I was suddenly bounded by all these responsibilities, by time. But within those boundaries I was free. I think that’s why I started painting in a very geometric style.

Sanctuary 1 from Shelley Thornton’s Vessels Series (2020).

Celeste: At this time, were you also in your corporate lifestyle? Have you always balanced art with work?

Shelley: Yes. I’ve always painted, though there were some years when I didn’t do that many pieces. But from 2004 onwards, I’ve been quite prolific. I really love creating art and I’m determined to make it work. I set up my own company in 2002, which gave me freedom. When you work for yourself rather than in a corporate job, suddenly you can take a week to focus on your art. So starting my business, moving to St Ives, having my first child, and changing my style were my watershed moments.

Celeste: There’s always a sense of place and the passing of time touched upon in your paintings – can you tell us about your creative process and how you represent these motifs in your artwork?

Shelley: Whether it’s London, a beach, a harbour, or a boat – it always starts from a place. Then, I try to strip that place down to its essence and make it simple, minimalist, to highlight bits of that particular landscape or architecture that spoke to me. I also try to convey the feelings I have in that place.

The Vessels Series, which started in the first lockdown, was based on boats in St Ives Harbour. It was weird, seeing St Ives so quiet and eerie. This is why those early vessels (paintings) are quite calm, serene, and very still. The later ones, from when things got back to normal, are busier.

A series of seagulls grace the ceiling of Shelley’s studio at Whites Old Workshops.

Celeste: I love paintings with texture and notice that you put grains of sand onto your artwork. Is the sand in your paintings a result of St Ives being near the beach?

Shelley: Yes, I started by putting sand in paint and mixing it together. The first artwork with sand on it is from around 2004, after I moved here. I cannot swear that I haven’t used it like that before coming here but I definitely used it mixed in.

I also care about sustainability, especially living in a beautiful place like this, so at home, I have a big tray in the shower. Mine and the kids’ wetsuits have lots of sand when we come off the beach so I collect it and then I dry it out in the sun to reuse it.

Celeste: In addition to sand, I also know that you like to incorporate song lyrics into some of your artwork – could you tell us about your relationship with music?

Shelley: I love music. If I hadn’t been an artist,  I would’ve loved to be a rockstar. Sadly, I have no musical talents.

Celeste: Maybe one day!

Shelley: Yeah, one day! I love music, I particularly love lyrics. Sometimes I’ve used poetry or pieces of literature, but I always listen to music when I’m painting. It’s the place that drives my emotions so if I find a lyric that suits that place, I incorporate it into the artwork. But sometimes, when the songs tell me something, that can change the nature of the painting. It becomes more about the song than where it started.

Celeste: While promoting your Through Dark series on social media recently you also posted a Carl Yung quote:

“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.”

― Carl Jung

Celeste: Would you mind talking a little bit about how you channel those darker, less positive emotions into your artwork which, for the most part, happens to be very bright and colourful?

Shelley: In dark times it becomes less about the place and more about how I’m feeling. I usually have good mental health, I’m quite positive and optimistic, but in that winter lockdown, in November and beyond Christmas, I just thought oh, wow, this is awful.

Through Dark was about recognising that it was a dark time for everybody but there could also be light at the end of the tunnel. It’s called Through Dark because it was about getting through all that.

Some of the art pieces in this series are quite personal. They’re probably not very commercial but I did include them in my show. People enjoy going on emotional journeys. I hadn’t realised, before I put that exhibition on, that it did exactly that, it catalogued the emotional journey we had all been on in our own personal ways.

Celeste: We’re in Women’s History Month and you painted a beautiful tribute to Barbara Hepworth, I know she’s a huge inspiration! Feel free to talk more about her or if there were other inspirational women you tend to look up to or admire?

Shelley: I saw on LinkedIn that somebody’s sort of rewritten The Story of Art by E. H. Gombrich from a woman’s perspective. That was a book that was really important to me as a child and a teenager, and I hadn’t realised that there were so few women in it, I think there was only one. This new version of the book comes out this September, I’ve already ordered it. But this is just not enough. Probably most of the artists I would quote are men and that’s really sad in a way. I want to do more to bring women’s stories to light.

I really like Sonia Delaunay. She was a great colourist, quite geometric as well, but she was also a fashion and interior designer. If you look at the Bauhaus Movement, some women did very interesting things with their craft, knocking down that line between craft and art.

I like the American abstract expressionists like Joan Mitchell. She’s never spoken about so I’m going to make it my mission to look more into female artists because I just don’t think they’re put out there enough. I also like Maggi Hambling’s sculptures. She’s very feisty, I’d like to meet her, I bet she’s ferocious.

Then, Margaret Mellis, I like her work in wood with direct references to boats. There are others but there are not enough of us, that’s been my overwhelming thought. We are too few and far between in art history.

Celeste: I agree. I believe the book you’re referring to, The Story of Art without Men, is written by Katy Hessel. She announced it on Women’s Day. Apparently, she also conducted a survey that the Guardian newspaper published. The question she posed was to name female artists, as many as you can, and the consensus was that the vast majority of people in the UK cannot name more than three. Katy Hessel is a huge advocate for women in the arts, everyone can benefit from learning from those female artists.

Shelley: It’s multitasking that women have to do and most men don’t. My friends’ dads have been artists and done reasonably well. But they sound like they’re very focused in their studio doing their thing, there are no distractions. They didn’t really get involved with family life, kids weren’t allowed in their studio, whereas I’ve always included my kids in here.

Celeste: It’s been a pleasure chatting with you today. You are making history with your art – what a privilege to help shine a light on your personal journey so far. Before we go, what advice would you give to someone who would like to pick up a paintbrush for the first time, or be more creative?

Shelley: Just go for it! What have you got to lose? Do it for yourself – you don’t have to share it with anyone. We’ve all got creativity in us. You don’t have to necessarily be able to draw or paint, but there might be something else – just find it. Then, if you enjoy it, you’ll also find that it’s great for your mental health. Bake a cake or do whatever floats your boat. There’s nothing better than having created something.

Shelley’s Artlantic studio at Whites Old Workshops in St Ives.

Are you an artist or creative based in Cornwall and interested in sharing your story on CBA Content’s blog? If so, we’d love to hear from you. To get in touch, drop us a line here.

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