If there is such thing as the law of attraction in art, that is how I became interested in Delpha’s timeless tapestry-like paintings. A pale, ghostly female peering out from the darkness is what initially drew me in. And then the contrasting patterned curtain the floating figure held onto. The painting was titled Consider the lilies… by Delpha Hudson.
You can imagine my excitement when flashforward a few weeks, that same work of art greeted me in the window of Delpha’s atelier studio in Penzance. The cold winter day was no match for the colourful, warm narratives that filled her canvases. With a fresh cup of coffee in hand, Delpha and I sat down to talk about the historical references, diverse representations of women and recurring motifs in her work.
Celeste: First, thank you so much for having me today. It’s always special visiting an artist where they work — the perfect place to begin our conversation. How long have you been here and how does West Cornwall and the surrounding landscape inspire your artistic journey?
Delpha: I’ve been in Penzance for eight years. Cornwall is my home. I moved here about 30 years ago. There are many layers of history and myth and local residences that I really enjoy about Cornwall. My work isn’t using landscape but I love landscape and abstract art. Although, my ethos is about telling stories. In making figurative work I weave in ancient tales and symbolic, mythological creatures.
A recent project at Boscawen-Un stone circle was using the site as an ancient assembly point to meet people for conversations and exchange food sacks for a food bank project that I’ve just started. It’s not going anywhere yet, I just wanted to find a way of using that relationship to place, to engage that kind of collectivity, and talk about care.
Celeste: The project you just mentioned, One and All, sounds like it’s still in the early stages but you talk about this relationship with time and place, and weaving historical and contemporary stories to create unique topical and historical installations. Will you go back to Boscawen-Un for the project?
Delpha: Yeah, I really want to use that amazing site in a different way; it’s one of the best circles in Cornwall. The reason it’s still extant is that a wonderful lady, whose name I forget, bought the land in the 19th century. It was then passed on to Cornwall Council or some such organisation that ensured the space is completely public while many other sites have issues around accessibility.
I’m as interested in the contemporary availability of that place as much as its ancient resonance. At one time, my absolute focus in terms of symbolism was women — making them visible, talking about our common condition, and representing women in ways that not only might make cultural change, and make people think, but also encourage women to think about the representations of their lives, and how they feel valued.
Celeste: It’s all about who came before you how you feel about your own self-worth today – how you fit in with the larger story, and what you are remembered for. I’d imagine everyone has this internal conversation, so it’s nice to see it visually represented, what came before versus what’s happening now.
Delpha: I really like those contemporary and historical juxtapositions. There’s such a belief in progress and change in our culture, but we often miss how little has changed. Yes, there are incredible changes in terms of women and equality, and yet, as a lot of my work over the last 20 years has been pointing out, the pressures and expectations on women haven’t changed much. Now, women also go out to work on top of that. Not only are they still the primary caretakers — sometimes of their parents as well as their kids — they also work, and that huge amount of pressure affects their mental health.
Linking that back to the painting practice and the stone circle as an assembly point, I tried to develop a project about empathy and painting something as a gift. So I paint these food sacks which are then gifted to food banks. Since women experience the most extreme poverty trying to provide food for their children, especially in today’s economic climate, they’re always at the centre of what I do.
Celeste: The project itself, are you one of many artists? Is it community-based?
Delpha: It’s still very much in progress. As many artists do, I have crazy ideas all the time. So I write them down, put them in a book, and have a good talk with myself to determine what’s achievable, what’s off, and what my focus is. With One and All I decided that I would start it.
So the creative process quite often is pen and paper. I have an appalling memory so I have to write the idea down right away. I’m very fortunate to have had over the years inherited an attitude of just do it. Don’t get bamboozled by too many interests, just make that one happen.
Failure is very important. It’s all about giving it a go, and focusing on the process. It’s so good for mental health. A lot of my practice is about encouraging people to look at their own lives and look after themselves: self-care.
Celeste: You’re incredibly creative and multi-passionate. In addition to painting, you write, sing, play the accordion, you’ve acted, shot films, done sculpture art. I’m curious how these different creative pursuits influence and enrich your paintings. Do your ideas come together in your paintings, or do they take you down another road?
Delpha: One of the things that I’ve had to work out in the last couple of years is focus. In the last 20-odd years I’ve worked hard to achieve some sort of fluidity, knowledge, expertise — that’s work. There’s no particular skill; it’s working hard at whatever it is that you want to do. It’s the ideas and their outcome that fire me up.
I’m trying to focus on painting. Whether it’s performance, live art, film, or other crazy projects, it’s the ideas that feed through all that, with the focus always on the personal as political. There’s a lot of oneself in one’s own stories but ultimately it’s about finding new ways of representing other people’s stories and having some sort of exchange there. I want part of my story to inspire other people, to encourage others to communicate their own myths.
Celeste: Do you ever find yourself saying, Okay, wait, this is too much of me, then you go back to the research phase? How do you strike a balance when you’re working on a painting? Is it just that you’ve done all the research and you’re ready to go, or is it more of a balance throughout?
Delpha: When you’ve been working at something for a long time, you find balance. It’s a journey. The archetypal figures that I use are generic and I like the symbolism of the figurative elements of my work. Even when they’re a bit medieval, they’re oozing out of patterns. I want people to look at the symbolic figures and find something for themselves.
And yes, the personal story is in there to be found. But they are also meant to be universal stories and myths. I do think painting is quite performative in that the subjects in the painting are performing; they are on a stage appearing in and beyond with the curtains. You’ve got a painting within a painting.
Bakhtin says that in terms of the dialogic, the relationship between things is really important. When you’re creating different references and layers, using symbols with all sorts of meanings, you find things that spark up the brain. Feeling empathy through these different kinds of drapery lights up the brain.
Celeste: I want to talk about your time at Porthmeor Studios. You were working on a large-scale painting called Roses and other phantoms — a masterpiece. Is that the largest piece you’ve painted?
Delpha: Yes. For my proposal for the residency I wanted to make this big piece, and I felt a bit embarrassed because, at the time, it wasn’t going anywhere. I felt like it should be made for some grand exhibition but after a little while, I was able to say: I’m making it because I can and I want to.
I tried out some new techniques which led to additional figures. The project was big and figures usually have a texture so you have to be horizontal to make the texture exactly what it needs to be. So I experimented with making separate figures, almost like a collage.
Celeste: So you create a figure on a flat surface, on a different piece of canvas that you put on top. And then how do you get them to stick together?
Delpha: There was a certain amount of push and shove about how the figures fit. I would draw them onto the canvas, make them separately, then put them on. What you see close up is that each of those added figures on Roses and other phantoms has got a wonderful wax texture.
Celeste: Is that new?
Delpha: Yeah. It took me three months and that time was ideal. A lot of residences are really short and I wonder, what the hell can you get done in that time? I worked really hard for three months — lots of late-night sessions to finish that piece. It took two weeks to settle in and I finished it two weeks before I left.
Celeste: This piece is filled with symbolism, stories, historical patterns, and contemporary subjects. Could you share a bit about the inspiration behind the work and also the resulting story you end up telling through it?
Delpha: That piece had a lot of things about roses thrown at it. The original title concept came from a painting called Some Roses and Their Phantoms by Dorothea Tanning. It’s nothing like that painting but I was inspired by her ideas as well as working with seasonal panelled effects. Each panel has its own set of stories within it.
In my painting, I refer to Briar Rose so there’s a Sleeping Beauty element. Well, she’s awake actually. There’s a rose trellis; the top of it went wrong so I had to include some local seaweed that I found called dead man’s fingers. Rose hips are in the painting. There are beetles and an insect that eats roses. It’s a hard pattern to work with so it’s corrupted like all my patterns are.
There might be obvious threads in the tale for me but it’s meant to be descriptive. I’m hoping people will see there are lots of female figures caring for small babies, helping the elderly, whatever stories I might throw in there. At the same time, it’s pretty open as to how you might interpret Medusa’s head, the skeleton legs on the table, or Matryoshka dolls.
The four main figures in that painting have representational value. One figure makes a reference to Persephone, a painting by Evelyn de Morgan who was a pre-raphaelite painter. It’s a generic drawing of a mother and baby but I actually did base it on my daughter Jenny Rose Evans and granddaughter Lyra.
Celeste: Funny you mentioned the Matryoshka doll as I referenced that in my next question. For Synesthesia, the digital collaboration project, Moriah Ogunbiyi wrote that like a matryoshka doll, your paintings are composed of layers. How do you create and then peel the layers of reality back to get to the essence and core of what you are trying to depict in your paintings?
Delpha: Wow, great question. I’m not sure I completely peel them back. There’ll be a point when I’ll think that doesn’t work, that’s too many things, let’s find a way of presenting that kind of layering, the palimpsest of ideas, let’s harness that. It’s quite often done in painting through colour and composition. That’s the only way that I can control some of these larger works.
I can have incredible freedom with watercolours. Sometimes they’ve got patterns in them, sometimes they haven’t. They’re working through different ideas at the same time. There are a lot of figures, some patterning, and symbolism but there’s still compositional value, even on paperwork. Most of my paintings have space for a bit of respite from the circus of everything that’s going on.
Celeste: Now that I’ve learned more about your work, there’s a thread that holds together all of your art that you make look seamless. That’s decades of work though, it doesn’t just happen overnight.
Delpha: Thank you, that’s kind of you. I’ve worked hard at that thread in lots of different media and have been really unfocused in the past. It’s rich for an artist to get that experience but you still have to pick up your armoury, things that you want to use in your work as a treasury.
Somebody writing about Bobby Baker said she had siren signifiers in her work: certain objects she used in performance which evoked or symbolised certain things. I love that phrase, siren signifiers. It calls to you like a siren.
I do a lot of writing and research. It’s like journaling; through writing, you explore what you actually think about something. I recently revisited Marina Warner and her writing on myth. I hadn’t read anything since I was an art student.
Celeste: Art history?
Delpha: I did a history degree and then went back after I had children to do an art degree, my MA. For my art degree, I read anything about women and feminism, and Marina Warner’s work on myth. I must have been doing some research, part of which was looking at myths and how they’ve been used over the years. I’d noticed how much feminist writing ancient myths use and reuse.
Celeste: This leads me perfectly to my next question: with your passion for writing, history, metaphors, and language, how important do you feel it is to explain your art to your audience?
Delpha: That’s a good question. When I do writing, I’m often explaining it to myself. Reading and writing help me focus on what it is that I would like to communicate. I don’t for a minute think that it’s absolutely clear but I do love it when people say something that I thought of when I was making it, or they seem to get it and make that connection.
I did love being in Porthmeor because I had lots of feedback from the public. I love the conversations with others about what they see. I think they always bring something new to the work. I want my audience to make up their own minds, but I really enjoy it if they want to know my thoughts.
I’ve recently been playing around with writing short stories about work. Before painting, I wrote out what I thought the painting was going to look like and what the story behind it was. Sometimes I write a short story about the painting that contravened the illustrative story. I like playing around with writing, storytelling and painting.
Celeste: And the patterns that showcase prominently in your work, are they patterns that you’ve created or collected, or do they come from different sources?
Delpha: A lot of different sources. For my research on tapestries, I used wallpaper patterning while working with a lot of bitumen so I’ve got some really old paintings that are ghostly. They were monochrome with black bitumen dripping off; there’s this kind of ghosting of the domestic going on in those. Patterns draped with this sticky paint can evoke different stories.
Celeste: Have you been painting with bitumen for a while?
Delpha: In 2005 I painted an old pram with bitumen for an installation. I had this material and no money so I experimented; it was a random choice. It’s cheap, smelly, black, messy, and a lovely metaphor, right?
In time though the bitumen will eat through the canvas unless it’s treated correctly. It was never meant to be a longevity medium. The work I did in 2005 is absolutely fine but bitumen isn’t used on canvas now because it will, in 100 years, destroy it.
Celeste: It stands out and gives the outline of different patterns. But is there anything else that drew you to the substance?
Delpha: I like this sticky, messy material and the idea of dripping it in a very controlled way. You have to wait until the bitumen is viscous enough, like molasses. I’m not using it too much now because I wanted to clean up my practice, be a bit greener. But it’s difficult because I am a bit obsessed.
It leaves a texture and there’s an element of chance that’s a beautiful metaphor for life. No matter how much you learn how to move it, how to make sure it’s exactly right, there’s viscosity that you can’t control. It always blips and blobs.
Celeste: In one of your essays you talk about the timeless campaign to confine women’s power through denigrating imagery of powerful female symbols such as mermaids. Do you think there will come a time when a different female iconography becomes the widely accepted standard?
Delpha: I think a pendulum is a good metaphor for representing women. The reason we have these different waves of feminism is because there is always backlash. In Western culture, a lot has been achieved but sadly, that is not equal around the world. And what’s also surprising, talking to women growing up and young mothers in the workplace, is the endemic issues around inequality that still exists. So the use of goddess images by women performance artists in the 60s and 70s comes around. These kinds of powerful imagery had their moment.
In today’s culture, they disappear completely. There are always stereotypes but in mixing up the imagery with stories subtle things get through. These are subtle changes that we can all make. And women can re-image themselves for themselves, they can see themselves in a story of vigour. But it is a constant battle and it’s easy to feel complacent about how the rug can regularly be pulled, like with abortions. Politics is undermining women’s rights.
Celeste: I like the imagery of the pendulum swinging, I think art helps us keep it moving, which is a huge asset to society. There’s always going to be the back and forth.
Delpha: That’s why history is so important, isn’t it? Looking at the past is how we understand what’s happening now, how we got here, and what we can do for other people around us.
Celeste: Wrapping up: What advice would you give to someone who would either like to be more creative in general, or someone who’s already on their artistic journey, feeling a bit stuck and unsure how to move forward?
Delpha: Take what you love, whatever it is, be brave, and investigate what you’re interested in. Most importantly, it’s about what you love.
I love science fiction and fantasy. I used to read those books to my children and loved them. My husband is still teasing me about one of my paintings in which I put the Starship Enterprise because the painting is a surreal mishmash of everything. Now there is the Starship Enterprise in it because I read about it.
Celeste: So, take what you love, be honest with yourself, and put it out there — no hiding. Those are good rules to live by. Delpha, it was delightful to be here. Thank you.
Delpha: You are lovely to talk to, thank you so much.