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Getting To Know Rusty: The Contemporary Artist Painting Women Under The Female Gaze

Sitting down to talk to artist Rusty is like enjoying an overdue catch up with an old friend. “I have a dream of living on a farm with donkeys, pigs and all my dogs, but I think I may be too much of a diva for that…” she confides in us, with a laughter that is contagious. While we may not have met up on a farm this time, we caught up with the painter at her mum’s eclectic house in Deal, Kent – where she has been staying and working until recently. Fast becoming one of our favourite creative locations, Deal encompasses a bustling high street, a beautiful seafront and a warm sense of community. So it felt like the perfect place to delve into the creative mind of the artist.

If you haven’t discovered her work already, Rusty paints refreshing illustrative variations of the female powerhouse and just showcased her ‘Muses’ series in our store window at St Christopher’s Place. This body of work explores the fashion greats who have shaped how we dress today – from Schiaparelli’s pink palette to Marlene Dietrich’s breakthrough androgyny. Bold, gestural, expressive and decorative, these are women created under the female gaze – “it felt like a good time to review the female form from the point of view of my generation,” she explains.

Whilst photographing and interviewing Rusty, we discovered (unsurprisingly) that she isn’t just a talented painter; she’s quick-witted, charming and eccentric. And so we discussed everything from sourcing creative inspiration, the importance of colour, painting as a form of storytelling, and how to overcome artistic challenges – with multiple tea breaks, naturally.

So, tell us a bit about your background, when did you fall in love with painting?

I come from a pretty creative family of writers and designers. My grandad was a really great painter who trained at the Royal College of Art in the 1950s and I remember always being very aware of the paintings I was surrounded by growing up. I often find myself subconsciously referring back to these when I work nowadays too.

How would you describe your work?

I think they are gestural, immediate, expressive, painterly and decorative.

Where do you find inspiration? How do ideas come to you?

Ideas don’t always just come to be honest. I think most creatives will agree that they happen when you get to work. That being said, I sometimes see an image or a photo – in a magazine or somewhere else – where an expression or a design will kickstart an idea for painting.

“Ideas don’t always just come to be honest. I think most creatives will agree that they happen when you get to work.”

What interests you about painting women?

I think painting women has always interested artists throughout history, but for me, images of women painted by other women have been under-represented in contemporary art. The woman’s voice is so strong now though, so it felt like a good time to review the female form from the point of view of my generation.

Can you tell us a bit about the interior settings you paint? What inspires these?

I have a background in textiles and interiors, so the colours and textures that stage a figure are always important to me. As well as that, a lot of paintings that have influenced me are set within colourful interiors. I find that interiors can also be expressive and really reflect a mood.

“A lot of paintings that have influenced me are set within colourful interiors. I find that interiors can also be expressive and really reflect a mood.”

How important is colour to you, and how do you decide on your palette?

Colour is so important. I will often jump on a colour, say an earthy tone from nature, then set it against a complimentary or bright colour that jars with it. From there I develop a palette that may inform the series of paintings. If I’m working the other way round and I am putting together an interior piece, I may take a colour from another painting as my starting point or direction.

What’s your favourite thing about painting and being creative?

I find it very peaceful. Painting is extremely therapeutic and I’m really lucky that it’s my job. It’s a way for me to express my creativity and issues through a canvas. If something is on my mind, it’s a good way to get it out there and express my journey – like any form of creativity, it’s all about exercising that muscle as a means of escapism.

Which artists have influenced you the most creatively?

It’s a long list but to start with Picasso, Louis Bourgeois, De Kooning, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Matisse, Basquiat, Chantal Joffe – just to name a few.

What does painting mean to you, how does it make you feel?

Painting is a form of storytelling. Every piece has something to say and I find that so intriguing. It captures feelings in the moment and it can be universal. I think that paintings never fail to stir some kind of emotion when they are seen – no matter what style, colour or size they are.

“Painting is a form of storytelling. Every piece has something to say and I find that so intriguing.”

What are some of the biggest challenges you face creatively?

Because I work in a gestural way, one of the challenges is having the confidence to attack the canvas or blank sheet. Of course, I rework paintings but my gestural approach means that I quite often have to get it right the first time or I sometimes scrap it. The other challenge for any artist when you have found your voice and a recognised ‘style’ is to not repeat yourself or become formulaic. It’s about continuing to push ahead, and get out of your depth and comfort zone.

“Because I work in a gestural way, one of the challenges is having the confidence to attack the canvas or blank sheet.”

Talk to us about your studio, have you always had your own space to work? What’s most important to you when creating a studio?

Not at all! During lockdown my situation was a little makeshift. I moved out of my flat in London and came down to the south east coast and I would paint wherever I could. Now I have a studio in my house which is a real treat. I like to have space with no visual distractions other than the painting in front of me. Oh and good lighting, that obviously helps!

Go-to playlists to keep you motivated whilst you work?

Great question. It’s so hard to narrow it down. I listen to a mixture of everything from pop to soul. Some of my favourites are Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Talking Heads, Jungle, Baxter Dury and Ian Dury. There are also some incredibly talented female artists on the scene too at the moment; including Joy Crookes, Priya Ragu and Rosalia.

What do you love to do when you’re not painting?

I like to be surrounded by animals. I have a dream of living on a farm with donkeys, pigs and all my dogs but I think I may be too much of a diva for that (laughing)…

Which modern artists are you loving right now?

Another long list: Danny Fox, Florence Hutchings, Faye Wei Wei, Cannon Dill, Tracey Slater, Layla Andrews, Farshad Farzankia.

How do you want your art to make people feel?

I guess it’s not really up to me. I paint what I paint and I know that some of the faces or people I paint will encapsulate a mood or feeling, but I try to keep things ambivalent so that people can take what they want from my work.

“I try to keep things ambivalent so that people can take what they want from my work.”

What have you learnt about painting and creative expression with time?

I would say I have learnt a lot about my own process and how I work. Being patient with myself is important on days where I just can’t get it right. I’ve learnt to step back when things aren’t working and return to a piece of work with fresh eyes, then sometimes things gel more. I think it’s not about pushing at a painting but letting the idea distill for a while, then coming back to it. That way I find that the alchemy often happens.

We’ve just partnered with you to create our latest window displays. Can you talk us through the inspiration for these? What was the goal?

I’m so delighted to be working with Whistles and I’m thrilled to be the first artist to collaborate with you on your new programme ‘Whistles connects’. My mum actually has a navy sweater from the Covent Garden store which she bought back in the 80’s and it’s still going strong! It’s a classic fisherman sweater and it’s one of her favourites. So we’ve always loved the brand.

I love how you don’t shy away from more masculine cuts or colour, so I took these two ideas as my starting point for the series; female figures who pioneered male cuts and designers who pushed the boundaries of colour and style. For example Elsa Schiaparelli and Marlene Dietrich. The portraits aren’t specifically based on these women but as I said, I like to find my starting point and then run with it and experiment.

And with these paintings, what came first the colours or the portraits?

I tend to start with the background in an earthy tone of some kind. I build these up then but I don’t like to overdo it. I like to see the brushstrokes. Once that’s dry, I will work on the face and I start with the outline. The body comes next and I work in detail. If I don’t like something, I will paint over it which sometimes changes the colours but I like the way it builds texture. I am a perfectionist though so I still have to have that ‘right’ feeling at the end. Due to the fact I don’t pre-draw anything it’s not always a first-time success, but that’s all part of the process!

As part of Whistles Connects, a new series that aims to support emerging creatives, Rusty Studio is one of the first artists we are collaborating with to celebrate contemporary art.

“I spotted Rusty’s paintings in a shop window in Deal and then started to follow her on Instagram. After attending her show last year, I felt her work would be a great fit for Whistles. I loved the strong series of female portraits, as well as the colours and the attitudes they emulate. She was the perfect fit to launch Whistles Connects with and has been a true joy to work with.”


Kate, Head of Brand Creative at Whistles

Portraits from Rusty’s ‘Muses’ series are now on show in the windows of our London flagship, St. Christopher’s Place. Stay up-to-date with Rusty’s projects and follow along over on @rusty.studio_.
 

Words by Helena Stocks
Images by Tami Aftab

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