Layla Andrews talks about St. Helena, still lifes and public art installations

30th January 2023 by Imogen in Blog

“Maybe we could hang 100 fish from the ceiling”

Named as one of the Evening Standard’s 22 Women Who Are Changing the World in 2022, and SUITCASE Magazine’s Favourite Women Creatives You Should be Following, Layla Andrews is well-known for her dynamic still lifes, intriguing portraits and large-scale public art installations. We caught up with her to talk about her latest paintings.

What was the inspiration for your latest body of work?

At the moment, I’m working towards a show inspired by my time on St. Helena, which is the tiny island my grandfather, Frank, is from. It’s extremely remote – about two thousand kilometres from South Africa, which is its closest landmass. The island only built an airport a few years ago, so it still remains one of the most difficult places to get to. And the crossing is still risky, since the crosswinds are so strong and the runway so short that sometimes you have to have a couple of goes at landing.

Going as a family to the island was a very special trip – it is the first time we have ever been able to visit. It used to be a 15-day journey on a boat, so it was an abstract concept in our lives. Frank is the only person who has been back and forth to the island a few times throughout his life but until October hadn’t been back in 25 years.

Can you tell us a bit about how you work?

In the past – before we had the opportunity to visit – I created sketches  and paintings based on my grandfather’s stories from back in the day. He’s a real storyteller. One of my favourites was when he got a job as the prison officer in Jamestown jail, which is the tiny prison on the island. The person he was guarding turned out to be a childhood friend, so they would have lunch and play music and cards together, and at the end of the day he would have to lock him in. It sounds like something out of a Western. There’s something very sad and complicated about that dynamic.

I work from photos, both my own and some of my grandfather’s throughout his life, as well as from observation and my imagination. Frank has seen the paintings – I show him all of my work and he loves them all. He tells me “You should paint this, you should paint that”. As soon as you show him one, he wants to tell you another story. My favourite art is something with a narrative behind it, something I think people can connect to.  

Simultaneously, I’m still continuing with my crocodiles and the still life paintings. I feel my still life pieces are quite a personal thing – we always went to car boot sales as a family, and at a young age I developed an obsession with props and artefacts (what I call ‘second hand treasure’.) For a while, I predominantly painted people, but during lockdown I was at home surrounded by my second hand loot and decided to give it a go. You might think that they are just a collection of strange things, but it’s a homage to my love of the second hand and exciting interiors.  

Your crocodiles are iconic. What do they symbolise in your work?

Crocodiles are important to me, but I don’t know why I love them so much. I started painting them a long time ago. When I was a kid I had a book about a mum crocodile teaching her child to eat spaghetti nicely, so it might have been that. They are good looking and they feel wise – I guess because they’ve been around a lot longer than us, and there is something quite special about that. I have seen them in the wild in Florida – they are everywhere, I was astounded to even see alligator roadkill.

As well as paintings, you also make large sculptural works for public display. What inspires you?

Public art is something I’m passionate about – I’m from a working-class background, and I still feel as though the art world can harbour elitist values. I think the best kind of art has something to offer people from all walks of life and something everyone can access. I made two giant sculptures in Brixton Village last year (a lobster and a crab) and I had to walk past them to get to my studio. It was a joy to see people interact with them. 

Another point about the sculptures is that I really, really enjoy the process. When I’m making something physical with my hands I really zone out. My dream installation would be something huge in a big space – I’d love it to be impactful. Maybe we could hang 100 fish from the ceiling, something immersive on a big scale. I’d certainly like to do more of that. The sculptural pieces I have made are all featured within previous works; it’s exciting to see something step out of the painting.

What draws you to St. Ives?

Cornwall is very special to my heart. I’ve been coming here since I was little. The sea remains very important to my work and my practise – I have recently moved back to Brighton to be near it. Every weekend as a kid if I wasn’t at a car boot sale I’d be at the sea. I love everything about it. 

Layla’s paintings are available to view in our St. Ives and Bristol galleries, and online here.

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