In 2009, British artist Lucy Ash’s friend Jenny was staying with her when Jenny’s brother Ian Baynham was killed in a homophobic attack in London’s Trafalgar Square.
In the aftermath, Ash turned to art. In 2011 she put together an exhibition called Wrong Place Wrong Time, which explored the shock that followed the attack and her friendship with Jenny. Since then, Ash has shifted her attention to love, and some of her work is currently appearing in a mixed exhibition called Love Is... in support of the British Heart Foundation’s Mending Broken Hearts campaign.
Ash’s new solo collection, 49 Frames of Love, runs from 29 to 31 May at the William Road Gallery in London. It explores ‘the depth of connection and extraordinary bond that love brings’. We asked her about her work.
How would you say Ian’s killing and the aftermath of the crime affected you and subsequently inspired Wrong Place Wrong Time?
It was a very, very depressing thing to work through, really, really very grim. At the time Jenny was living in my house, she’s the sister of Ian Baynham. And she was there because she’d come back from Australia and was going to find her own place. She’s a very good friend of mine so she was there temporarily and literally a week after she arrived back, Ian was attacked in Trafalgar Square and this event unfolded in front of our eyes.
It wasn’t until about six months after Ian had died that I actually started to do the work. It was a very sensitive area, but Jenny was keen for me to do it. Obviously I didn’t want to upset her in any way and it was very sensitive, but in fact she found it very helpful.
How did you go about turning your feelings into art? Is there a process?
I actually physically went to the spot where he died, I took a lot of photographs. I suppose I kind of really lived it. I lived it again and again, and I was doing that anyway because Jenny was there with me and she’d come in from work and we’d talk about it. It really was a sort of all-consuming thing.
So I did a lot of sketches and in fact it took me a really long time to work out how I was going to approach it because, although I’ve done portraits, I’m not really a figurative painter. And the immediate thing you think of is a body lying on the ground. How do you get across the message that something so terrible has happened? And so I actually did try tackling it that way and failed.
Then I gradually found a way of working, a much better way of tackling it, which was an emotional response. One of the paintings, Best Foot Forward, which came at the end of the series, is an example of a mixture of abstraction and figurative elements. You’ve got the outline of feet moving through obstacles. It’s sort of like sensation revelation.
Could you explain 'sensation revelation'?
It’s like if something hits you with colour or lack of colour or somehow conveys a depth of feeling, then you’re able to, as the viewer, respond to that.
The paintings in Wrong Place Wrong Time seemed to tell a story that takes you through the whole journey of what you were feeling. Like you say, you ended with a painting called Best Foot Forward, but there was also a piece called Defiance. Does ‘defiant’ reflect how you felt in the aftermath?
I think it does. It was such an appalling crime to take place. It was homophobic abuse and it’s just not acceptable and you have to stand up and be counted and actually not allow it. The thing is, you know Ian’s dead, you can’t bring him back. But what you can do is to try and make a statement and help it not happen again.
Since the attack you’re more involved in activism. How involved in that kind of thing were you before it happened?
I wasn’t actually. I mean it’s interesting, because to be perfectly frank if I hadn’t been living with Jenny and so closely affected, I wouldn’t have tackled that subject. Having said that, I did want to work on a series of paintings around sexuality, but I hadn’t envisaged something so political.
So you were planning to do something involving sexuality even before the attack?
In the back of my head I had this idea that I wanted to do a series of paintings, and I hadn’t formulated quite how. I was actually thinking about it and about how gay people are treated in different countries and I was thinking, you know, it’s ok because we’re lucky to live in the United Kingdom. But [after the attack] I thought, actually we’re not.
It was appalling - at 10 o’clock at night in the middle of London, in Trafalgar Square, you can be killed. With a crowd of people around, you can still be murdered. So that’s what I came back to. And you know it is wrong place, wrong time because he didn’t do anything, he wasn’t with his boyfriend. He was literally just so unlucky.
How did the attack affect you as a lesbian? Did it personally affect you?
It didn’t make me scared to go out at night. I suppose, having said that, it does go through your mind. I don’t think it affected me except wanting to stand up and be counted and try and do my bit. It’s really, really important that people actually do come out and say ‘I’m gay’.
Have you ever been personally threatened or attacked?
No, never. It really was something completely new to me. A bolt out of the blue. The most extraordinary, terrible thing.
Was there a specific message that you were trying to convey with the Wrong Place Wrong Time collection as a whole?
Well, initially I wanted to get across how horrific something like this was. And in a way I’m not sure how successful I was in that. Perhaps I have been. It’s hard for me to stand back. But I found, once I started to paint, that I was interested in concepts like being in the wrong place at the wrong time and twists of fate.
So do you think that people will take away different things from your art than you did after creating it?
I think that’s always the case. I mean, I’m not a conceptual artist but particularly these days people tend to look at a work of art and always have their own individual take on what it is.
To what extent do you think, especially living with Jenny, she personally affected the art? Was she very involved when you were creating it or did she take a step back?
I wanted to involve her, and one of the ideas I had was, it’s not so much an idea as a fact of life, that when one person dies those around them, the family and friends, a part of them dies too. So I wanted to use Jenny. I used her as a model actually, she lay on the canvas for me and in fact there are a few paintings that are still to do with that, but in the end the more successful paintings weren’t the ones that used her.
I tried that, and it worked better when I did some works on paper and some studies. But as I moved on I found my feet and the work was different, even though I had what I thought was a really good idea and an opportunity. In the end I shot a mini-documentary of her speaking, so she was really, really helpful.
It must have been quite grim for her. She’d come in the door and I’d choose my moment and I’d have to ask. She always wanted to look at what I was doing, so I asked her what she thought about it, how she thought it was going. She’s actually got a very good eye and so she was very actively involved. She lay on the canvases and I drew around her. It had to be that way because otherwise it just wouldn’t have worked, because it’s such a fine line, it’s such a sensitive area.
Do you think it almost acted like therapy for Jenny, as well as you?
Yes. As we went through it I don’t think she did, I think she found it quite difficult. But once I’d finished the series, she told me she’d found it very therapeutic, which was very pleasing.
Before you started on Wrong Place Wrong Time did you think it might act as therapy? Or was that a happy outcome of it?
It was a happy outcome. I wasn’t looking for a cathartic process at all. I was just thinking I have to respond to this and as a painter I have to paint about it.
What is your day to day working life like?
I find it really, really helpful having a structure in my life to increase my own discipline. I get up at 7am or 7:30am, head off to the swimming pool with my little dog in the front seat of the car. So I go swimming, walk the dog, come back, do my emails and then I start working.
With Love Is..., the British Heart Foundation exhibition that includes some of your work, and 49 Frames of Love, which is your upcoming exhibition, you seem to be very focused on love at the moment.
I am. I think it’s a reaction against the attack and Wrong Place Wrong Time. I couldn’t take any more of that. I think it’s just a natural bounce back.
So do you think that’s how Wrong Place Wrong Time has affected your subsequent work?
Yeah, I think that’s very hard to say. I just think I needed something, well it’s not necessarily lighter, love, it’s still a very deep area. It’s a sort of counterpoint. So yes, in a way.
Forty-nine Frames of Love explores the ‘depth of connection and extraordinary bond that love brings’. Is that something that you’ve been thinking about following the attack on Ian and you talking to Jenny so much in the aftermath? Has the hate strengthened your loving bonds?
Yes, on a whole number of things actually. Prior to Ian’s death I lost my own partner, she died from pancreatic cancer. So in a way, that’s probably why it had such an added depth to my life. I’d gone through death and then Jenny was going through a slightly different, almost worse death because there’s nothing worse than somebody being murdered.
So for those paintings I was able to draw on my personal grief, and of course that was all to do with love as well. I also then subsequently had a passionate relationship with somebody who I’d known a very long time and so it all sort of fed into that.
So there was an extent to which the death of your partner also affected Wrong Place Wrong Time, and your next relationship affected 49 Frames of Love?
Yes, definitely. I think I was able to relate more easily and understand the grief that Jenny was going through because of my loss, I’d been through it, and because she was a very close friend. It has all spilt over into this next collection.
How soon before 49 Frames of Love takes place at the end of May will stop working on it? Do you ever feel completely finished when it comes to your art?
I’m still doing 49 Frames of Love, I haven’t completed all the work yet. You’re never completely finished! There’s going to be a short film in the exhibition, so in my head it’s my idea to paint up to maybe two weeks before, then I’m going to put the film together. Forty-nine people have contributed to it, which is quite exciting.
Is it easier to make art about love?
No, it is very tough actually. The idea of 49 Frames of Love is partly about what you don’t see, more than what you do. So it’s very complex and a hard thing to pin down. You can never really pin love down and it’s very emotional.
Wrong Place Wrong Time included ‘images and words buried within the canvas that were always there’. Forty-nine Frames of Love ‘deals with the idea of what you don’t see’. Do you feel like that’s an important aspect of your work - it’s not just about what you see at first, there’s a depth to it?
You’ve kind of nailed it actually, that’s quite interesting. There’s always a lot of stuff buried in my work. There might be ‘I love you’ in 28 different languages or ‘love’ in 49 languages. It’s all sort of hidden, you don’t see it, but it’s in there.
How are you hoping people will interpret 49 Frames of Love?
Actually I’d love it to be a really uplifting experience, that’s how I’d like people to come to the show, to think that’s inspiring and that’s happy. I’d like it to be a happy ending.
So you’ve covered hate, you’ve covered love, what’s next? Do you have anything planned?
That’s a very good question! Actually, I’d like to do more love.
You can never have enough love?
You can never have enough love! I’d like to have time to actually explore it further, think about it some more and take it a bit further. And then after that I don’t know!