Rivka Cocker visits artist Gina Southgate in her North London studio to discuss how she went from hating gigs to making a career out of painting live Jazz performances.
Tell me about yourself and how you got into art.
I’ve been an artist for 35 years now, although I originally thought I’d be a social worker. My art foundation at Southend was wild and creative with a diverse group of people. As I was young and lacked confidence in my painting abilities, I did a silversmith and metalwork degree at Camberwell – I spent a whole year making a teapot! It was laborious, and it wasn’t until my 3rd year when I thought ‘I might as well do this well’, that I made sculptural forms based on saxophone drawings, which has followed through in my work.
The course taught me loads of skills that as a girl you aren’t usually taught, like how to use tools and machinery. I get a lot of pleasure from making practical things myself.
The Raincoats at All Tomorrow’s parties, 2016.
How would you describe your artistic style?
As a complete backlash to the metal work days! I work in the real time of musical performance: I paint energetically using mark-making and monoprint techniques to produce large-scale canvases at gigs. I also have a studio practice, where I create abstracts. Sometimes I work over gig canvases to harness and tame that energy. Other than that, I paint landscapes, where I look for movement, changing colour and light – preferably at dusk, as everything happens quickly then, like painting at a gig.
How does this compare to your performance work?
My performance work is born from years of observing brilliant improvising musicians; there’s no way that I’d call myself a musician, but it’s certainly influenced my interest in sound – more specifically, in the sounds my materials make when I use them, or the sounds the kitchen makes when I’m cooking. We’re constantly surrounded by sound, and you can be annoyed by it, embrace it, or work with it as an art material. Most of what I portray on stage is humorous and spurs from the frustrations of everyday life.
Landscape on canvas. Approx 18” x 24 ”.
What is a typical day like in the life of Gina Southgate?
Haha – chaos! There’s no typical day – a plus side of being an artist! My preferred working hours are between 3 and 10pm, but family life means this doesn’t always happen. I try to fit exercise in. There’s a lot of admin and self-promoting computer stuff these days which is not my work. A good day is where I can spend an 8-hour chunk in my studio. Or if I’m painting at a gig, I must pack a full kit, go off and paint, then come back in the early hours.
Why do you choose to paint jazz music?
Freely improvised music, or ‘jazz’, relates to abstract painting. Unlike music in-time where you have a general sense of where it’ll go, with improv, it’s down to musicians to drive it. My work relates to that. As a student, I was in a relationship with an improvising trumpet player and we went to loads of gigs that I hated. After we split I realised that I really missed the gigs. So, I started going on my own and sketching. Over the years I’ve learnt how to paint every instrument. I used to leave the figures out, but now I’m interested in how the instrument becomes part of the body. A horn player’s mouth connection, or a drummer’s limbs. Although I can paint all kinds of music now, the fire in my work is caused by painting freely improvised and upbeat music.
John Surman and Karen Krog at London Jazz Festival, 2014. Acrylic on canvas. 18” x 24”.
Who are you influenced by?
The most influential woman figure for me is Barbara Hepworth, due to how she managed her work and family life. She was a great draftsperson, and her sculpture was radical in its day. I love Gillian Ayers who died recently, and I admire Joan Miró. I’m a great fan of Picasso who, although his personal life was dubious, was unique – his mind was brilliant and full of energy.
Regarding performance, I am very struck by Laurie Anderson and Shelley Hirsch. It’s funny because the music I go out and paint is very different to the music I listen to at home – I’m an old soul girl, really.
Zara Mcfarlane at Jazz In The Round 2012. Acrylic and graphite on board. 32” x 244”.
If you could do a portrait of any iconic woman, who would it be?
Oh my goodness! Adelaide Hall, with Duke Ellington and Josephine Baker dancing at The Cotton Club (1920s), Billie Holiday with Lester Young (1940s) and Fontella Bass with The Art Ensemble of Chicago (1970s).
Ayanna Witter-Johnson at Jazz In The Round, 2013. Acrylic on canvas 36” x 48”.
How do you navigate the art world?
I don’t. I’m a loose cannon, a one-woman-band. I do all my own work, framing, publicity, I organise my own exhibitions and sell the work; I see it right through to hanging paintings. I’d probably be better off not doing all this. Although I haven’t done much in the art world, I was recently involved in an exhibition curated by The London Group which was fun, so I hope to do more with them.
What is the best and the worst thing about being an artist?
Waking up on a Monday morning, knowing you don’t have to get on the tube to work. You have to be motivated and that’s hard; it’s a creative pursuit. You must fight your demons, believe in yourself and keep striving. A true artist is never satisfied and keeps struggling to make everything the best it can possibly be. A downside is the lack of financial security. The current climate plays on people’s insecurities more and more. Lots of great spaces are going, forcing artists to leave London. Pop up culture is really great for artists who now have different chances to publicise work and put it out there. However, it means that there are also people who claim to be artists marketing themselves to promote shoddy work.
From her series: IN HARMONY North East, painting residency in Hawthorn Primary School, Elswick. Exhibition at Sage, Gateshead, 2015.
What are you up to at the moment? Any exciting things coming up?
Oh yeah! I’ve just taken on another studio space. I spent time over winter contacting festivals abroad: my next venture is to Kaleidopheon, a small festival with a hardcore audience in a village barn in Ulrichsburg, Austria. Later in May, I’m going to Vision festival in New York, painting Jazz legends Archie Shepp and Roscoe Mitchel, alongside loads of other brilliant players is a fantastic opportunity for me.
POMME SUR LA TABLE, 2009. Acrylic, graphite, monoprint on board. 32”x 44”.
Neil Charles at Jazz In The Round, 2017.
And then it Rained. Acrylic on board. 10″ x 32″.
Kasia Kalawek quintet at Jazz New Blood festival, 2017.
To see more of Gina’s work go to https://artistginasouthgate.weebly.com/