I remember how, during the first lockdown, the rainbows on the windows made by children to support the NHS were a warmth reminder of how art was being utilised to create a sense of community. Such is the case of Hannah Shillito, who not only re-discovered her love for painting during lockdown, but she also created a colourful project titled “Brighton Girls” that pushes the boundaries of community-led projects by looking at the extraordinary lives led by women living in Brighton. In this interview, we discussed how the idea of girl power feeds into her art, how she’s supporting the Survivors Network, and her upcoming projects.
Tell me a bit about your background. How did you decide to get into art?
I’ve done a bit of photography and writing before, but I only properly launched my art career during lockdown. My dad didn’t want me to go to art school, because he believed that I should do an academic subject, so I studied Art History instead. However, I always loved the idea of being an artist; I just didn’t have the confidence to dedicate myself to it full-time. It has been since doing the “Brighton Girls” project that I have developed my confidence, and it has become a business.
When I started doing it, I never expected that people would like my work this much, so to know that all these women, inspiring women with great stories, are supporting me has given me a boost to realise that people do like my art. Art is so subjective, so to have all these people liking it and asking for more of it just gives me the inspiration I need. Before this, I didn’t have the confidence to call myself an artist. So, it’s really exciting to be able to finally realise ‘oh, yeah, I am an artist.’
Tell me more about you “Brighton Girls” project, how did it come about?
We were in the third lockdown, it was the start of the new year, and everyone was feeling rubbish because of the weather. So, I wanted to create a project that injected colour, boldness and happiness into people’s lives.
Before the project, I was getting most of my inspiration through Instagram, however, it suddenly dawned on me that I live in Brighton, which is home to some of the most colourful, different, arty and unique people in the world. So, I decided that I wanted to find some ‘muses’ to get inspired outside the online landscape. To do this, I published a post in the community Facebook group “Brighton Girl”. The response was amazing. I ended up drawing over a hundred women. And I really got to know them through that, making loads of friends, which was so important to me.
I am not pretending to be Monet or Van Gogh, or anything like that, I know there are better artists than me, but I wanted to create a project about community, and making people smile. Most people have never had their portrait done, so it’s also a feel-good transaction in a way.
The main attribute about this project was that a community was developed out of it, but also, since the women I drew aren’t famous, it’s a project that is about celebrating how ordinary women can also be extraordinary. We all got this joy, and colourfulness inside us, but sometimes it just needs tapping into.
As part of the project, you are raising money for Survivors Network, why was this cause important for you?
One of the women I drew works at Survivors Network, and she told me about her work, and about the things she does. Her story really touched and inspired me, so I decided to raise funds for this cause through the exhibition. Sadly, during lockdown, the cases of sexual abuse and domestic abuse have increased. Moreover, charities are not people’s priority at the moment, understandably, but I do think it’s important not to let these charities go when they do such an amazing job.
In your work, you explore the idea of femininity. How have your own experiences as a woman inspired this stylistic choice?
Girl power is very important to me. As a teenager, I went to an all-girls school, and I also teach in an all-girls school. I’ve also been all over the world volunteering with women and girls from Pakistan and the Himalayas. Through that, I’ve met inspiring women who have been through difficult situations. I also have a baby daughter. So, to me, women are just incredible and inspiring, and when we join forces, we can do great things, so that idea always feeds into my art.
Stylistically, I also prefer to draw women, as I just feel they are more interesting to draw. It may be because society allows women to explore their style more than men, through makeup, jewellery and bold clothing, which lends itself well to the type of art I do. I have drawn men as well, but they tend to be either transgender, transvestites, drag queens and queer men – so their identity also explores femininity in a way.
Where do you source your inspiration from?
There are some Brighton artists that are amazing. I love Bella Frank’s and Margoin Margate’s work. From what I can read and gather, the art world is changing so much because it has transitioned to Instagram, which is making it more open for people like me to partake in something that used to be ‘pretentious’ and inaccessible. It’s really lovely that the everyday person can now belong to this world.
Your style seems to emphasise geometric features, why is this?
Before finding my own distinctive style, I wanted to teach myself to draw properly. So initially, I attended some life drawing workshops in Brighton, specifically to learn to draw faces, which I couldn’t do. Ironically, now it’s all I ever do. Through the workshops, I looked at what other people were doing, and I fused all the bits I liked the most into my own style.
I love over-emphasising eyes, because they are so important to a person’s personality. I love big lashes and boldness. My line-work is quite direct. One local seller’s website wrote that my drawings are “art from the heart”, and I nearly cried. She said my style was very simple, but that it still tries to capture the essence of a person in a very simplistic way, and I loved it because that’s exactly what I try to do. When I am drawing someone, I listen to them, I get to know them, and then I put their ‘essence’ into the picture. Finding your own distinctive style can be difficult because there are so many artists out there. But I do hope I have developed my own style, and that within its simplicity, it’s still distinctive. I want people to be able to recognise themselves in my pictures.
In terms of technique, what tools do you normally work with and why?
I’ve been using markers and oil pastels because they fit in well with the brightness and simplicity I want to achieve. Now, I am also starting to experiment with acrylics, and looking at making collages. I feel like I already found my niche, but I don’t want to be completely pigeon-holed, so at the moment, I just want to experiment. I feel like there’s more in me, and more formats I can experiment with, so I’m looking forward to that.
Do you have a favourite piece? If so, what made it your favourite?
One of my favourites is a drawing of my nana, who we lost a couple of years ago. She was the ultimate ‘shero’ for me, she was fabulous, colourful, kind, and funny. She was basically everything I strive to be. She was also so positive. I remember one time, we were just driving, and she went “oh, that’s a lovely taxi!”, that was her take on the world – everything was lovely, and there’s always good to be found everywhere. Underneath the portrait of her I wrote ‘Fabulous’ because that sums her up really well.
Have you got any upcoming projects that you’re looking forward to?
I’m currently working on a project with the volunteer’s association Fair Share, which helps with homelessness. Their director wanted to give the volunteers a gift to thank them for the amazing work they been doing for the community, so she got in touch with me to do some portraits for them.
Additionally, one of the women I drew for “Brighton Girls” happened to be a gallery owner, and she told me that she wanted to exhibit me. When she told me, I couldn’t believe it! We don’t know exactly when we will be launching it due to restrictions, but the gallery is called Broken Arrowz, and I’ll be posting more information about it on my Instagram.
To see more of Hannah’s work…