Allistair Covell is nearing the end of is five years with Digswell Arts.
1) How would you describe your current practice?
I create vibrantly colourful and rhythmic abstract paintings, inspired by my synaesthesic responses to sound, primarily music. Synaesthesia is a neurological phenomenon, a condition best described as ‘a union of the senses’ where one sensory experience prompts another. For me it is sound and colour, but others can experience a taste with seeing a colour. I was first aware of this when I was a child when letters, numbers and even the days of the week started to resemble colours. Synaesthesia grants me the ability to see colour upon hearing sound, so music and songs are more than just an audio experience, they are an every changing audio and visual landscape, which I try to record. Colour is an integral ingredient in my work and as I’m describing music through colour and how it appears to me, I see there’s no right or wrong method in applying it. The marks I make are an attempt to capture the spontaneity and abstract fluidity of music, which hopefully shows in the brush marks, blocks of colour and varying shapes and symbols, each representing a different instrument, the song’s melody, the lyrics or tone of voice. The paintings are also abstract recordings of places, people and events, linked to a moment where music played a fundamental role.
As part of my practice, the paintings, iPad sketches and drawings are translated and interpreted into hand-knotted carpets, which I refer to as “woven paintings”. The carpets are handcrafted by weavers in Afghanistan, by the organisation Turquoise Mountain (a Prince Charles charity) and in Nepal with the company Rug Maker. I altered my practice in 2014 to include carpets after I unexpectedly won the Best Young Design Award at the 9th Carpet Design Awards at Domotex Hannover in Germany. I thought this is a sign and maybe I should create some more, plus having a background in textile design, creating woven carpets seemed like the natural progression.
2) What are you working on at the moment (forthcoming exhibitions, events, workshops etc)?
My first major solo exhibition has just opened at the Broadway Gallery in Letchworth Garden City. Called Canvas To Carpet, the exhibition features a series of paintings and woven carpets. The exhibition, which could also be viewed as a mini retrospective of my time as a fellow at the Digswell Arts Trust, showcases how the weavers have masterfully interpreted the rhythmic energy and spontaneity of my work, translating each expressive brush stroke, splash of colour and drawn into a woven knot.
To show the process of canvas to carpet, the exhibition includes some of the preparatory paintings I send to the carpet weavers and two short films, produced by Turquoise Mountain and Rug Maker. These films illustrate the different approaches taken by the Afghan and Nepalese weavers, working with some techniques that haven’t changed for centuries.
3) What are your plans for the coming year and what have you been up to this year so far?
My fellowship with Digswell Arts comes to an end this summer. In some respects the last five years have flashed by but it also feels like I’ve been at Digswell longer than five years, I wonder if this is because I am fortunate to have had two studios at Digswell. I was initially based at the Farmhouse studios in Stevenage and then when that site closed, a coupe of us moved to the Fenners building in Letchworth. Looking back the move acted like a bit of a soft reset for me, coinciding with my work moving in a direction that was becoming more fine art in approach and application, leaving behind the ‘design’ aspects that had been part of my practice in the past.
Over the last year I have worked on various projects, working around the planning and part curation of the Canvas To Carpet exhibition. Planning the exhibition has been an interesting learning experience and I have had to consider what the audience would want to see as opposed to me, the artist.
One project highlight from last year was showing new work during the London Design Festival in September 2018 when I was approached by Craig & Rose paints and the colour consultancy agency Calzada Fox. I was asked to create new work inspired by the C&R 2019 colour palette and how colour has a psychological effect on the viewer. The project was interesting as it made me look at colour differently, rather than be inspired by music to create the colour palette I had to work backwards, thinking what music do these colours remind me of. The final artwork also marked a bit of a departure for me as this piece was made out of plywood.
4) What is the question you get asked most about your work and how do you answer it?
I get asked a variety of questions about my work, ranging from how did I get into working with carpets – it was through an opportunity I saw in COVER magazine, inviting artists and designers to submit an artwork to be made into a carpet – to what do I actually paint and what do the colours and shapes mean?
I reply I’m attempting to paint music… everyone knows what it sounds like, from classical through to pop and hip-hop, but no one knows what it visually might look like so I’m guess I’m trying to create my own visual language of music.
5) What or who inspired you to be an artist and why?
I don’t think there’s ever been one particular person who has inspired me to be an artist, more so a number of different people, from family, friends and some tutors to those who I have worked within the fields of fine art, fashion, textile design and recently the carpet industry.
If I had to choose one it would be probably be Dame Zandra Rhodes. People say you should never meet a childhood hero, I still can’t believe I was able to work with mine. She is an inspiration as she is herself and does what she feels is right, never questioning herself or worrying what others might think: it is all intuitive. I still use some of the advice she passed on to me in my practice today.
6) Which artist do you most admire and why?
I don’t think I can pick just one artist… there are too many from across art movements, from abstract expressionism, figurative and Pop Art through to a recent appreciation of conceptual art. Having Tate membership has allowed me to discover artists I wasn’t aware of, and also given me the time to explore the works of those I was already familiar with in greater detail. When I studied fashion I learnt about the history of design, and then, like now, I draw a lot of my inspiration from music.
There isn’t one particular genre of music I favour, so my taste is varied and constantly expanding, hence why I list artists like Kate Bush next to Janelle Monáe (a recent discovery), Madonna with Enya or the soundtrack to an opera with the theme tune to Thunderbirds. Throw into the mix the atmospheric scores from across all genres of film – spanning science fiction, action and horror, combined with the cinematic soundtracks featured in computer games, I feel if I have a connection to the music, I hope at some point I will create a visual record of it on a surface.
7) How has your relationship with Digswell Arts Trust strengthened your practice as an artist?
Being a fellow of Digswell Arts has enabled me to have a studio and a base that I have been able to work from. I think being a fellow has strengthened my practice in various ways, possibly beyond the artwork as having a studio has meant that I am part of a community. I have been able to talk to current artists and alumni about ideas or projects, meet practitioners from different disciplines and had the opportunity to organise group exhibitions.
I didn’t know much about the Digswell Arts Trust before I had a studio so the last few years has involved learning more about it. It has been fascinating to discover its origins and the fellows of the past, some household names today, and how museums and galleries once supported it. In 1973 Digswell Arts celebrated its 15th Anniversary with the exhibition, ‘Henry Morris and the Digswell Experiment’, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the artworks of ex fellows are now highly collected around the world. In 2017, Digswell Arts celebrated its 60th Anniversary and it is incredible to think that my own time with Digswell Arts will one day become part of its legacy.
The Digswell Arts Trust is the oldest ‘artist studios’ organisation in the UK, with its studio model inspiring countless others, and even though it is based in Hertfordshire, it is good to know that in certain circles, the ‘Digswell’ name is known far beyond the counties borders.