“On my residency I realised, what I create, is like a little world, an escape. It’s an escape for me, but also for other people when they look at it.” A conversation with Cherie Grist.

Cherie Grist is an artist based at 104 Duke Street Studios in Liverpool, which she also manages. Cherie recently undertook a residency with Cel del Nord, located in the small village of Oristà in the Lluçanès region of Catalonia. We met Cherie at 104 Duke Street, where she occupies a large open space to accommodate her large-scale paintings. Standing in Cherie’s studio feels rather like standing inside one of her paintings. Her working area includes one large wall dedicated to paintings in progress, a comfy seating area, a desk area, a wall stacked with finished paintings and another covered with brightly coloured images. The colours she likes to use in her paintings are everywhere.

CG: I use any excuse to paint and not do anything else.  In fact my laptop is here today and I have so many things to do, but I just want to paint. I’ll be like, I’ll just do 5 minutes!… and then it’s never 5 minutes, it’s all day.

JJ: So you paint pretty much every day?

CG: Yes, I mean before my residency in Barcelona it wasn’t that much, I was distracted a lot… I was in Barcelona for just under a month from August to September.  

JJ: What made you decide to do a residency?

C: My partner has set up his own business and I’ve been helping him with that, with branding and photography etc. and I was focussing a lot on that, but it was just taking up too much time. I have been getting loads of freelance work to earn money, which is nice, but I don’t really want it, which sounds bad. I felt like I needed to get time away to get re-centred. You just have to figure out, what do you want; what is going to make you happy. Then everything else has to fit around that.  

J: So when you went to Barcelona, did you have a plan about what you would do?

C: Yeah I started planning about a month and a half before I went. I had a whole list of stuff to do. I wanted to work on my personal statement, because my work has changed a bit and I’m more aware of what I paint and why I’m painting. I didn’t want to come home.  It was a place in Orista, this tiny little village. They have a dog called Cilla Black that hung around… she was like therapy… I spent lots of my time making collars for Cilla, she was amazing. I did those little paintings there while I was sat in the garden [Cherie indicates 5 small paintings on the wall]. I could fit them in my luggage. It takes me so long to do a painting, I would have started one and no way would have finished it. I paint to ignore things so these little paintings were a treat that I earned after doing hard work.  I was doing research. All my paintings are made up automatically, so I was wondering why I was picking certain shapes and certain colours and that is what I researched.

J: When you say you paint automatically, you mean you don’t do any planning before you make a painting?

C: No, I just paint stuff.

I was talking to another studio member the other day and he was like, “what have you done today Cher?” and I said, “All the yellow and purple bits and the red bits” and he was like, “Well what’s it going to look like?” and I was like, “I dunno,” he said, “What you doing next?” and I was like, “I dunno. I just keep painting on it.”

I always paint a big abstract background and then I fill it.

J: So you just paint marks?

C: Yes, I pick up whatever colour and I paint it.  

J: But the marks could completely disappear by the end of the painting?

C: Yeah, well this one is going that way…[Cherie indicates the painting she’s currently working on]. Liquitex has brought out a gouache which has changed my life, so I only have to do two coats, where with the acrylic I was doing three to four. I use a lot of household paint, but they don’t last – they tend to crack a bit. I love gloss, all the black will get glossed with household gloss. You can layer and layer gloss without it cracking. I love it.

J: When you trained, you didn’t do fine art?  

C: No I did Fashion Style and Photography.  

J: Do people say they can see that in your work?

C: Yes the fashion bit, but I studied Film Photography, which was so annoying for London College of Fashion because they were swapping everything over to digital and all our nice dark rooms were getting changed over and I was refusing to use the new tech. They were like, “Just shoot fashion and if you shoot digital you’ll make loads of work, it will be amazing, you’ve got such a good eye…” but I was just photographing buildings and drawing and the most un-fashion related things possible, so it’s quite funny how my work ended up more ‘fashion related’ as painting than it ever did on my photography course.   

J: Had you always been painting?

C: Yes, I always drew, always designed clothes, always did all of that growing up and then I did an Art Foundation.

J: In Liverpool?

C: Yeah, I went to St Edmund of Canterbury and then did Law Business and Art A-levels at Liverpool Community College, then jibbed the Law off … I was going to earn loads of money and open a big house where you could go and do all creative stuff, that was my plan and then obviously I was just like, no, I’m just going to do what I want. So I did two years Fashion, BTEC National Diploma, learning to pattern-cut, dress make, design and stuff, and then did Art Foundation. Then I did a year of Film Photography and Theatre Costume Design and then I applied to London to do Fashion Styling and Photography, because it was the only course that combines the two. Then while I was in uni I started painting properly. I always submitted the paintings as part of my course work. I was the most annoying student ever.  

I’m still in touch with my tutor and he messaged me this morning. He said, have you done your artist residency yet?  He’s probably glad I’ve put my camera down.

I graduated in 2008 and then stayed down in London for two years, working for a photographer. While I was doing that I was figuring out what I wanted to do and I just kept painting… to ignore the reality of life. My boyfriend at the time had a house in Liverpool and he said, why don’t you just go back to Liverpool for a bit, cause you can get a studio and figure it all out and you don’t have to pay rent, so I went to Victoria Street studios where my studio rent was £23 a month.

J: Did you make big work right from the start?

C: Yeah, those were the biggest paintings I did… which are the framed ones at the back there. [Cherie indicates the stack of paintings next to the wall].

When I was in London I lived in Islington and I was walking down past this paint shop and they were selling big rolls of… you know, that wallpaper that’s got foam on?… and they were 50p and I was like, fucking hell, you can’t buy anything in London for 50p.  So I bought loads of these rolls of wallpaper and that was what I was painting on in London.  So I brought them home with me. The big ones at the back there, they are made from three rolls of wallpaper, taped together, mounted on Russian Birch and then framed.  One of the other artists in the studios said, “You should apply for the John Moores Painting Prize” and I was like, “I don’t know what that is, no I’d rather not” and they were like, “Just apply!” So I’d done one big painting and I went and got it framed and applied and that’s when I got to second stage.  So then I was like, maybe I’m good at it… I liked doing it but I never really thought I was going to be a painter.

J: Was that encouragement then, getting that response?

C: Yeah because, I had no idea about that art prize, didn’t even know what it was, but some of the other artists in the studio, they were just livid, they were like, we’ve been painting for years and you’ve just whipped up a painting on some wallpaper! When I realised what it meant and how important the prize was it made me think that this was obviously something I was good at – and I enjoyed it! Bonus! I’ve never felt part of the artists’ little gang, I think I’ve always just done my work. I don’t know whether that was on my part, insecurity of not knowing how to explain my work. I felt like I didn’t fit in in the art scene, maybe I was just doing what I needed to do because I was figuring it out.  

J: Do you, or did you at any point feel like there was a lot of pressure to explain yourself?

C: Yeah, at times when I’ve been in group shows in Liverpool, my friend, who was a member in the studios, would have to answer for me because I was like, “I can’t answer this question! I don’t know what they are about, I just do them, that’s it!” But I’ve been painting now for ten years so I know a little bit more.

J: Sometimes when you find things out about your work it can destroy the magic a bit don’t you think? Like when you learned the stuff about shapes and colours?

C: No because I’ll just forget it all again! I can’t retain any information.  

J: Yeah, just because you read something and understood it, doesn’t mean you can memorise it.

C: I tried to have a think and make paintings ‘about something’ but I just can’t. I’ve tried to plan something out and make it, but I just can’t do it.  When I make the paintings it all happens automatically. On my residency I realised: what I create is like a little world, an escape. It’s an escape for me, but also for other people when they look at it; with the shapes and colours I put in there, they can get away from the chaos of the world.

J: Would you say you do much research? I mean I know what artists call ‘research’ is a pretty broad thing.  I’m asking you because I’m looking at that wall with all those images on it.  

C: So, I love Pinterest. I like ‘pinning’ things that I like and most of it is photography. I’m dead inspired by photography and fabrics. I love Fashion Week especially the couture shows and Chanel’s Metier D’Art collections for the sheer craftmanship. I never look at a painting and think, I’m going to try that, I don’t really get inspired by paintings, I’m more inspired by fine art photography, the light, shapes and textures. But that was the reason I wanted to go on the residency, because I didn’t know anything about my paintings, other than I just make them. So I wanted to look into what it was that was making me create the work I am making.

J: You mean how people respond to those shapes and colours and why you might be interested in them?

C: Yeah. Like this pink in all of my paintings… I can’t get away from fucking pink. So I researched into it.  This scientist in the 70s discovered this colour pink and it was used to make people calm. People who were rioting in the jails. He painted a jail in this certain pink, and it calmed everyone down and they named this colour pink after these two generals that ran the prison. That is the colour pink which is in all my paintings.  [Baker-Miller Pink – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baker-Miller_pink] I was using this pink  in all of my work without knowing anything about it.  It calms people… that’s why I paint.

J: Because it calms you down?

C: Yes.

I’ve written a diary since I was about 6 and I have them all, books and books.  I found this piece of paper from 2000 and it was just this big rant, I was just going on and on about how I’m going to do whatever I wanted to do in this life and how the purpose of my life was to make people feel better by doing the work that I’m doing.  I’ve spent all of these years trying to figure it all out, but 15 year old Cherie, sitting there in school, knew all about it! I didn’t have to do a residency in Barcelona, I could have just read through all my old diaries!

That’s why I feel like I’m fine, because I’ve done a whole big circle.  

J: To me the paintings are fun. Are you having fun when you’re making them?

C: No! I’m ignoring what’s going on, they’re therapy. I haven’t had a horrible life but I have had awful things happen, so I paint to make myself feel better and to not go into any of those places.  I could be thinking about the most horrific memory, whist painting the most lovely pink line.

When I exhibited in Huyton Art Gallery I put some of my diary extracts on display with my paintings. This one review that this lady wrote described my work so accurately after reading those diary extracts and feeling the connection with those and the paintings. I could never have described my work like that. She understood it more than I did.  

Should I be more honest about where my work is coming from? Let people see a bit more of why I am an artist and why I choose to ignore normal life and just hide away in here and do my work? Do they need to know more about you or is it just because we’re living in a time now when everyone is sharing everything?

You can see more work by Cherie Grist on her website www.cheriegrist.com