Featured: Rebecca Haysom | Narrative pictures, wish-fulfilment and escape

Rebecca Haysom is a Johannesburg-based artist. Her work, which strongly references the traditional genre of portrait painting, is concerned with narrative, ambiguity and the creation of different ‘selves’. Rebecca spoke to us about her work, influences, and being a child.

When you were little, what did you think you would grow up to be?

When I was about six I proudly informed my mother that she loved me “because I drew beautiful pictures,” when she denied this (she loved me for who I was, etc, etc) I flew into a wild fury, insistent that my drawing skills were the sole inspiration for her maternal affection… So I guess it was always at the back of mind, or at least dangerously entwined with my sense of self.

The painter's daughters (After Gainsborough)
The painter’s daughters (After Gainsborough)

In what ways have different factors, together with your studies (Fine Art and English literature), lead you to where you are today? 

When we were kids my parents read to us every night; their choices were usually dark, psychological and fantastical – Greek myths, the Earthsea Quartet, Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales – or at least these are the ones that stayed with me.  (Also, I confess, but am pleased, that my father paid us R1 for every book we read ourselves, which was about a month’s pocket money, so we were well-bribed into becoming readers).

I was also ADD and a very tantrum-prone kid but drawing was the one thing that sedated and focused me, my mother would spread a large roll of paper on the floor with some big kokis and we’d draw these huge abundant pictures together. So I guess stories and mark-making became places of refuge from an early age.

Other than that I think living between two cities, CT and JHB, from a young age, had the advantages of giving me a broader horizon and a restlessness which at its best is a kind of curiosity.

The journey

How would you describe your style and approach to art making, and how has this developed over time?

I took a break from art-making when I moved back to JHB to do my English degree. I didn’t pick up a brush for three years and that was very good for me – when I came back to it I was more at ease, and much clearer about what interested me and what didn’t. In art school and in the aftermath it’s easy to lose sight of your motives. Stories, painting, a certain sort of humour, these are the things that excite me.

Girl in a hurry (Cinderella)

What are some of the mediums you most enjoy working in and why?

My primary medium is oil, it’s got a richness and a sensuality, but it can also be stubborn, abrasive, churlish… Van Gogh once wrote about the “Staring of a blank canvas which says to a painter: you do not know anything.” So when I’m not in the mood to be humbled, I enjoy the more accommodating  nature of watercolour, it’s quick and finite. This year I’m going to do more drawing and get back into printmaking – I’m loving Hockney’s prints and drawings.

Looking for love in all the wrong places

Can you please tell us a little about the themes and subject matter that recurs in your work…

I’m pretty omnivorous in my subject matter – popular culture, history, myth, literature.  Initial images are culled from newspapers, personal photographs, the Internet, magazines, art history, etc, and then re-invented to become fragments of a wry narrative. If there’s a recurring theme in my work, it’s the concept of narrative or ambiguity. My production is usually structured around a particular theme I’m working with at the time, for example 1930’s / 40’s aviatrix, or forgotten female personalities; at the moment I’m interested in the concept of the introvert, but they are all linked by ideas of biography and storytelling.

Tilda (Muse)

What role does narrative play in your artistic process, and what are some of the stories that you’re telling?

Well, I like to think of my paintings as a collection of ‘characters in search of an author’. I always wanted to make suggestive story-telling paintings. I’m increasingly drawn to the traditional genre of portrait painting and self-portraits because I’m interested in the mechanisms of biography and autobiography–the creation of ‘selves’ through storytelling (this process is more overt in today’s climate of public personalities – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc).

My English honours thesis was on silence in narrative  – we have a psychological need to create containing narratives out of our own lives and the world around us– but the material we have to work with is messy and full of contradictions. So one of my pre-occupations is the simultaneous impossibility and necessity of this task. In my work this tension is often mirrored in the controlled or intricate technique of my painting or drawing versus the awkwardness of, or ambiguity in the subjects. I find there’s also an unintentional undercurrent of restrained violence that creeps in.

Back from the wild

Which artists’ and writers’ works are you most inspired by (either at this moment in time, or longstanding)?

It’s difficult to choose favourites. But one small piece of writing (that could even be considered a piece of art criticism), that has consistently held meaning for me is Auden’s poem about Breughel’s painting of Icarus, Musee de Beaux Arts, which is about how expertly the painting expresses the mundanity and simultaneity of life, all the stuff that’s cut out of heroic or tragic narratives. Also, I think painting and poetry have a lot in common in terms of how they accommodate or present narrative. I read a lot of poetry.

Otherwise at the moment I am very interested in the late 19th and early 20th Century female explorers.  Which is an inherited obsession from my grandmother, so I’m reading a pile of her old books – all dog-eared autobiographies or biographies, with fabulous exotic titles like The Valley of the Assassins, and other Persian Travels, or The Wilder Shores of Love. 

Each of your works bears a descriptive title; how do you interpret the interplay between words and images? 

Obviously a title is a kind of open door, it’s a suggestion, an invitation. Also people’s attention span is limited these days, you have to give them something upfront, a little more tangible to keep them interested. So it’s a way of getting people to look, it’s a fuse for the story.

At the edge of the pond

If you weren’t making art, what do you think you would be doing?

I’d be living somewhere remote, preferably sub-tropical with a menagerie of animals, tending my vegetables by day and hosting fabulous feasts by night. 

Self-portrait with monkey

What’s something someone might be surprised to find out about you?

I’m scared of heights… and I’m starting trapeze lessons next month.

Self-portrait as circus performer

What are you currently working on/coming up in the near future?

I’m working on a body of work that’s begun as series of tragi-comic self-portraits dealing with ideas of wish-fulfilment and escape.  I’m also producing a print with Artist Proof Studio’s ProWorkshop at the end of March, working with the talented Sara Aimee Verity, which I’m extremely excited about.

Anything else you would like to add…

I have work up at the New Voices show at Lizamore and Associates until the 16th February (miniature watercolours based on my great grandmother’s photo album). And the studio where I work, Assemblage, is having an open studio on the 26th February, which is a great evening with charming people in an interesting space, and a good opportunity for new buyers interested in building an art collection. 


 You can view more of Rebecca’s work here.

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