Venetia Berry: Vulnerability and Creativity

Brixton based artist Venetia Berry paints the nude female figure through an abstracted lens, simplifying the form using pure line. She aims to reverse the male gaze, challenging the archetypical sexualised female nude. Venetia Berry studied painting at the Leith School of Art, Edinburgh (2012-2014) and at the Royal Drawing…

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Brixton based artist Venetia Berry paints the nude female figure through an abstracted lens, simplifying the form using pure line. She aims to reverse the male gaze, challenging the archetypical sexualised female nude.

Venetia Berry studied painting at the Leith School of Art, Edinburgh (2012-2014) and at the Royal Drawing School, London on the Drawing Intensive Year (2015-2016).

We wanted to find out from Venetia first hand about the vulnerability of being an artist, putting yourself out there, and how to “stick to your guns” and be authentic.

Did you plan to be an artist or did it just fall into place? How did you decide to pursue it professionally?

It wasn’t really a plan. I went to Charles Cecil Art School for a month after school, this really traditional art school in Florence, and it clicked into place. It became really obvious to me that I wanted to pursue art. And I remember at the time, people saying that it was a really big jump and it was a brave thing to do. But I never had felt that it was…it always felt like the right thing to do it, it never felt like a huge thing. But I wasn’t a sort of five year old saying, “I want to be an artist when I’m older. It’s my dream, my whole life.” You know, I did Art for GCSE. I mean I was pretty, pretty average in the year… not some child prodigy or anything. But then at A-level, I got a lot more into it. And I’d spend all my spare time on artwork and stuff. I think, yeah, around 17, 18, I really got into it. And then did this month in Florence at this very traditionally taught school that ignited my passion for it.

I was in from nine to five, but then in the evening had lectures from, you know, seven to nine. And then you’d be in Florence and you’re eighteen. And so you’d then go for drinks and be out till four in the morning and then do the whole thing again. So it was just this kind of a whirlwind of a month. It was only a month. I felt like I actually lived there. So yeah, I loved and met lots of these people going to Edinburgh Art school, which I then ended up going to.

I mean, if someone had told me and I was younger, I was going to be an artist. I don’t think I would have believed that. It’s a dream job.

Did you remember developing a style or did that come later down the line?

Venetia:  That definitely came later down the line. The female nudes and style that I’m doing more now, that wasa after I came back from Leith (Art school in Edinburgh), I went to an art school in London called The Royal  Drawing School, which is where they take you back to the basics. And you’re just drawing and because drawing is like the bones of art, you know? So suddenly, having been doing all these painting courses I went back to having a pencil and paper.

I did it for a year, it was three days a week. And at each term, you chose three different courses. So in the first term, I was doing things like life drawing that I already knew that I loved. But then later on I was doing landscapes, and it just makes you realize what you look for and what kind of lines you like.That’s when I started doing etching at the Royal Drawing School, which is where all my abstract female forms came from because all of my art classes before had been with something in the middle of the room to draw from, like a person or it could even be a still life. There’s always something to look at. Whereas this basement in Shoreditch, you’re just given metal plates and told to draw something and it’s the first time I had to use my imagination and I thought, “Okay, what do I like… do I like the female nude?” 

I’d always been slightly disappointed when a man walked into the life drawing room because I just saw men’s bodies as so much more straight, I much prefer curves. I just started drawing female nude into the etching plate, and then thinking a lot more about the actual drawing, as opposed to having done portraits, you spend your life trying to make it look exactly like the person. Whereas when you just go more abstract, you’re only thinking about the finished product.

So I was thinking more about the actual drawings and then just got more and more abstract and was pushing it further and further until what I have today.

What are you trying to say, with your style, and with your work?

Venetia: I’m partly trying to highlight society’s expectations around women’s bodies – that’s  something I’ve always struggled with. What society sees as the ideal figure to have has always interested me. Also, to celebrate the female nude for what it really is. You know, throughout all media and art history as well, women are idealized… it’s just not the kind of normal body that you see. You go into the National Gallery, and you’re more likely to see a female nude by a male artist and they’re just hugely idealized and glorified, and they all have the perfect body.

I think I was going against that, as a Woman, kind of reclaiming the female nude and making it more real. And I know, my work doesn’t look real, but I wanted to give more of a feel for the everyday woman rather than a kind of tiny model or, or someone with the so-called perfect body. I think I wanted to nod at a lot of things that make me up as a person as well. I do think that as an artist, you’re so involved in your work that it ends up reflecting you.

It’s a vulnerable pursuit, because you inevitably open yourself up to criticism and if you are reflected in the work that could feel like a very personal attack. How does it feel when you take that leap to say, “I’m going to put this out there anyway”?

Venetia: Oh, yeah, it definitely is very scary. Particularly in the beginning, when I first started doing all this work, and I first started realizing what I was painting about, it was so vulnerable because I felt like I was completely baring my soul, and I had to admit all this stuff about myself, that’s actually so private. And then, you know, before you know, it, you’re on a panel talking to 100 people about your insecurities in your body. So it is a really vulnerable position. But I think, I think, in anything, you have to be vulnerable to get something out there. And the amazing thing is, is the amount of people… if you open yourself up to being vulnerable… people get it and I’ll get really nice messages from people saying, “You know, I’m really happy that someone’s doing this, I wish I’d had this when I was younger”. And I think maybe if I hadn’t opened myself up, then other people would continue being closed. The British, we kind of pride ourselves on being stiff upper lip and everything.

I imagine you always want to evolve as an artist, because you don’t want to go backwards and you don’t want to stay static, you have to grow as a person and the two must be linked. As you said, your art is reflecting what you’re feeling at the time. How does it feel trying to evolve publicly?

Venetia: Yeah, I think it is really scary. I think also that for each different phase you go through, you always feel… almost separated from the person who made that. And, and so if someone says, “Oh, I much prefer the style that you did three years ago”. Although it’s meant to be a compliment, it’s the worst thing you can hear because, you’re thinking, “Oh, no!” When I started moving from portraits to more abstract work, I think people who liked my portraits preferred the portraits and made that quite obvious. I definitely feel that different work displays different parts of my life and you have to evolve.

For someone who’s going through that, because I mean, you’re now in a position where there are younger people looking up to you and thinking, “you’ve taken those first steps into having a successful career as an artist” and that is so difficult to do. What would you say about the anxiety that comes with that creative process and making yourself vulnerable and, and putting yourself out there?

Venetia: I think there is a huge anxiety around and yeah, it is so personal. I think I’ll always say the best thing to do is to stick to your guns because as I said, when I was doing portraits and kind of moving over to being more abstract I had a lot of discouragement and I just had this real gut feeling to stick with it. And I kept doing portraits on the side, but, you know, was making this other work. And just, I think, just go with your gut, it’s the most important thing. 

How do you navigate being a brand and expressing yourself creatively, and is it difficult when this is also your job?

Venetia: I think that’s a really interesting question. I mean, I’ve always really struggled with the business side. And like, I would never necessarily see myself as a brand at all, but I now have representation. I’ve got an agency and basically, as soon as they have my work, then they take it from there. And they do my PR, and they’re really amazing. So that just allows me to create, because I don’t think my brain really works in a business way or a kind of branding, strategy type way. I guess my “brand” is myself. So I guess it’s just important to be authentic. And I just think that the best thing to do is not to fake anything. For example in panel discussions I always try to be as kind of honest as I can be. I also think that’s another vulnerable thing that people appreciate. If you’re putting a front on then it’s kind of obvious. 

What is also obvious is that Venetia’s approach to art is inspiring for anyone waiting to take their first steps on a creative endeavour. It seems as though honesty is at the root of much of her process. Whether opening herself up to criticism, expressing ideas that are challenging, or simply being straightforward about her feelings, honesty has allowed Venetia Berry to make an authentic connection with her audience.

If you’d like to check out Venetia’s artwork please go to www.venetiaberry.com