Meet the artist: Avy – winner of The RWA 168 Open Floating Circle Prize

Meet Avy, winner of The Floating Circle Prize at the RWA 168 Open…

“…I have been drawing and creating art since I was a child. But when artistic expression is so part and parcel of you… you can perhaps not see it directly…”

Artist, musician and filmmaker Avy was the recipient of The Floating Circle Prize for Best Work by a Student at the covid-delayed but ultimately triumphant RWA 168 Open Exhibition.

Her film It’s a New Life Tomorrow combines narration, animation and music to powerful effect as it tells the story of a boyhood in London during the Blitz…

Congratulations on winning the RWA 168 Open ‘Floating Circle’ prize for your beautiful film It’s a New Life Tomorrow.  How did you come to enter the film for the Open, and what did winning the award mean to you?

Thank you for saying it is beautiful! Coincidentally ‘beautiful’ is the same word used by the visiting animation director Luis Cook to a Falmouth University production screening. His use of that word made me look again at my graduation film. I realised the drawings that were originally destined for the storyboard were really a work in their own right.

I was looking for commissions as I have been setting up my own studio, subscribing to art and film competitions and to festivals. The RWA stated it was open to moving image and digital work so I felt, well why not? One of the things I have overcome in the last five years of practice is lack of belief in my work as being as good as the next person, and that is something that can only come with concrete success. Winning this award feels like a bestowal of a blessing and a vindication of the commitment!

It’s a New Life Tomorrow combines animation and music with a man’s boyhood memories of living through the Blitz. Can you tell us about the narrator and how and why you came to make his story into the film?

The film centres on my stepfather’s teenage years in Harrow, North London and how his life unfurled as war came nearer and nearer until at the end of the film he is at the centre of action. His name was Peter Reginald Conway and his family came from Pinner, though his family on his mothers side were Dutch. I had asked him in 2006 to make a recording about his war memories, thinking he would relate his part in the D-Day landings and Liberation of Europe, his entry to Bergen-Belsen and Berlin, before going on to Palestine.

He died in 2015 at the age of 91 and as part of remembering his life I decided it was time myself and my mum should listen back to the recording. We all have photos, but often it’s the person’s voice we remember.

Peter had a distinctive voice and was a natural storyteller. The recording didn’t relate to his battles or much about his army life at all. It was all about his boyhood, his apprenticeship at Whitefriars glassworks and the loss of his friend.

What is your process for creating an animated film? 

You are supposed to begin with a concept. But I found as with songwriting you only discover the true significance after you have brought the thing into being. It can have several layers of meaning, relate to different people or relationships, or the importance of companion animals or heroes in your life.

This one began with a poster project at Brighton University and had to be someone who was a hero to you. I have a photo of my stepfather taken somewhere in northern Europe with two brothers in arms, both later killed in action. They are in a machine-gun foxhole backed by blasted trees, a scene of total devastation. The look on his face is curious. I still cannot describe it but it is a face in the thick of action. So I did a series of drawings, some are in the film including the final image of ‘dogs of war’ in the sky. I incorporated these, a recording snippet and the photo in my film pitch when I landed at Falmouth University to do my final year in Animation & VFX in 2019.

The film also uses some very striking music, in which some rather sombre brass is suddenly joined by energetic drums. Can you tell us about that and why you used it?

My original intention when I asked my stepdad to make the recording was to record a music composition. I love the work ‘Different Trains’ by Steve Reich, the initial inspiration. I asked Peter to set down his story in 2006. He had gone into Belsen, had lived in the era which ‘Different Trains’ echoes.

I had written a track called ‘The Light’ that has a minor but uplifting chord chorus and sent it to the cellist and guitarist Adrian Oxaal who is a permanent member of the band James and original member of Sharkboy, my own band. I knew due to lockdown Adrian might have some time so he laid down an arrangement of cellos. It is lyrical and emotional, and portrays rather than betrays the emotional life of my stepfather’s story.

The drums enter suddenly like waking up, as Peter sets out to find his friend. The drums of Wes Anderson’s ‘Isle of Dogs’ were a direct influence. The drum-line was originally written by my former bandmate Laurence Downes and my husband re-recorded it in Sussex with drummer Marc Storr-Hoggins of punk band Peter & The Test Tube Babies. It was a collaboration at a distance, evolving over time around a heartbeat rhythm. I wanted to keep the instrumentation minimal to give the voice space. Peter’s voice naturally commands attention – he was a Sergeant Major so it was funny to see people in the screening auditorium sit up when his voice begins. That’s just how he was. Directing the action.

When did you realise you were an artist? 

Not in college. Illustration was then seen as very separate to fine art, much less so now the boundaries are blurred. I dropped out of art school into music and my songwriting and performance was always on the left of field in the 1990s alt music scene, just as the Brit Pop eclipse happened.

Years later I was lucky enough to attend lectures at Falmouth by the artists Andy Holden and Jeremy Deller, both use cinematic devices and different media, triggering my sense that I too could be an artist. Andy Holden even played a bit of guitar onstage. So I started to think, well I have a very different background to these guys but as a performer and film maker I get what they are doing.

But to be quite honest, the realisation was literally the moment when I read the email to say the film was selected for the RWA Open Exhibition! I have been drawing and creating art since I was a child. But when artistic expression is so part and parcel of you, envelops you and is of you, you can perhaps not see it directly.

So I feel it was a ‘totem’ moment – when the Lion gets his Courage in a medal, the Scarecrow his Brains as a diploma, the Tin Man his Heart as a clock. All these qualities are already there, but it takes a concrete symbol, to make the path to be an Artist visible.

Can you tell us a little about your art education (formal or informal) and artistic influences so far?

I did my Foundation at Blackpool in the 80s, it was a great grounding and I still have friends I made there. Then I took a year out after applying for Theatre Design and failed to get into my 1st choice at Central. So I then did Illustration for two years at Brighton Polytechnic before dropping out.

When I had my dyslexia assessment I learnt many people with dyslexia issues have had a refracted and disrupted educational life. I suddenly felt this was true – I dropped out when I was 21 after four years of study, feeling I would never be successful and that illustration was a solitary and lonely occupation!I don’t have spelling or reading problems, it’s pressure of retention, numbers, time-keeping and confidence issues.

Brighton Uni was known for its harsh crits, the tutors called me ‘Audrey Beardsley’ as a kind of joke. I just sort of gave up and left. I just wanted to go and be a rock musician instead. So I did!

As a mature student in 2016 I took the Animation BTech at Chichester College, a course I loved. I re-discovered traditional life-drawing, animation and up-skilled my digital work. I learnt a huge amount there and haven’t looked back. So it’s meaningful that Brighton arranged the assessment when I returned as a mature Illustration student for my second year, producing some clunky animations and a lot of drawing.

I decided I needed to learn the key stop motion techniques. I left my home and transferred to Falmouth University for my final year. I was very homesick!

I love the Romantics and the Surrealists and stop motion animation greats such as Starewicz, the surrealists Svankmajer, Forkbeard Fantasy and The Brothers Quay. I used to come home from school and be repelled and enthralled in the world of ‘Alice’ with its dark and magical mix of stop motion stuffed animals and real life action.

Dyslexia can make for a stressy life. But it’s also a huge relief to know that the circulating thoughts of memory, characters, music and stories mean that by being productive they can be narrated out as new art.

I have come to a new appreciation of Leonora Carrington and have a sense of her Lancashire origins, where I grew up, her reactive nature. By Pallant House Gallery throwing up a Madge Gill commission opportunity I came to know her mesmeric work and I am honoured to be in the same Open exhibition as Ros Ford – I managed to get to see the inspiring strength of her submission pieces.

The Open has of course been long delayed by Covid. How has the year of lockdowns affected your life and art?

What became very clear during the construction of the London sets for the stop motion film was how vulnerable and transient the cardboard buildings were. And how empty the streets looked without characters.

As the university studio was forced to close during the first lockdown I became ill, so I had to finish the stop motion shooting at home in Sussex. The drawings and filming became a world I could step into during the shutdown. I withdrew into a London set in the 1940s! In some ways it’s been a gift and a hand of fate in the timing.

Many people I know and love have died in the years before this, so I feel it is a ‘next stage’ thing. Like a war, it has to play itself out.

I keep faith with the Greatest Generation. I’m glad my stepfather passed on before this happened. We have lost a lot of friends and family and Covid won’t be over for a while yet. But we carry on!

I find joys in the company of our garden and park birds, and our beautiful and funny longdog Roxy, who has kept us going. Winning the Floating Circle award was a massive lift of happiness, and also the treatment won a laurel at Cornwall Film Festival for Best Student Treatment, so these two things more than made up for not having a graduation ceremony in 2020.

Directing the stop motion version of the film has given me the confidence to keep experimenting. I am just on the final edit so it’s very exciting.

Avy at the socially-distanced premiere of It’s a New Life Tomorrow’ – in her garden

What are you working on next?

I have several productions waiting to be realised, one of which is a world-branching story about factions of bird people and another a wolf fairytale hybrid, based on my beloved and lost greyhound and the soldier-adventurer Alexander Gardner.

But first I have to finish Peter’s story, once the stop motion version of ’A New Life Tomorrow’ is released this summer. Many of the war stories he told me didn’t make it into the recording or the film, so I am working on enmeshing a magical realist version of a sequel, based on what I know about his movements through Europe, elements of the recordings and taking up where it leaves him on the shore in France, to include true things he told me such as how it felt to travel through the liberated streets. It also involves a bottle of Gold Bols and a tiny ballerina. I will be applying for film funding so fingers crossed. The soundtrack is based around my stepfathers favourite composition ‘The Blue Danube,’ that has huge resonance. I have also just secured a ScreenSkills grant to learn industry level stop motion build and animation techniques at the Aardman Academy over 12 weeks this summer.

I would love for Sir David Jason to take over the narration of the sequel – he has the North London accent of my stepdad and is now of a similar age to Peter when he made the original recording. If anyone has a contact for him however tenuous, please let me know!

Sir Francis Rose – ‘Portrait of Sheila’

Finally, a fairy godmother waves her magic wand and says you can own any artwork in the world. What do you choose?

I thought about this a lot! Isn’t it difficult? I could have chosen a Rembrandt, Turner, a Blake drawing or maybe a Constable sky. But I actually own my favourite painting of all time, it was given to me by my friend Sheila before she passed away two years ago, a portrait in oils as a younger woman, painted by the ‘Lord of Chaos’ himself, Sir Francis Rose [above].

So I thought I would cheat and choose two sculptures. One is ‘The Restless Temple’ by Penny Saunders but I couldn’t own it because it’s way too big for my garden. It’s ironic that working on small things I would want something so massive. But things that are out of scale are magical aren’t they? Her partner Tim Britton of Forkbeard Fantasy has been very supportive of my work during the lockdown and their theatre and animation work together is so inspiring.

Finally I choose the winged ‘Bronze Head of Hypnos’ at the British Museum, a Roman copy of a Greek original. Apparently the full body statue would have been walking, holding a drinking horn and poppies, but only the head was recovered, in Perugia.

I used to be a care worker and one of my ‘ladies of Hove’ had a replica of it in her lounge (the British Museum used to have full size replicas on sale) and I was fascinated by it. To be able to touch the modelling of the head was fabulous. And I just discovered Lawrence of Arabia also owned a replica. It is the most beautiful piece of sculpture I have ever seen – the most perfect icon of an ancient, mysterious race.

Bronze head of Hypnos. © The Trustees of the British Museum
Avy’s website is at Sign of the Sharkboy

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