Meet the Maker: Menagerie
Artist Emma Gray from Menagerie lives and works in Brighton, where she creates extraordinary portraits of animals painted on wood – some of them stars of Instagram, some of them with complicated and beautifully detailed back stories, and some of them encountered on the pier. We caught up with Emma to discover more about her creative upbringing and her very own backyard menagerie…
Can you introduce yourself and describe what you do?
Hello! I’m a Brighton based artist who has a Folksy shop called Menagerie. Mainly, I paint animals on wood, and I also have a range of greetings cards based on some of these paintings.
When I’m being creative I feel alive and anchored to the present.
Have you always been creative? Were you encouraged to draw and paint when you were younger?
Being creative felt like a defining and encouraged part of who I was growing up, whether in art, music or writing. I have a favourite photo of me as a toddler in a smock with more paint on me than there was on the paper and I used to include unsolicited illustrations to accompany school homework. I love that there was this overflow of creativity that happened whether it was expected or not! I also received a subscription of The Great Artists magazines as a young teen. I was a bit of an art nerd. I lost some confidence when taking my art A-level, which led me to choose to study Art History at university instead of practical art. But while I was studying, I went to life-drawing classes and started selling paintings and mixed media work through shops and cafés.
What were the first products you sold as Menagerie?
The first products I sold as Menagerie were brooches made from painted pebbles attached to ribbons and safety pins. They felt reminiscent of Victorian cameos, as if animal characters had formally sat for their portraits. I think there’s still a nod to those brooches in my paintings on wood, especially in the pugs, owls and squirrels.
The first products I sold were brooches made from painted pebbles reminiscent of Victorian cameos, as if animal characters had formally sat for their portraits.
Where do the ideas for the creatures in your Menagerie come from?
Ideas tend to come from a mix of imagination and reality, with an image of an animal I’ve been drawn to (usually on Instagram) leading to a sketch. I’m also inspired by animals I see in Brighton – mainly squirrels, pigeons and seagulls. An affectionate ginger cat who frequents my local park was the muse for a painting of a sailor cat, and the idea for Aria the cat and an accompanying story came from a dream.
Do you think your creative childhood influences the work you make now?
I was lucky to spend my childhood around my family’s own menagerie of animals that included dogs, ducks, tortoises and a donkey too. I felt a great sense of their different personalities, and would find them as engaging as any characters from children’s books. As a child, I was both fascinated and repelled by Walter Potter’s anthropomorphic dioramas of animal taxidermy. Actually, I’m not a fan of live animals in unpractical costumes, but I liked how ‘old-fashioned’ and full of character Potter’s work was.
I was lucky to spend my childhood around my family’s own menagerie of animals that included dogs, ducks, tortoises and a donkey too
My most loved book as a child was Masquerade by Kit Williams. His depictions of flora and fauna and use of detail, clues and symbolism created a fertile world for my imagination. Sometimes my work will contain more layers of meaning, such as my recent painting of Elgin the stag and his accompanying short story. The humour and absurdity in some of my paintings is probably influenced by my love of comedy and comic characters – Ivor Cutler, John Shuttleworth and Spike Milligan to name a few favourites.
How do you start a piece?
Usually I start by sketching an idea straight on to tracing paper that I can then transfer to the wood. The laser cut shapes are made by a Welsh company called Daisymoon Designs, whose income supports their own menagerie of rescued animals.
Usually I start by sketching an idea straight on to tracing paper that I can then transfer to the wood.
I use a paper palette – I like the ritual of tearing off the used sheet ready for the next painting. I gently sand the ovals at various stages of painting and I usually choose two base colours – one for the background and one for the animal. I sometimes use Derwent Inktense pencils to broadly lay down areas of colour before painting in more detail. I often paint the eyes first – it’s a shortcut to bringing a character to life. I have a tendency to involuntarily mimic the expressions of the animals I’m painting – after a worried little pug piece, my face needs timeout!
Where do you work? Do you have a studio?
In my living room I have a large table by a window and window box that’s always laid out ready for painting. It’s important to me that the option is there to paint immediately, and that I don’t pack away the creative part of myself. I keep my acrylic paints in hanging wall-pockets, and I have homemade colour charts, which work as visual prods for inspiration. On the table are various jars of lead pencils, extra fine pens, varnish, paintbrushes and water, and my trusty radio.
It’s important to me that the option is there to paint immediately, and that I don’t pack away the creative part of myself.
What’s the best thing about being creative for a living?
I’ve just thought about the double meaning of the word ‘living’. When I’m being creative I feel alive and anchored to the present. A painting takes on its own life and leads me on a journey – characters even seem to name themselves! The process of creating feels like a conversation with a childlike mind full of imagination and possibilities. When a painting is finished, it carries that conversation outwards. It’s an honour when someone invests in something I’ve created – that my work is a joyous or precious thing to them.
How would you spend your perfect day?
A day that included painting, cycling to the sea for a swim, veggie sushi with a good friend and borrowing a dog for a forest walk would be pretty great. My less feasible perfect day would include watching the Northern Lights from an Icelandic geyser, sharing a pot of Earl Grey with Sir David Attenborough, swimming with otters and seals, bringing the Goon Show cast back to life for a gig, and live music from Kate Rusby.
Sometimes my work will contain more layers of meaning, such as my recent painting of Elgin the stag and his accompanying short story.
What’s been your proudest moment so far?
Frankie Magazine featured a sheep painting last year. It was exciting to have my work in such a lovely magazine, but I probably feel equally proud when I summon up the courage to approach a shop with my greetings cards! I think, overall, my most rewarding moment was when a customer was moved by a painting I had made for her and said I’d captured the character of her beloved animal.
Craft is about taking the time and care to nurture a connection with materials.
What does craft mean to you?
To me, craft is about taking the time and care to nurture a connection with materials. Craft is head, hand and heart. There’s humanity in it – there are fingerprints.
Get 10% of Menagerie art and cards with code menagerie10 before 30 September 2016