The Sunday Times Travel Section
Faye Dobinson photographed by Joel Redman for Monocle Magazine Issue 105 . I
Alex Wade, Cornwall Today-
Cornwall Today Lead Artist January 2017 – Faye Dobinson
Headline: Jumping for joy
Standfirst: The eclectic art of Faye Dobinson defies categorisation – and is all the better for it
Words by Alex Wade, www.alexwade.com //
For the past 90 minutes, Dobinson has been a blur of energy, wit and one-liners, her mind restless and probing, her body taut and poised. It’s clear she’s packed as much into her life already as most of us achieve in our lifetimes. If anyone can be persuaded to stand on a chair and jump off it, on a bitter late autumn day, it’s her, if only because Dobinson is the sort of person who will try almost anything, once, for the sheer experience of it.
Dobinson smiles at the idea. It’s the same smile with which she welcomes us into her studio – open and ingenuous. “I love dancing,” she says, as some soul music fills the room. And on her wrist there is further evidence: a thin tattoo of the word ‘soul’. On her other wrist, a heart symbol. “I wear my heart on my sleeve,” says Dobinson.
A mainstay of the Newlyn School of Art, where she works as a teacher and mentor, Dobinson is a born and bred Londoner. She is proud of her roots: “Dad was a butcher, and mum worked education; we lived in Lewisham. I still love London, and Lewisham especially – it’s very multicultural, which makes for a rich experience of life.”
Dobinson enjoys returning to London, and pays tribute to her parents. “I’m from a working class family, but mum and dad supported me throughout. They used to say they loved me, but didn’t understand me! But they always backed me all the way, with whatever creative enterprise I was doing.”
Creativity was with Dobinson from an early age. “As a child, I loved drawing,” she says. “I remember telling people, when I was seven, that I’d go to art college when I was older.” Despite flirting with the rave scene when she was a teenager, art continued to be a passion for Dobinson, thanks in large part to “a great art teacher called Peter Richards. He encouraged me to keep going.”
After her A levels Dobinson took a job working as a bookseller in a second-hand bookshop in Greenwich. “It was like the Black Books sitcom,” she laughs. “I loved it. Greenwich was full of independent shops back then. We had a great time.” Painting and drawing were on hold, replaced by learning through a multiplicity of different experiences – including working as a croupier in a Mayfair casino. But again, although Dobinson enjoyed this too, Richards was to prove influential. “I saw him and told him what I was doing,” she says. “He urged me to go back to art. So I did.”
Dobinson joined an arts collective based on the site of the old Royal Arsenal, in Woolwich, South East London. “I met so many creative people there,” she recalls. “There was a wonderful atmosphere. And working among them, doing wood carvings, drawing and painting, taught me that this kind of life was valid and sustainable.” Youth work followed – “mainly outreach work with graffiti artists” – and then came Dobinson’s first studio. “It was in the complex at Second Floor Studios & Arts, on the north shore of The Thames near Southwark Bridge. I was one of the first artists there.”
Set up in 1997, Second Floor Studios & Arts went on to flourish. So did Dobinson, but the next formative event in her career was overseas travel. “I went to Mongolia and Tibet,” she says. “I wanted to see how a different landscape would affect my work. It struck me that non-Western traditions would be a good way of testing this – and of seeing if there is such a thing as a global language of symbols.”
Dobinson’s artist’s voice was growing in confidence. And, with shows in Ulaanbataar, the Mongolian capital, and Lhasa, Tibet, under her belt, she made a radical decision: to move to Cornwall.
“Again, the landscape was an important reason,” explains Dobinson. “I’d visited West Penwith once and it blew me away. It was so wild, so different to London.”
Dobinson upped sticks and enrolled at Falmouth University to take a BA in Fine Art. “I smashed it,” she says, every inch the south Londoner. “Got a first.” And Dobinson has good reason to be proud: she completed the degree while raising her daughter Lilou as a single mother. “I found out I was pregnant on the night of my London leaving party,” she says. “Her dad has been fantastic, and has visited every fortnight for the past 10 years, but yes, there were times when it was tough, doing a degree, paying the rent and bringing up Lilou.”
There is surely a degree of understatement in this, but – along with another crucial overseas trip – the experience played a large part in the evolution of Dobinson’s oeuvre. That trip was to Palestine, with Lilou. “We went to see my sister [ Emma ], and while there for some reason we ended up watching a music video of Jesse J. Lilou asked me why she wasn’t wearing very much! I’d always been interested in the portrayal of women by the media, and something else chimed then, too – discovering that Jimi Hendrix had wanted to play the guitar like [ Sister Rosetta Tharpe ].”
It all coalesced in Dobinson’s mind, with a series of paintings of female musicians “who walked their own path, rather than kowtowing to the male gaze.” Among them are Norwegian singer-songwriter Hanne Hukkelberg and British pioneer of electronic music Daphne Oram. They became part of a show called ‘#unsung’, which was acclaimed in both Cornwall, at Porthmeor Studios (where Dobinson had a studio for a spell), and London, at Doomed Gallery in Dalston. The work is strong, fluid, heartfelt and visceral; Dobinson admits, too, that it is part-autobiographical.
It also exhibits Dobinson’s versatility. While the #unsung series is essentially figurative, other work is abstract and painterly. Dobinson continues to be preoccupied by mark-making and the notion of how we map place, especially in work created for ‘On St Michael’s Way’, a collaborative project in which a number of artists interpreted the ancient route from St Ives to Penzance. She is as likely to pop up with work provided for an installation as she is to create work from raw forms such as wood, and language is important to her, too – as in her contribution to the 2013 show ‘Suspended Sentences’ in Turner’s Warehouse, Newlyn. Here, artists gave visual responses to the poetry of Simon Armitage. Words also appear in her paintings, on wooden block-carvings, and as aide-memoires on her studio walls. One in particular caught my eye:
‘I am in the business of the unquantifiable, the slippery, the hard to pin down’, it says.
Perhaps this is true of Dobinson: her work defies categorisation. And yet for all that it may be alternately thought-provoking, intense, enigmatic and unquantifiable – the result, as she puts it, of “working with chaotic forces rather than against them” – Dobinson’s art has one facet that is undeniable: an unquenchable zest for life.