It is a grey and unremarkable autumn afternoon in north London, but here the light is good. It always is in Victorian pubs – something about the high contrast of dark wood and chintzy fabrics against even the dullest daytime skies, which stream in through big windows. I’ve come to the Tufnell Park Tavern to meet painter Bobbye Fermie, not for a drinking session – although having seen her paintings, I suspect that would be fun – but to see her at work. I never knew it, but on the first floor, above the din of lubricated chatter in the bar, there is a connecting series of artists’ studios.
Bobbye has struck gold with hers; it has the biggest windows, which now illuminate the wall on which she works. She presses down on the taped edges of an A1 sheet of thick, hot-pressed watercolour paper before dipping a brush in paint. I watch her colour the paper blush-pink in thick ‘L’-shaped strokes. Little trickles of excess paint bleed downwards in a network of directions, nature pushing to defy the force of human elbow grease. Once the whole sheet is covered, she steps back to reveal the first layer of her next painting.
“Each painting is the burst of a moment,” she says, “I produce pictures from my imagination, so the stories just evolve while I am doing them.” This is unfathomable to me. For one, it’s hard to imagine Bobbye moving with anything other than methodical calm – surely her paintings are considered? Not least because I really believe in what she paints – the woman dancing alone by her bookshelves; the pair drinking wine at a kitchen table, deep in conversation; the girl standing on a chequerboard floor. There is bareness to these scenes, but enough detail to suggest a particular interest: a yellow chair in an otherwise rust-coloured frame, a peace lily, a painting just like one of hers tacked up on a wall.
But no, she insists, her paintings are always spontaneous and seldom based on real life. “My work depicts worlds I’m not necessarily a part of,” she says, “and often that means creating a sort of dream home scenario.” Bobbye was born and raised in Amsterdam, but has called London home since she arrived here eight years ago to study at the Royal Drawing School; I wonder, perhaps, if making a home in a new country has informed the imaginary interiors in her work? Is it a kind of nesting? Maybe, she says, “I see the home as a symbol for feeling safe, there’s a solace in domestic spaces which I find very important, so a lot of the figures in my paintings are at home and completely themselves within them.” We see this in the woman shimmying her hips, the girl pouring water, the two who are chatting. They might have no faces, but there is a definite ease to their poses.
These domestic settings are as important to Bobbye’s paintings as the people, almost exclusively women, who occupy them. They are almost always faceless, too, “because it feels more introspective. I’m interested in how she relates to the space around her.” Characters, she says, and the expressions that betray them, distract from the exercise of establishing a figure’s place in the world. Bobbye says this is something which she herself is still thrashing out, “When I was younger, I would always try to make myself as small as possible, invisible even, and I think that’s maybe what a lot of my work is about: asserting myself.” She adds, “I called myself an ‘aspiring artist’ for so long, I found it so difficult to talk about my work.” But her paintings belie any of these apprehensions, from the confident stances of the figures within them to the bold strokes with which I watch Bobbye paint.
“At the moment, I’m painting the figures in negative space,” she tells me, which was born out of simply liking how the base layer has dried – like that veil of blush I watched her put down. “If that becomes part of the figure, I like to think it is as though her internal world is seeping through.” There are examples of this in paintings tacked up all over the studio, where the floors and walls and furniture have been depicted with layers of watercolour, while the figures translucently occupy the negative, yet somehow burst to the foreground, exuding quiet confidence.
I ask Bobbye about her clothes, prepared for an answer about practicality. “Dresses,” she says, “I’d like to be known as someone who wears big, flowing dresses,” irrespective of paint hazards and bike chains (she cycles a lot). Today she is wearing a dress from TOAST’s new collection, an earthy check with a fitted top and billowing skirt. It looks beautiful on her, so why would she cover it in an apron, save it for best? This is her siren call to creativity. “You have to invite inspiration, so we should always wear things we feel special in. If I feel good, then more will follow.”
Interview by Mina Holland.
Photographs by Elena Heatherwick.
Bobbye wears our Blouson Sleeve Organic Strata Check Dress.