Suffolk artist explores a world of shape, light and colour
- Credit: Archant
For artist Naomi Munuo life is all about communication, whether it is through her paintings or in the classroom. Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to her at the opening of her latest exhibition.
Suffolk-based Naomi Munuo is an artist with vision. Her work, which incorporates figures in still life scenes, has a vibrancy about it which is quite contagious. It explodes with life and colour.
It was this sense of vision, along with a distinctive palette, which persuaded Ipswich gallery owner Tony Coe to stage her first solo exhibition five years ago.
He said: “It was clear that she had something to say. She successfully put her stamp on her work but to be truthful I was worried that she was also a full-time teacher. I thought that by also holding down a full-time job she would lose focus in her work.
“I have known many aspiring artists who have tried to balance a teaching job with their painting and have come unstuck.
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“But I am glad to say that Naomi has proved me wrong and not only has she had two solo exhibitions with me, she’s now back with a third show which really illustrates how she has developed and matured as an artist. She has created a style which captures your imagination and just lights up the room.”
Naomi, who was born in Canada, moved to Ipswich 10 years ago. She is head of art at St Helena School in Colchester, where she has been based for the past nine years.
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She said her work has steadily evolved over many years. It has never stood still and as a result lots of different styles and influences have been combined to achieve what Tony Coe refers to as the Naomi Munuo style.
She uses a lot of bold colours and shapes, and has a wonderful way of expressing light.
“I don’t know how that is,” she laughs, “because a lot of my work is done at night – for obvious reasons. I’ve got a good imagination.”
She uses a wide variety of different media, including collage, and layers her paintings, which provides depth and draws the viewer in. When viewing her work, you find yourself remembering the old adage: “The more you look, the more you see.”
On the surface, Naomi’s works look as if they are a combination of bright colours that use shape and design to hold the composition together. Look closer and you see a world of detail lurking in the background, just waiting to be discovered.
She said: “I have always had a passion for drawing. My work with other media has developed through circumstance, really, just by meeting people and trying things out.”
Drawing and creativity have always been in Naomi’s blood. Her mother and father were both graduates from the Royal College of Art. Naomi’s mum was a painter and her father a sculptor.
“Many of the figures in my work are my father’s sculptures. They were always around me. When I was little they scared me. I was frightened to be alone in a room with them. I thought they kept winking at me. Now, today, I have them all over my house. So I think I’ve come to terms with them.”
Naomi also has many of her mother’s paintings, which she volunteered to look after when her parents decided to move to France. “I suppose I have inherited the family archive. My parents’ work is all around me, so I suppose that has to be a big influence.”
Recently, she has started to look beyond her studio walls and started experimenting with landscapes. “Before coming to Suffolk I lived in Leytonstone, so it was different sort of landscape.
“But, in the last couple of years, I have got more interested in landscape because Suffolk is such a beautiful part of the world. I have been looking at Constable and Turner, as well as some contemporary landscape artists like Simon Carter and some of the St Ives artists, and taking my inspiration from them. I have been drawing the wooden bridge at Dedham and have ventured down to Pin Mill to draw the River Orwell. I also enjoy losing myself in Christchurch Park.
“I have been getting up really early on a Sunday morning and going out to draw. The light’s great and there’s no-one around. I don’t like being disturbed or having people looking over my shoulder. I find that really off-putting. I like to be left alone to get on with my work.”
She said she much prefers sketching a scene on location and then coming back to the studio and working it up into a finished painting. “I find the pieces I have finished on location have been quite ‘tight’. I prefer to come back to the studio, open it out and have some fun with it.”
She loves colour and is not interested in presenting the world as if it is made out of “grey sludge”. She enjoys playing with colour to create a sense of place; creating an atmosphere, rather than producing a literal interpretation of a scene.
Her interpretative style has been encouraged by the fact that she trained as a fashion designer at Central St Martins, rather than as a fine artist.
This has also led her to the work of West Suffolk artist Constance Stubbs, who uses fabric and collage in her work – a practice that Naomi has also adopted. The use of different materials and different media layered over one another gives her work a complex texture that really comes alive when you see it in an exhibition.
She said that painting has the power to induce an emotional response which perhaps conceptual art didn’t, as it was too intellectualised. “I remember seeing a Chagall exhibition at The Tate and I could feel tears stinging my eyes. It was his earlier work that hit me and I left feeling quite emotional.”
She said the artists that continue to inspire her are nearly all 20th century.
“I love Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse, Braque ? lots of French painters from around the turn of the 20th century ? and by way of contrast I love sculpture from around the world, particularly Oceanic sculpture and African sculpture. All this has fed into my work over the years and influenced it in different ways.”
The materials she uses on her work have also evolved over time. “At the moment I am using a lot of acrylic. In the past I loved using ink on paper and wax resist, along with watercolour and crayon.
“I like using oil bar and collage and I enjoy using pastels. I also do mono-printing. So I use quite a range of different techniques to get the results I want. As I said, I tend to build up a painting a layer at a time. If I am using pastels, they tend to be the last thing I use.
“It’s about learning about what effect all the different materials have. If I have been working with wax resist, I know that I can take an oil bar and go straight over the top of it.”
Naomi also isn’t afraid to re-use and rework old canvases. She enjoys the challenge of adapting something that hasn’t worked in the past and been abandoned, and then using past mistakes to shape something new and exciting.
“I don’t like things to look too clean. I like things to have a bit of a history.” She added elements from the arboretum in Christchurh Park to a picture she brought with her from Leytonstone and completely transformed it.
Likewise, she obliterated a picture abandoned by her brother. “I worked on it and worked on it until there was nothing left of his showing through. If people don’t want a canvas, I will use it.”
She is quite driven as an artist. Despite the demands of teaching, she manages to keep a steady flow of work coming out of her studio, thanks to the patience of her family, who understand how important painting is to her.
“I have my own studio in the house now. When the children were young I used to paint in the kitchen and have to clear everything away twice a day to make lunch and dinner.”
She now has a group of friends who are also artists and they meet regularly to support one another and share the cost of hiring a life model. She said another motivating factor is that she doesn’t want to turn up without anything new to show them.
One of the traits that defines an artist is the need to paint. “I need to create work. I need to produce paintings. It’s my way of communicating. It’s my way of expressing how I see the world. It is how I talk to people.”
For someone who is so passionate about art, it is surprising to learn she originally didn’t want to go to art school. She describes it as being part of a youthful rebellion.
“My mum told me early on that I would be a fashion designer because even at eight I would be constantly drawing people with outfits.
“That seemed fine until I reached the age of 15 – then I rebelled. I dropped out of sixth form and got a job in Next. I pretended I enjoyed being a shop assistant for a couple of years.
“Then, behind my parents’ backs, I applied to do a foundation course at art school. Even though I had been working in a shop, I continued to draw so I had a portfolio of work to show them and I managed to get a place on the foundation course without A-levels. It was quite an achievement.
“My mum and dad were so delighted. I thought they would be annoyed with me for causing them a lot of heartache but they were so pleased. I did my foundation course, then got a place at St Martins doing fashion design, so my mum’s prediction came true.”
Although she enjoyed working with textiles, she knew that when she left she wasn’t going to be a fashion designer. It was the drawing that continued to inspire her and claim her attention.
Now, one of the reasons she loves to teach is because she loves nurturing young talent and also because art has a way of reaching students who have become disaffected with other areas of school life. “Art speaks to them; gives them a voice which perhaps they don’t feel they have in other areas of the school.
“Art is a great way to communicate with the world, and it changes with you as you grow.”
The result of Naomi’s art evolution can be seen at The John Russell Gallery, Wherry Lane, on the Ipswich Waterfront, until August 10.