Mu­ral spe­cial­ist Flo­rence Blan­chard blends her sci­en­tific train­ing with a back­ground in graf­fiti to cre­ate a unique style of colour­ful, ab­stract art

Computer Arts - - Con­tents - WORDS: Nick Car­son PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: Mark Howe

We find out how mu­ral­ist Flo­rence Blan­chard blends a back­ground in graf­fiti with a PhD in molec­u­lar bi­ol­ogy to cre­ate her unique art­work

FLO­RENCE BLAN­CHARD_ Flo­rence Blan­chard be­gan writ­ing graf­fiti in the early 1990s un­der the name Ema, and spent 10 years based in New York, where she grad­u­ated with a PhD from New York Univer­sity in 2008. Her work is di­rectly in­spired by her train­ing as a sci­en­tist, and de­picts ab­stract molec­u­lar land­scapes ques­tion­ing our idea of vis­ual per­cep­tion. www.flo­rence­blan­chard.com

Spray­ing graf­fiti on the city streets and study­ing for a PhD in molec­u­lar bi­ol­ogy may, on the face of it, seem worlds apart. And for Flo­rence Blan­chard, those two stages of her life – in France and New York re­spec­tively – were also sep­a­rared by thou­sands of miles of sea. But they are also jointly re­spon­si­ble for in­spir­ing and in­flu­enc­ing her artis­tic ca­reer.

The leap be­tween graf­fiti and mu­ral paint­ing may not seem huge, but while Blan­chard’s early ur­ban work may have in­formed her cre­ative process and love of art, it was ar­guably her sci­en­tific re­search that shaped her style.

In­spired by what she saw un­der the mi­cro­scope in the lab, Blan­chard has brought her colour­ful, ab­stract shapes, forms and pat­terns to all man­ner of cre­ative ap­pli­ca­tions, rang­ing from huge ex­ter­nal mu­rals on the sides of build­ings to gallery in­stal­la­tions, prints, il­lus­tra­tions sculp­tures and more, as well as ex­hibit­ing in Sh­effield, Lon­don, Ber­lin, New York and Chicago, and as far afield as Japan.

Fol­low­ing her en­gag­ing talk at OFF­SET Sh­effield, we caught up with Blan­chard to dis­cuss her unique back­ground, her style and craft, and the ins and outs of her cre­ative pro­cesss... You started your cre­ative ca­reer as a graf­fiti writer. Does this give you a par­tic­u­lar an­gle on cre­at­ing art­work – mu­rals in par­tic­u­lar? Graf­fiti was a great way for me to learn how to paint. From early on I had to think of vi­su­als with lim­ited colour pal­ettes, bud­get, space and time con­straints, which taught me many trans­fer­able skills that I am still us­ing in my work to­day.

Also, I spent the first 15 years not think­ing graf­fiti was a ca­reer – which al­lowed me to evolve or­gan­i­cally, as op­posed to hav­ing the pres­sure of mak­ing a liv­ing from it.

Do you miss graf­fiti at all?

I don’t, be­cause I spent enough time do­ing it and then evolved to do some­thing else when it felt that it was time to do so. The bits that I still liked from it, I kept, and con­tinue to use in my art prac­tice.

Your train­ing as a molec­u­lar bi­ol­o­gist must have given you an­other unique per­spec­tive on the world. To what ex­tent has it af­fected your cre­ative process?

Since I grad­u­ated from my sci­ence stud­ies in 2008, I’ve been work­ing on and off on sci­en­tific pro­jects as a hobby. It’s been dif­fi­cult to de­ter­mine in pre­cise ways how it has af­fected my art, be­cause I’ve been so close to the topic for as long as I re­mem­ber be­ing a painter.

As I am grad­u­ally de­tach­ing my­self from that pro­fes­sional world, I’m start­ing to un­der­stand the im­pact its had. What at­tracted me to molec­u­lar bi­ol­ogy in the first place was the ob­ser­va­tional side of it. Ev­ery­thing I’ve done in sci­ence has in­volved look­ing at, and com­par­ing, dif­fer­ent mi­cro­scope prepa­ra­tions through pow­er­ful lenses.

For many years, I used both vis­ual and quan­ti­ta­tive ap­proaches with the aim of es­tab­lish­ing pat­terns or cor­re­la­tions be­tween bi­olo­gial sam­ples in dif­fer­ent con­di­tions, and I be­came fas­ci­nated by how re­al­ity may ap­pear dif­fer­ently de­pend­ing on the an­gle and level of mag­ni­fi­ca­tion, and how some­times look­ing at things too closely may cause you to lose sight of the big­ger pic­ture.

That’s why I like paint­ing ei­ther large-scale mu­rals, or very small paint­ings on pa­per – there’s some­thing about the idea of shift­ing scales to change per­spec­tives that re­ally se­duces me.

How did you make the stylis­tic shift be­tween tra­di­tional graf­fiti and more ab­stract, flat-colour work? Was it quite or­ganic and grad­ual?

Yes, it was more or less or­ganic and grad­ual – but a fi­nal shift oc­cured at the end of my stud­ies. At some point, I had to stop ev­ery­thing in my life in or­der to fin­ish my PhD, so I ac­tu­ally didn’t paint for an en­tire year. Once I started again, I was ready for some­thing new. I moved coun­tries, and all these fac­tors to­gether helped me with this shift to a new style. You men­tioned in your OFF­SET talk that sci­ence is a very male­dom­i­nated pro­fes­sion, as are cer­tain ar­eas of de­sign… was the

same true in graf­fiti? Does gen­der have any bear­ing on your prac­tice?

I think the pro­fes­sional world in gen­eral is male dom­i­nated. Even in pro­fes­sions where you see a lot of women, there is of­ten a man around who will have more power and a bet­ter salary.

Graf­fiti and sci­ence are no ex­cep­tion, but again graf­fiti is not a pro­fes­sion so that’s not re­ally a prob­lem. Graf­fiti for me was al­ways more or less a solo ac­tiv­ity, and never re­quired ac­cep­tance from oth­ers – that’s prob­a­bly why I did it for so long. But the ques­tion of gen­der has no place in my work.

Al­though you’re now based in the UK, you were born in France, spent a decade in the US and have ex­hib­ited world­wide – with a re­cent show, Some­thing Made Dif­fer­ent, draw­ing on in­flu­ences from Japan in par­tic­u­lar. To what ex­tent is your work in­spired by your trav­els?

Paint­ing and trav­el­ling are my two favourite things to do. In 2014, I painted a very big, self-fi­nanced, mu­ral in the coun­try­side in Japan thanks to a good Ja­pa­nese friend of mine. I ended up work­ing with an im­promptu team of vol­un­teers who were all re­ally en­thu­si­as­tic, and we had a great time work­ing on this very per­sonal project.

It’s this kind of ex­pe­ri­ence that greatly in­flu­ences my prac­tice, and I hope to have more pro­jects and ex­pe­ri­ences like this in the fu­ture.

How im­por­tant is your na­tional iden­tity? Do you still see your­self as a ‘French’ de­signer?

I left France 16 years ago, and spent the last part of my 20s and 30s abroad. These were re­ally for­ma­tive years, so it is hard to con­sider my­self as a ‘French de­signer’.

It’s a bit like my gen­der, I sup­pose. Yes, I’m def­i­nitely French, but I don’t think this has an im­por­tant place in the way I cre­ate art.

Talk us through your process when work­ing up a de­sign for a mu­ral or sculp­ture. How much do you sketch on pa­per first be­fore trans­lat­ing it onto the phys­i­cal sur­face?

I gen­er­ally don’t sketch much on pa­per, but I use Pho­to­shop to draw a rough com­po­si­tion onto a photo of the wall, or the space the fi­nal de­sign is go­ing onto.

I never fi­nalise much be­fore­hand, un­less I have to, be­cause I find it hard to copy a de­sign onto a wall. I fo­cus more on colours and con­trast.

Do you of­ten have to amend a de­sign, to fit around a par­tic­u­larly dif­fer­ent shape for in­stance?

Work­ing out­side, there are of­ten un­ex­pected phys­i­cal prob­lems to over­come, such as a drain­pipe in the mid­dle of the wall; a branch that pre­vents you us­ing a lad­der; a cher­ryp­icker that doesn’t let you ex­tend to a cor­ner; so it’s al­ways bet­ter to stay flex­i­ble with your de­sign.

You said of a re­cent project at @92Bur­tonrd: “I had a great time tak­ing my time.” Do you like to give a piece plenty of love and at­ten­tion to get it just right – and does that con­trast with the more quick-fire na­ture of graf­fiti cul­ture?

With graf­fiti, you can chose a de­sign that can be done in 15 min­utes. It’s very sim­ple and fast – some­times dirty – but that’s the na­ture of it, and that can be very en­joy­able too.

When I work on a com­mis­sion, it’s com­pletely dif­fer­ent and my en­joy­ment is of­ten pro­por­tional to how open the client is. For that spe­cific project, I was of­fered the wall with no con­straint. I was able

to do what­ever I wanted in the amount of time I needed.

It was all de­cided over a cou­ple of emails and a meet­ing with just one very nice per­son – so a re­ally stress-free project! Stress­ful pro­jects in­clude deal­ing with teams of peo­ple in big in­sti­tu­tions where there are of­ten breaks in com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

Since I am just a one-per­son team and my skill is paint­ing, I find it hard to keep up with the email load that some­times come from this type of project. Dur­ing cri­sis time, I al­ways ask around for ad­vice from my graphic de­signer friends, who seem to cham­pion the art of pro­fes­sional com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

You’ve ex­per­i­mented with 3D print­ing too, through Print­ing Sh­effield. Do you find it eas­ier to ex­press your ideas this way, com­pared to tra­di­tional sculp­ture?

It’s a great way to start work­ing with 3D. The hard­est part is to come up with a dig­i­tal file that rep­re­sents what you like to pro­duce, but luck­ily the 3D print­ing team I worked with at Sh­effield Hal­lam Univer­sity are very knowl­ede­gable, and were able to as­sist with this part of the process.

The beauty of this tech­nique is to be able to scan ob­jects and re­pro­duce them at dif­fer­ent scales and in du­pli­cate. I chose to make some totem-like sculp­tures, based on ob­jects I found in my house. It was so much fun! I’d love to make more, and ex­per­i­ment with dif­fer­ent types of ma­te­ri­als.

You choose to sell your art through Red­house Orig­i­nals, how did that re­la­tion­ship start and how ex­actly does it work in prac­tice?

I sell prints and paint­ings through three dif­fer­ent UK gal­leries: as well as Red­house Orig­i­nals in Har­ro­gate, there’s also B&B Gallery in Sh­effield and Nelly Duff in Lon­don.

Gen­er­ally, I pro­duce pieces for an ex­hi­bi­tion and bring them to the gallery, and they deal with the rest. I try not to think too much about what might or might not be lu­cra­tive, as I’m not very good at pre­dict­ing what will sell or not.

There is no se­cret recipe, other than to pro­duce work con­stantly. But I have of­ten found that the more per­sonal the work, the more in­ter­est it gen­er­ates. Most of my de­signer friends are glued to their com­put­ers, so my ad­vice to them is: for­get about vec­tors, and get your hands dirty. Next month: Peter Cur­zon, co-founder of Storm Stu­dios with the late Storm Thorg­er­son, dis­cusses the art and craft of the stu­dio’s iconic “nor­mal but not” al­bum cov­ers over the years.

Bliss, Flo­rence Blan­chard’s mu­ral at @92Bur­tonrd in Sh­effield: “I had a great time tak­ing my time,” she says.

Right: Ac­tion shot of Blan­chard’s Ko­dama mu­ral be­ing cre­ated, fea­tur­ing the use of a cherry-picker.

Above: Trop­i­cal Molec­u­lar, Blan­chard’s lat­est piece as part of Fea­ture Walls SHF, a mu­ral fes­ti­val cu­rated by B&B gallery.

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