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