Invoking the Essence of Organic Forms. Interview with Artist, Designer and Gardener, Louie Isaaman-Jones.
Louie Isaaman-Jones confessed to me that sometimes even his friends don’t know what’s going on with him; where he’s living or what he’s doing in life. Louie himself couldn’t deny that he’s a somewhat mysterious, enigmatic character — and his online presence certainly doesn’t give much away either. Is he a carpenter, a graphic designer, or a gardener? Does he weave tapestries, build furniture or illustrate? All we knew was, we wanted to learn more.
So, at a canal-side North-East London Pub, we met for a couple of socially distanced ales and an enlightening conversation about Louie’s interdisciplinary practice, his thoughts on the art world, and how his relationship to nature influences his process.
I was first interested to talk more abstractly. How might he himself describe the current identity of his practice?
“I make things in quite a fragmented way. I think of myself as a designer working with the freedom of an artist and then using the tools and materials of craftsmen… Jumping between mediums often leads to quite naively made objects. There’s a part of my practice where I work with materials I have nearby and just intuitively make things. These creations sit somewhere between art, craft and design. That seems to be my sweet spot.”
I was curious to hear more about how exactly these three areas intersect.
“My work is moving towards using furniture or functional objects as the structure; as the frame for something more expressive... Something I’m drawn to is to use the principles of modernism, for example, neat lines and well-crafted proportions to create a frame, and then have inside the frame something expressive and a lot looser.”
One thing that’s particularly clear in Louie’s online presence is his sincere respect for research. Louie’s Instagram feed itself functions almost like a tapestry of his conceptual approach to practice; an interweaving of ancient techniques with modern practices.
“Preservation of these kinds of ancient techniques I feel is important in this day and age where I feel like we’re undoing a lot of human history. Our traditional rhythms and routines have been totally disrupted. The activities we spend our time doing have altered drastically, particularly in relation to how we use our heads and our hands. It’s important to remember where we come from, to remind us what makes us human... I wasn’t particularly interested in history when I was younger, but then with the work, with researching craft in particular, it helps a lot. There are so many unique works of art throughout history that have that raw, primitive, naive kind of feel because they were made by anonymous makers, who weren’t influenced by any other kind of artwork or movement. I like trying to get myself into the mindset of those makers.”
One project in particular that perhaps embodies this approach is The Resolution of Opposites.
“That was really a whole amalgamation of stuff. Opposites colliding on lots of levels. There was influence from both Eastern and Western cultures. It had digital and physical ways of making. Iconography from ancient history colliding with very digital, modern stuff. My aim with these pieces was to get all the opposing forces to come together and feel balanced. In the form of an object that was both functional and artistic.”
Louie lives somewhat of a double-life, working partly as a gardener and partly as a maker of artful objects — though it wasn’t always this way. There was a time when his work was more exclusively graphic design focused. But he quickly realised this lifestyle wasn’t for him.
“In graphic design, when you have a big deadline and you’re sat down for a week till midnight on the computer, you just feel unhealthy. I’ve worked hard to change that, and now I’ve gradually got to this place where I’m gardening and working outdoors a lot. It’s way more balanced now. And I can still do some graphics… I do all these odd jobs because I really like taking the pressure off the artwork. As in I don’t rely on these works to sell to make a living. And I really do love gardening.”
While Louie may lead a double-life — between his design practice and his landscaping work — they’re far from separate identities, with the gardening work serving a key function in his design research.
“I try to make pieces that have the feeling of nature, with organic forms, but that aren’t copies. You don’t literally make a flower, you make something that has the essence of a flower; the wildness. I realised that’s what I’m really drawn to.”
“I’ve also been making pieces from natural materials that are already half-formed - “ready-mades”... Sometimes you just add a little touch and it suddenly becomes something completely different. I’ve always really enjoyed that as it gives me an excuse to wander about and look at things… This type of making came from a time of feeling very hyper-aware of my relationship with digital media. I was spending so much time on it that I wasn’t going walking, I wasn’t looking, I wasn’t drawing… When all this digital media came out, we weren’t really second-guessing it, we were just like, this is great, this is fun. You don’t think you’re addicted. So I really made a stand - the phone’s going off, I’m going for a walk, I’m going to look at things. Then, this whole sense of awareness suddenly came back to me. That was a very nice thing, and now it’s become a big part of my work. When I feel stuck I just go out, have a wander, and who knows what material I’ll find or what I’ll see.”
“When you wake up as an artist you have to come up with your own ideas. You’ve got to have clarity and motivation to know exactly what you want to do, every day. It’s quite a selfish pursuit at times. I’d say my desire to make things comes to me in waves. It’s not every day. And sometimes I even question the whole thing, like, why is this important? Especially in the world we live in, with global issues looming large over all of us. Where does art sit in all of that?... But a garden is something that needs to be tended and nurtured. So every day when you wake up there are jobs to be done, you have responsibilities. I love that. And definitely, the physical wellbeing is a huge part of it. It gets you out of your own head. We talk a lot about mental health problems these days and I would equate a lot of it to just the way we work.”
Following university, after a period of floating around doing odd jobs, he found himself on a residency in Holland for nine months. I was interested in what he took away from the experience.
“One thing I got to observe is the kind of work that gets made if you’re in academia. Like if you do a Masters or a PhD. To be honest, it put me off massively. I’d turn up to these lectures and there’d be this impenetrable kind of work — you need to know lots of theory. Initially, this led to confusion about my own work, but then, I started to see through it. I saw that if you can use this, there’s tons of funding available. Eventually, a lot of people opened up to me and were like ‘we’re making this up as we go along’ - and it’s all very human at that level, because you realise that it’s a difficult life being an artist, and if you know academia can support you, then of course you’re going to convince yourself that this other stuff’s important and you’re going to start talking that language.”
“So I decided to come back to London and get a job. I wanted to start gardening and I didn’t want to go near any academia and explain my work that way. I just wanted to make beautiful things that people like, and that are accessible and that I can easily explain. I want children to be able to understand it. Or older people who’ve never been to an exhibition. I realised I’m not sure if I want to make work that ends up in a gallery. And that’s taken a long time to figure out and to feel confident about.”
This made me curious as to what the gallery as a space means to him. And what does he feel it lacks?
“Going to a gallery for me is still like eating in a fancy restaurant. You go in with these high expectations but it has this stiffness that I often struggle to connect with… With regards to my own work, I’m kind of happy to just roll it out on Instagram. It works. People respond and you sell work very directly. It’s nice… I think there is a time for pieces to be in a gallery setting, but, my favourite version of things would be to have a lovely studio where I can invite people in, I can make them something to eat and we can chat about it. That’s the ideal. Talking about things on a personal level. Being realistic like, what can you afford, what have I got in that kind of price range. Being transparent about what things cost, my processes, all that stuff.”
“What I really like that I’ve seen boom over the past few years is people wanting unique feeling objects. Artful objects without the baggage attached to the art world, that you can sell for a fair price. And there’s just a really nice culture going on amongst artists and makers, and it’s all cultivated online with people all over the world where I’m selling work in places I wouldn’t expect. After spending so long working out where my work and ideas fit in, it’s been vital to feel part of that.”
Thank you to Louie. You can find him on Instagram.
Words by Ewan Waddell.
Portraits by Ewan Waddell.
Additional photography courtesy of the artist.