Beth Ashley illustration

Gradwatch 2020: Illustrator Beth Ashley, Leeds Arts University

Illustrator and printmaker Beth Ashley is one of ten creatives we’ve selected to feature in our annual Gradwatch showcase, where we put the spotlight on the art and design grads who we feel are producing outstanding creative work

Beth Ashley’s creations feel remarkably liquid, where shapes become viscous and lines bleed into one another. Her work has all the exaggerated contours of graffiti lettering, with striking outlines highlighted through vibrant colour blocking.

“Over the last year some sort of style certainly has emerged, but it did take me a while to fully surrender,” she tells us. “I would describe it as a clunky and shapely personification of some kind of internal instinct, with a hefty sprinkling of bum cheeks and bare feet. A massive thrust behind my practice recently has been to take greater ownership over composition. I love visual density, subtle exaggeration and try to seek out a calm kind of chaos.” However, more important to Ashley than style is the tone of her work, which is guided by an “absorbent and joyful language.”

Ashley studied Illustration at Leeds Arts University, and works across both illustration and printmaking. Her practice evolved significantly in third year, a time she describes as “particularly transformative” as she gained more confidence. “I realised what my voice feels like,” she says, and “the value and frivolity of my work.”

While in final year, she received a valuable piece of advice for overcoming “frenzy and fretting”, which she has adapted into a “working mental mantra: ‘Slow down, clear your mind, recapture the spirit of infinite potential'”, she explains. “I rewrite this battle cry all over my notebooks and sketchbooks and it has become such a useful reminder to be a better functioning human. To pause and tread and muse and reflect.”

Although the pandemic impacted the end of her degree, she was able to make the most of her time in isolation. “Like most graduates during the last few weeks of our degrees, I just tried to make as good a go of it as I possibly could. Had my final major project unfolded as intended, I would have been putting hours into making large scaled screen printed outcomes,” she says.

“As satisfying as that would have been, I wouldn’t have allowed myself the time to address deep frustrations I was harbouring within my work. When lockdown happened I found that I needed to reframe my process and assert some ownership over digitalising my illustrations. Having had that time to explore saved me a lot of unpacking once my studies were completed.”

In the absence of physical degree shows, she and three other illustrator friends poured their efforts into creating an Instagram showcase of their coursemates’ work. Yet during lockdown she has also tried to disconnect from the noise. “I am forever picking up my phone just to marvel and wallow at someone else’s productivity, and my own efforts feel feeble in comparison,” she says. “Slipping away and attending to some real-world existence whilst understanding that this isn’t a race and there’s no finish line, has proven to be a crucial act over these last few months. It’s a good routine to invest in, but difficult to keep hold of.”

Looking forward, Ashley aims to flesh out the connection between language and visuals (“give me your words and I’ll throw you some shapes”) and, as a fan of murals, hopes to one day undertake some “large scale adventures”, she says. “One day I hope to see my work in ginormous dimensions.”

“The creative industry is so expansive, if I’m able to occupy even a small corner of it I’ll be beaming. I relish the idea of working with extraordinary people and learning from their energy,” she says, adding that she’s drawn in particular to the “bustle” of the editorial field. “Ultimately, nurturing my practice and sustaining it is my central objective. To continually make, investigate, remould and evolve.”

Head here to see all our Gradwatch picks;; @bethashleyillustration