Illustrators-in-residence

As Nous Vous exhibit the results of their residency at House of Illustration, we talk to them – and previous participant David Lemm – about just what the job entails and how the experience is as much about looking in as looking out

London’s House of Illustration offers a unique six-month residency to an illustrator or graphic designer, during which time the artist works to create an exhibition for one of the building’s gallery spaces. Founded in 2014, the institution has to date invited illustrator Rachel Lillie and David Lemm to take on the role, which is awarded via an interview-based selection process.

Last year, I was on the panel that met with the six shortlisted applicants, all of whom were of a high standard. Nous Vous – the trio consisting of Jay Cover, Nicholas Burrows and William Luz – had already assembled an impressive body of work, but in this context it was their approach to the residency itself – and what they might do with it – which meant they became our first choice. Their exhibition Three Men in a Boat, the culmination of their six month project, went on show at House of Illustration last week.

The annual residency for graphic artists and illustrators, supported by the Barbara and Philip Denny Charitable Trust, is currently the only one of kind in the UK. In as much as it offers an illustrator the chance to create a new body of work, it also acts as a platform from which practitioners can challenge the perceptions of what illustration is and can be. But what exactly does a residency entail? And what is an illustrator likely to get out of the commitment?

I talked to Nous Vous’ Jay Cover about the thinking behind their research project and resultant exhibition that features 12 large-scale illustrations for Jerome K Jerome’s classic novel, Three Men in a Boat. Being a trio Nous Vous wanted to investigate the nature of working together – and so designed and built a ‘three-person drawing machine’ with which they created the final artworks.

One of the 12 artworks by Nous Vous that forms part of their House of Illustration show, Three Men in a Boat. Each of the pictures was created using a ‘drawing machine’ which is operated by the three of them

“For us, residencies are always a bit of a draw because we’re always making work on the side and having discussions about particular things and then not being able to find time and space to facilitate that kind of work – the more speculative work, I guess,” says Cover.

“The House of Illustration one has a focus to it and that’s a nice way of framing some of the ideas we’ve had where there’s no way you can put [them] into a commercial realm. [Then there’s] the support that you get from the space – I love everything that House of Illustration do and it’s a really great place and resource.”

In the ten years Nous Vous has been together, the demands of commercial work have meant that they now differently as a collective. “More and more, the older we’ve got, the more our practice has taken this route where clients come to us with an illustration brief [and], because of the references they’ve sent, [this] sort of indicates that ‘one’ of us should do it. I kind of felt like we were getting pushed apart by Nous Vous rather than being brought together by it.”

Cover says the House of Illustration residency offered the studio a chance to probe their working practice and also look at how they might create a single body of work from three pairs of hands. Nous Vous dedicated a day each week to the residency which initially involved research-based activities and several materials-based ‘play days’ in order to stimulate ideas.

“When we weren’t drawing, we were trying to remove our own aesthetic, our own visual language out of the equation,” says Cover. “We’d have a ‘photo-collage’ day, or a ‘drawing game’ day where we had prescribed rules, also word games that hopefully would generate new ideas to work from. We tried new ways of collaboratively making stories.

“Then we did a ‘collaborative tool-making’ day,” he says. “We got a load of wood, went to the hardware store and started making different devices. The one that really worked, all it was was a pen taped to three sticks!”

The ‘machine’ enabled them all to work at once on the creation a single artwork. “We found a nice mix between control and lack of control,” says Cover. “With the sticks [machine] we all had to talk to each other – it just facilitated this conversation and was the inception of this idea that we need a tool where we need to talk.”

An early iteration of the drawing machine was tested during a workshop where families could experiment with the equipment, with Nous Vous producing their first ‘work’ with the device, entitled ‘A Big Ship’ – an apt metaphor for their journey ahead, Cover says. Cover then developed the machine into more of a solid frame made from old shelving.

“When you draw and make things you think in pictures, you don’t think in words,” he says of Nous Vous’ first experiments with the machine. “Trying to articulate that is extremely difficult. This meant that it took quite a long time to be able to synchronise ourselves and get used to using the machine.”

‘A Big Ship’ – one of the first artworks Nous Vous created using an early version of the drawing machine

With the device at the centre of their project it was felt that the trio needed focus on something in order to produce a formalised body of work. Inspiration came from a book that Cover was planning to read – Three Men in a Boat – and its title, not to mention its tales of high-jinks, fitted neatly into both what Nous Vous were about and the project in hand. They decided to create 12 illustrations for the book.

“The way [the characters] talk about how to do things together, it’s really farcical, it turns into this haphazard, crazy jape,” says Cover. “It felt like, that’s exactly what we’re doing! We hoped that in drawing from that – three people doing something together – something [would] accidentally, inherently come through in the work.”

Instead of a show guide, Nous Vous bought several copies of the novel and added numbered tabs to the passages they had illustrated. Visitors can walk around the works and read the sections of the book that the drawings come from.

One of the 12 large-scale illustrations Nous Vous created for Three Men in a Boat

Stories also formed a key part of illustrator and designer David Lemm‘s tenure as House of Illustration’s illustrator-in-residence during 2015-16. For his project he set about ‘mapping’ the changing landscape of King’s Cross – where House of Illustration is based – “through walking and observing relationships and unfolding stories between architecture, objects, people and the emergence of a new place”.

Lemm hosted a series of interactive events and workshops, including placing ‘urban cairns’ around the area as part of an ‘interactive mapping’ project, and created “little data sets/narratives” which he illustrated using shapes and motifs to compose each map. His final show featured series of semi-abstract wood and paper collages, “where narratives can be read or created by the viewer, whilst offering a alternative mapping of the area and opportunity to re-imagine the space surrounding House of Illustration”.

David Lemm’s exhibition at House of Illustration, 2016

For Lemm, his time in King’s Cross was also a period of experimentation and exploration, a chance to really question his own approach to why and how he made illustration work – and where he might take his practice in the future. “I really felt the benefit of having dedicated time to give to research and idea development and the freedom to explore different approaches,” he says.

“My studio is still covered in post-it notes with seeds of ideas from that time that I’m just waiting to get stuck into! By focusing on physically making work and using simple materials, I’ve revived something in my practice which had been missing for a while. I had become somewhat disillusioned with relying on digital techniques so it was great to have the opportunity to address this to a certain extent.”

As with Nous Vous’ take on the residency, illustration itself was able to become the focus of some interrogation. “It was great to be able to focus on creating more conceptually led work which challenged expectations of what illustration is and can be – both personally and in a wider sense,” says Lemm.

“It felt like a rare opportunity for concentrated investigation and chance to play with illustration out-with the expectations of working on commercially focused projects. It was also an exciting opportunity to work in London and engage with the place a bit more than I had before.”

One of the 12 large-scale illustrations Nous Vous created for Three Men in a Boat © Paul Grover

For Nous Vous, the experience of the residency enabled them to look at how and why they work as a trio – and has changed how the three friends now work. “There’s a noticeable difference in the way that we’re talking each other – and how close we’ve become in a work context,” says Cover.

“The thing for us to take away is – we’ve been very skeptical about making work together because we’ve tried it so many times and it leads to a lot of arguments and uncomfortable conversations about style and aesthetic preferences, even ideas and directions and tone. But now we’ve got to know each other a little bit better and are able to make more compromises. As long as you talk to each when you work together you get to this point that you’re all happy with. Just being able to talk to each other and trust each other a bit more is good.”

House of Illustration’s residency offers artists the time and space to look at their own work – a luxury in today’s working environment – but also show visitors just what illustration means in 2017. 

“Even if the stuff that comes out of the other end isn’t what you anticipated, for me that’s probably better,” says Cover of the experience. “The illustration world – especially in the commercial realm – it’s quite a lot about narrowing you as an illustrator into a particular way of working, because people start buying into a style and clients obviously like to know what they’re going to get.

“And that’s fair enough, I don’t have any quibbles with that. But as an artist, or someone who wants to make things, who has ideas, who wants to expand, broaden, keep myself interested in what I’m doing – being able to do this is really good.”

Full details on Nous Vous’ residency show, Three Men in a Boat, are at houseofillustration.org.uk. The exhibition runs until June 11. For more of the group’s work, visit nousvous.eu; David Lemm’s site is davidlemm.co.uk

Adding a new ‘pen’ to the drawing machine

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