We had the pleasure of meeting Beka Shane Denter who introduced us to this commendable artist, and wanted to share her exclusive interview with us. Philippa Langrish told us about her art, her life and her countless journeys, leaving us so amazed at what we could do and give, how much we are all wasting time while we could marvel at the beauty every day and learn something new. Talking to Philippa we find her completely immersed in her life’s history, so deeply that she can reach the world’s heart; we can perceive her joy in a simple and direct way.
What is your first memory of art?
My first memory was when I was about six. I was at school and the class had been asked to draw a house. I spent what seemed like hours over it and was so proud with what I had created. I remember wanting to share my picture with everyone. My Mum would save all our art and store it chaotically in boxes by the stairs. I still remember the style of all the little people and houses my sister and I used to draw.
Has art always been a part of you, as something you’ve always been interested in?
Definitely! I had a hard time studying at 11 and would spend most of my free time in the school’s new art studio, to escape into my own little world. I remember me admiring work of the older students and still remember a painting of a man and woman hugging, which was so beautiful. Our art teacher had an open-door policy. She had been a student at the school and after graduating had taught there for her entire career. She was so happy. My Mum was obsessed with taking us to galleries, stately homes and museums. So often we would take the train to London and I would imagine the faces of people on the underground (metro) sketched out in charcoal.
At what stage of life did you realize that you wanted to be an artist? Was it when you were young or was it a passion that developed over time?
I didn’t think much about having a career when I was a child. I realized I wanted to be an artist when I finished University and needed to find a full-time job. I had completed a stint of work with an art restoration company and loved it. Afterwards I saw an advert in the local paper for an artist to work alongside a property developer, so I submitted my portfolio and got the job. It was idyllic. I worked for several months in a studio on the River Thames creating large abstract landscapes for show homes and several paintings of quirky animals for a nursery.
Did you formally study art?
I studied art until I was 18. I had an incredible art teacher from age 16 – 18 who was dismayed when I didn’t choose to study art at University. Instead I studied for a BA in English Literature at Sussex University (my other passion) and continued taking life drawing classes on the side. I went on to complete an MA in Advanced Theatre Practice at The Central School of Speech and Drama and fell in love with the scenography of contemporary theatre. After that I worked on theatre installation projects in London. These only ever lasted a few months and I couldn’t afford to live in London on the pay. So I got a job outside London at a brilliant theatre called Rose of Kingston where I worked with a tiny team (including the legendary Sir Peter Hall) on the Development program whilst also managing to keep a foot in the creative side of things, and occasionally contributing to exhibitions and selling my art. After eight years of working for theaters, festivals and art centers I moved to France with my husband and set up a small arts studio for children.
On your website, it says you’re also a writer. What kind of writing do you do?
Yes. Whilst I was preparing to move from France to the Philippines, I met a lady called Katja who wanted to write a feature on my art studio in France. I explained to her that I was moving to the Philippines and her ears pricked up. She is the editor for a travelling website called Globetotting. One thing led to another and I found myself as the feature writer for adventurous family travel in the Philippines and other parts of Asia. I was thrilled to be putting my BA in English Literature to use! I wrote articles about many of the islands, as well as Japan, Hong Kong and later wrote features for The Telegraph, World Traveller and Condé Nast Traveller.
You founded Tableaux Arts in 2016. What inspired this? What made you decide to make it official?
I was living in the Philippines and getting a lot of commissions. Every month I would be creating a piece of work for a private client, hotel, or a mural for a public space. I decided that it was time to create a brand in order to organise the different projects I was working on and to market my work more effectively.
What are some of the recurring themes in your work?
I am very drawn to the relationship between mother and child, and the journey of a woman’s life. I love figurative painting and printmaking and often make studies of women at different stages of their life – as girls, young ladies and pregnant women. My work reflects my life; I portray women who travel across continents with their children in tow. Thematically, I aim to evoke a sense of both the rootlessness and becoming grounded. I do this by using recurring symbols of maps, birds, plants and butterflies.
I’m particularly drawn to your work titled, Maman Du Monde. What is the inspiration behind this one?
Thank you. I love this work too. Maman du Monde represents our shared experience as women. How we are all connected to the Earth and although our stories and circumstances are different the themes are always the same. The title translates as Mother Earth and she has a thoughtful, perhaps melancholy look. At the time I painted it I felt that Mother Earth was taking a beating from humankind. Living in the Philippines I read newspaper reports of Environmentalists murdered for their research. I saw small communities bribed by mining companies and cheated into letting them contaminate water sources. Maman du Monde is covered in the tribal designs of the Ifugao’s and weaving patterns from the Mangyan. Her hands are painted like an Indian woman’s and her hair is plaited. Her 3rd eye is visible on her forehead to signify her intuition and knowledge. She is hoping for a better future for Womankind – a future where every woman in the world can walk with her head held high, without fear or doubt.
You’re from London but have lived in many countries. Which countries specifically? What took you abroad?
Yes, I love to travel and work abroad. I began travelling as soon as I left college. Like many young people I spent a year exploring the world. I worked three jobs to save enough money for the trip. My days were spent working for an Art Restoration Company. On weekends I worked at a nursing home and in the evenings, I pulled pints in a pub. Finally, I cashed in for a round the world ticket which took me to Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, Thailand and Malaysia. Later on, my partner was given the opportunity to transfer from Reading (UK) to Trinidad. When that contract was over, we planned to move to Europe because we both love the mountains. We looked for jobs in Geneva so that we could live close to the Alps. After a few years and one child later, we were given the opportunity to move to Manila (Philippines) with his work. The Philippines was an amazing period of my life. I was really lucky to be writing about the country. I would travel on a monthly basis and juggle that with my painting commissions and raising two children. After six years in Manila we were all set to move to Costa Rica for another adventure. Our bags were packed, and I had enrolled the children in a school in San José. However, three weeks before we were set to fly out, my husband was asked to change course and take a job in Miami. I remember that moment very clearly. We were all in a hotel room in Hong Kong, where I had been asked to write a feature on Kowloon. My husband finished his call, took a deep exhale and said, “looks like we are moving to Miami instead of Costa Rica!” “Oh well”, I said, “lets just go with the flow.”
How did your time in each country and culture inspire your work? Was there one particular place that played a pivotal role in your style?
Definitely. Living abroad has been the catalyst to developing as an artist. I was inspired by the beauty of the Alps. They are so breathtaking. However, it was in Asia where I really turned a corner with my work. I practiced in a studio with two Filipino University professors who were incredibly inspiring. They taught me the art of printmaking, so I was able to combine what I had learnt as a painter with this new technique. Although Manila isn’t an area of natural beauty, the people are beautiful from the inside out. Filipinos are always smiling. They smile even when their hearts are breaking. I remember chatting to a lady in the park one day and she was telling me a really sad story about how she left her baby to work in the Middle East. She said her breasts were aching on the airplane to Kuwait from the milk which had no-where to go. She was smiling the whole time she recounted the story. I asked her “Why are you smiling – it’s so sad.” She looked me in the eye and said, “If I didn’t smile, I would cry.” I became very inspired by this strength of spirit. Here in Miami I am inspired again by the natural beauty and by the sisterhood around me. I work in a studio with a Cuban fibre artist who has taught me a lot about working on fabric. Once again, I am able to find new techniques on which to translate my style of art.
You work on both small-scale paintings and large-scale murals for interior & exterior spaces. Is it a seamless process to move between these two sizes and styles? How is the artistic experience different between the two?
Working on large scale pieces takes more courage (and time). The process is different because the murals often contain much less detail. I love the challenge of a mural and grab the opportunity when it arises. The first mural I made was quite nerve racking. I was alone on the hot sweaty streets of Manila spray painting a public building. It was so hot! The results are always really satisfying since so many more people will see the work.
Which artists inspire you? And why?
Oh, there are so many. My first loves are British artists Jenny Saville, Millais, Turner and Lowry. I love the way Jenny Saville is so honest with her portrayal of the body. Her self-portraits are ruthless, and the flesh tones are incredible. As a little girl I was in love with Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir Everett Millais’ Ophelia which hangs in the Tate Britain (only 30mins from my home.) I found the image so wonderfully tragic. Lowry’s industrial scenes have always inspired me with the little stick people who look so busy. I find Turners pallet very peaceful and I love the way he blends the colours. I am also a big fan of Giacometti, Barbara Hepworth and Rodin sculptures. I think my love of sculpture has influenced my desire to pursue figurative painting and printmaking. I recently went to an exhibition of the American artist Georgia O’Keefe whose work I also adore.
Who else (non-artists), what and where inspires your work?
I am inspired by nature, maps, my children’s carefree attitude and the ocean. My kids are constantly climbing trees, flying kites, swinging on vines and giant palm leaves. I take photos of them and often translate these into my paintings. My son paints things which make him laugh and my daughter paints with a wild abandon – constantly experimenting with different materials and methods. I am also inspired by people’s emotions. The way they keep them locked up or let them loose. If the hands and arms are an extension of the heart, then my work strives to connect deeply with the way that I feel.
Looking at your bio on the website, it appears that your career took off while living in the Philippines.
Yes, this is true. I had a lot of encouragement in the Philippines. In my first year I staged a solo exhibition and many people came to support me. The owner of the gallery, an old man called Ed with kind eyes, had said, “you have to prove to people you can paint, then the work will come in”, and he was right. Before, in London, I had only every contributed to group exhibitions. Just prior to my exhibition opening I sold a painting to a passer-by as we were hanging the work. Then a few people bought paintings on the opening night. It was a big confidence boost. After that I received several portrait commissions. I was really busy! Then once I discovered the Print-Making Association of the Philippines I was hooked on this new technique, which I was determined to master. It was there that I met many other artists who inspired me to push the boundaries of my work. There is not much red tape in the Philippines, so it seemed like anything was possible. I was invited to paint murals in the city and shared my knowledge of art with a local shelter for young people at risk. It was a truly liberating time.
What was it like to work on transforming public spaces such as Bonifacio Global City in Manila?
That was really fun. It was also insanely hot! Mostly I worked alone transforming a dirty khaki green Guards Station into a brightly coloured mural. The guards loved it. I think they thought I was bonkers too. It was amazing to be part of a project where other murals were springing up around town at the same time. The closing party was wild, and I felt like I was back with my theatre colleagues.
You now live in Miami. How is the art scene different there than in Manila?
Here it’s big business. One of the most famous art fairs in the world Art Basel is here. However, there is also the edgy Wynwood area which is covered in murals and populated with quirky cafés, fusion restaurants and pop up craft fairs. It has not been as easy to make connections in Miami as it was in Manila. For me Manila was more of a close-knit community, whereas Miami seems busier and definitely faster-paced. There’s a lot going on in Miami that it can be overwhelming. There’s a funky little print-makers hub in Fort Lauderdale (I.S Projects) which I love. My daughter and I drove up there to participate in the print-makers fair which was a lot of fun. Since October I have worked in partnership with the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens on big community art projects within their stunning grounds. This is part of “old Florida” which I’m really drawn to.
What are some of your current projects?
I work with a brilliant studio in Coral Gables, Miami called Peace, Love, Art, Yoga. It’s a combined art and yoga studio run by a visionary Haitian woman called Lotus. I run printmaking and painting classes from the studio and online along with a Cuban fibre artist and Venezuelan ceramicist. We launched our online program almost instantly as Covid lockdown engulfed the world. It has been a trying time, but I have been able to finish lots of uncompleted artistic projects and get savvy with new technology to make my Online Family Art program as engaging as possible.
Dream space to show your work in?
I guess it would have to be a trip back to my roots in South London. There are so many amazing galleries there such as Tate Britain, the Victoria and Albert, and the National Portrait Gallery. I think my dream (and it’s a big one) would be to show my work at Tate Britain. It’s such an iconic space and so connected to my youth. When I was in my 20’s I would day-dream of staging a cutting-edge theatre installation in it’s Turbine Hall. Now I would settle for something humbler.
Interview by Beka Shane Denter