The ‘Jack in the Box’ Art of Hannah Wheeler

Hannah Wheeler at work

Hannah Wheeler at work

Art is always a tough one to write about because it is so individual, but it was wonderful meeting Hannah Wheeler, recently, despite the fact that she later wrote on her Facebook page about the interview: “I think I may have come across as a little odd”. Not remotely odd, obviously talented, and very young looking (deep envy on all fronts) Hannah’s work is the kind that makes you think. And that’s a compliment.

Hannah’s studio is based at King’s Hill Industrial Estate. It is a hive of activity shared with two other artists, Helen, who creates prints, and Rose, who designs shoes. When I arrived to disrupt proceedings and drink Earl Grey, all were beavering away at their respective projects. It felt friendly. I didn’t really know what to expect, art wise, because I tend to go to interviews ‘blind’. No Jeremy Paxman, I try not to read/research about the person, so my approach can be  fresh and honest, rather based on gut feeling, intuitive rather than over-informed.

I found the pictures Hannah creates fascinating though, naive, unusual, a little strange, modern. They would make a good talking point in an appropriate setting.

From her website , I now know that Hannah has written: “I like to mix up different materials and make images that don’t always make sense: images with missing information, hidden faces and incomplete stories. I work from my own photos from previous photographic assignments. I use varying combinations of emulsion paint, acrylics, inks, pastels, wax, newspaper and gold leaf, graphite and oils on canvas, pages from vintage books and recycled wooden panels”. The “missing bits” are the intriguing part!!

Not only was Hannah concerned about what image to portray during her interview, but I was concerned about how to put that into words. Still,  let’s give it a go…..and she can tell me if I’ve messed up!

Certainly, Hannah is one of those rare creatures: an artist living in Bude who , while inspired by the sea, does not paint seascapes. There is indeed, however, a great deal of blue in her current work, and this was my first observation. She explained this as being “influenced by the sea, but not compelled to paint it “. This made sense to me.

Much of Hannah’s work is displayed – and sold – at Riverside Gallery in Bude. Somerset born, Hannah attended (briefly) the Small School in Hartland, and the Steiner School in Totnes, so had a fairly free creative rein before attending Budehaven for a rather more traditional education. After ‘A’ level, she felt she needed a break from ‘doing’ art, and enjoyed quite a long one, ten years overall, if getting married, setting up home, and having children constitutes a ‘break’. Certainly, the demands of motherhood meant she had less time for painting, so she developed a complementary love of photography because it was “faster”.  You can, of course, see the overlap. While photography is perhaps more technical, you still need a creative, artistic eye to conjure up good shots.

I think it was Darren Higgs of Mooshmedia/Social Eyes who reckoned he had been “blown away” by Hannah’s art. And I could see what he meant. It is tantalising stuff. Hannah must have found me quite rude as my eyes kept veering over her left shoulder while she was talking, towards a painting of a slightly disembodied woman with bright red hair, using a technique Hannah calls ‘Jack in the Box’. The pictures are inspired by the 1940s/1950s pin up/glamour shots but Hannah isn’t keen on overly pretty or too cute, so she quirkily crops out bits of body. They are attention-grabbing.

It’s really hard to describe….but Hannah sees “missing parts out” as a route to keeping composition whilst using artistic licence and losing lines. Hopefully, you’re still with me, and if you look at the pictures you might see what I mean.

Red headed lady with missing body....

Red headed lady with missing body….


Hannah says she likes to remove sweetness, but also that she enjoys spaces, pictures that don’t tell you everything, thus leaving your brain to think, to fill in the gaps. So, while it is obvious what her pictures are of, they are not traditional or conventional in any sense of the word.


Freakshow Monroe

Freakshow Monroe


As a youngster Hannah was also obsessed with the poignancy of Pierrot the Clown. I can see the influence (as my mother was similarly obsessed. The whole concept terrified me, but Pierrot, with his white face and pointed hat was semi-human in my eyes, the white serving almost as a blanking out, a death mask, even!) And blanking out is rather what Hannah does. She cuts away the superfluous, and they models no longer feel like real people, rather  more as representations .

She loves the whole concept of sadness within humour, epitomised by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Lucille Ball and Norman Wisdom, and I guess, Pierrot. She is interested in the underlying melancholy of people generally celebrated/ridiculed for their silliness. She has a point. Taking Chaplin as an example, there was, underneath the comedic facade, an intensely traumatic childhood, which I started reading about after our meeting. So there is something a little fragile, perhaps beautiful, dressed up to look a little silly, which Hannah then strips back.

Generally, Hannah feels compelled to paint people, so when she was asked to paint a dog, she painted him in clothes. Yet, when she paints people she partially removes their clothes: “I am removing the time that clothes puts on things. They date things and are a distraction” says Hannah, who doesn’t like painting things as they seem but rather likes to ‘warp’ them slightly. This she sees as a key difference between painting and photography. At least, that’s my impression….

The photography happened pretty much accidentally. Once a mother, she found a job taking photos, completely on spec and ended up managing the business, which was based in Wales. At that time she had no technical expertise. But, she feels the two media entwine nicely. She enjoys thinking of elements to put together for a photo, rather building an atmosphere, creating an image, but she finds painting more relaxing. She does use photos to inform her paintings, to assist in her composition, and is increasingly using photos as a starting point, painting and then additional media to stretch her ideas still further.

Hannah Wheeler's art

Hannah Wheeler’s art


She hasn’t done many large canvases but her 20 x 24 canvases sell in the region of £160-180. She also paints on old kitchen cupboard doors, not always on canvases, and these (heavy) items are tremendous (you can see a couple of examples, above). She enjoys bold colour, harmonious and rich, but her general use of colour is often muted. It is’t the crucial element to her work. Light, however, is. She especially enjoys recreating how light falls on skin, creating shapes without lines.

She has had a day job while building her artistic reputation, since she started painting again in 2010. Meanwhile, her kitchen has been filling with paintings. However, now she feels she needs more consistent production, to produce and display – and sell – more. So, her next steps are to professionalise her business and treat it less as a hobby. Now she paints part time, but from January it will be school hours every day and occasional weekends.

Additionally, she also wishes to develop her photography work. She specialises in weddings and outdoor photo shoots, being less keen on studio work. For example, she showed me a recent commission for a shoot in some woods, for which she charged a mere £40. She doesn’t do prints but offers a CD of 10-12 photos within the price, for people to use them as they will. So, excellent value. She approaches photography as an art form – wanting to create fine pieces of work – but is less interested in the technical side of things.

She is increasingly experimenting with her art, too, incorporating mixed media, such as using textiles into specifically local pieces which she has sold at Seventh Wave. Eventually, Hannah would like her own exhibition, perhaps shared with another artist. As her pictures sell pretty well, she doesn’t yet have much of an exhibition bank, however, but hopes that her full time commitment to her art from January will alleviate that issue. She also has exciting ideas to develop her photography and is now looking for longer term bookings for 2013.

Interesting specs but missing some body....

Interesting specs but missing some body….


Hannah seems to have lots of creative ideas jostling for artistic space. Her work is fabulous but I think we are yet to see it develop – she could go big!

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