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Bohemian Allena talks about art, life and kung fu

Allena Tyrell, at home.

Allena Tyrell, at home.

Local artist Allena Tyrell is interviewed by John Humphries

Allena Tyrell lives and works in Horntye Road, Bohemia.  Her home is tidy with piles of papers and documents neatly stacked up. A computer sits on an old-fashioned treadle sewing machine and a mangle with wooden rollers sits in the corner, acting as a houseplant stand. The curtainless, well lit studio is on the first floor, all the brushes and paints are neatly stowed away,  numerous paintings adorn the walls and a tiny work, currently being finished, is fixed in the easel.

What’s her family background? Allena was born is Lewisham, in South London in 1949. “I hardly ever see my own family – it’s sixteen years since anyone in my family has visited here. I had to leave home to go into hospital at age 14. I see my mum very rarely these days. In the ‘60s and the ‘80s, I saw her for a short while.”

Was she ever married? “Yes, I’ve been married.”

When did she first realise she was an artist? “When people told me – well, actually ever since I can remember, certainly at primary school I was good at art. My art education in the 1960s and ‘70s was traditional and disciplined. A third of the curriculum had compulsory life drawing and painting. I studied at the City & Guilds of London Art School from 1970 to 1975 and achieved a Diploma in Fine Art with a county major award. I was employed at St Martin’s School of Art from 1976 until 1984.”

How would she describe her own style of art? “Since 1980, building up as rich and thick a paint texture as is technically possible, without losing the image and staying representational is one preoccupation.” Does she stick to one style? “I’ve never needed to make a similar image more than three or four times, but appreciate other painters who always have a lifelong obsession with the same theme. A painting I did called Drugs Bust was partly inspired by Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment novel. More recently, “I’ve been looking at people in very bad photographs and CCTV, trying an almost monochrome look with text.”

Where does she paint? “Mostly in my studio but sometimes out of doors. I did a watercolour picture of Hastings Pier (End of the Pier – see picture) which was painted on Hastings beach – I just sat down with paints and did it.  Normally, I don’t like outdoor painting, as people can sometimes be discouraging, and often get in the way of what you’re trying to paint.”

Does she find time for films and TV? “Films I like include Jacky Chan movies. I like kung fu. I should think the last film I actually went to see was ‘Zabriskie Point’, probably at the ICA in London. I don’t have a TV, but sometimes I watch programmes on a friend’s set, usually the news. I also get news programmes via my computer. I sometimes look at an internet news service based in Brighton.”

What about books and music?  “I sometimes feel that if you read books and have lots of paintings, some people think you’re strange. I like history books, for example, the French revolution, the industrial revolution, the history of art. As for music, the last record I bought was years ago, it was reggae music, probably Gregory Isaacs. These days I just listen to the radio, or I search the internet for music. I picked up computer skills from the IT Centre in Hastings.”

Where does Allena look for spiritual guidance? “I’m supposed to be Jewish, but I’m not really religious. I don’t think a synagogue gives you any spiritual experience. All people seem to want to ask is ‘What kind of computer have you got?’ or ‘What kind of car do you drive?’ I find there’s more spiritual matter in books.”

Are there subjects she feels strongly about? “I’ve been involved in human rights issues, but not so much these days as I want to get on with my art work. In the past I was involved in diversity issues and was even arrested in 1970, aged 21, at Notting Hill Gate in a civil rights march about the lack of enforcement of the Race Relations Act. I think I was just about the only white person there.”

How does she unwind? “I like kung fu. I try to work out each day for half an hour, usually when I get up. I studied kung fu when I was at St Martin’s School of Art, where there was a club at the school. I don’t play sports, but I do a fair amount of walking – into the town centre for instance. I also quite like yoga.”

Allena’s work has been widely exhibited at numerous galleries and shows including the Brighton Festival (1969), the Mall Galleries (1975),  the Loggia Gallery, Buckingham Gate, London (1976), the John Gage Gallery, Eastbourne (1977), the Kaleidoscope Gallery, London (1977), the Doughty House Gallery, Surrey (1977), Norwood Gallery, London (1980), The Gallery, Wellingborough (1989), Artists Contemporaries Gallery, Eastbourne (1990), Gill Gallery, St Leonards (2003) and St Mary-in-the-Castle Gallery, St Leonards (2004).

She has also held one-person exhibitions for Lambeth Council (1976), the London Institute (1984 and 1989), the White Rock Theatre Art Gallery (2004 and 2005) and at Euroart London (2005). Several of her works are in private collections.

The interview took place at Allena’s home in Horntye Road in the latter part of  October 2006. Anyone interested in seeing more of her art can view a selection at the Hastings Art website. Just google ‘Allena Tyrell’.

In our next issue: interview with local councillor Vivienne Bond, of Aldborough Road


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