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INSERT NAME: MA Illustration student Grace Attlee looks at migration stories in America

Written by Loula Mercedes
Published date 20 July 2017

Originally from Oxford, Grace is now based in Hackney, East London. After graduating with BA Art History and Theology from University of Leeds, she worked in education and at a tech/design company for some years before joining MA Illustration at Camberwell. We met Grace at her degree show last week to talk about her practice and recent work.

What made you choose Camberwell?

I’ve always loved the Camberwell area in London and knew that the lllustration course there was one of the strongest in the country. After seeing the printmaking facilities of the college there was no hesitation in applying!

Please tell us about your practice:

I work a lot with collage. Its just how my brain works best – I’m good at organising, layering, and editing as I go, rather than sketching out drafts and then executing. I use mark making, printing and watercolour for texture, found photographs and objects for content and Photoshop to compose everything and to add in drawing and details.  I love experimenting with composition in my sketchbooks. At the start of the course I was terrified of putting stuff in the right place, but I then relaxed into it. I started to allow myself to be creative with composition and not to think about the rectangle of the page as being a barrier, this is now one of my strengths.

During my MA my work was based around the theme of migration during the first half of 20th century in America. I looked at personal stories of people migrating from rural areas of the south to the northern cities such as New York and Chicago. I find the impact of these journeys on family history, identity and forms of expression really interesting. I’m fascinated by social history and resistance, so this was a subject that kept me interested for the duration of the two years.

‘Bermonsey’, by Grace Attlee

What is your MA work about?

My final work on display at the MA summer show was built on the theme of the Great Migration in America. I’ve been attracted to this period of history since I was a child, mainly because of the music. I decided to dig a bit deeper and research the artists practicing at that time who documented and responded to this movement of six million people, such as Jacob Lawrence, Ben Shahn, Bernice Berckman and Romare Bearden.

I started to look at old newspaper clippings on microfilm in the British Library and found some really beautiful stories and photographs of migrants from the south arriving in Chicago and New York. The photographs I use in my images are lifted from these clippings, and the images are based on passages I found. For example, ‘Leave a Name Behind’ (the image with two men holding hands on a blue background) was made in response to a sad and poignant poem written by a young man desperate to make friends and help others like him find happiness. He basically leaves an impression on the world, which I think says a lot about his treatment in society, both in the southern states and his new home in Chicago.

‘Leave a Name Behind’, by Grace Attlee

‘Musicians Border’, by Grace Attlee


Tell us about your creative process:

My process often involves finding an anchor – an image or shape that is really expressive of what I want to say. I then start to sketch and build around that, normally in my sketchbook for pencil thumbnails and then the computer for compiling the images and textures I want to use.

I often return to my sketchbooks half way through the process on the computer if I need more content or texture. At the time I was making the image below I was keeping little sketchbooks of flower types, and looking up field flowers in America. I scanned these ones in and then edited and coloured in Photoshop – I wanted this sense of rural land passing by. Nostalgia is quite prominent in my work too and this faded mustardy-yellow was worked throughout a lot of my work on the migration project.

With the large train piece I looked a lot for photographs of faces that represented the migrants of this period, which included young and old, rich and poor. The old lady at the front right of the image was actually born into slavery in the south. She migrated north and had a hard time adjusting apparently, but this photo was selected mainly because of the true story behind it, which I discovered through hours of looking at newspaper microfilm.

‘Train across America’, artwork by Grace Attlee

Do you have other projects on the go?

Yes, I have just finished an abstract map of London to accompany a literature app. It was the first time I worked for an app so it was a big challenge, but I really enjoyed taking photographs around London and using lots of different mediums to build a picture of specific areas.

‘Waterloo Place’, by Grace Attlee

I am also currently making more and more artwork relating to music and for record sleeves, which is great. It was kind of my dream area to work in before starting my masters so I’m happy I’m finally there! I love music and discovering new artists so anything I can do to contribute to that world is a real honour.

‘Prince’, by Grace Attlee

How was your experience at Camberwell? 

Studying at Camberwell has allowed me the space and time to develop a hobby into a career. I’ve met some brilliant tutors and friends who have elevated my work and given me the essential feedback to move forward. Towards the end of the course we got professional advice about surviving in the world as an illustrator, with talks from staff at the Association of Illustrators for example, and feedback on our portfolios and websites.

A couple of highlights I remember during my course: I was asked recently to do the album cover for a musician I really respect (not yet launched, so no sneak preview I’m afraid), and have collaborated with some really great designers and artists whose work I love. I won a competition hosted by the chef Ottolenghi and my images were printed in a recipe booklet fairly early on in my illustration career, so that was a stroke of luck that pushed my work into a new space. I think a big highlight for me was starting my job at House of Illustration, which planted my feet fully in a space that takes underrepresented art form seriously and gave me the chance to work alongside experts in that field.

‘Nenet 2’, by Grace Attlee

‘Willow’, printing by Grace Attlee

Related links

MA Illustration

Grace Attlee