ARTIST, writer, and artist’s model Sue Tilley has had a colourful life to say the least: from dividing her time between her day job as benefits supervisor and her night job at Leigh Bowery’s ‘Taboo’ night club, Tilley has also performed in music videos, modelled for artist Lucian Freud, taught art, and has had her own art incorporated into Fendi designs. Freud’s paintings of her have sold for 17 and 35.8 million pounds, while her friendship with performance artist/fashion designer Leigh Bowery led her to write a book about him, which is in the process of becoming a film.
During the lockdown, many artists and creatives turned to the internet for a way of channelling their creativity, and Sue Tilley was one such person, who started to run weekly life-drawing classes on the Isolation Station Hastings channel (accessible also via facebook), which was specifically set up to provide all sorts of activities during the lockdown in England. However, the beauty of the internet is that it is a global thing, and so people from around the world started to attend Tilley’s very unique art classes, in which she interviews and chats to the sitter in the process. Her sitters always have interesting stories to tell: actors, models, musicians, dancers and more. They spill the beans on showbiz antics and lifestyle choices, while trying to sit still in their chosen pose. The classes are still running, and whoever is interested can attend, on the Isolation Station Hastings facebook page, on Mondays 3pm English time (5pm Greek time).
What follows is an interview with Tilley, in which she tells us about her exciting life, as an artist, a designer for Fendi, a model for Lucian Freud and more:
– Let’s talk about the wonderful life-drawing sessions that you organise every Monday on the Isolation Station Hastings. They offer viewers from around the world the opportunity to draw a live model, which is one of your friends, and is always someone with a very interesting life, a colourful personality who you interview during the life-drawing session. From actors to models and dancers and even an ex-Bananarama singer. It’s a unique experience that has offered so much during the isolation period. How did this come about and how long do you think it will go on for?
– I started running art classes at a pub that my friend owns in Hastings. I’d run 2 courses of 6 classes each. They were very informal, there was usually a model to draw… we did short and long poses and I went around giving tips and encouragement. At the end of the class everyone would come to the front, hold up their painting and we’d all applaud. It was a very social thing and lots of people made new friends.
They were very oversubscribed so we were just discussing running 2 classes a week so we could get more people to come when lock down struck.
Then Isolation Station (a local broadcaster set up to provide entertainment during the lock down) approached me to do the classes online. I modelled for the first one to see how it went… then I decided to make it ‘chat and draw’ so I roped in some of my interesting friends. I think they’ve enjoyed it too.
Hopefully it will go on until the end of the year.
This week I’ve started recording some one-on-one art classes for ‘Love Magazine’. I chat to people from the fashion world while they draw something.
– Tell us about your own experience as an artist and your own art practice, your exhibitions, collaboration with Fendi etc.
– I trained to be an art teacher but never became one … although I did arty bits and bobs every now and then. Then about 6 years ago I met a young artist, Rui Miguel Leitão Ferreira who encouraged me to start drawing again. Somehow or other my pictures ended up in ‘The Sunday Observer’. A Gallerist saw them and decided to offer me an exhibition. It was a huge space just opposite the Olympic Park, luckily I was made redundant from my day job, so I got a studio and painted away. I had a huge opening and it was a great success.
I still continue to paint, I’ve had some other exhibitions but I prefer doing commissions. I have to be in the right frame of mind to paint but once I start there is no stopping me.
Then Julian Ganio who I’ve known for ages bought some of my paintings… he’s a very well-respected stylist and works closely with Sylvia Fendi. I couldn’t really believe it when he told me they wanted to use some of my drawings of everyday objects. I’d just moved into my flat and had the builders in so I was squashed into my spare room surrounded by boxes drawing these pictures. I’d take a photo on my phone and then whizz it over to the design meeting at Fendi, they’d ask for a couple of changes…I’d quickly do it and then whizz it back. When I went to the show I couldn’t believe how much they had used… it was on everything!
– You were one of Lucian Freud’s sitters for his artworks, which have sold for millions. ‘Benefits Supervisor Sleeping’ was bought by Roman Abramovich for 17 million pounds and ‘Benefits Supervisor Resting’ sold for 35.8 million pounds. What were your thoughts about this?
– I worked for Lucian for about 3 years in total. I had sort of forgotten about it when a reporter from the ‘Evening Standard’ came into my office to tell me that one of my paintings was going to sell for a world record. I think that my life changed that day. I couldn’t really believe it at first… it was so peculiar… I wasn’t used to all that attention. But I’m used to it now and it’s something that I’m very proud of.
– What was Freud like as a person from your experience? Artist Celia Paul’s account in her book ‘Self Portrait’ paints a rather different picture of how he could also be a bit of a monster… in the way that many great male artists have been.
– I think that it was easier for me than a lot of his models because I wasn’t in love with him. I just chatted to him like a friend… but sometimes he told me about some of his goings on thinking I’d be impressed but I was horrified. But he really saw nothing wrong with his behaviour…. I have indeed met several other male artists who have behaved in such a selfish way but think that it is normal behaviour.
– You have written a biography of your great friend Leigh Bowery. Plans are for the book to be made into a film. How is this developing and how would you describe this performance artist/ fashion designer/ club host in a nutshell?
– Leigh is certainly a person you couldn’t describe in a nutshell…. He had so many facets to his personality. He was funny, kind, mean, hardworking, lazy, brilliant and ahead of his times. He was a bit of a dilettante moving from one creative project to another… fashion designer, night club host, theatrical costumer, musician, performer and artist, but they all crossed over. However, I liked him best when he was just being himself and we’d go to the West End to watch a couple of films.
I wrote the book in 1997 and I can’t remember how many people I’ve sold the film rights too. Finally, it seems to be going ahead and we have some funding from the BFI but I don’t like talking about it too much as I might jinx it! But if it does happen, I’ll probably explode with excitement. (By the way it is available to download from Amazon.)
– What were your most epic experiences from the Eighties when you were a doyen of the club scene. The top 5 let’s say?
– Going to New York in 1984 with Leigh and lots of other night club luminaries, for a Susanne Bartsch British fashion show at the Limelight Club. It started with us all getting drunk on the plane and Judy Blame collapsing at the airport when we arrived and forgetting to pick up his jewellery. We had such fun going to all the great clubs and meeting fabulous people.
At the beginning of the Eighties I lived in a big housing association house in Kentish Town. We used to have huge parties …sometimes 2 weekends in a row when we hadn’t even cleared up from the previous one. There would be queues down the street and the neighbours used to look forward to them as they enjoyed the freak show (as they called it). There would be dancing, drinking, snogging and heaven knows what else.
Going to the Camden Palace which was just around the corner to where I lived so everyone would come to my flat first to have a drink before we went out.
I was also in a cabaret act with Fat Tony and Princess Julia called The Diana Dogg show so those nights were particularly fun as the audience cheered and whooped at our very amateur performances.
‘Taboo’ night club, I worked on the door every other week. It was great fun there as anything went and you’d never know who would turn up… we had Mick Jagger, Paul Weller, George Michael and many others, it was generally mayhem with drunken people falling over dancing or waiting for Leigh to pick them up and spin them round.
Just generally being alive in such exciting times… I went to work in the day and went out in the night time probably 4 or 5 times a week. You would bump into all your friends as there weren’t too many places to go, so we would all end up at the same place. I’m still friends with all the people I met then and am thrilled to see their creative careers blossom over the years. We just thought that we were living our normal lives so it’s seems very peculiar that there is so much interest today into what we were up to.
– Moving to St Leonards on Sea from London was one of the best things you ever did. There is a growing art community there and lots of interesting people moving out of London. Beautiful homes there and and life is a lot more relaxed.
– I had no plans to leave London but I came to visit a friend down here and thought that it looked a lovely place with enough quirky people to spark my interest. I casually looked at Rightmove and when I saw the style and prices of the apartments I put my East London flat on the market the next day.
I found a gorgeous flat and on my first night in it, I laid in bed and stared at the ceiling not believing how high it was.
I knew a few people when I first moved here but loads of my friends have moved to enjoy the seaside life. As I said before one of my oldest friends has opened a pub here which is great as a lot of London mates come down to visit or perform.
I love living here so much, it’s like a proper community, if I pop to the shops I’m bound to bump into loads of people I know for a little chat …they love chatting down here!!
I’ve had a couple of exhibitions down here and it’s wonderful how creative everyone is … turning their hands to this and that.
– Have you ever been to Greece , and if so what was your experience like?
– I’ve been twice on holiday. I went to Rhodes for 2 weeks which was lovely. I’ve also been to a small village called Metamorfosi for a week. I remember going to a restaurant and asking if they had anything vegetarian… they suggested an omelette…. It came filled with ham! Then there was a German tourist in the beautiful clear sea loudly complaining that there were too many fish.