Caroline Hands is no ordinary artist. Her career spans half a century, spending many years in Orient travelling on her own, creating, experiencing, dreaming and using art as a gift and a cross cultural tool of communication. A mentor and reference to young artists that would like to stay true to their vocation, as she has had the courage to ‘stick around’ through the thick and thinness of a lifelong career with unfathomable optimism.
She has always travelled – her camera catching a wealth of images from all over the world which now forms a large archive of visual material. She has been visiting China since 2006. The generosity and kindness of her many Chinese friends and acquaintances has changed her life and fed her work enormously.
“Maybe one of the reasons I paint is because I can give out as much love as I want without being hurt or stopped” – Caroline Hands
Hands studied mixed media art in London in the 1960s. She was based in rural Herefordshire for many years where she also ran community art projects and workshops. In 2014 she returned to London where she has a studio in Woolwich. Caroline has exhibited in galleries across the UK and abroad including Ikon Gallery, Birmingham and XYZ Gallery Beijing.
As a full time artist, Hands’ work continues to develop and expand. Her work explores the diversity and richness of different cultures. Work/paintings of movement, humour and dance bridge between East and West and changing times. In her large-scale canvases Caroline Hands works with vibrant colour and dynamic gesture to create joyful, exuberant paintings that celebrate life in all its diversity. Her subjects range from the abundance of nature, found in luxuriant gardens and dream like landscapes, to the resilience of the human spirit in touchingly direct portraits and expressive depictions of dancers and performers.
From the age of dot she painted, drew and made shelters and sculptures out of products from the natural environment. From childhood visits to the British Museum, Caroline developed a fascination with myths, legends and ancient civilisations which has fed her imagination ever since. Her interest in Asia led to extensive travel and extended visits to China, during which she produced a major body of paintings embracing the environments, histories and cultures she encountered there.
Hands’ lifelong love of dance is a powerful presence as she captures dancers in action, from the bohemian clubs of 1960s London, to the stylised movements of traditional Chinese opera. Dance also informs her approach to painting as she layers successive grounds and colour fields, using a range of strokes to build rhythms and patterns that interweave with a fluid almost impulsive energy.
As a practitioner of some 50 years, Hands’ is a highly accomplished artist working at the height of her powers, yet she resists set techniques and methods and continually challenges herself. Her work retains a child-like immediacy and freshness, a sheer delight at being in and looking at the world, and a desire to share that uplifting vision with those around her.
When did you realise you were an artist?
When I was about five. Somehow, however hard I tried to make sense of what seemed to be taken for granted, didn’t make sense. There were always other sides to things I could think of. As I grew older I was told I rebelled for rebellion sake, this felt far from the truth. I would have loved to fit in, but there was always endless questioning and what seemed like so much hypocrisy around me. How can you have a faith and belief that some people are better then others? We can’t all know each other’s stories, genes, DNA and circumstances.
It never ceases to surprise me how often people use the term ‘proper job‘ insinuating arts is not this. What would tourism, property developers etc and of course most important culture in general, done with out artists who have a driving passion and belief (however crazy) and have followed their vocation willing to live in whatever way to survive so they can give out their best to the larger community .
Of course ‘you can’t please all of the people all of the time ‘ Bob Dylan!
We all need a decent living wage, including artists!
Your work is partly influenced by literature. Which books, authors influenced you the most? Which artists or role models influenced you?
Books like The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai, Xiaolu Guo, Tan Twan Eng, Thich Nhat Hanh, Kamila Shamsie, Xiran amongst many others. Artists like Giotto, Vermeer, Degas dance pictures, Japanese and Chinese art in general, David Attenborough for his life long dedication and love for his subjects that he shares out to the world, Warren Kenton for his selfless kindness. And of course many more. The Asian, Indian and African arts and cultures have influenced me throughout my life.
Your work very frequently inspires other artists, notoriously dancers. Could you explain the connection between your work and dance?
Over the years I have found that there has been a recurring link with dancers. Without me even trying, I meet them everywhere! When I travel, the first thing I check out is where the dance is. I have many images, drawings, videos, photographs of dance from all over the place especially Asia. I would like to document more. My work is also about movement. Energy is changing all the time every millisecond is new.
“As a bird soars above and a worm burrows and breaks up the earth, I would like my work to breathe. A mark, a colour, the dance of fusion. Fire and water. East and West, our differences and sameness, what a wealth to work with!” – Caroline Hands
You have lived and travelled to very remote and exotic places, especially China, why do you love China so much?
China, as all over, is a great deal of contradictions. I resonated towards China when I was very young, as luckily my father took me to the British Museum a lot. This, I think, has influenced and fed my whole live. I like the ‘let’s do it!’ attitude I encountered in China. The immediacy, not picking thinks apart to stop thing from happening. My time in China was all through Chinese people. When I travel, I want to be with people of the country I’m in. I was lucky to be given places to live and work in. At one point, I was given house to life and work in, in a lotus village outside of Chengdu in Sichuan province with the farmers. A large solo exhibition was held for me at the XYZ Gallery, in 798, an art district of Beijing, which at the time was thriving. I saw some of the best mixed media installations I have ever seen, using many different skills. Spending hours in a wide range of different galleries. I could just feel ancestry. Bluntness, which I like, and ‘saving face’ are two enormous factors in Chinese society. I have also never laughed so much in my life, which was great! “ You are an artist, we will look after you” No wonder I loved China!
What has been the highs and lows of being a female artist, travelling the world on your own to places where communication can be so challenging?
Yes, I seem to have travelled mainly on my own most of my life. I left school at fourteen and recon I have learned more from travelling and having a curious mind. In the sixties we hitched a lot and were willing to live rough for the experience of travel. A different world. For travelling alone you need to be street wise and super alert. And that in it’s turn can only be good to transfer into ones work. I do find fussing about small things the opposite to flow, so maybe that is one of the reasons I end up travelling on my own. Alone you do find many adventures open up. I watch local people and see how they do things. It doesn’t worry me when I don’t speak the language, there are so many other ways to communicate, including dance. In Asia I find when you say you are an artist they take you seriously and seem to realise it’s a lifetime soul commitment. It keeps you humble. Travelling out of any comfort zone, seeing how many people life and survive through creative thought and deed, whatever life throws at them. Some of the lows carrying stuff! Having to sometime be more assertive than one really wants to be. Wanting to share some of the amazing sights, snuggle up under a warm male arm, share a sunset!
You have done a lot of work with communities, specially the young and vulnerable, could you tell us why this is so important to you?
Arts, I believe, is totally invaluable to community. All my life I have seen what it does to people from every age, ability and ethnicity. It helps self-confidence, gives people a voice, and that can pass on to many different subjects. It brings communities together, it calms, it transcends, it can unify, it can build bridges in our crazy world. Absolutely vital to society, to cut arts is an insanity! To encourage the imagination can bring all sorts of hope, which may in some cases help to sort all sorts of social problems. As Albert Einstein said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.” Recently `I hear Greenwich Dance has it’s funding cut, I cried. Over and over again I have seen how people who don’t fit in some of these moulds, fashions, isms, etc. that get expected of us, thrive when they feel confident enough to use their own voice.
You organised a number of festivals and workshops due to your innate capacity to network and coordinate. How important is it for an artist to come out of their shell and collaborate with other people?
This feels like a continuation from the last question. We all have so much to offer each other, hidden skills yet to be tapped, to congratulate genuinely and not put down through fear or jealousy. I have not done so well on the family side, though my son is well and happy in Canada, having been headhunted for many environmental type jobs and being a wonderful father. So I suppose in some ways, I have given more to the wider community. Artists are different of course, but I do feel passionately in true creativity and what it can do and how it can inspire. That, I believe, is part of my job as an artist. I believe that I’m a vessel, which I must look after to let the work come through. Sometime people dance in front of my paintings from the energy they give out. That by no means says the work is shallow or lacks depth. ‘Decorative’ and ‘illustrative’ are words too easily thrown around when work is not considered and rested with enough from the viewer. Artists have an enormous amount to offer society, as much as any other dedicated profession. But, as with everything, balance is needed. I need a great deal of quiet time to process and give all of my best. To hold the reins and energy before the next jump, the next Ti Chi movement!
After being abroad for so long, how do you find the art world now back in London and compared with how it used to be before your travels?
Well, I’m on dangerous territory here and likely not to do myself any favours! Sad and surprised. In Asia I spend hours and hours in galleries, personal taste of course. All my life I have been asked to exhibit, though the big dealers in the past said, “We never know what you are going to do next.” My reply was and is “Well, I’m really quite creative, things change!” Now, I’m still asked frequently to exhibit but it is paying for wall space and then often a commission on top of your sales. How are artists supposed to live? Paying for places to live and work. Then pricing, that’s another nightmare. Any other profession you’d be respected for experience, time spend on pieces, etc. etc. It’s all about money. Is it really about creativity anymore? So much playing it safe and following fashions. Lots of words how much looking? After a lifetime of arts dedication, it still baffles me that the visual art world is still predominately male, though I’ve seen hopeful changes over the last few years. I loved the short haiku like words that accompanied many of the shows in China I saw. We could do with patrons like in the past. But trusting not dictating!
You are now in a very productive and creative stage in your career. How do you feel your style is evolving? Are these changes spontaneous to responses to external factors?
It’s exciting! I do feel more creative then ever. And I always have. Each day feeling like I’ve just begun. I feel my best work is still to come and my work is changing again. (I’m very riddled with practical living problems, space being one of them.) Having been spoiled with a lot of space in the country, it’s another world being back in London, where I love and thrive being with a totally multicultural community. In terms of responses to external factors, I have an awareness of all the losses of beauty that is taking place all over the world and all that is happening between all the layers and layers of ancestry. I would like my work to glow and uplift – work tends to go on its own journey.
You’ve now become a new role model for new artists wanting a life long career. What is the secret to keep it going?
Well, your words I’m a role model, some might not think so, some of the practical mess I’m in! But yes, I’ve kept going through thick and thin and as mentioned feel more creative and available then ever. I’m lucky to have a roof over my head and love to grow things, have good friend who believe in me. I am disciplined, being self-employed you have to be, no one’s going to tell you to get up and work, especially if you’re on your own. I keep my ears and eyes open and hope to really see and feel to feed the work. Maybe one thing about creativity is loss and having to keep reinventing. I have never followed an ism or someone else’s way. I listen and watch, make my choice and try and follow my own path in what I have to give without it hurting anyone. Idealistic, I know! Well and happy and free from fear!
What would you like to do next?
I’d like to go to Vietnam, Japan and Africa where I can do more research for my work. Then come back to London and work on a large solo exhibition, which will be somewhere in Central London (a temporary room in the Tate will do!) and another large exhibition in New York. I can show an enormous body of work new and old, photographs, videos, textiles, 3D’s, paintings, dance performances, etcetera and with practical help from others build light installations with of course funding to do it all. Thank you.
To find out more about Caroline Hands work, visit www,carolinehands.co.uk