The human condition and the question of personal identity

Shelly Tregoning’s work is a response to the intimacies of her life – “an emotional connection to those closest to me and to fragments of the everyday that I encounter. I am trying to make sense in some way, of life and personal identity – through conversations with friends, places I have been and the things I see along the way. Visually gathering ‘moments’ which inform my work, these drawings and scribbles create a scaffolding upon which I build my images”.

Blood Head, monoprint

Richard Bright: Can we begin by saying something about your background?

Shelly Tregoning: I was born in Mauritius, spent most of my early childhood in the West Indies and have been living in Cornwall for over 30 years. My father is English and my mother Jamaican. My dad’s work with Cable and Wireless meant that we lived in many countries – the ones that probably had the most impact on me in terms of my art practice were Barbados and Bahrain.

From the West Indies, the use of the silhouette in traditional West Indian art has seeped into my work, the ‘cartoon-ness’ and immediacy of simple drawing, the use of primary, bright colour, the sense of humour, and a sense of the naive. From Bahrain, the strangeness of it all; the fact that people are ‘wrapped’ in cloth – completely (so very different from the comfortable show of flesh in the west indies), the stark nature of the light, the emptiness of the landscape, the simplicity of the lines in the architecture, the exotic nature of pattern, the embellishment, the intricate filigree and repetition pressed into material, copper and stone. And from both, the recognition of the ‘otherness’ of human features (other meaning other than the European features). And perhaps because I experienced these anthropological forms early on, they are written onto my retina, and as I get older I seem to be drawn in by the physical differences in facial structures between three cultures.

I moved to The Lizard, in Cornwall, in 1989 and have been here “every since”, as the Barbadians say. Although I studied Art at A level, it took a while to get back to it, completing a degree in Fine Art at Falmouth University in 2011.

Pete, charcoal on paper, 150 x 122cm

  RB: Have there been any particular influences to your art practice?

ST: Big Paintings. As part of my Degree at Falmouth we travelled to Berlin, New York, Amsterdam and Istanbul. I got the opportunity to stand in front of many paintings I had only read about. I felt like a kid in a sweet shop. The very large paintings….. and the very tiny paintings ….. left their mark. The drama of them, the physicality of them; the immersive nature of them. Rothko, Kline, Jackson Pollock (somehow you have to use both his names), Rothenburg, Oliveira; Kentridge and Keifer; Rembrandt, Vermeer, Dumas, Klee. Mama Anderson, Chantelle Joffe, Rose Wiley. The sweep of brush strokes, black and white, drips, scribbles, scratches. Colours that hum.

Paintings …… because I like the fact that the work has been touched by the artists’ hands. Of course, there’s also the smell of turpentine and oil.

The Printing press. The large presses in the print room at college, the very physical nature of winding the press, sticky ink, the plate, the touch of paper. The endless possibilities.

A sense of the modern – fashion, social media, the now.

Dance – the performative observation and portrayal of physical form and gesture.

I did a lot of dance when I was younger – got a place at Laban – never went. I was constantly in and out of dance classes. So the body and how it moved was very important. Looking at form continually, trying to understand and copy the smallest movement, the tiniest gesture, hones your curiosity – something not lost through the years.

Finally, Cornwall itself has had an influence on my work. Living on The Lizard means you cannot escape the elements. You walk amongst them on a daily basis – the rain, the mizzle, damp defuse light; the horizon that worms its way into your consciousness. The monochromatic nature of the greys that make up the ‘horizontals’ in this daily view. The colour of gorse – a rich, English mustard yellow. Granite. 

Mellow Yellow, 2020, monoprint,

 RB: What is the underlying focus of your work?

ST: Probably the human condition and the question of personal identity. Life happens to all of us, those familiar human things, love, happiness, disappointment, pain, fear – they are experiences that are played out in all cultures. These things are base, primal, if I can call them that. I am drawn in by the physicality of the human form and how this physicality, despite our best efforts otherwise, can betray our emotional state.

Phone Check, monoprint, 38 x 53.5 cm


Frequent Visitor, monoprint, 38 x 53.5cm


Second Chance, monoprint, 38 x 53.5 cm


Tentative Steps, Oil on Linen, 76 x 91 cm

I am interested in the way in which people hold themselves, and how they decide to portray themselves to the world – in the way they stand, or sit, how they dress, how they enter a room, the angle of their head, how close (or far apart) they stand in a group, how they engage with each other.

A person’s physicality betrays so many things, and I find this eternally fascinating. No matter how a person tries to ‘be’ there will always inherently be that telling physical moment when they reveal what’s going on beneath the surface; perhaps in the way that they stand, or turn or even sit, a vulnerability behind the eyes. I am interested in how a person holds themselves, the angle of their head, the curve of their body, the way they rest their hand or arm in that moment.

So gesture plays an important part in what I am trying to get to. The figure in my drawings and paintings stand for an inherent communality between all human beings.

Simon, Charcoal on Paper, 152 x 122 cm

 RB: What inspires and ‘informs’ your work?

ST: Everyday things. Family. Friends. Magazines. Fashion. Social Media. Books. Visiting Galleries. Film.

The need to illustrate my observation of the world and how we behave in it.

RB: Can you say something about the variety of processes that you use and how they inform one another?

ST: There are three main elements to my practice – drawing, painting and printmaking. The most important of which is drawing. Source material can come from a variety of places – my own photographs, magazines, newspapers, film.

Everything starts with drawing for me. If I have an idea, I need to draw it out. I will make many drawings of a particular image or gesture that has caught my eye or that I need to investigate. The first drawings are ‘learning’ the form. Subsequent iterations are about paring things down to the essence – which few strokes will sufficiently describe a particular gesture or emotion?

Drawings can be made in so many ways, in a linear fashion, blocks of light and shade, marks and scribbles and spills. All these methods will give the drawing different ‘lives’, different senses of emotion. The stillness of a simple pencil line, the agitation of scribbled marks and scratches on a printed plate; the richness and drama of blocks of light and shade in charcoal.

I will then usually then move onto printmaking.

Out of Silence, monoprint, 38 x 53.5cm


Ice Shadows, monoprint, 44 x 32 cm

I think people still see print as a secondary art form, a way to sketch up work before you do the bigger, more important painting. But I use monoprinting as another way to express my ideas and the process satisfies me enormously – the wiping away of ink from the plate, of the subtly different, fading versions that can be lifted from one printing plate to another – the journey between ‘ghost’ copies – the making of a different image every time. It’s almost like a film strip. I enjoy the painterly quality of mono prints – it can get you away from ‘line’, the ability to layer paint up, plate by plate, and retain the ability to draw onto it. The joy of printmaking, for me, is that it breaks down the accuracy of the work and therefore broadens its potential. It is in these accidents that things can start to get interesting. It takes away the coordinated hand/eye control of a pencil on paper and leaves instead the ‘wrongness’ of the bleed of ink or pattern that can occur through pressure, adding something for the eye and the brain to ‘worry’ at in a final image.

From a selection of experimental prints, ideas for paintings occur.  My painting process has become more successful the closer I try and replicate the printing process. ’Mistakes’ in the printing process can be taken into the final painting working in layers rather than working paint into paint on the canvas.  I still try and draw the figure with the edge of my brush. I like brevity, a line that suggests the form, a moment captured in a very few descriptive lines.

Quiet Revolution, Oil on Linen, 152 x 183 cm


The Game, Oil on Linen, 122 x 152cm

RB: What can you say about the concept of space in your drawings?

ST: So for me it is important to focus on the figure, the gesture. Making the figure the main focus is a way of exploring the inner self in order to talk about things we cannot express. The human figure resonates across time and space to connect with everyone and images of the body allow us to project ourselves into other worlds and find our common humanity.

I feel compelled to get rid of everything else because I want the focus to be on the emotional state. I do not want the distraction of place or time – the gestures I am attempting to capture are universal and the human eye understands the slump of the hip, the tension in raised shoulders, the melancholy of a downturned head.

Space keeps everything still, it suspends time.

Space invites the viewer to fill in the blanks. It lets you paint your own story. The lack of narrative leaves you with a sense of ‘feeling’ – almost fixing emotions in space and time.

Space invites reflection and contemplation and gives the solitary figures a universality and symbolic quality that alludes to the human condition.

Simple horizons creep into the picture plane – the influence of living on the coast, I guess.  The space seems eternal, and the things I am trying to convey are also eternal.

Nathan Oliveira was a big influence on me when I started out. He was the youngest of the Bay Figurative artists – a group of artists who shied away from the the Abstract Expressionistic style that gripped their time in the late 50s. I used to have a copy of Oliveira’s ‘Manolette’’ 1958 on my wall. It is a painting of a solitary figure that appears to be frozen, slightly off-balance, light emanating from it. He chose to use the solitary figure to express a sense of spirituality. Maybe I am trying to express this too.

RB: Can you say something about your recent works on paper, Twisty Feet and The Wall? 

Twisty Feet, monoprint


The Wall, monoprint

ST: ‘Twisty Feet’ is an image of a girl, hands in pocket, who stands alone. I made this for an exhibition called ‘Fragile” and at a time when my own two daughters were about to leave home. The figure in this image is placed at the edge of the picture plane, as if she is about to step off the paper into the unknown. Hands firmly in her pockets, hesitant. The tension in this image lies in her feet – the gesture harks back to childhood and a familiar pose taken up by the very young when they are unsure of what to do next – they stand, toes facing inwards and feet rolling onto their outside edges – uncertain.

The picture is very flat and the yellow background alludes to the colour of gorse which comes out in the Spring and is the reminder of new possibilities. The figure itself is a silhouette described in two tones of grey and is pared down to the bare essentials. The title reinforces our focus and the point of tension in the piece.

In ‘The Wall’ , a young girl sits alone on an imaginary wall, legs dangling loosely as she stares at something off to the right. The space that surrounds her, keeps her suspended in time, in quiet and in stillness. It’s a curious piece, emphasized by the curious marks that make up her body – the process of happy accident in the printing process that works to the image’s advantage (purpose). The title gives you a starting point – a jumping off point – if you will – for her story. The rest you have to come up with yourself.  The only clues are the subtle leaning forward of her body – she moves towards whatever is catching her attention, and the loose nature of her legs. She is relaxed. 

Faith and Folly, Oil on Linen, 122 x 152cm

RB: Your recent exhibition, In Search of Our Perfect Selves (Arusha Gallery, Edinburgh), explored both the presented and perceived self. Can you say more about this exhibition?

ST: This exhibition included paintings – large and small, and a number of monoprints, set together closely, one against the other.  I explore physicality and the interpretation of gesture. I was very interested in the modern phenomena of social media and the way in which we need to ‘present’ our best self – or rather, a constructed self to the world. But it seems to me, that the very nature of how we decide to present this construction, gives away the very truth of our nature.  Subtle physical clues lead us to that truth.

The packaging and presentation of this carefully constructed ‘hyper-self’ seems to me a very real social expectation, but at what cost?

Selfies, oil on prepared paper

Selfies, oil on prepared paper

Selfies, oil on prepared paper

Selfies, oil on prepared paper

RB: In terms of the viewer, what are you trying to communication with this exhibition?

ST: In this series of paintings and prints, I present moments frozen in time, and try to pose a variety of possibilities in the reading of these gestures. One denim be-decked man sits, sprawled across the canvas, filling the entire space – the lines of his legs lead us to his crotch where his hands rest. He is stares at you – daring you. He looks very self-satisfied. This contrasts with another image of a man perched on a narrow stool, hands clasped between his knees, a tension in his legs which are pressed firmly together. These two paintings are set before you – it is left to you to interpret their physical gestures to get at the truth of the sitter. In a series of tiny monochromatic paintings, I started looking at how my daughters and their friends used social media; how they create their ‘perfect lives’. These small paintings were presented in a clear acrylic box-like frames – possibly alluding to the mobile phone cameras on which the images were originally taken. But it didn’t escape me that, in these bold, over-sexualised pouting self-portraits, their vulnerability screamed out.

The collection of work sets one physical gesture up against a contrasting one – perhaps like a set of cards. I guess I am hoping that by seeing a variety of possibilities, the viewer may recognise themselves, or at least, recognise humanity.

RB: What projects are you currently working on or have coming up in the future?

ST: I have been filming and drawing in the performing arts department at University of the South West College here in Cornwall. I would like to make a series of drawings, following the continual flow of movement of a body across a space – still very much looking at the physicality of human gesture, but instead of taking a frozen moment in time, tracing this movement across a space.

I would like to work in collaboration with performers, focusing on the interpretation of physical gesture, and out of this study, to create a number of large scale drawings and mono prints and perhaps present them in the form of an installation – a space combining live performance and drawing.  These ideas are very much in their infancy, but watch this space.


All images copyright and courtesy of Shelly Tregoning

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