Self Portrait from the Cargo Ship


Self Portrait from the Cargo Ship

Debbie Chessell

“I was responding to that side of it- being stuck in the middle of a really inaccessible space.”

Interview by L. Valena

What did you respond to?

It was a short piece of writing called Blue, about the experience of living on a cargo ship. It talked about the science behind how the ship was able to stay afloat, and that was juxtaposed with the everyday experience of walking up and down the boat. It was really interesting.

What was your first reaction to that?

I was very surprised! I never thought I would be making art about cargo ships- never saw that one coming.

Isn't it weird that these cargo ships are all around us in the ocean, and they're such a part of our lives? But they're just invisible.

Yeah! Definitely. The piece of writing was really interesting. I read it a few times, and the more I read it the more I found it to be sort of sad- the tone of it was a bit sad, which I didn't notice at first. It was an interesting piece of writing.

What happened next?

I started looking up pictures of cargo ships, and doing some general research. It mentioned some terminology I didn't know. I started looking at pictures and videos, and researching generally what they look like. I was trying to think about what the experience could be, and then re-reading the piece again every time I saw an image that I found really interesting, and seeing how it related.

Cool! Where did you go from there?

For awhile I considered making a lino print. What really stood out to me in this piece was how the writer must have felt on the ship. The writing about the boat was very factual- it was written in a way that felt rigid, and it made me think that the writer was trying to hide what they were actually feeling. Across the surface of the boat, it was all about what kept them sane- and that was one of the only little mentions of what it seemed like they were actually feeling, but they were keeping it bottled. I wanted to make a work that responded to that- I was thinking about doing it quite literally. Like maybe a lino print of someone on a boat, or a boat on the ocean. I considered making a work that was really massive, with a huge ocean scene and a boat in the middle. I went around these ideas quite a few times, and then ended up realizing that it would be more powerful if I stripped it all completely back, and just did a portrait. Capture the emotion without getting any of the context it.

So you're really working with the idea of someone just kind of barely keeping it together.

Yeah. The thing that really stood out to me, especially when I started looking at the images, was thinking about how you feel being basically completely alone and trapped in a vast space. The writing spoke about being in the middle of a huge ocean, and not seeing anyone for awhile, that sort of thing. It really made me think about what it would be like to be in a space like that. I was responding to that side of it- being stuck in the middle of a really inaccessible space.

Can you tell me how you were working with those emotions in this portrait?

It ended up being a self portrait, mostly because I needed a model for the emotion.

I know exactly what you mean. I think it's always easier to create a self portrait when you're trying to portray a specific emotion. It's easier to model the emotion yourself than to try to project it onto someone else.

Exactly. I set up a mirror behind where I was painting. I looked at the mirror, and worked out a pose. I looked up some of my favorite painters, like Lucien Freud and Andrew Salgado, and looked at the paintings that I thought were close to the kind of mood that I wanted to get. I tried to tie the whole lot together by looking at the movement of the ocean in the images I was looking at. I came up with this pose of a quite cropped in portrait with the subject looking out to one side. And then started painting layers.

When you look at this piece now, what does it say to you?

I'm really happy with how the colors came out. It surprised me how working from such an unusual source really changed my painting- it was really beneficial. I never would have though about working from images like that before. And although there's not a direct link, there's bits in there. In one image I was looking at, I really liked the different layers of water, and stuff. I can see where I thought about that in the painting.

I love how you kind of pulled these colors out- it's almost like a remix.

Thank you!

What else do you have to say about this process?

It was an absolutely fascinating process. It's a way of working that I hadn't done before. I found it very powerful to collaborate with another artist in that way. I didn't know the person or the work- there's no context around it. It was really interesting to completely respond to that one little moment.

Cool! Yeah, I think there ends up being this intimacy with a stranger.

It's interesting. When I studied art at university, and there would be crits when we'd have to respond to each other's work, but you'd always know the person, or they'd be in the room, or you'd have chatted to them about it before. There was always more context to it, and it was really interesting to see a piece of artwork, and really think about it with absolutely no previous context whatsoever. It wasn't like finding a piece of work online, or at a gallery- it's always been curated for you in those spaces, and there's more context. Whereas, getting this piece of artwork sent through email was just great.

Call Number: M19PP | M23VA.cheSe

Debbie Chessell


Debbie Chessell is an independent artist who creates public art works, paintings and prints, and teaches across the South of the UK. She has been exhibiting for almost ten years and has pieces held in international collections including Dumfries House (Scotland, UK), St George's Hospital (London, UK) and the Suzzallo Library (Washington, USA). Her projects have been supported by O2, Mayor of London, SHEDx, Kingston Council and more - check out her current interactive public art project 'The Beehive' on her website