Joanna Henly is an artist, illustrator, and Live / Street Artist. She aptly goes under the moniker of ‘Miss Led’ — if you (like myself and 100,000 others) have seen any of her ‘live working’ Facebook videos you will appreciate there is little distinction between the pencil and the artist.
Henly studied and trained as Fine Artist in the beautiful seaside city of Portsmouth, “I didn’t want to be in London at that point in time, so I ended up studying the Goldsmiths course in Portsmouth — that was a double win for me because I love being by the sea.” Shortly after graduating she was shortlisted for exhibitions and was doing shows in London at galleries including the Saatchi Gallery.
When I chatted with Joanna it was a lovely sunny day; with light pouring in to her bright studio, and Bitter Sweet — one of her favourite works and a big inspiration for her new collection Eye Contact (a long time in the making and due to be released on November 29th) — hanging behind her. Despite her previous reservations about London, Henly now works from her beautiful studio in East London. Because her father was in the armed services, when growing up she wouldn’t stay anywhere longer than four years – but she has endured, and even thrived, in London (a notoriously difficult and expensive city for creatives) for the last 18 years — she must be doing something right! It was here Henley working as a Live Street Artist (the rare, legitimate kind that are commissioned for live drawing events and bespoke murals), and has gone on to work as an illustrator for some of the largest brands on the planet, including: Google, Clinique, Braun, Selfridges, L’Oréal and The National Portrait Gallery. It is this wealth of experience and training in myriad disciplines and industries that allows Henly to deftly use juxtaposing styles (a technique frequently employed by fellow Street Artist Banksy) in her own personal artworks.
But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing; the initial move to London was tricky and Henly describes the dilemma of having to decide between “food or a studio”. It was around this time that, tired of the elitism she found in contemporary art culture at the time, took an extended break out of the art world, “I just stopped doing everything: I stopped drawing, I stopped sketching, I just stopped … for about 8 years. That was a big deal for me because I’d grown up drawing was a constant, my solace and in turn, my identity. It was by way of engaging with the world around me. I had no career skills from my degree course, but I could touch type — so I went from a Jenny Saville wannabe to an Office Angel in Tottenham Court Road. In fact I did so many different jobs, from food prep, tele sales, envelope stuffing, and then finally found myself working in an office job which propelled me into PR — wow, that was short lived. After an existential crisis, I quit my job, just like that. I needed to set my head straight. So worked as a waitress in some of the best restaurants in London until finding a Public Art course in Middlesex where I could get my bearings and work out my ambitions again. That was a really difficult time […] But eventually I moved into an amazing studio flat in Dalston and just one evening started drawing again. Using Myspace as my inspiration and resource for amazing models and I just didn’t stop drawing. Sometimes not leaving the house for 4 days. I was so very excited […] My Myspace Portrait project grew and people were really digging it. I created my pseudonym to hide behind and used my profile as a gallery space for my new quick evolving portfolio and meeting some amazing individuals at the time. I think Devonte Hynes was my third portrait – he was pre Test Icicles and of course, Blood Orange then. I’d bump into him on Kingsland Road a lot where he’d tell me how he wished he could draw so well. Still one of my favourite portraits and nicest guy […] Overnight came a flurry of demand; I was showing in Florida, California, Berlin and getting some tasty press in Europe too. Myspace ran an ‘Introducing’, campaign and ran an advert linking to my page for something like 12 weeks. It literally went off.”
Soon, Henly was throwing herself at any artistic challenge available: “I it was seriously do or die – I did not want to go back to selling hair removal cream to health and beauty magazines […] I was aware of a Street Art-style tournament, where painters would create work in front of a big audience. It was called Secret Wars. Being friends of the wonderful team at Designers Block, who I knew mostly from the parties at that time — which they held in their incredible old and decaying pub Kingsland Road — I got in touch and said I’d like to be involved.
The terms were a little different to what I’d imagined. It was more taking part than being involved. Thinking that it would be a relaxed art wall scribble that would be on the sidelines of an existing party was big in contrast to the reality of it being a testosterone fuelled football-style tournament where the winner would have to battle four rounds in three hours, covering over 24ft x 8ft of white wall. It was 16 to 1 – serious stuff I thought […] Being dissuaded by the organisers really pushed me to want it more. I didn’t care that no other girls had competed, or faltered before the start. I’d use that to my advantage and just turn up. As long as I was competing I was winning in that respect, right? The other guys, street artist and spray painters had been doing this kind of stuff since they were fifteen. What was I doing? So I practiced with massive sheets of paper on my lounge wall and in my studio and a drew until I knew my four designs without reference. I wanted to make the audience question whether I was free styling or not […] I was the shortest contestant, it was hilarious. I had a guy carrying around a small plinth so I could reach the top. My whole body shook like hell, it was so nerve wracking doing something I’d not even tried before and in front of something like 1500 people.”
Henly ended up disproving everyone’s doubts about her ability, so much so, she won the entire tournament and soon found herself being whisked off to colourful Barcelona — where she would do the whole thing all over again, and be reunited with the works of Miss Van and Fafi. She was beyond inspired and full of creative energy — and it seems from this point she has not really stopped.
Her profound technical ability and the variety of styles Henly has in her metaphorical toolbox has ensured a steady stream of work with global brands. Her live painting skills taking her to the Google HQ in Paris to demonstrate her ability – not in a warehouse this time, but in virtual reality for Google Tiltbrush (not yet available in Europe): “Before I went I was thinking, ‘How am I going to do this? How is it going to work?’ Because as soon as you put your headset on that’s it; it’s not like I could even see my hand and you’re just standing there in the dark, then someone hands you the controller – it’s scary if you have vertigo or afraid of the dark, thankfully I don’t suffer from either, but there were certain spaces I couldn’t be in to begin with – like outerspace […] The tools were amazing, you could chose oil paint and it would literally be like painting with oil paint in air. So I created my own environment, sculpting these huge flowers, and you could go inside the stamen, and I made things rotate … it was insane.”
Henly has also painted the interior of the 4 story D&ME Boutique, formerly Paul and Joe store on Brompton Road, Kensington in London – using spray paints for a strong Street Art style – a huge Alice in Wonderland interior (above) for Meg Mathews featured in Style magazine; a young girls bedroom became another canvas in an incredible house in Battersea which required a scaffold tower and for Big Chill she was asked to create the imagery for the main stage, on which she saw Massive Attack play, Tom York and others perform , “There was a huge crescendo at the end of Massive Attack’s set, I was standing next to the higher viewing platform where a number of young people with learning disabilities were watching and a few stood from their wheelchairs and cheered. It still chokes me now, I felt that I had been part of that. An incredible opportunity ”
It is all these mediums that have now informed her new collection, EyeContact, we see the beginnings of this amalgam of styles in Bitter Sweet — which as she says “was really the starting point for this collection with the tattoo culture alongside a gorgeous wide eyed girl …” (if you can imagine a tattooed Pre-Raphaelite model, you’re on the right lines).
But the emotional starting point for this collection was something that we are all bombarded with: the idea female empowerment and women in the media. As Henly says, she had a “bee in her bonnet” about certain ways in which women are often portrayed. I asked her to explain: “I think the media often portrays women very two dimensionally — basically as a selling model. I was born in the mid ‘70s, a jump suit kid with bunches; I loved skate boarding and the million dollar man; I still had a Barbie and a Cindy; though I wanted to dress and draw make up on them…but I had access to so much more stuff when I was growing up; there wasn’t this gendered ideal, no black or white. Or should I say, pink or blue. Its really sad as it kinda feels like we’ve reverted back to the ‘50s. I find that increasingly hard, especially having a really important 8 year-old in my life (my niece). I know things are slowly changing, and advertising is visibly acknowledging this cultural regression. There is a voice there, but I can’t help finding it a little muffled.”
For Intimate, her debut solo show, on Kingsland Road last year, Henly reached out to some of the “amazing, successful and kick-ass females” in her network and decided to let them inform the artworks, “I was used to a way of working where I was client-led, so I thought, why not give me my models that authority […] After a short photoshoot that I conducted in my studio of each ‘subject’, I emailed them a set of questions about what things, elements that they responded to or identified with – perhaps a flower, or a designer, a tattoo or a personal object and to question them about imparting a statement or mantra. Maya Angelou’s words, ‘Still I Rise’ shaped in a dress of a statuesque model surrounded by her favourite planets whilst they revolve around her literally and metaphorically.”
Henly admires artists such as Cindy Sherman, Franke Hollywood and Faile; and in regards to fashion, the more playful and fanatical designers and photographers such as Medham Kirchoff, Mui Mui and the spectacularly surreal Tim Walker. She says that although she takes inspiration from a lot of fashion illustration (see the older Vogue illustrations) she finds they are often “self-referential,” and lacking a narrative.
Henley likes the storytellers of the art world, something she demonstrates in her own work, and explains why she has a particular soft-spot for Alexander McQueen, “Understanding the context of complexities of power and abuse in McQueen’s life through connection of his sister seemed to project through his work in a sort of retaliation he dressed his women with snapping crocodiles and snakes, armoured corsets and padded suits. Power dressed to another level. Dealing with issues of entrapment, vulnerability and strength is something I connect with a lot in my work […] I think fashion and it’s culture is amazingly beautiful, sexy, wonderful thing, though it’s power to get under our skin and question us is regressive. Taking power from young women and the visibility of that rising it saddening. It has a purpose and more often than not to sell – regardless of the cost; I don’t want to get hugely political. But the way I want to push back a little is to highlight the way we are engaging with imagery: the model is passive and we in turn are passive – so to be able to create a visible layer, to subvert that is important to me; to allow a little friction to happen, for the viewer to be empowered to think.”
It is with the mantras personal to her models, and the contrasting styles of highly detailed illustration with watercolour, digital oil paint effects, and graffiti-style writing for the mantras, that elevate her work from the merely beautiful, to artworks with substance and context. As Henly says, the EyeContact collection is “a really nice opportunity to put those opposites – regrowth and strength, and vulnerability and transformation — and put that on a pedestal.”
What are Miss Led’s plans for next year?
“The ambition next year is to go really big again, really huge. I can’t wait!”