Jo Peel is the epitome of the urban artist. Her cityscapes have decorated walls, restaurants and galleries around the world, redefining what has traditionally been known as a beautiful landscape. But it was Sheffield that sparked this fascination with urban environments and in her interview with Sheff Culture, she tells us how this began and where it has led her.
One of Sheffield’s most impressive home-grown artists, Jo Peel has worked all over the world, from London to Tokyo, Pittsburgh and Poland but she remains drawn to the steel city. “Sheffield was a great city to grow up in. It’s probably why after being away for so long that I have migrated back. It’s got a real sense of community and is small enough to get around mainly on foot, but it is also big enough to surprise you. And the Peaks of course, I love the openness of the hills so close to the city.”
Peel’s work has been exhibited in galleries across Sheffield and she continues to be inspired by its industrial surroundings: “I think Sheffield was a huge influence on my work and I didn’t really realise until I moved back. The people of Sheffield are deeply connected to their environment and there is a strong sense of identity. When I worked on my solo show at the Millennium Gallery, this was the influence for that work. Comparing Sheffield with Pittsburgh in the USA to see how a connection to the roots of a steel city feed into the current environment and the people.”
Although Peel has visited so many other industrial landscapes, it is clear that she has a particular affinity with Sheffield. After spending her youth here, she studied in Cornwall and resided in London for a while until finally resettling in the South Yorkshire city.
“Growing up, the industrial past always seemed so relevant and so close. There was this real sense of community and an understanding of what it meant to be from Sheffield. When I moved away I was surprised that this strength of identity wasn’t shared so strongly by other towns and cities within the UK.”
Capturing the identity of a city seems almost instinctive for Peel, a quality her artwork reflects, “I think that buildings can take on character and a humanity. When I draw and paint I try to understand the small elements that make up the bigger picture and make a place unique.”
Peel’s art is easily identifiable, featuring cityscapes of cranes, factories and building sites- subjects in contrast to more traditional landscape painters, she admits “I’ve never been interested in painting natural landscapes up to this point as I just feel like the beauty is already there. There are artists who are able to evoke this beauty on canvas or in photography, but for me I just don’t feel like there is anything to explore artistically. When I am in the city it’s like my mind becomes alive and I just want to capture moments and tell stories.”
Not only is Peel’s work recognisable for its unique subject matter but also for her individual colour palette. Black and white outlines are often splashed with bright blue and orange to transform a grey industrial backdrop into an urban Eden.
“I didn’t deliberately choose the colours, but they sort of found their way in through a process of elimination. I used to use a lot more colours but I realised that when painting buildings onto buildings, a paired back colour scheme works better, as more colour and texture can just get lost amidst the environment. Black and white line work mirrors my pen drawings on paper. Blue seemed like an obvious choice due to the lines of the sky and then orange has slowly crept back in. The luminous orange is so prevalent on building sites and on traffic signals so I think I was always drawn to it for this reason.”
With the end of the year approaching, Peel has been extremely busy but 2018 isn’t looking any calmer. “In January and February I’m off to Cambodia to paint some murals. In March I have a few projects lined up in London and Amsterdam and I’m working towards an Amsterdam based exhibition with Mark McClure as well as a large scale mural in London.”
Peel has also “been interested in making a show comparing manufactured cities in different countries around the world (Brasilia in Brazil, Dubai) to see how culture and ideologies affect the place and how humans deconstruct what was meant to be perfect.”
As the influence that humans have on their environment becomes more and more important, it is interesting to hear the perspective of someone who works so closely with the man-made environment. Of the conflict between preserving the world’s natural environment and expanding our cities to accommodate for ever increasing population growth Peel explains, “ultimately if we continue at this rate there won’t be enough resources. I’ve already seen this happening in places like Bali, where there just isn’t enough electricity and water to go around due to the demand and cooler climate in the form of air conditioning as well as an influx of people demanding fresh water and resources.”
“I think we need to maintain and respect our environment, but the system needs to change and so does education. By creating change on a micro level we can influence things but it has to be a group effort and we might just not have enough time.”
From Sheffield to Bali, Peel has clearly been influenced by both land and cityscapes and, even as an urban artist, realises the importance of maintaining natural as well as man-made environments.