Nature is an underlying theme in Justine Ashbee’s work.
The American artist has been making a name for herself with her intricate line drawings and weavings, capturing light and shadow, as well as the imagination of the observer. Sourcing her materials from her travels and referencing ancient history she encounters during her extensive research, Justine relies on her instincts rather than any pre-determined plans. It’s this spirit of letting things occur naturally that makes her such an intriguing character and artist.
We visit Justine at her studio in a converted farmhouse outside of Brighton to discuss her decision to move her practice to the UK four years ago and to find out what role curiosity plays in her work. When talking about her practice, one instantly gets the feeling the young artist is very sensitive to other people’s awareness – humble, yet quietly confident.
Justine, your weavings could be considered both pieces of art and lifestyle objects. Was that your intention?
I would say I am an artist, but I think my ultimate output could be appreciated both as a design object or a kind of artistic lifestyle object. That stems from my past, growing up with someone very close to me saying that they didn’t understand art. I believe that every object you live with should be beautiful to you and have meaning to you. I put a great deal of research and energy into my work and want to infuse it with as much depth, profundity and meaning as possible. I still always want to make sure that it’s a beautiful experience and that it can be appreciated just for its beauty; you don’t have to have a lengthy critical repertoire of why, and how to understand something. I want people to have a visceral response and be able to have a visceral approach to beautiful objects.
You were part of Seattle’s creative community for a long time. Why did you move to Brighton?
I lived in Seattle for ten years, it has a great creative community. When I met my husband, who’s the director of an animation company in Brighton, I was more mobile, so I moved over and set up my studio here. I think I underestimated moving away from such a close-knit creative community. However, within months of moving here, I was working on the Ace Hotel project in Shoreditch and with different interior designers for a couple of hotel commissions. All of a sudden, I had a new landscape for what I was doing and a new set of criteria in my approach. It’s taken me time to adjust to England, but it’s like one of your eccentric aunts – once you learn her ways, you start to appreciate her nuances. It was a move for love that ended up being successful on all levels.
That sounds like everyone’s dream come true. What do you find are the biggest differences between Brighton and Seattle?
I now have access to North-Africa, which is just a three hour flight away, which means I get to go to Tunisia and Morocco for buying trips and retreats. I think the immediate difference is that America is such a huge country. The land there is so majestic and varied, you know. You go from these canyon valleys and extensive desert plains to estuaries and forests – there’s just so much to explore within one country.
It also seems so much more untouched. In Europe everything is quite built up. It’s not so easy to find wilderness.
Yes, there is a majesty to it. But at the same time, here, travelling for just a few hours, you can be in a completely different culture, with completely different light and architecture – that is exciting.
Are you influenced by the surroundings here in Europe in a different way?
Yes. For example, we just spent a couple of weeks in Greece and that was really inspiring. Time kind of stopped. The colour combinations were outstanding – neon pink flowers and deep oranges set against a building painted lilac. It was just this really interesting, bizarre, out of time experience. I guess I’m still processing it. I think that the colours that I experienced in Greece are so informed by the land hitting the sea – those rich, earth ochres and siennas hitting these glass, crystals, blues and greens.
I spotted that beautiful loom in your studio, it’s the centrepiece of the room. Where did you get it?
When I first met Dom, my husband, and had decided to come over, I told him I needed to work. To do that, I needed a loom. He actually found the East Sussex Weavers’ Guild and got really deep into this whole world of granny weavers and managed to find this beautiful loom. Even today, I do most of my weavings on it. It was this beautiful love gift from him. I believe that when you give someone a gift, there’s this special energy of blessing around it, so it’s a very special loom.
“I believe that when you give someone a gift, there’s this special energy of blessing around it.”
Where do you source your materials and how do you decide which materials to use?
From my travels. I will go to different flea markets and souks or collect different fibers and yarns that intrigue me and I often won’t immediately know why I’m drawn to them – I’ll be drawn to a certain colour, or a texture or light quality.
I like that you let yourself be carried by your instincts.
Yeah, you have to. You have to stay curious and allow yourself to engage in your uncertainty. We’re all curious. As long as we allow ourselves to follow our inclinations, we keep a fresh energy. I think that it’s really crucial, particularly as a creative person, to allow yourself to not really know why you’re interested in something but just allow that curiosity to lead you.
Do you find it difficult to part with your work?
Some pieces, definitely. I’ve kept some, I have one or two hanging in our house that I will never part with and that will always stay with us. Before the weaving, I was doing these line drawings – it was just as simple as drawing lines repetitively, but then they started to morph into weavings of tiny, delicate lines. I was so mobile during my twenties, I didn’t have looms to weave on, so I just took to weaving with lines. It became this extreme act of precise physical discipline. Some of them had this special energy in them and were really difficult to part with. I had to remind myself that I wasn’t making them to keep them, that wasn’t my role.
What do you mean by that?
My role is to bring this information into the world and share it with people. They can experience that energy and gain something from the drawings or weavings. I’m in awe of the process and the result and I want to share that with other people.
“I think that it’s really crucial to allow yourself to not really know why you’re interested in something but just allow that curiosity to lead you.”
I really like your Instagram and how you use it to connect with your community. Was that a conscious decision or did it progress naturally over time?
For a time I didn’t even know people were following me. I was taking sexy photos for my husband and all of a sudden I realised this is public. That was early days though, I had like four or five followers and they were all my friends, luckily. But during that time it was also a way for me to catalogue my explorations with my work. As I was photographing this intimate creative process, more and more people started following my feed. It was exciting having people from different parts of the world engaging in something so intimate. Now, it’s an avenue of visual communication. My feed is more curated, I use it as an image story, posting images together to create an atmosphere for a feeling that ties into the work.
Would you say you think in images then?
Yeah, absolutely, I’m a vivid dreamer. I drive my husband insane, because I know where every little minuscule object in our house is. I have this visual photographic memory. So we have this strange infuriating interaction, where I’m annoyed that he can’t find anything and he’s annoyed that I know where everything is. (laughs) I have an extensive visual memory. I’ll remember a face from when I was five, but I’m terrible at names and I’m terrible at facts.
We go for a walk in the nearby countryside. One of Justine’s favorite spots is Cuckmere Haven, situated by The Seven Sisters, the famous chalk cliffs in East Sussex. The area’s smuggling past can be sensed by the mysterious mist rolling in over the sea.
Do you know where you want to see your work progress to in a few years?
There’s been talk of having children. Because my work is so labor-intensive and physical, there is an underlying goal to develop work where the labour can be done by others and to somehow get into a new creative pattern, where I trust myself to design as an artist and then give the production over to someone else. That’s my current goal, but every time I come close to it, the control freak in me steps in and says I’ll do it (laughs). Sometimes I think my hands are smarter than my design intellect, they do things I couldn’t think up.
I guess you said it, it’s so intuitive.
Exactly. It’s hard to just turn over a drawing to someone else to execute. Even when I work from my own sketches, the pieces evolve as they are made. When I make a piece with my own hands, it turns into something much more interesting and unplanned. That’s the barrier I’m currently faced with. I need to get to the other side of it or figure out what that barrier is exactly and how to work with it.
Your studio is very remote in the countryside. Was it important to you to be surrounded by nature?
Yes, my relationship with nature is essential in the work that I’m doing. I’m fascinated by how different cultures ritualize their relationships with nature. What they perceive as spirits in nature, what they bring to us, and how we ceremonially mark moments in time, governed by the natural world around us. I need a lot of solitude and silence. I love listening to different music and sometimes that will facilitate an altered awareness, but generally I need silence and a lot of time alone. This studio out in the woods is really peaceful and I can get away from the distractions and listen to what’s around me.
Thank you, Justine, for showing us around your studio and the beautiful surrounding countryside. Read more about Justine’s work at Native Line.
This portrait is part of our ongoing collaboration with ZEIT Online who presents a special curation of our pictures on ZEIT Magazin Online.