Creative In the Countryside: Deborah Vass
Nicola: We’d love you to start by telling us about your journey and work as a painter and print maker?
Deborah: The course of my art has been a convoluted one! In my 20s and 30s I painted mostly in oils. I would paint the plants, vegetables and flowers I grew in my cottage garden in Norwich, where I then lived. I exhibited in galleries in East Anglia and at the Mall Galleries.
A move to Diss prompted a change in direction. I trained to be a teacher of English, as literature is my other absorbing love. It was not an intentional break from art, but teaching consumed all my time. It left little space for my painting and drawing, which went on the back burner for many years. As time went by I felt a gnawing need to return to it. So I began creating small paintings, sketches and Lino prints again.
This year I finished teaching. I have resumed my art career full time and am relishing every moment of it! My work now goes beyond my immediate environment to encompass the local landscape of the Fenland and Breckland.
I go out to sketch and return with handfuls of seedpods, grasses, feathers and other detritus. Sometimes they spark a series of paintings, such as my current ones of hedgerow plants. Or they simply decorate my studio poised to inspire. I love the small, subtle details of our native flora and enjoy making detailed sketches of them. In paintings I like to show the insects and bugs we live alongside. I will often bring home empty snail shells from my walks as reference material.
My bird prints have come from a lifelong love of birds. Norfolk couldn’t be a better place to study birds. I try to visit the North Norfolk and Suffolk coast whenever I can. Here I sit in the bird hides, draw and observe. In winter it is such a magical place.
I love the process of printmaking. I especially love creating Lino prints. I find them both absorbing and meditative. I make sketches from a wide range of sources. I use my own photographs, as well as the bird's behaviour and habitats, to capture their character. I use a converted mangle, a somewhat eccentric beast, as a printing press. I never fail to enjoy the reveal of that first print of a series.
Nicola: From where do you draw your inspiration?
Deborah: There are so many wonderful printmakers. I love the work of Thomas Bewick, Clare Leighton, Agnes Miller Parker and Charles Tunnicliffe, whose bird art is peerless. His work shows such a deep understanding and knowledge of birds. I would love to have the chance to go out sketching with him!
I also enjoy Japanese prints for their simplicity and use of spaces between subjects. Literature, especially nature writing, is also a significant influence. I love thepoetry of Edward Thomas and Robert Frost for their observations of the natural world. I love the writing of Alison Uttley and Flora Thompson. They record the seasonal changes so beautifully. I also love the work of Richard Mabey, whose books are a source of constant reference. As well as the late Roger Deakin who lived close by.
The local landscape is also of great importance to me. I am very lucky to live near Redgrave and Lopham Fen, a local Wildlife Trust. I walk and draw here regularly –it is my local patch. In the winter I love the soft, muted colour of the reed beds and the birds that haunt them. It is a place of constant joy
Nicola: You live in Diss, a small market town in the Waveney Valley in the UK. Can you tell us more about your town, your home and your creative space?
Deborah: Diss is a small market town that sits on the border of Norfolk and Suffolk. Its most arresting feature is “The Mere”, a six-acre lake in the centre of the town that my garden borders. This lake brings in hordes of ducks and other wildfowl that share the garden with Alan,my ginger cat. Alan is often seen making a running dash at them to let them know whose garden it really is. My home is a small 18th century cottage that was once a blacksmith’s. The blacksmith had a pet raven working alongside him, in what is now my book room. It has had lots of additions over the years and is rather an architectural hodgepodge
My studio is an outbuilding, tucked into the top of my sloping garden. Although it is damp and cold in winter it has lots of light. It is blissfully cut off from distractions. That is, except for the bird feeders outside my window. The garden used to be part of a market garden and some of the old, gnarled apple trees remain.
Nicola: Can you tell us about the process of your work from the time of inspiration to the finished artwork?
Deborah: Most of my work comes from the jottings and drawings I make in my sketchbooks. I try to draw as much as possible. This could be quick sketches of birds flitting about, or more detailed plant drawings. Some develop into prints and oil paintings, even if years later. Others are made simply for the sheer joy of drawing.
I love the way drawing makes you look at something.It shows if your mind drifts for even a second. Drawing trains you to keep focused and be mindful at all times. When drawing and preparing a print of birds I love to research and understand the subject. I have an ever-increasing library of natural history books. I love to look at the work of Victorian naturalists. I also find the Observer series and Puffin Picture books of nature irresistible.
Nicola: When you aren’t creating what do you enjoy doing?
Deborah: I am very much involved in nature conservation, including the local Wildlife Trusts and Butterfly Conservation.I am very keen on moths and keep a moth trap to record what visits the garden. It constantly amazes me what nocturnal creatures roam the garden. I am also a keen gardener and grow as much of my own fruit and vegetables as I can.
Nicola: You say you seek the overlooked and celebrate the small joys in life. Can you tell us what this means to you?
Deborah:I like to draw on those plants, insects and birds that aren’t always noticed. I want to encourage others to stop and take notice of the small wonders around us. I rarely return from a walk without seeing something new and love togo home and discover more about it. Many native British plants aren't showy and their delicate, subtle beauty can be missed. When out walking I try to record the insects I see. I'm often found crawling about in hedgerows or bogs, trying to catch sight of some elusive creature. I would love to encourage others to see and share these small joys aswell.