Hettie Inniss in the Studio
Studio Visit

Hettie Inniss in the Studio

By Phoebe Bradford | London, 31 May 2024 | Interviews

Unlocking a lost memory—often triggered by a sight, sound, or smell—can be intense, 'like you've been whiplashed into a different timeline', explains London-based artist Hettie Inniss.

Paintings inspired by sense memories feature in her exhibition, Rememories from the Floating World (30 May–20 July 2024) at GRIMM in London, which coincides with London Gallery Weekend 2024. Her works depict undefined spaces, where paint seems to slip and fade into backgrounds, aptly echoing the unstable nature of memory.

Ocula Advisory met with Inniss in her Holborn studio to discuss her most recent paintings, the various methods she uses to trigger memories, and her process of translating them onto canvas.

Hettie Inniss.

Hettie Inniss. Courtesy GRIMM, Amsterdam/London/New York. Photo: Peter Mallet.

What does a typical day in the studio look like for you?

My routine varies, but I typically start the day by assessing my work, which involves observing how different elements have dried, as I use various finishes. I may take a moment to jot down ideas. Though I enjoy making lists, I often don't stick to them.

The way my day is structured is primarily intuitive; I follow my instincts and sometimes get sidetracked by new ideas. When things aren't flowing, I take a break, often going for a walk around the neighbourhood to clear my head.

When I get down to making a new work, the process involves a lot more thinking than painting. Often, I spend significant time contemplating before even touching the canvas.

Many works reach a stage of blending multiple spaces. Some pieces are quick, taking only weeks, while others span months. It really does vary, which keeps it fun.

Tell me about your experience at the Royal College of Art.

Graduating in 2023, my year was the first to experience the RCA's new one-year programme. It was quite an intense experience because I was trying to make the most of my time there. I was fortunate to have a scholarship, which drastically changed how I navigated the MA. Affording tuition is one thing, but the cost of materials also needs to be considered.

Hettie Inniss, The Gap Between Us (2024). Oil, oil stick and sand on canvas. 44 x 30 cm.

Hettie Inniss, The Gap Between Us (2024). Oil, oil stick and sand on canvas. 44 x 30 cm. Courtesy the artist and GRIMM, Amsterdam/London/New York. Photo: Jack Hems.

It was amazing how much the RCA shifted my practice. Being surrounded by so many peers was key—after all, they were the ones who engaged with my work the most. It felt like a huge growing point for my practice.

Having diverse expertise around was invaluable. Lecturers shared insights and the alumni network was fantastic, shifting my perspective and boosting my painting confidence. Seeing others take risks was encouraging too.

In 2022, you were awarded the RCA Frank Bowling Black Student Scholarship. Looking at your work, I've noticed parallels with Bowling's paintings, particularly in your use of hot colours. Would you agree?

Absolutely. I've been studying his work since I was an undergraduate. His confidence with colour is quite monumental; there's such a bravery to it, something I've long admired.

Personally, I'm drawn to very colourful paintings; colour is a source of entry for me, both in terms of what it does for the eye and the mind. Bowling's contribution to abstract painting has always fascinated me, and I've aspired to embody the same confidence in my practice with more ferocity. He's definitely a big inspiration.

You've got quite a distinctive colour palette, often featuring yellow, red, and orange. Why those colours?

Hettie Inniss, To You, 24 Years from Now (2024). Acrylic, pigment, oil, oil stick and sand on canvas. 180.5 x 210 cm.

Hettie Inniss, To You, 24 Years from Now (2024). Acrylic, pigment, oil, oil stick and sand on canvas. 180.5 x 210 cm. Courtesy the artist and GRIMM, Amsterdam/London/New York. Photo: Jack Hems.

The use of hot colours came from looking at the act of remembering. I often found myself trying to remember things with my eyes shut, seeing everything through the filter of light going through my eyelids.

There's a sort of fleshiness to it, which prompted me to pull those warm hues into my work, evoking the body's presence without explicitly rendering it.

How do you arrive at the spaces you paint?

I try to be in a meditative state in my daily life so that I can be receptive to involuntary memories—those sudden recollections that seem beyond our control.

These memories often come out of nowhere, triggered primarily by senses, particularly smell. From those experiences, I mentally archive the different things I've felt or seen. Then comes the process of translating those memories onto canvas.

Sometimes, I start with a drawing to get the bare bones of the space out of my head. Then, I move onto the canvas. Once there, it's more about the performance of memory rather than an exact representation. It's about emulating the way our brains fill in the gaps and letting the paint do what it wants to do.

Hettie Inniss.

Hettie Inniss. Courtesy GRIMM, Amsterdam/London/New York. Photo: Peter Mallet.

Essentially, the spaces I paint are abstractions of what I've seen and representations of things that may or may not be.

Tell me about the role of scent in your paintings.

My exploration of memory initially began through voluntary means. I would stand in a space and actively recall what I saw, noting individual elements that stood out to me.

However, researching various forms of memory, especially Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time (1913)—in particular his 'madeleine moment', where he discovered how smell triggers profound memories—I became fascinated by involuntary memory. I began to embrace the idea of memories that seemed to emerge beyond my control.

This led me to recognise scent's power in evoking intense emotions and memories. For example, London Feels Sad In The Rain (2024), stems from the smell of rain on tarmac, which unlocked memories of me running track when I was at school. Encountering a similar scent in London, near a building with yellow light streaming through it, instantly transported me back. So I tried to recreate that space.

Hettie Inniss in the Studio Image 134

Hettie Inniss, London Feels Sad In The Rain (2024). Oil, oil stick, pigment on canvas. 100 x 140.5 cm. Courtesy the artist and GRIMM, Amsterdam/London/New York. Photo: Jack Hems.

I think it's interesting how scents can feel like a collapse of time, where multiple timelines converge. My paintings capture these collapsing moments, intertwining memories, emotions, and imaginings.

Can you elaborate on your paintings' relationship to place, particularly London?

This body of work is very indicative of my current mental state. Right now, many of the paintings are grasping at this feeling of or longing for home.

They're also capturing a lot of transitions, which can be interpreted in different ways, but I don't like to get too analytical with them. It could be that I'm craving ideas of home, in Liverpool where my family lives, or that I enjoy the idea of having one foot in a memory and the other in reality.

Some paintings evoke elements of London, which is testament to the influence of my immediate environment. If I were in Liverpool, for example, I would change the way the paintings are constructed. They could feature sand dunes and seaside, reflecting more openness.

London's constant change also leaves its mark on my work. When I experience moments here, I paint those impressions into images, layering them with other observations and memories tied to the city.

Hettie Inniss, To You, 24 Years After (2024). Oil, oil stick and sand on linen. 180 x 200 cm.

Hettie Inniss, To You, 24 Years After (2024). Oil, oil stick and sand on linen. 180 x 200 cm. Courtesy the artist and GRIMM, Amsterdam/London/New York. Photo: Tom Carter.

I'm curious about digital influences in your paintings.

It's quite interesting considering where we currently stand with technology. Memories are often influenced by digital imagery, like recalling experiences from photographs. For example, sometimes I'll recall a memory but it will be from an image that I have seen someone has taken of me, so that bleeds into my recollection of that experience.

There are digital influences in the almost garish colours that sometimes appear in my work, that I associate with technology. While my process involves a lot of drawing and painting, my mental imagery is often informed by online or smartphone visuals, prompting me to think about the different ways artificialness seeps into the work. I don't work from photographs directly as I become too focused on its exact representation.

If you could collaborate with any artist, who would it be and why?

Hettie Inniss, Bleached (2024). Oil, oil stick and sand on canvas. 130 x 100 cm.

Hettie Inniss, Bleached (2024). Oil, oil stick and sand on canvas. 130 x 100 cm. Courtesy the artist and GRIMM, Amsterdam/London/New York. Photo: Tom Carter.

I'm intrigued by the idea of collaborating with a musician. Since my work is so sensory-driven, there's potential for a unique connection between sound and visuals. For instance, certain sounds can trigger memories or inspire imagery.

Recently, I've been drawn to Abel Selaocoe, a cellist and composer whose music feels like he's building worlds. His approach resonates with my own process of world-building through painting, offering realms for exploration and immersion.

Finally, what's next for you?

I'm starting to think about my next body of work, which I want to be more specific. I'm interested in further exploring the sensory experience of smell—its nuances and cultural significance. Lately, I've been reflecting on the smell of my father's cooking, which has been recurring in my thoughts. Perhaps my next paintings will centre around this.

I also want to continue my research into the visual language of memory and write more essays around this. —[O]

Main image: Hettie Inniss. Courtesy GRIMM, Amsterdam/London/New York. Photo: Peter Mallet.

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