Open Studio: A Conversation with artist Laila Tara H
It’s a sunny winter’s morning when Drake’s visits the artist Laila Tara H at her home studio in a quiet suburban street in North London. Inside her very nice kitchen and living room, two small fish drift around a bowl, there are croissants for breakfast and pre-revolution Iranian psychedelic rock jangles from her home speakers.
Propped against a white wall is one of her paintings, featuring a perfectly rendered frog, a green dot, half a sun and several iterations of the same male face on hemp paper. “Sometimes people think it’s collage, but I paint them all!” she says with a laugh. In the next room an antique desk table overflows with brushes and small jars of paint, leading to a garden built by her father and uncle, London proper vaguely in focus far away over the rooftops. It’s a serene spot to paint and live. “In the summer you get this amazing light," says Laila gesturing to the living room window as she makes coffee.
With a practice that navigates an international upbringing and her Persian ancestry, Laila’s work is both rich and minimal. She studied Art History of the Middle East and earned her MA in Persian and Indian Miniature painting from The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, which informs her highly detailed and evocative work. “From the moment I started painting miniatures I knew it was something that I could do,” she says. “It was such an eye opener. I felt like I could take this career and make it relevant to a craft that might not survive.”
Having recently shown in Tehran for the first time, “a fun and nerve-wracking experience,” Laila is the latest artist whose work will be on show and for sale at the Drake’s ‘Open Studio’ in New York. She also has a current show at Purdy Hicks in South Kensington and an upcoming exhibition at Public in East London.
It’s an exciting time for Laila, so we wanted to find out more about her work, routines and painting practice.
Drake’s: Hi Laila, how would you describe your artistic process?
Laila Tara H: My process is incredibly dull. I’ll stay in pyjamas all day. If I’m in the zone, I’m in the zone. I’ll wake up and go to my studio and not leave until 2 or 3AM. I’ll come out to cook, make some tea and that’s it. I turn into a hermit. I love it! It’s unhealthy, but super productive. I would love to be a person who can work with others around me, but in general I need that quiet and that space. I need to think of nothing but the work. I always have Netflix on in the background, though. I can’t work in silence; music has emotional capacity, but crime documentaries are perfect! I’ve emptied out Netflix of their serial killer shows! The type of painting I do means you’ll spend hours on one thing that can feel like you’re not progressing.It can be super meditative, and I have those moments, but it can be a bit repetitive and so you need something to keep the mind busy.
How does your heritage inform your work?
I can fight the influence of my upbringing, but it’s always going to be there. Having a tether means that when I’m stuck or feel like there’s no inspiration, you can go back to that place. It’s helpful, being able to go back to those references. When you learn to paint miniatures you do perfect replicas of existing paintings, but you get ideas of your own while doing it.
Your work features lots of colour, but also blank space. Would you describe it as minimal?
I love this idea of movement in a painting. You can go from bit to bit and choose your own path. Plucking these elements as you see them. My mum always asks if I’m sure that’s what people want! and my dad asks when I’m going to colour the rest in! I love that it means I have control over the painting. There’s something about putting three things on a page and forcing yourself to step back. Instinctively you want to fill it and add more, but when something is done it’s done. It’s kind of masochistic, but it’s necessary and I love that aspect of stepping back and forcing myself to allow the work to exist. For me having that control is a part of growing as a painter.
How did you develop your dot paintings?
When I was studying, during the day I was doing these super intricate paintings and in the evening I wanted to play with colour and have fun with space. I got to let go and try out some new things. Before the dots my paintings weren’t colourful. They gained a movement. I like that they’re funny and they’re playful. Doing art full time is stressful, this thing you love becomes so serious and it becomes about business and comparison and I’m not an enlightened enough person to not do the comparison game, so the only way to lighten it up is to have that joke with yourself. If the people closest to me are laughing at the dots, I’m laughing with them I see it from the other side. You have to, right?
Which artists inspired you growing up?
Loads… Loads! I think the most inspiring painters for me were from the Western traditions as I grew up studying them. I seriously love the 19th century, where it started and where it ended. It was such a period of change. You had Ingrés, who painted women in a way where they looked like they’re made of almost a type of silicon. Something that is so soft when you touch it. Then Goya, who is a bit darker. A shift towards these studies of, essentially, executions, which are beautiful and journalistic. Then suddenly you get the impressionists, who are quieter and more colourful. Gentler.
Then on the other side of the world I grew up around objects. When we were living in India, my mum collected so many bits of furniture with these perfect miniature men and flowers and engravings, so from the decorative standpoint they were so beautiful and inspiring.
You have a lovely house. How did you develop your interior taste?
Time! A house is a living thing, I’m very adamant on this. I dress pretty simply, but at home everything is a bit brighter. The house is your personal space so you can mould it to how you’re feeling. In the winter I want to feel cozy, so I’ll fill it with stuff, then as spring comes, I’ll move some of the books and fill the space with flowers. Once a month I’ll move the tables, or sofa, or something! It’s constant movement. Understanding your space as a living thing, so you have to feed it.