sue tilley, this is your life

Muse to Lucien Frued and Leigh Bowery, Sue Tilley is finally exhibiting her own creations.

by James Anderson
01 October 2015, 4:25pm

Sue Tilley has enjoyed a life of wild contrasts and much multi-tasking: clubbing with close friends such as the notorious Leigh Bowery throughout the 80s, and posing as a life model for artist Lucian Freud during the early 90s, all the while working at a Job Centre by day.

She maintained this full time employment for 37 years, yet found the time and energy to write the critically acclaimed book, Leigh Bowery, The Life and Times of an Icon, following his death 20 years ago. In more recent years, she has been contributing articles to i-D, as well as fielding endless enquires about Bowery from young fashion students inspired by his legendary looks and antics. Sue retired from the Job Centre in 2015, in tandem to Freud's amazing Benefits Supervisor Resting painting of her selling for an eye-watering £35.8 million.

Recently reconnecting with her own visual art talents (she trained to be an art teacher many moons ago, but didn't pursue it), Sue has been steadily producing paintings and drawings within her Bethnal Green studio during the past few months, offering sneak previews of some of these new works via Facebook.

Now the fruits of her labours are to be more fully unveiled and scrutinised at her debut solo exhibition in an East London gallery. Here, Sue puts i-D in the picture about her art-related adventures and forthcoming show.

When and where did you train as an art teacher? And why didn't you pursue this professionally?
I went to Wall Hall College, now the University of Hertfordshire, when I left school in 1975. I did hardly any work as I was too busy having fun. I just scraped through and when I left it seemed too much trouble to apply for jobs, so I went to sign on the dole and they recruited me to work there. It was meant to be temporary but it lasted 37 years.

Did you still draw and paint in your spare time?
I had a spate in the early 80s when I did a few paintings of friends but I am so messy I couldn't bear all the paint all over my very small flat. But I've always doodled and been able to turn my hand to various creative things.

Were you always especially lenient towards anyone working in the arts who came into the Job Centre?
When I used to deal with customers the benefit system was much more lax and I enjoyed a chat with people in the creative arts. The Wilson Twins and Sam Taylor Wood signed on when I worked at The Islington Job Centre. The system encouraged creativity and there was a programme called The Enterprise Allowance Scheme where you could start your business and get £40 per week. It was a very lax scheme, so as long as you said you were an artist you got the money. I think people were very surprised that someone who worked in the Job Centre knew so much about the creative world and was so interested in them. You could always tell the creative types as they filled their forms in with black Pentel roller tip pens.

How does your current set-up - painting during the day in your own studio space - compare to your old job?
There is no comparison. I can arrive when I want to, leave when I want to, there are no rules and no staff to manage. I also work with people who are my friends and who are supportive and kind. Wayne Shires runs his gay night club empire from here and he has been really helpful and supportive. As has his boyfriend Adam Entwisle, who does his Horace fashion line from the same studio. Friends come by for lunch and we just pop up to the many restaurants in the area. To be honest, it's like a dream come true.

Did you pick up some useful tips, techniques from your time as a life model for Lucian Freud?
Working hard and dedication. Looking at what you are painting. Giving up if you know you can't redeem something. Not being frightened to change something if it's not right.

Have other artists whom you know been encouraging? What do they think of your paintings?
The two people putting on my show, Marty Thornton and Jenny English, are both artists and they took a great risk offering my show as they had only seen a few pieces when they made the offer. They have been nothing but encouraging since I started. I haven't shown my work to any other 'artists' as such but I have shown it to several friends who are keen art connoisseurs and they have all been very positive which has been really fantastic. They are already picking out which drawings they want to buy. My friend, the film maker Baillie Walsh, has been an inspiration and is always encouraging me to try new things. .

Which artists of past and present do you most admire?
Of course, I admire Lucian Freud but besides him I like many artists. I'm very keen on Matisse and Cezanne. I also like The Chapman Brothers - some of their work is genius, I particularly The Hitler paintings that they drew over. One of my paintings is done in the style of Matisse and it features a Chapman Brothers' Louis Vuitton blanket in the background.

What has been inspiring your work recently, in terms of subject matter or technique?
It's a who rather than a what. I met a Portuguese artist and life model, called Rui Ferreira, a couple of years ago and he is the one who restarted my passion for drawing. He would come round my flat and we would sit and draw and I was surprised that I could still do it. We text each other a lot as he is in Portugal most of the time. He is very intelligent and hilarious and he comes up with weird concepts that I then illustrate, photograph and then text back to him. Although his English is amazing he sometimes makes understandable mistakes which only add to the eccentric drawings. He also makes suggestions to me about technique as he has a Masters from Goldsmiths and is very knowledgeable about the art world. He came to my studio for the first time earlier this week and was quite amazed about how much I had achieved.

What kind of scale are the recent paintings? How long do they typically take to paint? The paintings vary in size from 10cm x 10cm to a metre wide. I am currently using acrylics. I generally do a very quick sketch onto the canvas and then start painting. The majority of the exhibition is drawings where I use a variety of coloured pencils and oil pastels. One of my favorite things about my new career is sourcing new materials and trying them out. I am only starting out so I have so many new things to explore and my mind is overflowing with ideas. Some of my drawings may only take about 10 seconds and paintings can take up to a week. I like starting them, then leaving them for a bit and then improving them. I am constantly learning and finding my direction, I always thought that my painting was a bit pedestrian so to help myself become freer I am taking small corners of my drawings and enlarging them into paintings.

How has the exhibition been curated?
It's in three parts. I thought that I had better decide what I was going to do as I had to prepare it in such a short time and I wanted to focus myself as my head goes all over the place. The first part is things I love which is mainly paintings of objects and people. The second part is The Ruey and Suey Art Show which is a series of drawings based on our conversations, these are rather quirky but are my favorites. The third part is one large piece made up of over 20 oil pastel drawings, but I can't tell you what it is as it is a surprise for the show opening.

What's hanging on your walls at home, Sue? 
I've got a rule that I don't buy art unless it means something special. I can't stand those generic canvases that you get in BHS or IKEA, of pebbles or flowers. Mind you a couple of my pieces are pastiches of these. I've just bought one of Barnaby Barford's porcelain shops from his Tower of Babel at the V&A. I had to buy it as it is the butcher's shop under my flat. Most of my pictures have been given to me - I have a drawing by Lucian's daughter, Jane, a large photo of me from The Jacques Bosser project that I modelled for in Paris. A couple of pieces by James Unsworth, a Tracey Emin lithograph, several photos of Leigh and Trojan, a large 'God Save The Queens' canvas by James Bible and a drawing of London Clubland by Wigan. I think my favorite thing is a genuine trolley bus poster advertising Marlene Dietrich in The Scarlett Empress which I inherited from my dear friend Graham Stevens who died last year.

Sue Tilley, This is My Life, Forman's Smokehouse Gallery, Stour Rd, E3 2NT, from October 1st - November 12th.


Text James Anderson

Leigh Bowery
sue tilley
lucien frued