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    Seeing The World Through The Eyes Of An Artist — Rachael Theophile's Exhibitions Are Inspirational

    "I'd like if when people saw my art, it made them feel like they belonged to something"

    This week we've chatted with Rachael Theophile, a self-taught portrait artist on the rise based in East London. Rachael has recently begun an immersive exhibition series called "Pencil, Pastel & Paint" with a focus in spotlighting lesser known visual arts and performance talents across London.

    PIC woman sitting smiling in front of portrait art

    We simply had to get on a call with Rachael to talk about her artistic journey and her empathetically creative way of viewing the world and people around her.

    So just to start, you actually have a background in legal work and then decided to pursue art. What brought about that transition and what was it like?

    So growing up I was quite an intelligent child — I did really well in most academic subjects, and art had also been something I'd loved but it wasn't seen as a thing to actually pursue. My dad, who grew up in East London, wanted more for me than what he had so he didn't see me doing art as a career because it's not stable. So I went to University and pursued law; then saw the people I grew up with and thought, "I don't belong here, I should be this high-flying city lawyer."

    I ended up in the corporate side of law, not particularly helping people, and then the pandemic hit. I had to return to East London, and people were not only dying but Black people were hurting — we were seeing murder on our screens and it all frustrated me to the point where I just quit my job. I picked up my paintbrush again and just went back to the basics and decided that I'm going to create something where beginners, part timers, people who want to change career, feel safe, and if they see me take the jump, then maybe they'll follow.

    And you've never had any formal art training at all?

    At GCSE, they taught me techniques that I still use today, but I have no formal qualifications — no portfolio, no residences, nothing to show before the work I did in the pandemic. When I was in my lab, I was still just trying to score highly, I didn't embrace art the way I do now. I like being self-taught.

    "I'd rather feel passionately about something, fall in love with it, and teach myself because I want to learn rather than retain facts for an exam."

    When I look at the art academies, they're basically the same that law firms are. You'd think that because it's art it would go against the institution but no it's all very much in league with the same supremacist patriarchy system as everything else. They require too much of people; the barriers are way too high and I want to dismantle that.

    Would you say you're making your own way in the art world then?

    Yes, but I also think it's become about more than the art. When someone likes my paintings, I'm chuffed a bit but if someone wants to buy my paintings, I'm shocked because I don't do my art for anybody else, it's for me. I feel that's what art should be about. And for me, I'd rather than people come to understand that there is more to them than what they currently are in terms of working that nine to five, caring for children, or paying bills etc.

    What I'm trying to build is more than just creating art, it's that I want to build a system that supports people that want to take a jump into their passions, and get over the many barriers. It's about creating a community of people, especially Black women, who feel like they're under that societal pressure to be exceptional, to just come out and show their skills they normally wouldn't because they're not a "professional". It's why my first exhibition had to be in East London, where I was raised.

    For someone who doesn't feel like they have or could ever have the privilege to just dive into their passion and start over like you did, what would you say to them?

    I do feel very strongly about that word "privilege". I am someone who has been privileged, coming from a legal background, not having any children or other things that would prevent me from doing something. The advice I would give is that it's the small things you can do. It's never waking up in the morning and being like, "Oh this is what I'm going to do with my life." It's building a confidence bit by bit.

    And moreover, come and chat with me. I'm not going anywhere — my intentions in terms of the next few years is to get a physical space, a hub where I can create a space that people feel comfortable to at least offload their things. None of the people in my exhibitions doing spoken word, poetry, or photography, do these things all the time. So come and talk to me if you feel you've got the inclination, like there's something in you but you're not sure of it; I want to give people the option of an outlet.

    PIC woman painting portrait of child

    So are you inspired by the lives around you and the stories people can share?

    I think I'm influenced by the fact that I know that life is too short. There's too many levels to the stories of others, you can look at the person who's laughing down the street and say, "Oh, they're happy," but you just don't know. I want to make sure that what I'm doing is purpose driven and fulfilling. So that's what I'm driven by more so than stories, because I feel like stories can be changed or perceived differently.

    And, how do you sustain that motivation?

    So I've struggled in the past with my mental health and different things, and I've had to look at myself in the mirror and truly understand myself and understand the truth of Rachael. Acknowledging my flaws, faults, and what makes me happy and, then knowing that I'm not going to do anything that will put my back in a negative place.

    "Bad things happen, trauma happens, but I know I need to move forward. I'm motivated by the need to not go backwards."

    What goes into creating an immersive exhibition series like “Pencil, Pastel and Paint”?

    In my series we've just done "Project 1" which was a celebration of identity and called "50 Faces". "Project 2" will be different, it definitely won't be about vibrancy. But the way I bring everything together is I get my portraits, I feel what it is that I need to feel and think about, and then I reach out to different people and say "I'm trying to create this thing ethically, do you feel you align with this?".

    It's not a carefully constructed or curated thing in the traditional sense, I want my exhibitions to be organic. Everybody speaking or doing something within the project knows in advance what the project is about, and that they align with it and they have something they want to say on the topic — and that's what brings it all together. It's the performance artists, the spoken word artists, the poets, the novelists, the creatives.

    PIC woman standing next to unfinished portrait painting smiling and holding paint palette

    With your personal artistry, what made you pick painting as your medium and why a focus on portraits?

    I have struggled with my own image for many years. I would struggle to look at myself in the mirror and I was very unhappy; and that was the foundation. I say to everyone that asks me for a portrait, no makeup and no filters, but they all still do that. My very first portrait was a self-portrait, and I would say that's why I focus on doing them — because we are all conflicted with our faces and images. I think a face can tell a thousand stories.

    Do you think you would ever try out photography or sculptures of faces as well?

    No, I think I'll always be "Pencil, Pastel and Paint". I think that soft sculpture, photography, videography, performance, and all those things; that's for somebody else. I want to collaborate with those people. I do what I love and I love painting, drawing and I love oil pastel. If someone has a different side to the project in terms of sculpture or anything like that, I would be more than interested to get them on board.

    PIC woman smiling in front of computer

    What do you want the biggest takeaway people have from your work to be?

    Two things. I would love for them to feel like they belong somewhere, to have a sense of belonging. Second, I want people to be able to appreciate new things and people while seeing something other than what they're used to. If you can come to my exhibition and take away from it that you've seen and felt something new, then that's really nice.

    And lastly, you've said many times that your work isn't about you, but what would you want people to remember about you as a creative?

    I'm ready to have a chat with anybody. My thing is to understand the need within a community and then meet that need. I want to be here to help, but not force anything, in whatever form that takes.

    "I live by this quote from my dad, 'Every situation you try and engineer will backfire', so I just go with the flow, the good and the bad."

    Note: Answers have been edited for length and/or clarity.

    Keep up with Rachael's journey and exhibition series on the "Pencil, Pastel & Paint" Instagram. Tickets for "Pencil, Pastel & Paint Project 1: 50 Faces" are available now — the exhibition will held in Stratford on 23 June, 2022!