Friday 23 March 2018

Fiona Lowe Brunell: When I became an artist, I adopted a pseudonym. It just seemed like a natural evolution for me

Fiona Lowe Brunell (33) is a contemporary artist. She studied history of art in Queen's University, Belfast. Born in Newry, Co Down, she still lives there with her retired parents. Her current ongoing painting project is called the Irish Writers Collection

Artist Fiona Lowe Brunell plans her life according to the seasons.
Artist Fiona Lowe Brunell plans her life according to the seasons.

I generally get up between 8am and 10am. I don't use an alarm. I do some gentle Pilates first thing in the morning. I live at home in Newry with my retired parents. I have a great relationship with them, so it works out well. Quite a lot of my friends live at home with their parents until they get married. There's no particular reason not to live at home, and it's very convenient for work. I'm an artist. I want to focus on my career, and if I had another job, the juggle would be too difficult.

For breakfast, I usually have toast, banana and a cup of tea. I chat with my parents, and then I switch on the radio. I like to listen to conversational pieces at that time of the day. Because I'm not leaving the house, it's good to feel that you're part of the outside world. I work at the back of the house, because the light tends to be good there. Before I take a brush in hand, I sit down and think about what I'm going to do. I might have a plan, but what comes out on the canvas is usually totally different.

There is no predetermined structure to my day and I find that ironic, because the structuring of dates, months and years is integral to the concept of my work. My current project is based on the dates of the births and deaths of Irish writers, including James Joyce and Brendan Behan. Before I begin a painting, I do a huge amount of research. I'm a modern painter, and my work is abstract. When I was studying art, I didn't understand abstract work by Rothko and Matisse, and I used to get very frustrated. I used to paint photo-realism. But that changed over time.

My mum has always loved creative presents for her birthday, as opposed to monetary things. One year, I gave her a painting which was based on the fact that she was born on the fifth of the second. I divided the canvas into five sections and then in two. When she first saw it, she said, 'what is that?' but then I explained it to her, and that all the colours were related to her life. Now she loves it. My paintings in the Irish Writers Collection are similar, in that they are influenced by their life cycles. The one on Behan has a lot of moss-greens and browns, which signify his Irishness and grittiness.

As an artist, you have to be very motivated and driven. You need to be in competition with yourself. You set your goals and achieve what you can. I used to work with acrylics and oil paints, but now it's all watercolours. When I'm painting, it's very immersive and I'm deeply involved in it. Some writers get writer's block - 'painter's haze' is what I call the artist's equivalent of that. It's best to work through it, but sometimes you need to put the paintbrush down and remove yourself from the situation completely. I try to switch off as much as possible, so then I can return to the work with energy and enthusiasm. I have plenty of tea breaks during my working day, or sometimes I might meet up with a friend. I watch a lot of arts documentaries, and they inform my work, too. I'm always looking for inspiration.

Initially, I started out studying architecture, but a week before the fees were due to be paid, I dropped out. I knew my father would go crazy if I put down the fees and then decided to leave the course a week later. It's very common for people studying architecture to become artists. You've got to be courageous to be an artist. It's a bold move. Before I decided on it, I remember thinking, 'Are you happy to live this life, whatever the outcome?' If you can say yes to that, then you're on the right path. Nothing would have deterred me from being an artist.

My accountant friends cannot understand why I don't charge according to the hour, but each painting can take weeks or months to complete. The painting dictates the time required. Sometimes I work on one, then begin another while the first is still in development. I'd rather start something else than complete something incorrectly. It's a good way of distancing yourself before going back to it. I'm always evolving with my art, and that's the joy of it.

There may not be a structure to my day, but my life is planned according to the seasons. In winter, I tend to hibernate and paint, but then summer is my social season. That's when I go to literary festivals in Ireland. I've been to the Yeats Summer School. Professors from all over the world attend these events and everybody gives different insights into the writers. I find it invaluable. In a way, my summer holidays are working holidays.

When I became an artist, I adopted a pseudonym. It just seemed like a natural evolution for me, and it's not unusual. It adds an element of intrigue. I didn't want to lose my identity, so I kept Fiona Lowe and then I added Brunell. I love the work of Filippo Brunelleschi, the Italian architect who designed the dome for Florence Cathedral. So I took part of his surname. He was born in 1377, and 13 and 77 are two of my favourite numbers. He had a real love of line, and I do too.

In the evenings, I often work on my blog, which is called From the Mind's Eye. It's important for me to document all of my work. I write about my inspirations and my travels at the book festivals. On one occasion, it was pointed out to me that my nail varnish was the same colour as the cover of Michael Longley's book of poetry. It inspired me to do Book Tip Tuesday for the blog, where I encourage people to match their nail colour to the cover of their book. It's just a fun, tickly way into books.

I go to bed when I feel that I'm ready to go. I'm an incessant dreamer and I have a recurring dream that a painting feels red or purple. I live a whole other world in my sleep.

In conversation with Ciara Dwyer

Irish Writers Collection is Fiona's latest solo exhibition. For more information, see

Sunday Independent

Life Newsletter

Our digest of the week's juiciest lifestyle titbits.

Editors Choice

Also in Life