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An Artist With Ambition: Gideon Summerfield

in Interviews by Cass Art
An Artist With Ambition: Gideon Summerfield

Gideon Summerfield is a young yet well-known artist, who is still studying at Illustration at college. He has already made a name for himself by taking on long-term, often laborious art projects, setting himself creative challenges that have caught the attention of the likes of the BBC.

In 2012, the ambitious artist decided to draw a sketch a day for the whole year. Shortly afterwards, in 2013, Gideon completed ten portraits of some Holocaust survivors, strangers he had never met before who told him their stories. These were exhibited at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster, as well as an exhibition in Hackney called ‘Drawing Inspiration’. 

We wanted to ask Gideon about what inspires him to take on these art challenges, and celebrate the drawings he has made in the process.

Your work is certainly about the real doing and making of long-term art projects. What is it about the process of long-term art-making that excites you? 

A lot of what I do is about challenging myself. I like long term projects which help me improve my abilities and excite people around me, and I often find the projects hugely educational. Sometimes the projects have been quite a slog but I get a deep satisfaction afterwards, a real sense of achievement.

 Can you tell us about your portrait project on the Holocaust Survivors? 

During the latter part of 2013 I completed a personal project, meeting and drawing the portraits of Holocaust Survivors. My rationale was that the survivors were in their twilight years - they were aged in their late eighties and early nineties - so now was a good time (possibly, the only time) to get to meet them and hear their life stories.

Gideon Summerfield, Holocaust Survivor drawing  

I attended an art class held at the Holocaust Survivors Centre in North West London. Weeks passed and I found myself visiting the homes of the survivors. I sat in their gardens, kitchens and front rooms. I met their husbands. I met their wives. I looked at their faces and I began to draw. And as I drew, some of the survivors would talk about what happened to them when they were children. When they were separated from their parents. When they found themselves in concentration camps. When their parents were murdered.

Within days I found myself overwhelmed with the enormity of the experience, of meeting extraordinary people who had led extraordinary lives. Some of the survivors told me a lot and in detail; detail that was difficult to handle. Other survivors did not want to talk so much and if they did, they could not talk about their time during the war. They preferred to talk about their family, their children and grandchildren.

Ten portraits were completed. In most of the drawings the survivors are holding something precious to them. Usually it's a photograph of parents or a family member who perished in the Holocaust.

Gideon Summerfield, drawing of Holocaust Survivor 

When I started this project, I thought it would be about meeting and then drawing ten survivors. However, I realise now that the project has become a unique and meaningful relationship that I have with each of them and the portraits are just a bonus! It was an extraordinary privilege to learn from these people, to hear about their experiences and find out how they survived the the Holocaust.

That's quite remarkable. Perhaps less emotionally, you also embarked on a Sketch A Day project? 

To do a sketch literally every day for 366 days in a row is a pretty daunting challenge, but I thought I’d give it a go!  To give the project a focus, I decided to draw someone who was in the news that particular day, from January 1st 2012 to December 31st 2012. 

2012 was a pretty historic year - President Obama’s re-election, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics. This was also the year I visited Andalucia in Spain and spent 3 weeks in New York on an illustration course at the School of Visual Arts. It was also my grandparents' 50th wedding anniversary. 

Sketch a Day, David Hockney drawing 

It was an interesting personal project as I  learnt about who is in the news, why they are in the news and what makes news. Some people behaved very badly and this has created headlines. On other days, the news was led by stories of individuals who have achieved something extraordinary. I was particularly moved by the news of Claire Lomas who died whilst running the London marathon, but her tragic death prompted other runners and people around the UK to donate over £1 million to the Samaritans. Through the year I also noticed the growing number of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan. 

As the year progressed, my drawing techniques changed and the sketches improved in quality. I had picked up on new ways to start a portrait, to essentially skip a few things and take 'short cuts'. When the project began, each sketch would take at least an hour but I was soon able to sketch more quickly.

I suppose the scale and significance of the project only sank in when I was invited onto BBC Breakfast on the last day of the year and they featured my project. I miss it in a way and often find myself thinking who I would draw as the news unfolds each day.

Sketch a day, cartoonist drawing 

Which are your favourite drawing materials at the moment and why?

I often use fine liners and biro pens to create most of my artwork. Some people ask why don't you pencil things out first? l I like the idea of a permanent mark; you put a line down and you cannot take it off. I guess it's a discipline which my teachers in the past had encouraged me to adopt, to just move forward. It doesn't matter if you make a mistake, because you learn from them.

What drives you to make your own art projects outside of college and school?

At a young age, I have always looked at the world as if I was drawing it. It's something I love to do and drawing seems to come naturally. A lot of the time I see something out in the street which I want to draw, whether it is an interesting person or some architecture. I have a sudden urge to draw it! As I have learnt more about art I really enjoy going to exhibitions and learning about other people's work, understanding their techniques and critically analysing their work. 

 Gideon Summerfield, greenery sketch

You’re currently studying Illustration at the Cardiff School of Art, but you studied your Art A Levels at Hampstead Fine Arts. Can you tell us about the Hampstead art scene? 

I really enjoyed my time at Hampstead Fine Arts where I studied A Levels in Graphic Design and Fine Art. I also completed an Extended Project on Andalucia. Studying in the Hampstead/Belsize Park area was a delight. I loved the area, the beauty of the surrounding houses and of course the 'Heath.  My friends and I often used Cass Art Hampstead and we also occasionally visited the shops in Islington and the one near the National Portrait Gallery. Cass Art always offered all the best deals! 

What are you working on at the moment at university?

My first year at college was really challenging and I completed projects on Dylan Thomas and explored illustration using inanimate objects. During the summer I was commissioned to draw a map of Bedford Square in London, where Amazon were hosting a Summer Fete for their staff. From October I will be back at college to start my second year. I am looking forward to exploring Illustration further; learning the craft of book making, using Photoshop, typography and working with other departments in the School of Art and Design.

Amazon drawing, Peculiar Summer Fete by Gideon Summerfield

Feeling inspired?

If you have any personal art projects you'd like to shout about, post them on Twitter or Instagram with the hastag #cassart and we'll share them on our social media.

You can read more about Gideon Summerfield's artwork on his website