Disco music permeates Victoria Topping’s artwork and inspires the creative process.
Victoria Topping is sitting across the table with her laptop, flicking between recent digital drawings and illustrations that she has created. There are turntables, snapshots of sound and portraits of Grace Jones and her DJing alter ego, Tina Turntables. Whenever the topic of music comes up, which it does frequently, her eyes light up as she talks expressively about her love of disco, soul, funk and jazz.
With a wallpaper historian for a mother and a jazz loving grandfather, Topping has grown up with a love and appreciation of art and music that is fast becoming one of the defining features within her work.
As a result of being “really bad” at Maths and English throughout school, she was drawn (excuse the pun) to art and design. After brief stints studying Fashion in London, then Fine Art in Bristol, Topping switched to Illustration, without having any idea what the course entailed. In a bid to prove herself and stand out from the crowd she began to use computer software to create her work, teaching herself how to use Adobe Illustrator and incorporating her mother’s wallpaper patterns into her work.
Now based near Hackney in London, Topping spends her days drawing and her nights DJing, which is just the way she likes it. Crack caught up with her on a recent visit to Bristol to chat all things disco, DJing and Kandinsky…
You recently made the leap from Bristol to London, was that a creative decision?
I think to sustain my illustration I wanted to work in graphics and advertising and all the companies that do that kind of stuff are in London really. I’ve been in Bristol for seven years and I’ve got a bit of gypsy blood in me, I like moving around. I’m glad I’ve done it because it’s just visually stimulating you know, there are so many new things to look at and everyone is different and it’s just exciting. I just became a bit stale here – I hung out in the Pipe & Slippers and knew everyone and wasn’t really doing anything new.
Has that always been the case that music inspired your art, or is that something that has developed over a period of time?
I think it’s only really kind of come around since I left university. At university we got really pushed down the children’s book route and we were really forced to do children’s book competitions; I was doing it but I wasn’t really enjoying it very much. Then I came out of university and you realise you’ve been groomed into this particular kind of person and you’ve got to break out of that a little bit. I’ve always been really heavily into my music and in putting my nights on it became quite apparent to me that I needed to marry the two together. I wanted to make it an all encompassing thing, not just my art separately. Music kind of runs my life really.
So when did you get into DJing and mixing?
I’ve always been into music, but I started DJing when I met my housemates in halls and Matt, my best mate, was a DJ. Then I moved into a house with three boys and they were all DJs and after a while I was like ‘why the hell don’t I do this?’ you know, because I know all the music. But I don’t take it very seriously, it’s not like I’m a real technical, serious DJ, I just go out and have a bit of fun really.
What you listening to at the moment then?
I’m quite strict about it really; I’m a bit mean! All I listen to is old disco, 80s boogie, soul and funk – old music.
In 2009 you had an exhibition at the Donuts store in Bristol, how did that collaboration happen?
That was actually my first solo exhibition. They are good friends of mine and when they opened up, Daddison (a prominent Bristol-based illustrator) had a show there before me and I thought ‘hang on a minute, why don’t you let me do it’. It was exactly what I needed to break me out of that university mould, because I had something to think about. They’ve got quite a strong visual style as well, so it was just the perfect platform for my work.
You’ve also recently been exhibiting in London, do you find exhibitions are a good source of motivation to draw?
Having exhibitions are the most fun thing to do – that’s when I’m really in my prime. Because it’s completely selfish what I’m doing: with solo exhibitions, it’s entirely down to you as to what you want it to be. You know that you’ve got this room to fill and when you’re actually doing it and creating the artwork for it you’re just in your absolute element. But then three weeks before the show when you’ve got to start framing and resizing and paying all this money for stuff, it’s absolutely awful!
Do you draw daily or are you more sporadic when it comes to your creativity?
I have intense bursts of work and it’s suddenly like I’m about to vomit – that’s the only way I can describe it. I suddenly have an idea and I just have to get it out of me. I’ll sit there and I’ll do it and I won’t eat, I’ll just intensely work and I’ll probably create a few more pieces off the back of that as well. That takes me about a week and then I have to have a massive rest because my brain just won’t work. I’ll go to the computer and try to draw but it just won’t happen so I have to have a bit of a rest and that’s when I go round and get inspired by everything. I’ve learnt now not to force myself to work when I’m like that. I just go and look at museums and take it all in – I know I’m storing it all up and then it will suddenly hit me again and it will all come pouring out.
So how long would typical piece take to create?
It depends – it is literally like an exorcism with me sometimes. A piece can take around four hours but that massive circular one, Gesamtkunstwerk, took me about three months – it varies really.
All of your work is computer based, do you ever make preliminary sketches or plans on paper first or do you work straight on your computer?
I get it straight on to the computer. It’s a bit bad that I don’t have any sketches, but I don’t really work like that. I think if I do that then the magic goes and then I can’t draw it as well the second time around so I have to go straight in with it. The benefit of working with computers is that if you don’t like something you can move it, take it away or change the colour, but I am trying to get back into painting.
There is this really hard argument that I’ve been finding recently when I have an exhibition, because all my work is digital. People want an original piece and it’s a constant battle with them to try and explain to them that what they can see is the original. But also because I can print something out again and make it a limited edition I haven’t quite worked out how to make the first one the original.
I think the appeal of my work for a lot of people is the cleanness, it’s got the finish to it you know? But I’m willing to change that, because I like geometric patterns, but I prefer the organic process of using your hands and creating stuff as it’s not so scientific and mathematical; it still has the beauty of human nature.
Kandinsky is obviously a clear influence in your use of colour and geometric shapes – how has his work influenced your personal style?
I’ve always known about his work because you get taught about it at school and I went to see an exhibition of his at the Guggenheim in Venice. Actually I’ll tell you what it was – my granddad gave me some of his jazz records, but at the same time I’ve also been reading a lot about modernist architecture and the birth of modernism and concrete and all these modern things and then I was listening to jazz and it’s kind of like an organic thing to come to Kandinsky as well because it’s very jazzy almost. I just started making that connection between them all, and the music.
Many artists and musicians have been said to have the neurological condition synaesthesia, where sufferers can experience involuntary senses as a result of reading or listening to music. Kandinsky was famed for trying to create synaesthesic experiences within his artwork. Have you experienced synaesthesia and do you try to bring it in to your work?
No. Well I like to think I have, because it’s quite romantic to say that when I listen to music. I see these beautiful colours, but it doesn’t blind me. I think that everyone has it to a certain degree you know? You can hear when a song is blue or really red, you just kind of know intrinsically and when I try to describe music to people I catch myself automatically making these shapes, (with my hands), so I just think it’s in all of us in a way, and that is what I’m really interested in getting to the bottom of.
On your website there are suggested tracks alongside particular pieces of work and there is always a strong musical presence at your shows. When you’re creating an image do you have a track in mind already or is it only when it’s a finished product that you feel that it related back to a particular piece of music?
With the Professor Longhair piece that is the first time I’ve done it because I was entirely inspired by his album, Crawfish Fiesta, which I was playing loads at the time. I’m actually doing this new project with my musician friend Joe: he is going to compose a song to go with the Professor Longhair piece then he’s going to send me the song and I’ll draw it again… I really don’t know what is going to happen with it, so it’s going to be really exciting! We’re kind of tapping in on this higher creative level that I haven’t ever explored before.
Music flows throughout your artwork, would you still be able to work if you couldn’t listen to any of your records?
I could create my work but I think it would be a bit soulless and boring. I can only create work when I’m really happy. I’m not one of those people that can thrive on misery. Most artists like to be the real suffering, miserable artist type but I just can’t be like that. If I’m miserable I just can’t work, so by listening to disco I’m always happy because the music is cheerful and then I’m creating jazzy artwork to match that, to try and show how it’s making me feel happy.
So what would Crack find you doing when you’re not drawing?
Dancing! Watching music videos on YouTube, going to museums and just cycling round on my bike, taking it all in.
Finally, what does the future hold for Victoria Topping?
(Laughing) I’ve decided I’d like to be the Art Director of the world! It’s hard to say where I’ll be in a few years time, but my immediate goal is to get some work on some record sleeves. If my work makes it onto a record sleeve I’ll be absolutely chuffed to pieces. The only thing that would top that would be a Grace Jones record sleeve – that would be the icing on the cake!
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Words: Sarah Pusey