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AofA People: Sue Tilley – Artist, Model, Writer, Speaker


1 Minute Read

Sue Tilley, 60, is the most recognisable muse – she was the model for Lucian Freud’s 1995 Benefits Supervisor Sleeping – in modern British art. These days, she lives in St Leonards and has her own career as an illustrator teaming up with designers like Fendi to create bags, T-shirts and more. Sue is talking at the Century Club in London this Wednesday about Taboo club and her friendship with Leigh Bowery. Sadly, it’s sold out.

WHAT IS YOUR NAME?  
Sue Tilley
HOW OLD ARE YOU?
60
WHERE DO YOU LIVE? 
St. Leonards, UK
WHAT DO YOU DO? 

I am an artist, model, writer and speaker. I also spend a lot of time lying about, reading, watching telly and meeting friends for gossiping.

TELL US WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE YOUR AGE?

It’s like being 17 but with more aching bones and less angst. Actually it’s marvellous, I have made my life as easy as it can be and more or less do what I want. I’ve paid off my mortgage, live in a lovely flat that I have just finished doing up and in a wonderful town by the sea.

I have realised that it is no point getting worked up about minor (or major) irritations . Continual moaning just makes you irritable and does not affect the person or situation you are moaning about as they usually can’t hear you. It also bores all those around you rigid. I can’t remember the last time I couldn’t sleep as I was worrying about something.

I think that not going to ‘proper’ work has made a great difference to my life. No attending boring meetings about boring subjects which have usually been discussed many times before.

I don’t care what people think of me anymore…if they don’t like me… so what …there are plenty of people who do. I don’t like everybody so why should everybody like me.

WHAT DO YOU HAVE NOW THAT YOU DIDN’T HAVE AT 25?

I have more money which really does make life much easier. I’m sure a time will come when I haven’t got much again but it is so lovely not having to think about every penny and I can pay to make my life easier. I have a cleaner which is so fantastic….I am hopeless at house work and I can’t describe the joy I have at not having to do it.

I also like to think that I also have some wisdom which I have acquired over the years

WHAT ABOUT SEX?

What about it…I can’t really believe I ever did it. I have talked to many women my age and many of them agree with me thinking that it is a very strange thing to do. I had fun doing it when I was younger but can’t bear the thought of it now… I’d much rather share a smile or hold someone’s hand.

AND RELATIONSHIPS?

I’m not really a relationship person. I’m far too lazy and enjoy my own company and my own funny ways far too much. I’d hate to live with someone unless we had a huge house where we could keep out of each other’s way

I’ve had a very strange relationship with an artist twenty years younger than me for the last 4 years. It’s a friendship that I can’t even really explain and have never really known anything like it before. But I rarely see him, we just message each other several times a day so it’s like he’s with me but he actually physically isn’t which is perfect for me.

I’ve also got a lot of friends and I have a different relationship with all of them and these satisfy all my needs ensuring that I am never bored and always have someone to talk to if I need to.

HOW FREE DO YOU FEEL?

I feel pretty free, the only thing that stops me from doing certain things is my very dodgy knees that makes walking too far a problem. But I’m very creative and can usually come up with a solution to make sure I can do what I want to do. I am currently embarking on a health improvement programme, and to get my knees fixed is on my list.

I am certainly free to make my own decisions and I really can’t bear people giving me unsolicited advice. If they do I usually do the opposite thing.

WHAT ARE YOU PROUD OF?

At the moment I’m very proud of getting my flat just the way I want it, in about 7 months.

I even got rid of most of my furniture and got some old things that were just what I’ve always wanted but never thought that I could have. It’s lucky that there are many shops and warehouses in St Leonards selling just what I want, at very reasonable prices.

I guess that people would think that I would be more proud of some of the things that I am well known for doing such as modelling for Lucian Freud or doing the illustrations for the Fendi SS18 menswear collection. And although I am really proud of these they are things that I was asked to do and I was working with other people but I did my flat all on my own and it was all my own creativity which went into it. It also helped that I was only pleasing myself and didn’t need to consult with or please anyone else.

WHAT KEEPS YOU INSPIRED?

I’m inspired by many things, I love meeting my old friends and meeting new people and looking at the things around me. I can find inspiration in most things which means that I am never bored.

My artist friend is also a great inspiration as he challenges me to do things that I haven’t done before and encourages me to make new art.

WHEN ARE YOU HAPPIEST?

I am happy most of the time, which is a wonderful feeling. I am particularly happy when I have finished all the jobs that I am meant to have done so that I can do exactly as I want but then I get a bit itchy and wait for the next project to come in.

AND WHERE DOES YOUR CREATIVITY GO?

In many different directions, although I usually wait to be asked to do things rather than starting projects on my own. But I am very lucky as people often ask me to do stuff, for instance this week I have sent a painting to be auctioned in aid of Art4Grenfell, I have written this piece and baked a cake to a recipe that I made up and next week I’m giving a talk in London about Leigh Bowery and Taboo.

WHAT’S YOUR PHILOSOPHY OF LIVING?

To live life as much as you can. I always think that experiences are more valuable that possessions.

Be kind to people. Don’t worry too much. Don’t complain too much. Make the best of whatever you have instead of focusing on what you don’t have. Try to see the funny side of everything. Even a bad experience can be made into a good story. To say ‘yes’ far more often that saying ‘no’.

AND DYING?

I used to be petrified of death but as I’ve got older, I’ve seen many of my friends and family get dreadful illnesses and addictions, some have died but some have survived. So now I’m not bothered about dying as long as it’s not too painful. And old age doesn’t look particularly appealing and I’ve got no children to look after me so I don’t want to live too long beset by pain and memory loss. However I don’t think I’m ready to go yet, I recently had surgery and they asked me if I wanted to be revived if I died on the operating table and I didn’t hesitate in saying ‘yes’.

But if I died tomorrow I would be satisfied with what I have achieved in my life and would be glad that I died happy.

ARE YOU STILL DREAMING?

If you mean do I dream when I’m asleep…yes, I do. I like the dreams that you have when you wake up and then snooze for a few minutes. I did this yesterday and the dream was so real I could feel myself flying through rooms and chatting to the various people that I met in them. It was most enjoyable.

But if you mean do I dream of doing things…not anymore. I used to dream about things that might happen to me and they never happened but the things that have happened to me are so bizarre I wouldn’t even imagine dreaming about them. For instance, I have been portrayed on the stage in London and on Broadway in the musical Taboo by Boy George. I also became the subject of the most expensive painting ever sold at auction by a living artist when Lucian Freud’s “Benefit Supervisor Sleeping” sold for 17.2 million pounds in 2008 which resulted in a media frenzy. And recently I did all the drawings that were used on the Fendi Spring/summer 2018 menswear collection and ended upon the front row at their Milan fashion show.

But when I was at school I dreamt about being an artist, this finally came true when I reached the ripe old age of 58 when I had a big show in London and have more or less made my living by my artistic skills in the two years since.

WHAT WAS A RECENT OUTRAGEOUS ACTION OF YOURS?

A few weeks ago I was asked to give a talk in the Art Tent at Hastings Pride. My payment for the event was a bottle of vodka which was plonked in front of me, along with several cold cans of diet coke as I sat down on stage. I don’t drink very often but I think the spirit of Leigh Bowery entered me on this sunny afternoon and I started glugging it down, I shared far more that I meant to in my talk and then carried on boozing, I invited several friend back to mine and as I left the field to get a taxi home I fell over and rolled down the grassy hill like a child and then came to an abrupt stop and immediately got my phone out like nothing had happened. We got back to mine and continued to drink until about midnight when I was sick and collapsed fully dressed on the floor by my bed.

The Culture Interview: Molly Parkin


6 Minute Read

The Grand Dame of Flamboyance, artist Molly Parkin celebrates her 85th birthday with a Retrospective Exhibition of her paintings at the Stash Gallery, Vout-o-Reenees in Shoreditch, London. Here she’s interviewed by her daughter, Sophie Parkin.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known at 21?

The viciously debilitating long-term  effects of alcohol and tobacco. All my close companions from then are long-since dead. I gave up both at 55, and the heady social life and lovers that went with them.

Which person or people taught you the most about life
?

My pious Welsh Valley grandparents, my mother’s parents, whom I lived with from the age of 7 to 11, to escape the London Blitz.

My beautiful, gentle Granny Noyle suffered the tragic loss of 11 of her 12 children in infancy. Her religion gave her wisdom, acceptance and infinite kindness. The entire community brought their problems to her home to be solved. She never turned anyone away.

Both my grandfathers, Tadci Noyle, former miner, and Tadci Thomas, former postman (my father’s father) introduced me to Nature…. to the overwhelming grandeur of the Welsh mountains, either side of the narrow Garw Valley, over the coal-pits below. Both introduced me to humour, conversations laced with laughter, but even more than that…the sense of just how extraordinarily rewarding it was simply to be alive, to cherish every single minute. Tadci Noyle was a scholar, his background being Brittany Gypsy. He had taught himself how to read and write in The Working Men’s Institute of the valley. He placed faith in ‘endeavour’ coaxing me into climbing the steep summit, aged 7, to be ‘closer to God,’ just beneath Heaven. He claimed ‘it will be worth it’ when we reached the very top. The breath-taking result with our valley and the next so far beneath, proved that he was correct. He had planted ‘endeavour’ into my very soul. I became addicted to the result.

The Temple Tirruvanamalai, India The Temple Tirruvanamalai, India - Watercolour - Molly Parkin

Tadci Thomas, a pipe smoker, whose chest ‘couldn’t cope with heights’,  strolled with me at a leisurely pace alongside the coal-black water of the swirling river…all the way out of the village up to the very next one at the top of the Garw Valley. He egged me on with jokes to make me laugh. We stopped very often to examine tiny blossoms and oddly shaped stones. More excitingly, to choose either boiled sweets or peppermints from one coat pocket. Or milk chocolate from the other.

Both grandfathers planted a fervent appreciation in me of humour and twinkling blue eyes, as well as clever, handsome and popular men with time on their hands. Both Tadci’s had retired when I came along but their influence and my Granny’s have given me purpose, drive, humour, faith in my own abilities, and generosity of spirit.

What do you think your working class Welsh background gave you that’s different to others that you’ve met?

My own family was a mixture of teachers, preachers and miners. We were all equals in that valley. Snobbery didn’t exist. Consequently, I have never suffered from social shyness or a sense of inferiority.

Did you ever feel inferior working on a national newspaper in Fleet Street for being a) a woman b) working class c) Welsh d) not being Oxbridge- educated?

The Sixties brought with it the ground-breaking talents of three cockney fashion photographers, David Bailey, Terence Donovan, and Duffy, with whom I worked  as pals. Also artists, dancers, singers, actors and actresses who spoke in dialects, from Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and the North, replacing place the upper-class English accents.

Seascape. Acrylic on canvas.Seascape. Acrylic on canvas. Molly Parkin

Women’s Lib was hugely influential. Male domination in the workplace is no longer acceptable. Men must learn their place, just as women have had to!

You’ve done so much and been to so many places, where and when were you happiest (excluding the here and now!)?

As a travel writer I visited the South Pole – for the Sunday Telegraph Magazine – having always been drawn to snow and ice, visually. I travelled on a German Cruise Liner, amidst floating icebergs. On arrival in the South Pole, I boarded a plane above the snow-laden ice and through the exquisitely eerie landscape. I loved the slanting eyes, beautiful mouths, complexions, laughter of the people, and their friendliness, and that they lived in igloos! That memory is etched in my mind. And the unearthly conversations, plus the ghostly howling of the sleigh-dogs.

However India became part of me. When I bought a house there after I embraced total sobriety, I spent 2 months there every year for 10 years. The temples enthralled me and the warmth and welcome of every Indian I ever met…and their attitude to the end of their lives as mortals reaching heaven, being the Sublime. It has reformed my attitude to my own end, as being the beginning. I look forward to that. In Southern India, I was invited so many times to join in celebrating the deaths of my neighbours, we laughed and sang, and played music long into the night. No tears in sight, no grief at all, I loved that.

Where do you get your clothes from and how do you have the energy not to just throw on an old jumper and slacks during the day?

I wear my clothes with joy, beautiful fabrics, exquisite colours, including black, mostly made by me. My body responds with high spirits and health.

I very much doubt that ugly old jumpers and slacks could possibly do the trick!!

What makes you want to get out of bed in the morning?

I can’t wait to greet the dawn, often I start the day with painting or writing. Four and Six am are my most inspired times. Later in the day, I fall asleep in front of the TV, whatever programme is on.

Any secrets for still being alive, sentient, and not senile?

I have taken to smiling at strangers in the street, especially tired young mothers with prams, and men and women of all ages..they all smile back, which surprised me at the start.

I am a vegan. That is giving me masses of energy, even though I would never have claimed to need more…. I sense it will give me a longer life, but love is always the answer.

As a painter who do you admire most or what is your favourite picture?

I admire the paintings of FRANCIS BACON, my friend and regular drinking companion at the Colony in Soho. BOTH my favourite paintings bring back fond memories – SELF PORTRAIT 1970 by Francis Bacon, oil on canvas. Hard to choose between this and TRIPTYCH May-June 1973 also by Francis Bacon, oil on canvas.

I travelled to the Cook Islands, in the wake of CEZANNE, having worshiped his Tahitian nudes, as an art student. I have also been inspired by TURNER, VAN GOGH, and the SURREALISTS.

Mutton Self Portrait at 85. Molly ParkinMutton Self Portrait. Molly Parkin

Anywhere or one you still wish to paint?

I live very much in the day now, without making plans. My paintings come to life when they wish to do so. People or places. But recently I have been excited by my light-hearted self-portrait, ‘MUTTON’. I see my foibles in it, which makes me laugh. Humour and Truth. It represents a different direction, always unexpected, always exciting.

MOLLY PARKIN, CHELSEA, LONDON. 2017
Molly Parkin’s 85th Birthday Retrospective Exhibition is on from the 10th Feb until 15th March at The Stash Gallery The Crypt of 30 Prescot St London E1 8BB
Vout-o-Reenees
T: +44 (0)7753702910

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