Artist in residence: Lizbeth Holstein

Artist in residence: Lizbeth Holstein

The globetrotting painter and contributor to The Gessner talks art, home, and how the two collide

For artist Lizbeth Holstein, a home is more than just a place of residence – it’s a source of inspiration. Her paintings, some of which hang proudly in The Gessner, often capture quiet, domestic scenes that usually go unnoticed; ornaments on a sun-dappled windowsill, lounging family members, a dog having a mid-afternoon snooze. “There is beauty in the mundane,” Holstein says as we sit chatting in her sunny living room. “I like to try and make sure that my work doesn't look too posed, or too contrived.”

Holstein’s own home, which is tucked down a sleepy country lane in North Wootton, Somerset, has the same relaxed feel as her work. Among its grounds is a babbling natural pool and a timber sauna pod, but perhaps the most serene spot is Holstein’s studio, a standalone tin-clad structure that perches on the edge of her back garden. “For me, the studio is definitely a sanctuary; it’s a place where I can spill paint on the floor and not worry about it, where I can put on music without anyone saying ‘why are you listening to that?’ […] It's a space where I feel completely free,” she explains.

Inside there’s a squashy leaf-print sofa, worktable and a metal unit heaped with brushes and bold acrylic paints, which bring a sense of gusto to each of the artist’s works. Holstein confesses that she’s never had patience for the slippery nature of oil paint, but frequently experiments with different mediums. She recently got into cutting and painting plywood, but after an accident with a jigsaw (and 13 stitches to her finger) she’s working on canvas and paper for now.

Propped up against the studio’s walls is a jumble of Holstein’s work. From pensive portraits of friends and relatives, to landscapes of sun-scorched beaches visited on holiday, it’s clear that the artist likes to capture what she sees, or has seen, in front of her. Holstein’s influences, however, come from far and wide; in the last few months alone she’s found herself drawing on the practices of American figurative artist Alex Katz and 19th-century Catalonian architect Gaudi. “I definitely get inspired by other people,” she explains. “It can be ancient works of art, like an Egyptian piece that I come across at the V&A, or it can be a really conceptual piece that I see at the Tate Modern. It doesn't really matter, as long as it gets my juices going.”

"What you’re hanging on the wall should make you feel something. It shouldn't just be a decorative piece, it should make your heart sing"

Lizbeth Holstein

The process of creating a piece can be lengthy for Holstein – first she’ll observe her subject, take several reference photos, then allow the idea to “sit and gestate” in her mind for a while. Next comes the matter of figuring out when to put the paintbrush down. “Sometimes there’s something inside of me that thinks ‘I’m done’. Other times I'll just keep tinkering and tinkering until I’m satisfied,” she says with a smile. “But the benefit of having a studio in the same place that you live is how you can dip in and out […] although suddenly you’ll find yourself working until midnight, wondering where the time has gone.”

Somerset hasn’t always been Holstein’s home. She was born in Australia and then spent the bulk of her childhood in Buckinghamshire, where – thanks to her creative family – her interest in art blossomed. “My mother was a textile artist. She was constantly dyeing pieces of fabric, hanging them over radiators and staining everything,” Holstein says. “She encouraged creativity, so my siblings and I weren't allowed to watch too much TV […] I was always collecting loo-roll tubes and empty washing up bottles to make things.” She later began fashioning prints and gift cards for her brother to sell in local gift shops. One of the cards ended up being purchased by a publisher who, fond of Holstein’s style, got in touch and asked her to start illustrating children’s books. Before kicking off her solo career, Holstein also had a brief stint making artwork for cruise ships, a role she says gave her the rare opportunity to “lean into her gaudy side.”

In 1996, Holstein swapped Bucks for Mallorca with her husband, Sebastian Galbraith-Helps, and their two children. They lived there for eight years before relocating to Cape Town. It wasn’t until 2009 that the family decided to leave the South African capital and start a new chapter in North Wootton. Apart from being close to family, its proximity to the grounds of Glastonbury festival was also a huge draw. “The festival itself is wonderful, but the build up is also really fun,” Holstein says, playfully. “We take our dogs for walks down on the site, and see all the different people moving in; the permaculture crowd, a guy whittling a totem pole. It’s a really creative space.”

Hopping from country to country, Holstein has found that art – no matter its monetary value – is one of the few things that can help any house feel like a home. So, over the years she’s come to carry an assortment of pieces with her from place to place; from a quirky carving she bought from a roadside sculptor, to a sketch she snapped up at a low-key exhibition for just a few pounds.

“What you’re hanging on the wall should make you feel something, whether that’s sad, happy, joyous, excited, or confused ” she says. “It shouldn’t just be a decorative piece, it should make your heart sing in some way.” Surprisingly, Holstein finds it easy to leave the houses themselves behind – in fact, she and her husband are currently in the process of selling their idyllic Somerset abode, and moving back to Spain. “I live very much in the present,” she says, as our conversation draws to a close. “I think we’re supposed to just move through houses. We’re custodians of them for a while, and should try to make them look wonderful – but ultimately they will be here long after we’ve gone.”

Natasha Levy is a freelance architecture and interior design writer based in London. She contributes to Wallpaper*, Sixtysix, Salone Del Mobile Milano and Dezeen, where she previously worked as an interiors reporter

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