Ashes57 is an accomplished photographer, illustrator and designer. She has spent time developing her style in Montreal, New York and now London – where she forms part of the Swamp81 record label team.
Although far from her artistic beginnings as a French graffiti artist, painting the name ‘Ashes’ in the towns of north eastern France, her ‘DIY art’ roots are still strong and feature as part of her focus on the vast urban landscapes brought to life in her own playful black and white stylised depictions. She also paints larger scale outdoor pieces, for example at Outlook Festival as part of the LAVA collective (a global audio and visual art collective) with London street art stalwarts like Mr. Penfold and Stik .
Her talent, and obvious passion, for photography has also seen her complete an iconic series of images of prominent figures in the underground music scene, including the likes of DJ Rashad, Loefah and Mala, as well as capturing some of the most atmospheric images from their live performances and others like them. It all seems nearly effortless to her – capturing moments from the dance floor as easily as from the decks.
But to some, her most recognisable work comes from her design contributions at Swamp81, a label held in high esteem by underground music lovers from the UK and beyond. They can be seen gracing the front cover of 12s and LPs from artists like Boddika and Kryptic Minds and on much of the label’s promo material and merchandise.
I was hyped for the chance to catch up with her this week and chat about her creative outlets and career so far as well as upcoming projects for 2014 and beyond.
Urban Kultur Blog: So tell me a bit about your background, and how did you first get into art?
Ashes57: I am from the east of France near Luxembourg. I studied at l’École des Beaux-Arts of Nancy but I didn’t graduate. My main teacher was from London and really inspired me to move to England. I thought everything that he didn’t like about his home country was what I was after.
I learned traditional drawing and abstract art. But I was never cut out to apply rules. Art school is supposed to be for open minded spirits but I felt like people where focusing more on superficial behaviour then making cutting-edge art.
UKB: Do you feel artwork still has something of your graffiti roots in it, typography etc. or have you left this in the past?
A57: Now I’m more nostalgic about it than active. I fell in love with typography and DIY art, graffiti was fulfilling everything I was looking for in art.
But in France it wasn’t seen like this. It was degrading and using marker paint as medium was almost controversial. In the US, the Brooklyn museum had a section about graffiti since day one.
UKB: Has that attitude to graffiti/street art in France has changed since you lived there? If you’d grown up now as opposed to then, would you’re artistic path have been different?
A57: Yeah, I think it has. When I grew up the magazine culture was very important, the web didn’t exist. We were travelling all around France by train to meet up with various crews. There were only few shops who sold spray cans, one in Paris and one in Marseille. It wasn’t a fashionable thing to do, but a way of living. There were no graffiti art classes or street art tours…the word was still spreading.
UKB: You regularly name Shepard Fairey as your big artistic inspiration. I’m really interested to find how you first got to meet him, and what is it about him that you find most inspirational? Is there a chance that you might create some art together?
A57: Studio Number One (Shepard’s graphic studio) got in touch with me and offered an internship to in 2004. It was the most inspiring time in my life. I didn’t think that I would actually be assisting Shepard. He taught me everything I was looking for in art. I learned more in the few months I spent in LA then at University or Art School. I have done few t-shirts with him but not a real collaboration yet.
UKB: So how did you get your first break in designing?
A57: I got into design by doing flyers for friends. It was only when I moved to Montreal that I started to take it more seriously and doing it full time. COOL’EH Magazine from New York did a feature on my work in 2005 and few months later they offered me a job as a creative designer. That’s how I started my career.
UKB: What’s changed since then to make you focus more on your art, photography and music?
A57: I always loved taking photos and felt the need to document everything. I bought my first real camera in America when I was working in Mont Hood in a snowboard camp. People wanted me to take photos of them and were taking me seriously.
Then I remember one day, Oneman introduced me as a photographer – I was shocked. I never thought I was a photographer before that day. It was always just a tool and a medium that I used to make my art. I use my photos as a reference to make illustration and sometimes illustration help me to compose photos.
UKB: So is your photography integral to all your art?
A57: They are connected. Plus, I love being creative at any moment. Photos, art and music complete each other for a full effect. I have now took 250 000 photos and I’m now working on a book. Recently, I began to post more illustrations online but I still take a lot of photos. I just find editing pretty boring right now.
UKB: You’re designs for Swamp81 are really distinct, be it your illustrations or photography, what’s it like working in that environment? Do you get a brief or are you given you a free reign? Is there mutual bouncing of ideas back and forth?
A57: I work closely with Loefah. He usually play me the track, gives me his thoughts and I work on the cover next to him or go home to apply the vision I have.
Loefah knows what he likes and that makes the difference and accelerates the creative process. We are not trying to be something we are not. We just do what we like.
UKB: Were you involved in the design of Zed Bias’ “Boss” cover?
A57: The cover was done by Will Bankhead and Loefah. They went to North to take some photos. Loefah is actually a really good photographer, that was his major at University, but the photos were taken by Will Bankhead. I just put it together.
UKB: You’ve said before that your artwork is heavily influenced by music – do you think your artwork has evolved along with the music scene in London in the years you’ve lived here? Has the slow change of the dubstep scene and the emergence of other genres had an effect on what you produce?
A57: I’m not sure. I paint and draw and slowly progress. I like to make the things I know a little bit better each time. Dubstep was a very inspiring movement when it started and for each beat I listened to, a piece was appearing.
UKB: You’ve created music videos for the likes of DJ Rashad, and mentioned in the past that film was something you’d like to get more into – have you got any film/video plans for the future?
A57: I really want to keep making music videos. Rashad is so inspirational to me. He gave me total freedom and I think that’s what I love the most. The first video I did for him was ‘Shoot Me’. We were in Brooklyn when he made the track and I had a vision. I did the video as soon as I got back to London. He didn’t ask me to write a proposal, he just gave me the track and let me be. His music works well with the work I do.
UKB: So have you got any more work with Rashad lined up?
A57: Yeah, he just invited me go to San Francisco to work on the next video, I just can’t wait! The track is called Light it up and it’s from Double Cup, Rashad’s last album on Hyperdub. We are going to shoot it in San Francisco. I’m really exited about it.
UKB: You recently had a show ‘Cities’ at the Rag Factory, can you tell me a bit about it?
A57: After Outlook Festival, I felt the need to work on a solo show. I have done 72 shows for other galleries and parties but somehow for this one I just thought I should try to manage it all alone. The Rag Factory has supported my work since day one and offered me the gallery space for a decent price .
UKB: How do you think it went? Were you pleased with it?
A57: I feel like everything came in place at the right time. Astrophonica had a new release coming out, so we decided to team up for an after party. I had no stress, I just painted for a full month, promoted with a little help from Hyponik and everything went well. I had 3 interns who helped me with the sales, it was like a dream.
And the day before the opening, Loefah called me to say that he wanted to play as a secret guest.
UKB: Definitely sounds like it came together nicely! Do you have plans for a new collaborative LAVA show soon, or are you going to focus on your solo work for a while?
A57: I loved working collective events and LAVA was a perfect to bring all the talents that I met over the year together. But after we had the gallery in Carnaby street and curated about 30 exhibitions I felt like I should focus on making my own art. I would love to bring it back in the future.
UKB: ‘Let the Freqs Out’ happens this Saturday in Manchester and sounds like a custom made event for you, with art and music closely tied in. Whose idea was this, what’s the concept, and what can people expect to see at the art gathering?
A57: Manchester is like my second town, I’ve had 3 shows there so far. Mushy was the first person I met there. He had the idea to run this event a year ago. Just after my show he asked me to make a logo for it. He has been hanging out with us for years so organically, he asked the Swamp team if we wanted to be part of the first event.
I am proud of him and want to support him. This time I ‘m going to bring 2 interns from Jealous Gallery to screen print my art during the event. Hopefully the party will go well.
UKB: And finally – where did the idea for the character of yours come from? It’s almost become synonymous with Swamp releases!
A57: All street artists do super heroes. When I first drew this character I thought he was fitting. Just a man holding a record. He can be anyone, but he has hold of a precious tune…
Thanks again to Ashes57 for taking the time to answer my questions. If you want to check more of her illustrations, designs and photography head over to www.ashes57.com or onto her regularly updated Flickr page.
To check out some of the music that she likes, have a listen to her Soundcloud where she’s running her own podcast series, ‘Interlude’. In her own words; “I know a lot of musicians, labels and music lovers. So far I’ve only asked new DJ to make mixes in the hope to help them. I’m trying to develop a collection of mixes focusing on bass”.Images from Ashes57 & Veronique Lee (Shepard Fairey’ Studio One image)