Awesome Women Miss Led
Joanna Henly is an artist, illustrator, and Live / Street Artist. She aptly goes under the moniker of ‘Miss Led’...
If you (like myself and 100,000 others) have seen any of her ‘live working’ Facebook videos you will appreciate there is little distinction between the pencil and the artist.
Henly studied and trained as Fine Artist in the beautiful seaside city of Portsmouth, “I didn’t want to be in London at that point in time, so I ended up studying the Goldsmiths course in Portsmouth -- that was a double win for me because I love being by the sea.” Shortly after graduating she was shortlisted for exhibitions and was doing shows in London at galleries including the Saatchi Gallery.
When I chatted with Joanna it was a lovely sunny day; with light pouring in to her bright studio, and Bitter Sweet -- one of her favourite works and a big inspiration for her new collection Eye Contact (a long time in the making and due to be released on November 29th) -- hanging behind her. Despite her previous reservations about London, Henly now works from her beautiful studio in East London.
Because her father was in the armed services, when growing up she wouldn’t stay anywhere longer than four years – but she has endured, and even thrived, in London (a notoriously difficult and expensive city for creatives) for the last 18 years -- she must be doing something right! It was here Henly began working as a Live Street Artist (the rare, legitimate kind that are commissioned for live drawing events and bespoke murals), and has gone on to work as an illustrator for some of the largest brands on the planet, including: Google, Clinique, Braun, Selfridges, L'Oréal and The National Portrait Gallery. It is this wealth of experience and training in myriad disciplines and industries that allows Henly to deftly use juxtaposing styles (a technique frequently employed by fellow street artist Banksy) in her own personal artworks.
But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing; the initial move to London was tricky and Henly describes the dilemma of having to decide between “food or a studio”. It was around this time that, tired of the elitism she found in contemporary art culture at the time, took an extended break out of the art world, “I just stopped doing everything: I stopped drawing, I stopped sketching, I just stopped…for about 8 years. That was a big deal for me because I’d grown up drawing was a constant, my solace and in turn, my identity. It was by way of engaging with the world around me. I had no career skills from my degree course, but I could touch type -- so I went from a Jenny Saville wannabe to an Office Angel in Tottenham Court Road. In fact I did so many different jobs, from food prep, tele sales, envelope stuffing, and then finally found myself working in an office job which propelled me into PR -- wow, that was short lived. After an existential crisis, I quit my job, just like that. I needed to set my head straight. So worked as a waitress in some of the best restaurants in London until finding a Public Art course in Middlesex where I could get my bearings and work out my ambitions again. That was a really difficult time [...] But eventually I moved into an amazing studio flat in Dalston and just one evening started drawing again. Using Myspace as my inspiration and resource for amazing models and I just didn’t stop drawing. Sometimes not leaving the house for 4 days. I was so very excited […]"
"My Myspace Portrait project grew and people were really digging it. I created my pseudonym to hide behind and used my profile as a gallery space for my new quick evolving portfolio and meeting some amazing individuals at the time. I think Devonte Hynes (pictured left) was my third portrait - he was pre Test Icicles and of course, Blood Orange then.
I’d bump into him on Kingsland Road a lot where he’d tell me how he wished he could draw so well. Still one of my favourite portraits and the nicest guy […] Overnight came a flurry of demand; I was showing in Florida, California, Berlin and getting some tasty press in Europe too. Myspace ran an ‘Introducing’, campaign and ran an advert linking to my page for something like 12 weeks. It literally went off.”
Soon, Henly was throwing herself at any artistic challenge available: “I it was seriously do or die - I did not want to go back to selling hair removal cream to health and beauty magazines […] I was aware of a Street Art-style tournament, where painters would create work in front of a big audience. It was called Secret Wars.
I didn’t care that no other girls had competed, or faltered before the start. I’d use that to my advantage...
Being friends of the wonderful team at Designers Block, who I knew mostly from the parties at that time -- which they held in their incredible old and decaying pub Kingsland Road -- I got in touch and said I’d like to be involved. The terms were a little different to what I’d imagined. It was more taking part than being involved. Thinking that it would be a relaxed art wall scribble that would be on the sidelines of an existing party was big in contrast to the reality of it being a testosterone fuelled football-style tournament where the winner would have to battle four rounds in three hours, covering over 24ft x 8ft of white wall. It was 16 to 1 - serious stuff I thought […] Being dissuaded by the organisers really pushed me to want it more. I didn’t care that no other girls had competed, or faltered before the start. I’d use that to my advantage and just turn up. As long as I was competing I was winning in that respect, right? The other guys, street artists and spray painters had been doing this kind of stuff since they were fifteen. What was I doing? So I practiced with massive sheets of paper on my lounge wall and in my studio and a drew until I knew my four designs without reference. I wanted to make the audience question whether I was free styling or not […] I was the shortest contestant, it was hilarious. I had a guy carrying around a small plinth so I could reach the top. My whole body shook like hell, it was so nerve wracking doing something I’d not even tried before and in front of something like 1500 people.”
Henly ended up disproving everyone’s doubts about her ability, so much so, she won the entire tournament and soon found herself being whisked off to colourful Barcelona -- where she would do the whole thing all over again, and be reunited with the works of Miss Van and Fafi. She was beyond inspired and full of creative energy -- and it seems from this point she has not really stopped.
I think the media often portrays women very two dimensionally -- basically as a selling model...
Her new project, Eye Contact, has an emotional starting point as well as an artistic one. For this collection Jo took inspiration from something that we are all bombarded with: the idea female empowerment and women in the media. As Henly says, she had a “bee in her bonnet” about certain ways in which women are often portrayed. I asked her to explain: “I think the media often portrays women very two dimensionally -- basically as a selling model. I was born in the mid '70s, a jump suit kid with bunches; I loved skate boarding and the million dollar man; I still had a Barbie and a Cindy; though I wanted to dress and draw make up on them…but I had access to so much more stuff when I was growing up; there wasn’t this gendered ideal, no black or white. Or should I say, pink or blue. Its really sad as it kinda feels like we’ve reverted back to the ‘50s. I find that increasingly hard, especially having a really important 8 year-old in my life (my niece). I know things are slowly changing, and advertising is visibly acknowledging this cultural regression. There is a voice there, but I can’t help finding it a little muffled.”
Find out more about Miss Led and her new collection Eye Contact, through MyArtBroker, by clicking here.