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A conversation with Jen Orpin
Jen Orpin is a Manchester based painter. Earlier this year, for her issue #16 essay 'concerning bridge-ness,' Melissa Chambers contacted Jen about her series of paintings of British motorway bridges. What resulted was a likely friendship between pontists on different ends of the M1.
Melissa Chambers: That blackboard behind you looks really old, where are you?
Jen Orpin: I am in my studio, which is half of a classroom in a Grade II listed Victorian primary school in Manchester. We moved in here in 2017, ‘we’ being Rogue Artist Studios. We're a group of artists that I have been a member of since 2000; we've been going about 25 years. There are 97 of us now. Before here we were in a lovely big old textiles mill just behind Piccadilly train station in the city center, a huge big four storey old... you can imagine. We moved in on one floor and then we took over a second floor and then a third. Meanwhile, in the middle of those floors was the textiles mill that was still working. You could always hear the machinery going.
JO: I really liked it, I got used to the noise of that machinery. It was almost like the heartbeat of the building. But as is often the case with gritty urban corners of a city that nobody likes to go to, the artists move in and then lo and behold, the property developers tempt the private landlords with an offer they can't refuse. And now they're refurbishing the lot into swanky flats. We're one of the largest studio groups in Manchester, there was a big push to keep us all together. Arts Council got quite involved. Manchester City Council got involved. We went on a hunt for somewhere big enough. Housing that many artist studios is quite a feat, really. Then we came to look around this school; it'd been empty since 2012. We walked around and a lot of us fell in love with it. Now we have literally more space than we know what to do with. Car-park space for everybody, there's a playground over there, there's a sunken garden, the climbing frames out here, there's a stage. I'm on the first floor. Downstairs we've created a purpose built gallery space so we can put on exhibitions. Yeah, it's brilliant. We're signing a lease hopefully for the next hundred years so nobody can swoop in and take it off us.
MC: Tell us what Rogue Artist Studios is about.
JO: We're photographers, painters, printmakers, all sorts really. Some are full time, some do other things, teaching and that kind of thing. There's no brief, just to be an active member I guess. To really enjoy everybody. Since moving here to this school we've got a massive board downstairs, an in-and-out board with everybody's names on it. So you can walk in and see who's in and then you can just go and say hi. Once a year or so we come together and open up for people to come in and have a look around and see where it all happens, because looking at the nitty gritty of an arts studio space it's... if I could just carry you over, for example.
MC: I was going to ask! Swing me around so I can see...
JO: Yeah, brick windows. We've got the area over here with the paints and all of the gazillion brushes, more windows... windows... stuff... more stuff... useful sink, coffee machine, microwave, et cetera....
MC: It's a perfect space! And I get how it was a school room. Do you think there's a benefit to having an artist collective that's in the middle of a thriving city? What do you get from Manchester? How does the city aspect of it affect the collective?
JO: For me it means my life is all integrated. I move about the city and I move from here to there, and I think having it so close is quite important really for me. I've lived in Manchester since 1993, I came here to do my degree. If I ever think about leaving Manchester the thing that would upset me the most I think would be leaving this, because it's my second home, and my studio family.
MC: Where are you from originally?
JO: Walton on Thames. Surrey.
MC: What kept you in Manchester?
JO: It's compact. And easy. When I was growing up we'd head into London every now and again, it was a 30 minute commute to London. Even when I go to London now, I find it exhausting and stressful, it just takes ages to get anywhere. And it drains your wallet just by stepping off the train. You know?
MC: Tell me about it.
JO: There's a friendliness about Manchester too. Everyone I met here was just lovely, and there's an art scene. I just… I loved it. I'm an identical twin sister and she moved with me... [laughs] that's thrown you in another direction hasn't it… I just saw your little cogs going.
MC: [laughs] What does she do?
JO: She has a degree in fine art as well. We came here together and we got onto the same course. We lived together in student digs. Then we actually ended up buying a house together in Manchester. She's a painter and decorator. She puts together sort of the whole design of a room. Pamela, she's on Instagram as Pamela Orpin Painting Services. She's brilliant. She went her way with it and I went my way.
MC: So, bridges brought you and I together, one of your paintings of the Scammonden Bridge was the accompanying artwork for my essay about bridges in our issue #16. I love that you paint bridges but you don't paint big world famous ones, you paint the ones on Britain's arterial motorways. I wanted to use your image, the painting is called ‘'I'll be back before you know it' because it’s a simple structure that you might not think about very deeply, especially because most people would be passing it at really high speeds. But when you look at it, especially the way you’ve painted it, it’s very beautiful. Very thoughtful.
JO: Yeah, so that particular bridge, it's on the M62 towards Leeds, is featured on a BBC documentary about motorways. It shows how horrific the construction process of it was, because it's so exposed up there. I'm going to find the documentary for you.... it's on my Twitter feed.
MC: Wait, I'm googling... is it 'The Secret Life of the Motorway?'
JO: Yes! I'm hoping that you can still get it. They feature some of the bridges on there that I've painted. The M62 one is one of them, and a couple from the M6 and M1. If you watch that documentary, you'll see them constructing it and also some footage of when the motorways first opened in England, great footage of people driving along. They just had no shame back then, people would realize they'd missed a turning and would just go: "Oh, OK.." And just drive across the central reservation, like ACROSS it and back down the other way. It's brilliant, you've got to watch it. It's so good.
MC: Why did you start painting bridges, is that a blunt enough question?
MC: It's a perfect question. I started painting them in 2018. But what led me to it was what happened in 2015. So, my family is down south. One Monday morning we all got a phone call, I was visiting my sister actually, saying that my dad had had a stroke and he was taken to St Peter’s Hospital in Addlestone, which is just off the M25. We rallied and all went down there and basically he was in the ICU for three months. I traveled from Manchester down to Surrey every week, twice a week for those three months to spend Monday to Friday in ICU with him and my family. I'd come up to Manchester and spend the weekend and then go on repeat the following week. I did that every week for three months.
MC: How long is that drive?
JO: It's about three and a half hours. That's with no traffic jams. So it's M6, M42. M40, M25. I spent the majority of those car journeys on my own, it was a really emotional time. The time I spent in the car was a time of reflection. I was also spending lots of time with my family in a way that I hadn't in recent times because I'd moved away to Manchester. My big brother put me up. He fed and watered me for those three months. My big sister took control of all the hospital stuff and talking to the doctors, she was brilliant. My mum couldn’t a lot of the time, she was too upset. And at the end of the three months, unfortunately, we lost him, we had to let him go. And that journey, I got to know intimately that route because I took the same route every time. I've been thinking recently about how car journeys are... that it's not about what's going on outside the car, it's often a lot about what goes on inside the car. So I've got written up here [points to the black board] it says: “intimate confessional space, confinement, and lack of eye contact.” I did those journeys on my own, but it was almost like an intimate confessional space with myself and my own thoughts. There are no distractions while you're in the car, you can't look at your phone, you can put the radio on or you can listen to a podcast or whatever. But actually, it's a great time to switch off and just concentrate on what you're thinking about. It was a time for me to decompress, to process.
When you’re driving with someone, that lack of eye contact is sometimes quite good. I find I have lots of really good conversations when I'm walking side by side with somebody. Therapists suggest that if you need to talk to somebody, go for a walk with them, don't sit across a table and, you know have that intense sort of... confrontation.
One of the paintings that I made was called 'significant structure.' It's a painting of a bridge over the M25 called the Lyne Railway Bridge. It was the first cable-stayed structure on a British railway line, built in the late 70s. It straddles the M25 just before junction 12, which was my junction. So I knew that every time I drove under that bridge, I was ten minutes from walking through the doors of the hospital. It was my landmark. I was like right, OK, I'm going under the big bridge.
It took me a few years to get around to starting the paintings, but then I sort of started a journey with it, with all the different relationships with the motorway bridges, and the stretches of motorway. It all comes from an emotional place, they're all about nostalgia and memories and about how these landmarks spark memories. That one was a very specific significant journey for me. But those bridges could also spark memories about family holidays or when you used to go and visit a relative or grandma. I've had so many people say to me: I had a hospital trip like that. So, those bridges, they're significant landmarks in the journeys that we make that spark the memory and the feelings and emotions attached to all those journeys.
MC: Common landmarks but private memories.
MC: Jen, this is completely not the story I expected from you when I asked you that.
JO: Really? [laughs] Have I thrown you?
MC: No, not at all! It's so much better. I thought we were going to talk about the plight of postwar architecture or something. This is a beautiful story.
JO: You know, that's OK, most people look at me and go, "Oh, wow, I wasn't expecting that."
MC: It makes so much sense though now that you've said it because of how the paintings feel.
JO: Well, a lot of times I get the concrete geek thing, I've met so many concrete geeks over the years, mostly men of a certain age. They've all come out of the woodwork at me. They like to give their opinion on exactly where that or the other bridge is and exactly what it is. I know they're out there. But you know, I think concrete is sexy too. I love concrete. I love the angles and the architecture and the structure of bridges. I love it when concrete is curved. There's a bridge on the M4, it's got circular walkways, concrete circular walkways that go down from either side of it. I've painted it and called it 'I might not be pretty, but I've got some beautiful curves." So I love all those things that other people love about concrete. But until the thing happened with my dad, it didn't really occur to me to paint them. I think I have to make an emotional connection in a way with something for it to sow a seed. It has to hit me in my heart and my soul I guess.
MC: Hearing you talk, I realise what I thought about mostly when I was writing about bridges was what happens when you go over them. You did that thinking going under them, and very fast. Which I suppose is my next question: how did you paint them?
JO: Most of my source material comes from photographs. So if I'm lucky enough to be a passenger…I just can't relax on a car journey. I just cannot. I mean, even if I'm driving, I can't and if I've got someone riding with me. I have to give them instructions at the start of the journey to say, "right, have your phone ready because I might shout at you: "NOW I need one of this!" or whatever. I'm sure people hate driving with me.
MC: I won't go down the concrete rabbit hole, although I would really like to, because it is very interesting. But as well as capturing concrete in all its glory, you also capture a lot of graffiti. Let's talk about that for a second. Have you ever been contacted by any of those artists going: "Hey…. that's mine."?
JO: Yes. As well as loving when concrete is curved, because it's hard and soft at the same time, I love it when it's painted. Like you’ve got a lovely blue bridge or a lovely yellow bridge. I also love it when it's full of graffiti, especially if the graffiti's been there for a long time. I like to sort of imagine the person doing it. It's a risky business, really, to hang over the top of a bridge. With bridge graffiti I know that life has been risked, as it were. I've met a couple of the people. The first time was last May, when the paintings were in the newspaper. The Guardian Online featured my motorway bridges and The Observer featured them in the grid section. When this came out, everything went a bit bonkers.
MC: Tell me about that!
JO: It came out online on Saturday and my phone started to go bananas. And then on Sunday, when the paper came out in hard copy, I woke up in the morning and I looked at my phone and I was just like, Oh my God, I don't think I can do this. It was just red dots everywhere. It took me two weeks to reply to everybody's email. Half the emails were: Where can I buy these paintings? Do you take commissions? Do you post to Paris? Can you do prints? And the other half were just people reaching out, telling me their stories. But one of those emails was from a guy who introduced himself and said, “I especially love the pie bridge paintings.
Now, up here, there's a series of graffiti on some of the bridges around the M6, Manchester and Liverpool that read "the pies" or "vote pies" or "smoke pies", "pies financial reset". Everybody knows them. So this email came in from ‘Mr. Pie.’ And I said: 'thanks for your lovely email. Blah blah blah. Not just any old pie eh?' And he emails back to say "I’m not just any old pie. I'm Ashley Martin from the band The Pies, who wrote the graffiti."The Pies were a band who were around in the 80s and early 90s, they were from Liverpool.
They nearly broke it, really big in America, but it didn't happen for them. And here was this lovely guy, and he reached out to me. We had an email exchange, like 50 emails with us just chatting backwards and forwards. He sent me loads of images of his graffiti, and told me stories of sleeping under bridges or why he painted on the bridges, stuff like that.
MC: I love that.
JO: Another time I was at the Manchester Art Fair with my gallery and this lovely young guy came up, it was really busy, it was the opening night. His mum was with him, and he's pointing at the painting. And I went up and said, “Do you like this one?” and he goes “That's my graffiti in your painting!" So we had a photo together with the painting and I'm chatting with his mum and she goes: "I just wish he'd stop doing it."
MC: Do you have a favorite bridge? I mean, I know it's like asking which painting of yours is your favorite but...
JO: Yeah, I have. Apart from the Dad bridge: 'significant structure,' which is this one [turns the camera] It's on the M25. I hate the M25. It's a horrible road. I find it's such a hostile environment. Anyway, there's a bridge over the M6 northbound, it's just south of Forton Services, Lancaster Services and it's this beautiful angled cream bridge. Here it is. Oh, it's lovely. It's the largest painting I've probably made of a bridge. It's creamy. It's got this beautiful angle. It's really chunky and straddles the road, and it's so sturdy and solid. But I think there's an elegance about it, which is what I love sometimes.
And it's also in a run of bridges that lead to Forton Services, which is just amazing. It's like the rock star of service stations. Do you know what Forton Services is?
MC: [laughs] no I don't! Why is it the rock star of service stations!?
JO: It's disused now, but it's listed. It's this disused, hexagonal almost like a... people call it the spaceship. Google "Forton Service Station". I call it the rock star of the service stations because it's just stunning, and loads of people have memories of it as children, you know, of traveling up and down and seeing it. And being told it was a spaceship.
MC: God, it's amazing! You know, I've never been on the road that far north.
JO: Such a Londoner.
MC: Ha! Trust me at this point I don’t know what I am...
JO: I've painted Forton Services a few times. It's got a footbridge across the motorway, but it's that structure really that's... yeah it's brilliant.
MC: You know though... as an outsider it's really interesting to me, the words that people use about post-war structures in Britain, like, the modernist municipal ones, all these beautiful concrete estates and bridges. How politicized they are.
On both sides of the line everyone always uses the words “utopia” and “regeneration.” Whether they're putting them up or pulling them down, it's the same words that people use. What do those words mean to you?
JO: I don't know. It's the mundanity of the structures I think for me, and I don't know if that's utopic or not, it's the modern mundanity of them. The fact that they are just there, you know? That we pass them all the time. I don't think they can pull Forton down. I think it's listed. I hate it when there's so much regeneration that history is lost because of pulling things down. I guess the thing with motorway bridges, it might be inevitable because the general structures of them deteriorate. How long can they stay up for before they start crumbling? They're concrete, you know, materials. They're not built to last forever.
MC: I live in South London, within eyeshot of Dawson’s Heights Estate, you know the one? It's heaven. It's this amazing shape, it gets called a cross between a ziggurat and an Italian hill town. It's on the crest of this hill so it's set against the sky. I've got this lovely etching of the Aylesbury Estate too, that one's awesome.
JO: Have you heard of Park Hill Estate in Sheffield?
MC: I have, it’s incredible.
JO: In Manchester there was an estate called The Crescents. It sort of straddled Moss Side and Hulme. That was pulled down. In fact, my house is one of the houses that's built on top of The Crescents. I've got a lot of the Crescent rubble underneath my garden. If I start digging there are these huge concrete blocks.
MC: In 2019 you curated a show for women painters with Rogue. Can you finish the sentence: “Women painters need…”
JO: Equality. Equal representation. That's what that show was about. It was about shining a light on female artists that are hugely unrepresented in the art world. It's frustrating. I mean, it's hard enough being an artist as it is, you know, it's hard enough surviving as an artist. And then you've got being a woman thrown into the mix. That's what that Rogue Women show was about. We had a conversation, me and a couple of artists from space, and we just started to talk about it and one of them came up with this idea and we were like, that's brilliant, let's try and sort it. We all want balance. It's about re-addressing the balance cause there just…isn't. We've got a long way to go. It was so satisfying putting that show on the road. And it's also so lovely to connect with other artists, it wasn't just artists from Rogue. We invited, I think, ten artists from around the country to come and join us. So meeting some of my peers from around the country was amazing. I've just become an Associate member of MAFA, which is Manchester Academy of Fine Arts, you have to apply to become a member and I thought it was about time I tried. So I was totally chuffed when I was elected and it means I'll be exhibiting with them in some great galleries moving forward.
MC: If you could say something to yourself as a much younger artist, what would it be?
JO: Oh, my goodness.
MC: Gross question. Sorry.
JO: I'll tell you what, and I don't know if it's about confidence, or having the confidence in your ability, but I became a full time artist about 12 or 14 years ago. Before that, I was working full time, I was trying to do both. And what I realized was: if I don't stop and try and do this now, I might regret it, and I don't want to look back in another 10 years time and go: I wish I'd done this sooner. I wasn't getting enough time to be in the studio, and I was feeling like my soul was being crushed by my job. All I wanted to do was paint. So I took the decision to leave full time employment and become a full time artist. And what happened then was, as it turns out you get out what you put in. I would not be the artist, the painter I am now if I hadn't done that. And I know you can't predict the future, you can't change the past, but I kind of wish I'd done it sooner. Been brave, basically. Back in 2018 when I started these motorway paintings, I'm pretty sure quite a few of my peers and people were looking at me as if to say: this is a bit weird, Jen. As if to say: “Oh OK, yeah... carry on…” sort of thing. And, apart from men of a certain age that I'd have these little niche conversations with, it wasn't until we had a global pandemic that people started to really connect with the bridge paintings. I think it's because when something is taken away from us, we really want it. And that was taken away from us, our ability to travel, and go and visit people. That's where the connection with the paintings came from, they were seeing something they couldn't do and they were craving it or whatever, you know.
MC: We weren't in landscapes anymore.
JO: Yes. So, I stuck to doing it, even though I'm sure I was getting, you know, a bit of scratchy-chin from people saying: “What are you doing with this weird subject matter?” I stuck with it because there was something in it that I loved. And I think that's a lesson really. If you love it, and it's coming from a place that you genuinely think you believe in, then, you know, don't give up on it. Keep doing it.
MC: Maybe then if you could go back and talk to yourself as a younger artist, in that hard moment where you went full time, what you’d say is: “There you go, you were right.”
JO: Yeah, it's a nice feeling, really. And, you know, it's hard being a full time artist. It's kind of a tricky business. You have the highs and lows. It's a solitary existence. You have moments where everything is happening, you've got so much going on. And then all of a sudden, there’s nothing. The beginning of the year is particularly tricky for me.
MC: I call it year fear.
JO: [laughs] Yeah, yeah!
MC: It's a terrible January affliction.
JO: You know what though, those periods of time, I really… I just make. I get into my zone and I try to use those periods of time to push in directions that maybe I had no time to do before. So more often than not, that's the time when I might go off on a different way, you know, into a different subject matter. I've recently started to do these night driving paintings. And also dusk paintings. There's a certain romanticism about that time of day when the sun sets. It's about the sun setting. You know, no matter what happens, the sun is always going to rise and the sun is always going to set, no matter where you are in the world. I've had some really touching conversations with people in the car coming home from places when the sun is setting, it's just that… moment. But also there's a thing about night driving, there's the mystery of the dark and the night and the shadows and the things that the car headlights pick up. And this battle between dark and light, the way the car headlights make things move and dance about. So for me, I've gone off in that direction because I have literally painted around 150 empty motorway bridge paintings and sometimes I need to have a little bit of a break from it. Changing subject matter forces you to use paint in a different way. I think we should be doing that as artists. There's a lot of motorway bridge paintings out in the world now.
MC: Little British bridges all around the world.
JO: Yeah, I mean, they’re in New Zealand, Australia, all over Europe, America. There's little motorway paintings everywhere, it's bonkers.
JEN ORPIN graduated from Manchester Metropolitan University (Fine art) in 1996. She lives in Manchester, and joined Rogue Artists’ Studios in 2000. As well as exhibiting UK wide and selling her paintings nationally and internationally, her work has been accepted into several Open Art exhibitions including: the long list for the Jackson’s Open Painting Prize, New Light Art Prize, The ING discerning Eye Exhibition, The Wells Art Contemporary, The Warrington Contemporary Arts Festival and the first and second HOME Exhibitions (shortlisted on both occasions.) In 2018 she appeared on Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year in the top three for the heat. She regularly shows with Saul Hay Fine Art and her paintings have appeared in two publications in conjunction with the Modernist Society: Landscapes of Post War Infrastructure with a ten-week solo show at the Manchester Modernist Society, and their 10 year anniversary publication. In 2021 her motorway paintings were featured in the Guardian online and the Observer's New Review arts and culture magazine. Jen has recently become an associate member of the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts. (MAFA) WEBSITE INSTAGRAM
MELISSA CHAMBERS is an Australian theatre artist and essayist who lives in South East London. She is co-founder of The Signal House and The Signal House Edition. She has created shows for companies in Melbourne, New York (where she lived from 2008–2014), and for The Signal House in London. She teaches theatre-making at conservatories around London, and her original work has toured to festivals in New York, Amsterdam, Norway and Australia. Her essay on bridges is in issue #16.
(Image credits: All images by Jen Orpin by kind permission of the artist. From top to bottom: Morsa's Bridge, Jen's studio, I'll be back before you know it, Significant Structures, I May Not Be Pretty But I've Got Some Beautiful Curves, Southbound Pies, Northbound Pies, Stand Your Ground, Forton Services, Streetlight Nights, On Top of the World, Full Beam, JENGR.)