The first time I wrote about southwest London’s Eel Pie Island was back in 2010 when I stumbled on this magical private community by accident on what happened to be an Open Studios weekend. I wrote again in 2013 when I returned intentionally to dig a bit deeper into the history and the stories of the people who work there. Most recently, I wrote during summer 2016 about another visit. It was during that visit that I connected with the island on another level through a chance meeting with artist Ann Bubis.
I’ve worked closely with Ann over the last six months or two to create two new websites (painting and sculpture on one and mosaic furniture on another) to show off her work, on a number of smaller projects and most recently to create and run an Instagram account for which I’ve returned a few times to the island to take photographs of her quirky studio. It was a privilege to see the island in its natural state, when it’s not all spruced up for the twice-yearly Open Studios event. (Although the photos throughout this post are in fact from the most recent Open Studios weekend, which happened in December.)
On an ordinary day, the Island is still an incredibly eccentric place where a small and friendly community of artists works in their studios. You’ll see people crossing that small arched green bridge over the Thames, past the weeping willow and down the dirt path toward their homes or their studio spaces lugging art supplies or groceries, wheeling wooden carts or pushing bicycles across the steep incline that stretches over the muddy, swan-dotted river.
Ann paints some days – floral abstract pieces mostly, close-ups of detail, delicate petals or curled leaves inspired by a weekly delivery of flowers to her studio. Other days, she works on multimedia mosaics layering textured papers from her favorite art shop in Amsterdam, streaks of gold glitter, paints, tissue. And if she’s not feeling motivated to paint, she might assemble a new sculpture, quirky creations built from thrift shop finds with a focus on storytelling and a nod to the connections these objects had in the past.
Ann’s newest venture is probably her most intriguing: mosaic furniture. Again, there are charity shop treasures – English plates, cups and teapots with fancy patterns. She smashes these with a hammer and, using found or scavenged furniture in need of a bit of love, she refurbishes and arranges the pieces of what might once have been used for a traditional afternoon tea, into a clever mixed-up pattern of her own.
In the background, there’s classical music by which she works, but if you step outside, it’s metallic clangs and bangs – the noise of a working shipyard also situated here – that you hear most clearly. The artists and the shipyard workers occasionally help each other out in one way or another. It works for them. Ann calls them the artists and local residents the land people and the boatyard workers the water people. You also hear birds tweeting and squawking. Squirrels rustling. Nature sounds that make you forget that you’re in London, and that just over the bridge, there’s rumbling red double decker buses and rush hour traffic. There’s also Syd and a number of other island cats. Syd, as you see from the photos here, is massive, and loves to visit Ann’s studio whenever there’s an open day.
Ann’s studio is one of the first you come across when you reach the depths of the island, the most interesting part. It’s a constantly changing canvas in itself as she displays little trinkets, old records, an orange dial-up phone, figurines and all sorts of odds and ends outside. The islanders take things away and leave new things and Ann is constantly re-adjusting when she discovers something that she feels should be a part of the exterior, something that fuels her creativity. Many of the photos in this post were taken around her studio.
That said, the rest of the island is just as quirky. Walk further in and you’ll see there are half-dressed mannequins, dripping candelabras on painted wooden picnic tables, odd signs, a bit of street art, dolls and skeletons and other oddities hanging at random from studios and trees, shipyard parts, old canoes turned into gardens, and – as I noticed on this most recent visit – what seems to be a focus on lanterns, many of which feature in these images.
There’s a brand new crowd-funded Eel Pie Island museum opening this year. It’s going to focus on the incredibly rich musical history of the island. If you read my other posts from previous visits, I go into more depth about the music-related chaos that used to ensue here decades ago – back in the sex-drugs-and-rock-‘n-roll days of the 50s and 60s. It’s well worth reading about; this place is about way more than just the visual arts.
If you have the opportunity this summer when the next Open Studios weekend is on, I’d recommend popping in to have a look around for yourself!