Candice Tripp is really nervous about being interviewed. I know this because she tells me so – several times. She forewarns me on email and then repeats it in person before we’ve even got up the two flights of stairs to her studio at Baltic 39. To be honest, this makes me a little nervous too. I want her to enjoy doing press and get herself out there, because she’s 28 and smart and talented. I wonder what she’s afraid of.
‘I get some of the goofiest quotes in,’ she confesses. ‘I read interviews back and I’m like, “Ah Christ!” But then I think, “Oh well, if that’s who I am…”’ For the record, there’s nothing particularly goofy about Candice. Despite having a bit of a dress down day today, in her boyfriend’s jeans, she’s actually pretty cool, but not in a way that seems studied. She has a smart pair of black-rimmed spectacles on, and I notice a lavish tattoo on her inner arm.
We enter the studio. ‘Most people go, ‘”Oh, it’s small isn’t it?”’ she laughs. ‘Like if you’re an artist you get free space handed to you.’ It is a little small, but fit for purpose. There are canvases along the walls, skeleton sculptures in bird cages, and postcards from her mum.
Candice first burst onto the North East art scene a few years ago. Now her work is collected the world over, with shows in LA and New York as well as in Newcastle and London. On her website she calls herself the Painter Lady, although she also makes 3D pieces. She practises a distinctive aesthetic – sinister young girls in masks, strange anthropomorphised beasts and skeletons.
You’d probably never guess it from her pictures, but Candice was born in the bustling South African city of Cape Town. With its pristine beaches and famous vineyards, it seems a long way from the sinister fairytale forests of her paintings. Candice admits that the scenery didn’t capture her imagination much as a child. ‘I was totally unaware of how lucky I was. I was very aware of how difficult it was being there – my mum was a single parent and there’s a massive divide in terms of wealth and poverty, so I was in a hurry to get the hell out.’
It was only when she was on the verge of leaving that Candice was struck by her surroundings. ‘When I was 18 I took a photo of my friend on a beach on New Year’s Eve just before the sunset and I thought, “Actually, it’s really pretty here.” I hadn’t realised that most beaches didn’t have white sand and turquoise sea. I didn’t know you got pebbles. Or that grey sand that looks like earth. Yuck!’’ She moved to London later that year.
‘I always wanted to be in a first world country,’ she continues. ‘I remember being about four or five and we went to Johannesburg. I was just amazed by the size of the buildings. I always felt I was missing out.’ Any specific examples? ‘There was this one Roxette album that came out and it took a long time to come to South Africa…’ she bursts into giggles. ‘But technology would take a long time. You bought your eight month old walkman and it was already obsolete. And fashion just killed me.’
In London, Candice worked as a bartender, hoping to save up for a fashion degree. ‘I made cocktails for city people. It was really funny, you’d watch them come in wearing their smart dress and by the end of the night they’re all getting off with their bosses.’ She shudders. ‘I was just biding my time until I could study and then I met my boyfriend on a photography website and he lives here, so I moved up.’ That’s pretty romantic. ‘It was great but also the dumbest thing in the world! I’d known him two months!’ (She is still with him.)
In her spare time, Candice was busy painting, ironically for the benefit of her university application. Then a friend of a friend asked her to be part of an exhibition, and since then the offers haven’t stopped. Candice was transformed from wannabe fashion student to Painter Lady. At 22 she was showing in LA.
I venture that someone who has moved here from South Africa probably doesn’t mind all the travel. ‘I love that I sometimes have to move around for my job, but once I’m there I don’t want to talk about my art with 17 people on one night. The first time you have the conversation it’s earnest but you tend to get asked the same questions so by the end of the evening you almost feel there’s a rhetoric because you’ve said it so many times. I feel like they’ve come all this way and I’m giving them some diatribe. I find myself actively derailing conversations. I’m like, “What do you do?”’
I’m struck by the fact that she is obviously not always convinced by her own work. ‘Things go into shows and I’m still making my mind about whatever I actually like them or feel happy they have my name on them. People email me like hey I bought this canvas and I’m like, “Did you? I’m so sorry. Do you want to swap it?”’
But criticism doesn’t always bother her. ‘Someone once said, “That painting is truly awful,” and it stung because I agreed. When people are saying your work is lovely and you disagree, you feel a bit inwardly wobbly because you’re waiting for them to figure out you’re actually pants. But there’s this funny moment where you work on something and you don’t even care what the feedback is because you think, “No, this one’s exactly what it needed to be.” I’d dance around the word “good” but when you find something you’re happy with…’ she trails off. The ghost of self-approval lingers in the air.
I turn the conversation to the paintings themselves, specifically the fact that they are often set in spooky forests. ‘I used to paint loads of negative space because I like the idea of everything surrounding the characters being uncertain. I think the woods are a perfect substitute while still having a visual presence. It’s a lot of nothing that can contain endless possibilities.’ Are the landscapes of her paintings influenced by her current surroundings? ‘A few years ago people would automatically ask, “How does Newcastle influence your work?’ and I’d just sit there thinking, “It doesn’t in any particular way I just happen to live here.” But my boyfriend and I started cycling quite a lot about three years ago, then about two years ago we got a car so we spend a lot of our weekends mooching around.’ They like Staward Gorge and the quarries at Belsay. They adore Cragside. ‘I think that has definitely seeped into my painting,’ she says.
Would she ever go back to fashion? ‘I always wanted to study fashion and I thought art looked like a really scary game. Fashion didn’t feel friendlier but it’s more openly about commerce. You can understand your idea being cut down because it has to make money. But I don’t think I ever sat down and thought, “Do I want to do art or do I want to do fashion?”’ Candice’s love of fashion is beginning to seep through though – she’s about to start producing her own scarves. ‘I got my first sample today.’ She pulls out a red scarf decorated with monkey skeletons. ‘I don’t want to be part of the problem so they’re hand printed by a family in Calcutta who get paid a decent wage.’
I’m interested to know about her market – she has collectors all over the world. ’I’ve met some really interesting people,’ she says. ‘The common thread among a few of them is that they all seem to be keen skull collectors.’ She has received skulls from a rook, squirrel, house cat and rabbit in the post from fans (she considers them friends). Celebs are interested too – Gossip Girl’s Blake Lively bought a canvas a few years ago and Aaron Paul from Breaking Bad owns one of her prints. She even has a collector back in Cape Town. ‘I was really flattered by that because the exchange rates are just gruelling so I was amazed someone would swap that much rent.’
The bells of St Nicholas’ are chiming – it’s 4pm and I have other places to be, so we say our goodbyes. But later that night I send her an email; she’s been so self-deprecating that I’m curious to know what she actually likes about her work. ‘Most of the time, I look back on my work and feel embarrassed,’ begins her reply. ‘I usually feel like something is lacking or immature and could do with being improved – whether or not I can articulate how or why I don’t feel it’s up to standard.’ It’s a shame that someone with so much talent could be so unaware of it, but hey, that’s artists – they never like their own stuff. Yet all her obvious discomfort with herself probably prevents her becoming complacent. Candice is always developing, and I’m excited to know what she will do next. Her last line says it all; ‘I want to be better at what I do.’