Lisa Creagh: The Flower of Life

September 11, 2001

Artist Lisa Creagh is taking a break from her mad, mad life in New York, visiting family in San Franscisco for the week. She’s soon to turn 30, and is in the midst of an existential crisis. Should she stay in her adopted home city, where she creates artworks in her rented studio, curates regular group shows in a pioneering gallery on 5th Avenue, and hand-prints her photographs in the community colour-darkroom next door? Or should she go back to England, where most of her family live, where she was brought up? It seems increasingly parochial back home, when she visits. It’s been five years, now. Her accent has changed. Her mindset has changed. Will it soon become too late for her to be able to settle back in?

‘If one bad thing happens in my life, I’ll go back’ she decides, imagining the loss of her job, an increase in rent for her shoebox in Williamsburg, something like that. Or her new English boyfriend, Steve, wanting to go home. She’s feeling a tug, looking for an excuse. Her cellphone rings. It’s her cousin. “Turn on the TV,” says the voice. “What?” “Just turn on the TV.”

Coventry, 1980s

Lisa was born and brought up in Coventry, too late to remember the good old days before the ghost town. Her Northern Irish mum a primary school teacher, her Southern Irish dad a white-collar worker, made redundant from Rolls Royce early in the Thatcher years. Different strokes: her mum liked Irish folk music, watching TV, the Catholic Church. Her dad listened to Radio 4, read a lot, took her to the library. She spent a lot of time in church, loved drawing and painting. They were stable. Her dad was too proud to take benefits, put on a suit every morning, went out, as if to work, who knows where. There were annual holidays in Ireland, lots of family out there.

She’s telling me all this curled up on the sofa in her comfortable suburban home in Portslade, where she lives with her designer husband Steve (remember him?), their nine-year-old daughter Lily, and Minty, a cute Poochin. I’ve known Lisa for several

years, long enough to understand she’s a great talker. And here I am, asking her for her life story. She’s a successful fine art photographer, cited in textbooks; able to command bigmoney commissions, to access grants facilitating the process of ten-year projects. How did she get where she is today?

She could have been an actress, it turns out. She was an actress. In her early teens she got big parts at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry’s equivalent of Brighton’s Theatre Royal, working alongside pros from London. She played Pandora, in Adrian Mole, beating 400 wannabes to bag the role. “I could have got an equity card, looking back,” she says. “Maybe I should have got an equity card.” She could also have got a scholarship to a private school, which would have enabled her to further her acting career. “We couldn’t afford the school uniform,” she says. “I had to decide to give it all up.”

She decided that art would be her thing. Set her heart on Goldsmiths College. Managed to get an interview there, when she was 17, taking her portfolio of works with pretentious titles, which they loved. An example: potato prints of skull motifs, entitled The Unnatural Fear of the Permafrost. “This was before Saatchi art was a big thing,” she says. “Neoconceptualism was just beginning”. Damien Hirst had just graduated from Goldsmith’s. She got an offer of two E’s. Easy-peasy.

London, early 1990s

She struggled to adjust to London art school life. Got into a relationship with Brian Molko, the androgenous lead singer of the rock band Placebo. Lived with him and the drummer. Had to take a year out, to escape from all the wildness: “university was the one opportunity to kind of make a new life and the last thing I wanted to do was then chuck it all down the plug hole.” She came back with renewed determination. Specialised in analogue collages, which, eventually, became digital collages. “I spent a lot of time in the library, pursuing every sort of interest to the nth degree, like the parallels between depictions of hell in Renaissance art and the

Inquisition torture chambers”. She got into the work of Marcel Duchamp, and Fluxus: “I was more Yoko Ono than Tracy Emin.” She “wrote crazy essays”, and got a 2:1, then a job teaching digital imaging at the college, one day a week, enabling her to stay in London. She also got a part-time job running an art gallery in Barnet, where she had free rein to curate whatever show she wanted, including Out of Focus, “the country’s first digital art exhibition”.

New York, New York

She flew to New York in 1996 to visit a friend, and – classic story this – ended up staying there, abandoning a plan to go to India to study yoga. “It was the time of the dotcom boom, and there was so much money and opportunity; I met a new boyfriend, Josh, whose Upper East-side Jewish family kind of adopted me, helped me secure a work visa.” The couple moved to the trendy district of Williamsburg, where she hooked into a vibrant twentysomething lifestyle, painting when she could, and funding her art with a series of jobs: working for a fastgrowing server provider company; as an assistant art director in film; in a paint shop; in a vintage clothes store. A friend wrote an article in the New York Times Style section about Lisa and her friend group (she’d by now split with Josh), riffing on their similarity to the Park Avenue Princesses, only without the money. Delia Effron came visiting, and offered them $5,000 dollars a head to secure the rights for a TV series, entitled Girdle Girls, featuring “a free spirit and kind of feminist, called Lisa, which was me”. Sound familiar? The pilot flopped, but out of the ashes the same production company developed a new series: Girls

In 2000 Lisa got a job in a pioneering Manhattan gallery, Get Real Art, “a whole new type of gallery, which sold art for ordinary people, like a prototype Affordable Art Fair type of thing.” It was run by a Texan entrepreneur, Susan Jarrell, who soon made Lisa director, entrusting her with the curation of a new show every six weeks, featuring pieces by 25 emerging New York artists (herself included). Exciting times: “it was a very exciting place to be, there were a lot of young, fashionable people about the place, and I got real insight into the world of art dealing.” She became a talent spotter for the London gallery, Agnew’s, and got to know some of Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd, “who were still wandering around the Meatpacking district.” It was there, on March 20th 2001, that she met Steve, who’d wandered into the gallery. She remembers the date. Then, several months later, she took a trip to San Francisco, which takes us back to the beginning of this story, and another unforgettable calendar date.


It took Lisa a couple of months to sort out her affairs, and return to the UK, by chance to Brighton, where a room in a friend’s flat had become available. She shared with Steve,

who’d also opted to return. “The relief I felt was overwhelming”, she says, though at first – for a couple of years – she had to earn her crust selling Apple computers, and realised she had to give up painting, because she couldn’t afford to rent a studio (“I never did take it up again”). Then she got a job at Spectrum, the photographic printers, using the facilities to enable her to further explore her own fine-art digital photography practice. She was one of the founders of the Brighton Photo Fringe, for which she contributed her Tidy Street project, asking residents of the North Laine road to provide a photo ‘with a story attached’ which was blown up, and exhibited, lit up, in their front window. “Half of the houses participated!” she remembers: the show was featured on local TV and radio; during the festival her website was attracting 10,000 hits a day. She was invited to enrol in the new photographic MA course at Brighton University: her career as an artist was on the up.

She began developing a project that had been brewing for a while, which she called Instant Garden. “It started with doodles I did, when I didn’t have time to do any artwork,” she says. “Experiments on my mobile phone, and camera drawings. The real genesis of the work was the ‘flower of life’ you see everywhere from Buddhist statues to Minoan pottery to Celtic illuminations: looping mathematical interconnecting circles, in the form of a flower.” She started obsessively photographing flowers of all kinds from all angles, in every stage of their development, and creating repetitive patterns on large-scale digital prints, playing with “illusion v truth; pattern v figure”. “I loved making the figurative collide with the decorative, and seeing what comes out of it,” she says. “I had finally found my own visual language.”

Throughout the latter half of the decade, she was undergoing a life journey, which she didn’t realise was inextricably interlinked with her artistic one. “This was my ‘journey of fertility’: marrying; trying to get pregnant; failing to get pregnant; getting a diagnosis of infertility; having an operation; having a miscarriage… Even though I talked about how Persian carpets were thrown down in the desert as a type of instant fertility, I hadn’t fully realised that the work was autobiographical.” It wasn’t until “hospitals started buying it and putting it in their fertility clinics, that the penny dropped. I saw pregnant women looking up at the work, with tears in their eyes. I realised that the whole process was a journey about what it is to be female, what it is to be a woman, what it is to be a mother. And the link between photographic reproduction and human reproduction; between floriculture and fertility.”

A trip to Rome proved pivotal. “As ever, I was doing research for my project. When I visited the Sistine Chapel and everyone else was looking at the ceiling, I was sketching the patterns on the floor. Lily, we later worked out, was conceived on that trip.” Lisa’s ‘journey of fertility’ was complete.

Holding Time

Lisa’s Instant Garden project is ongoing – she was recently commissioned to photograph Lionel de Rothschild’s collection of nerines (a multi-hued, crystalline flower species) and create a large-scale print for public display at Exbury House in the New Forest. But motherhood has led her in a new direction. “If the Instant Garden project was in the genre of still life, my next project – Holding Time – is in the genre of portraiture.” And, specifically, the portraiture of mothers holding, and breast-feeding their babies. A tradition which, she suggests, has been taboo in art since the invention of the printing press (“and thus, if you believe one feminist theory, the invention of printed pornography”).

Lisa sees Holding Time as a ten-year project , and she’s about halfway through it. “When a woman sits and breastfeeds, she looks just like a Madonna,” she says, of it. “But the truth is, Madonnas are just real women. We think of all those images in churches as being a worship of a sort of divine female, but it’s actually the case that all mothers are divine when they’re nursing their baby.”

She has photographed around 50 subjects so far, and is looking to complete 100, from all round the country. The portrait is accompanied by an extensive interview, about each woman’s experience of motherhood. “A hundred women, all speaking about their individual journeys, like a Greek Chorus.” And the title? Why ‘ Holding Time ’? “Time is stolen from us when we become parents. We’re not allowed the time that we need, which sits outside what is deemed to be culturally acceptable. It’s humanity v industrialisation. A lot of my work, I realise, is about humanity v industrialisation.”

“I’ve always been really dissatisfied,” she continues, “with art which is just about the individual and an individual experience. I’ve always wanted art to be much more than that. I’ve always wanted it to be more about community, a bigger narrative, including voices that’ve been excluded, getting people to listen and hear.”

By the time Lisa Creagh finishes her Holding Time project, Lily will be about 15, and she’ll be in a completely new period of motherhood. Has she worked out, I wonder, as we eat potato cakes and poached eggs, having concluded the formal part of the interview, what she’ll do next? “If Instant Garden is still life, and Holding Time is portraiture, I want the next project to be about landscape,” she says, and you can tell it’s already half formed in her head. Then, after we pause a while to think about this, unexpectedly: “You know what, I don’t think I would have had Lily if September 11th hadn’t happened… if I hadn’t come back from New York the whole cycle would never have started.”