Peter Quinnell

Hastings-based artist, Peter Quinnell is, as his website so rightly suggests: ‘The original and best’. His prolific series of collage and 3D assemblages are characterised by a zany sense of the surreal, whilst gleefully exhibiting a healthy disdain for the absurdity of everyday life.

Quinnell’s dynamic visuals have featured in a diverse range of campaigns, for clients such as Channel 4, i-D magazine, The Financial Times and many more. However Peter’s creative skills extend far beyond his work as a solo artist, as he continues to maintain a major presence within the local arts scene and various community projects.

Keen to know more, I conducted a socially-distanced interview via my trusty laptop, with Hastings’ very own enfant terrible, Peter Quinnell…

Peter Quinnell posing with vegan pig ears

You’ve been working as an artist for more than thirty years; did you always envision a career in the Arts and how has the direction of your creative output evolved during this time? 

I used to like the idea of being a surgeon or hairdresser when I was very young, but art quickly became my main focus. My family had a blacksmithing business and my mother actively discouraged me from pursuing this as a career! I first realised I wanted to work in illustration and graphic design, when my dad gave me a book of record sleeve designs by Roger Dean. I went to art school in 1982 and have been working in art and design ever since! 

I began collaborating with another artist, Magda Archer, while studying at The Chelsea School of Art. We worked on our MA together and went on to work successfully under the name Archer/Quinnell for the next ten years, before eventually going our separate ways. I’ve worked on around 1,000 illustrative commissions throughout my career, although this side of my work has started to diminish now – partly because of the reduction in print and partly because the market likes fresh, new talent! 

I continue to work on my illustration and personal art projects whilst teaching at Sussex Coast College, here in Hastings. I‘m also involved
in a number of community art projects, along with some freelance and educational work. 

Graphic design will save the world right after  rock and roll does

Your work in collage and assembly-based visuals makes frequent reference to pop culture and the cult of celebrity, whilst also exploring more socio-political themes. How important is art in helping to instigate wider debate around politics and the need for change within our society? 

Hmmm I’m not sure… music, art, illustration and particularly satirical cartoons are often political in theme, although I’m not sure how much of an effect this has on society overall… I think the American graphic design artist David Carson perhaps sums this up best, “Graphic design will save the world right after rock and roll does”. 

I’ve had the pleasure of visiting your wonderfully eclectic studio in Rock-a-Nore… how long have you been working there and how has the area changed (from an arts perspective) during this time? 

My partner Claire Fletcher and I bought the studio twelve years ago. Hastings was already full of artists and musicians when we arrived, some from London, but many were natives too. Hastings and St. Leonards – like so many coastal towns – have continued to attract artistic types, there’s a really diverse arts and music scene here, with lots of great stuff happening on a daily basis! 

‘Super Safe’ – For a bus shelter poster (Which may still be up in Havelock Road, for Love Hastings!) by Peter Quinnell

You’re involved in a number of organisations and programmes within the community, alongside your work as a solo artist. What role do you think art can play in these times of uncertainty, to help reconnect and support people from both an individual and more collective perspective? 

Visual art, music, dance, writing, film and associated creativity, can really make a difference to people’s happiness and general wellbeing. However this is something which continues to be overlooked, particularly in the educational sector.

It’s worth pointing out that creative industries contribute a substantial amount to the U.K economy and employ people from all walks of life. Art has the ability to make such a difference to us all – perhaps now more than ever – it’s incredibly important.

‘Sgt East Enders’– A homage to Peter Blake for Radio Times by Peter Quinnell

What projects do you have coming up in the months ahead and how are these likely to be affected by the current public health pandemic? For example, some artists have been using social media as an alternative means of showcasing their work online; do you think Covid-19 could inadvertently change how we interact with art, in the years to come? 

I’ve been working on Gail Borrow’s excellent ‘A Town Explores a Book’ project, some of which will have to be postponed for the time being, or re-envisioned online instead. Some of the work I was due to be involved in, such as the art break sessions at Project ArtWorks this Easter, has sadly been cancelled altogether. 

I’m still teaching at Sussex Coast College via online tutorials, which is going well, but it’s far from ideal. Local galleries and independent shops are obviously closed now too. This is going to be a major blow to the finances of the owners, artists and makers.

Several Hastings artists are offering free art activities online during the lockdown – which is great – this may catch on and continue when we recover, but I think the shared experience of creating something as a group is hard to beat.

Selling art online works for some people, but not everyone. The illustration business is still up and running – my agent is still working – but the uncertainty and financial retraction are already having a negative effect on commissioned work. 

Everyone is hoping things will pick up and recover soon – I’ve been through a few recessions and financial crises in my time, the effects of which can be hard, but not insurmountable. I don’t know how this will affect the creative industries in the long term – we’ll just have to wait and see… 

My son Joey is – like so many children across the nation – currently off school for the foreseeable future, he’s sitting next to me as I type and wants to ask a quick question (or two!) of his own… 

J – Hi Peter, how can I keep making art whilst shut indoors and if you could be any animal, what would you be and why? 

Hello, Joey – I’ve been doing a lot of collage at the moment – you can use junk mail, magazines, comics, and food packets – whatever you can find! It’s great because it’s cheap, not too messy and doesn’t take much skill to get started! 

If you’ve got a smart phone, iPad or camera, stop-frame animation can be fun to try – it takes some concentration but is really worth it!

Drawing is always fab – you just need a bit of paper and a pencil or pen – it doesn’t matter how it turns out, just work on what you like best! 

With regards to the animal question, a cat’s life has always looked pretty good to me. That or a basking shark – no worries, no responsibilities!

Given the unusual times we’re currently living in, if you had the choice which period of art history would you choose to revisit as an artist? 

I really like the Dada movement and people like Kurt Schwitters – though no-one liked his work at the time! I also like Joseph Beuys, Antoni Tàpies, Robert Rauschenberg, and Peter Blake.

You can view more of Peter Quinnell’s work via his website

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