Arriving 10 years ago in London from her native Poland, a country she describes as "grey and non-multicultural", Joanna Pilarczyk fell in love with the city immediately. Amazed and entranced by the many cultures and the vibrant life of the city, she took her sketchbook everywhere, indiscriminately and discreetly recording people on the streets, in parks, and in cafes. Fleeting moments and everyday lives were rapidly captured in her sketchbooks, as she made her first responses to "being hit by the exciting lifestyle and different, interesting people from all over the world."
As she grew more settled in her new environment, Joanna began to paint oil portraits of new acquaintances and friends within the artist community of North London. In these paintings, the person is set within their surroundings, in a pub, a garden, or at their place of work, and always with a vibrant palette of colors.
Join us in conversation as Joanna and I discuss why she decided to make the move from Poland to London, finding color inspiration from the neon hues of American TV, and moving her artistic eye inward—becoming more aware of what she wants.
When did you fall in love with painting?
I started painting and drawing when I was five. First, I learned from my uncle how to draw my favorite characters from cartoons. In kindergarden I loved to paint animals and princesses. My twin sister Ania was good at creating male characters. Other kids loved what we created and constantly asked us to paint something for them. My parents realized that my sister and I were very creative so they signed us up to take afternoon art classes in the local community centre. When I was in primary school, it was very clear to me that I was going to go to Art College so I took every opportunity to learn more about art techniques. I was lucky to have great teachers from the very beginning. I spent every summer taking part in Art Pleine Air in various places: Poland, Germany, France. When I describe my past experiences, I need to mention my sister. As identical twins we did everything together; we shared our creative path as evolving young artists. Our painting and drawing style was so similar that our teachers couldn't recognize which one of us was the artist. It was fun. When I was 23 I went to study Art Education and visual arts. It was this time when my sister and I separated and took different paths.
What brought you to London initially? What has been your experience in the art community there?
I moved to London because I fell in love with my partner Jarek. I never planed to leave Poland and my life there, but I realized that I met my soulmate, which changed everything. It sounds like a cliché but it's true. Also my sister was already in London so it was a great opportunity to be close to her again.
The art community in London is so different from Poland. All creatives have more opportunities to work in their field and build their career. I’m lucky that my partner is an artist, too. He works as a motion graphic designer and he already knew many interesting people. My first few years were very difficult, though, as I had to learn English and start my life from the very beginning. I decided to attend life drawing sessions and painting classes in North London to be around people and learn how to talk about art in a foreign language. Then I started volunteering as an art tutor and after a while, when I felt more confident, I started running my own classes. It was great idea, as I got to know more artists from the local community who become my very close friends and new family.
The moments you capture in your paintings are so intimate. Are the subjects in your paintings people you know personally? How much time do you typically spend with a person before deciding to capture them in a painting?
My early works are portraits of my friends mostly, but since I moved to London I was so fascinated by people from different countries and cultures that often these strangers became my models. I used to like to go out with my husband Jarek to the city and discreetly drew people in my sketchbook. We sat at cafes, parks, or train stations and I would draw interesting looking strangers. The sketches were ideas for my paintings. At the time, I ran a portrait drawing class and often I needed to hire models for my sessions. It was a great opportunity to work on my personal paintings, too. Very often, though, I found my models among attending students, other artists, or people from my neighborhood who were happy to earn extra money. We always had very good conversations about life and I felt that I knew them. After a while, I become more confident and when I spotted a very interesting looking person I just asked if I could take photos as a reference for my paintings. One interesting story is when I was invited by my lesbian friend to a gentleman's night club. It was a beautiful place, very stylish and well decorated. The women working there were stunning. I asked the manager of the club if I could take a professional photos of the girls, who were happy to be my models. They were my inspiration for the painting series called 'Nightlife'.
Tell us a bit about your most recent series Intimate Time.
Since the pandemic, I started to work on self-portraits and portraits of my partner only. Isolation from other people made it a natural decision. It was the first time I fully focused on myself and my partner as a subject for my paintings. I found self-portraits to be a challenge, but over time I became more confident and able to express exactly what I wanted to. After a year and half, I still continued to find inspiration within my own flat-studio and in my relationship with my husband and two lovely cats. I find it very interesting to observe my everyday life and to find those special moments in ordinary situations. Sometimes it is just a beautiful light coming through the window reflecting on my plants and flowers, or the variety of patterns and colors that give me the first idea. I learned how to capture this specific atmosphere when the sunlight highlights all colors around me, warms my skin, and with the magic of imagination it transform my small flat into an exotic place. Those scenes from my paintings are portals to a different world without any worries.
A bright, colorful palette seems to be one of the key elements in your work. What inspires your choice in colors?
I am inspired by the vibrant colors in big cities like London where I am surrounded by people from all over the world. I also draw inspiration from street art, graffiti, animation, and video.
When I was growing up, the world seemed quite grey, but I occasionally saw flashes of neon color from American Television, which I craved to add to my paintings. I often use complementary colors to animate the subject. I like use neon pink against the lime green of a leaf or a splash of turquoise.
What would you say has been the most challenging part of your artistic journey? What has been the most surprising?
Definitely the pandemic. Before the pandemic, I was working for commercial companies as a freelance artist or as an art educator, so I wasn't able to fully focus on my personal artwork. In some way, the isolation from previous commitments was a blessing. It gave me time to learn much more about myself asa person and artist. I had a lot of existential questions about who I am, my goals, and fears. I realized that I can find inspiration very close, in my home/studio and from a person who is my partner in life and work. I finally become more aware of what I want.
The most surprising moment was when I was contacted via Instagram by the art dealer and artist agent Virginia Damtsa. She offered to work with me and helped me to understand what is important in the art market and what the next steps are I have to take to grow my career. In that moment, I understood the power of social media and started connecting with many artists, art collectives, and art curators.
Who are some other artists working right now that you think we should know about?
Well, I would like to give a shout out to my husband Jarek Radecki, who is an all-around wonderful creative: from video installations, printmaking, and traditional painting. Also my friend Caroline Rault, who uses watercolor and printmaking in a challenging way.
Do you have anything coming up you’d like to share?
In January I have an exhibition at J/M Gallery in Notting Hill, which I am really looking forward to. I am exhibiting with Ted Wong, an abstract artist based in San Francisco, and with Hannah Nijsten, a painter based in London.