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Artist Lesley Hilling - who pretended to be a man - a reclusive ex architect - to get her work taken seriously in the world of contemporary art

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The Arts Interview - The 'real' Lesley Hilling

Gary Cook, Arts Editor

28th November, 2016

Lesley Hilling is a core member of Human Nature - a group of 30 like-minded artists aiming to change the way people think and act about the natural environment through their work. GARY COOK visits her London home and studio to learn more

It comes as no surprise, given the basis of her art, that Hilling is passionate about the environment

I've just met somebody who is successfully living a double life in London. For two years, she even went to the extremes of going undercover as a man. Amazingly, the security services suspect nothing...

In the art world, though, her cover is well and truly blown.

She is the internationally renowned artist Lesley Hilling, whose advocacy of the double life is most magnificently illustrated by her imaginative use of recycled wood in her intriguing sculptures.

The lure of a second identity didn't stop at her choice of materials, however. She confesses, "Originally, my constructions didn't sit well with the contemporary art of the time, so I decided I needed another way to explain it. The idea of creating a story around a fictional, reclusive ex-architect called Joseph Boshier who built wooden sculptures gathered its own momentum.

"As a result, it ended up with a 20-minute documentary about the Boshier character and a gallery opening showing his work... which was actually mine."

Hilling admits (mischievously): "The subterfuge worked so well that some people even believed they had heard of Boshier's non-existent architectural work beforehand."

Whether this alter ego was genuinely required to raise her profile is debatable, given the collectability of her catalogue of work these days. But the daring left field conceit fits well with Hilling's lifestyle. She is not your average artist and her home and studio in Brixton is certainly not your conventional set-up. It is a house of curiosity - stockpiled with quirky collectibles and wood - lots of it, in all shapes and hues that she has acquired over the years. Even her firewood log pile is graded neatly into types and sizes! In fact, there are so many found objects, she needed additional storage and so her doors are constructed from an amalgam of boxes and shelves with concealed compartments that hold intriguing artifacts from glassware from a chemistry lab, clocks, globes and magnifying lenses to some of Hilling's father's old woodworking tools.

Given the age of the various artifacts, these doors feel like mini time capsules; while the sensation of slipping through a portal is even more intense in her cramped studio workshop. Here, her unique and huge constructions grow organically, sometimes inspired by the shape of a single piece of time-aged wood.

Hilling explains, "Once the basic idea is there, the work will evolve - it feels like there is an unseen hand at work and I am its caretaker. I like to use the hues of the wood as if I'm a painter. Often the piece will have a gradient from dark to light."

The first step is to engineer a sturdy, hidden back frame to carry the weight of the piece. She then begins to build a maze of shapes on top, usually six or seven layers, until it resembles a complicated Lilliputian city grid. She has a near encyclopaedic knowledge of where various pieces of wood are stashed in her studio or around the house but sometimes in heading for a specific item, she stumbles upon an old forgotten trinket and the work veers in a different direction again.

Each piece requires great dedication as well as many, many hours of meticulous craftsmanship. Embedded within the wooden structure of her current project are watches, piano note hammers, fish scales, acupuncture needles and postcards. Even possessions such as stamps, coins or finely scripted letters and photographs from her family's collection become part of her artworks. She explains: "I like to include heirlooms in most of my work. I know then that things like family pictures are safe and live on in the piece."

As well as the gift for impersonation, this particular artist probably has the energy of two people too. Apart from her demanding creative work, she is an active member of Brixton Housing Co-op, a tenant led Co-op with properties in Brixton. Her home is one of a cluster of 22 houses that were renovated in the 1980s having been squatted by a group of gay men in the seventies. It still retains its LGBT history. The communal garden comes with a smattering of Hilling ‘fairy dust', featuring an interconnecting network of wooden walkways that snakes a route through lush plants. The space is so beautiful that it clearly compensates the neighbours for the whine of Hilling's band saw, which can whir into the night when she hits a purple patch, Her next-door neighbour certainly doesn't mind and supplies a delicious and moorish the lemon drizzle cake the day I visit.

It comes as no surprise, given the basis of her art, that Hilling is a passionate environmentalist. As well as exhibiting with the Knight Webb gallery, Hilling is a core member of Human Nature, a group of 30 like-minded artists aiming to change the way people think and act about the natural environment through their work.

Hilling expands: "I hope that people will see that art can be made from anything, not only art but lots of things thrown away can be put to a good use. Often things made from recycled materials are more interesting and beautiful and can trigger ideas."

As I leave Hilling in her studio among the saws, glass and hammers, she decides to get an overview of her current growing artwork by standing precariously on a wobbly stool and I conclude that not only has this fascinating artist defied the security services, she's undaunted by health and safety too.

Lesley Hilling's work can be found at www.lesleyhilling.co.uk

This Author

Gary Cook is a conservation artist and Arts Editor for the Ecologist

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