Leytonstone and me: one artist’s personal story

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Mary Knight has lived in E11 for 40 years. She tells us how the area has influenced her work – and why its quirky mix of urban and rural will never change

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Refugee, by Mary Knight. Photo: MK
Detail, Refugee (part of Walthamstow Market: in praise of human endeavour), by Mary Knight. Photo: MK
Non-one could accuse Mary Knight of being a blow-in. She’s lived in Leytonstone since the early 1970s, and recently some of her paintings were on show in the Creative Bloc exhibition Incognito at the Stone Space in Church Lane.

Mary, an experimental artist, said she was originally drawn to Leytonstone because it was “by the Central Line, and all that lovely greenery with Hollow Ponds. Until not so long ago, herds of cows would hold up traffic on the Green Man roundabout and come down the side roads eating people’s front garden bushes.”

As readers know, there’s still something of that late Victorian rural atmosphere in pockets. “That was another reason that I liked the area, it was quirky – and still is.”

Mary’s art, though, is unlikely to focus on the rural or suburban idyll, though she loves sketching parts of it: “Trees, light, water: these are challenging, and terraced suburban brick houses in their rows have such variety. There are some wonderful front gardens on show too. People have just so much imagination.”

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'Leytonstone roofs in winter.' Photo: MK
‘Leytonstone Roofs In Winter.’ Photo: MK
She produces modern sculpture, using less traditional materials to tell stories to make points, often about people on the edge, either literally or metaphorically, with, say, mental illness. “Very often global travellers – for example, refugees – have serious forms of mental illness in response to what they have suffered, but there is always hope. I never want to eliminate a sense of hope and of vibrancy and aliveness in my work.

An inspiration also comes, in part, from Walthamstow Market and its traders. “Originally I sought out plastic sacking, the sort that surrounds large numbers of onions or cabbages. You can sew it up, embroider it, use a hot air gun to shrink it: it’s so flexible. I talked to the traders and was astonished at how so many of them had travelled thousands of miles before they landed up in the market. Imagine if you had to up sticks and travel to, say, Uzbekistan to make a living on the streets. Well, some of these people have done this in reverse. Their human endeavour is so remarkable, it needs to be celebrated – and this is what I do in my work.”

The Central Line is intrinsic to most E11-E10 dwellers, but an excellent network of roads facilitates a flight to the coast for Mary, too. “I make use of the rubbish that comes in to land on our beaches. I like the idea of the borders of England helping to tell stories of achievement and madness – and my picking up the unnatural flotsum and jetsum might also help save a bird here, a fish there.”

Borders Of Illusion. Photo: MK
Borders Of Illusion, Heaven and Hell exhibition at Espacio Gallery. Photo: MK
Mary’s work has been shown in central and east London, including the often experimental gallery Espacio, near Brick Lane. “I took part in a couple of exhibitions, one as a member of a group of artists from the Mary Ward Centre, and once in response to an open call for an exhibition called Heaven and Hell (pictured above), in early 2014.”

But the thing that always brings her back Leytonstone is art. “I belong to a group called Creative Bloc, which is partly about meeting a range of people who produce different forms of art; and partly about mounting visual art exhibitions.

'Leytonstone's answer to White Cube': Stone Space. Photo: SE
‘Leytonstone’s answer to White Cube’: Stone Space. Photo: SE

“Then there are great exhibition spaces such as Fill the Gap, the not-for-profit gallery in Church Lane by the station, and the wonderful Artefacto space down by Leytonstone High Road. There was a spirited exhibition with David Nevin and others at Fill the Gap gallery recently; really adventurous, which is what I like. Artefacto also sticks its neck out to be unusual and interesting.”

Finally, we mustn’t forget the Stone Space: “It’s Leytonstone’s answer to the White Cube,” says Mary, “and it’s getting a facelift courtesy of Watham Forest council, along with the Grade II-listed library.

“It’s all here, isn’t it? Leytonstone has just loads to be proud of.”

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For more info on Creative Bloc head here. Follow Mary on Twitter @marykni47043675
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