9th December 2021

Discover through art: A visit to Submit to Love Studios

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Bonnier Books UK commissioned Submit to Love Studios, home to a talented collective of artists living with brain injury, to recreate a selection of the most iconic covers from across our lists. The final artwork will hang on the walls of our Victoria House headquarters and is available to buy here as limited-edition prints – with all proceeds going to Headway East London. Last month, we took a visit to the studios to see the artists in action, and discover what it is that makes the space so special.

Nestled in a railway arch on the edge of Haggerston’s winding canals, Submit to Love Studios is a hive of activity. Music on the speakers, colourful ceramics on the shelves, and a group of artists each immersed in their individual projects – overseen, as always, by the indefatigable studio manager Michelle Carlile. It’s home to more than forty artists living with brain injury –all members of Headway East London, a charity that supports brain injury survivors, their families, and carers. While some practiced art before their injuries, others have only recently discovered their passion and newfound talent for the work.

“I never did any art before my brain injury,” says Billy Mann, a Thursday member at Headway East London and resident raconteur. “I just came over here because I liked the music they were playing. Some Earth, Wind and Fire; some pure groove… As soon as you walk through the door Michelle will tell you to do something – so I’ve spent nine years just pretending to do things so that I can hang around in here.”

Anyone who has seen his artwork will testify that he’s been doing a lot more than just hanging around. Mann is one of six sensational Submit to Love artists commissioned to recreate a selection of Bonnier Books UK’s most famous covers. His rendition of E. Lockhart’s YA thriller We Were Liars – delicate watercolour on linen canvas, embellished with gold thread embroidery – is a stunning twist on the instantly recognisable original.

Brian Searle, Cecil Waldron, Sam Jevon, Sean Carty, Tirzah Mileham, and Mann have spent the last couple of months hard at work on the project, each making their assigned jackets indelibly their own. The atmosphere in the room is one of concentration and constant collaboration, periods of intense focus broken by rapid bursts of laughter, conversation, and the sort of good-natured ribbing that comes of spending a lot of time at ease in one another’s company. What hits you as soon as you walk through the door of the studio is the clear sense of community, shared by newcomers and old-timers alike. “I liken being in here to being in a band,” smiles Mann. “I can only really work when I’ve got all these people around me. All this stuff. We just bounce off each other.“

Studio Manager Carlile has been at Headway East London for over twenty years, and has cultivated a collective ethos of DIY empowerment, of forging new gifts, new connections, new identities – all aimed at delivering Submit to Love’s stated mission of discovery through art. “I would say that when you talk to many of the artists: there’s relaxation; there’s that sense of purpose and worth;” says Carlile. “But for many, there’s that newfound identity: ‘I am an artist.’ That goes a long way.” It’s a mindset that has underpinned the rapid growth of the studio and its burgeoning reputation – with its artists having seen work exhibited in the likes of the Southbank Centre, Southwark Park Gallery, and the Wellcome Collection in recent years.

When we moved into our new headquarters at Victoria House this autumn, we were faced with a blank canvas – bare walls ripe with possibility, and soon hit upon the idea of commissioning the artists at Submit to Love to leave their mark on the space. As a publisher, we believe that great stories can come from anywhere and that our books belong to everyone. Submit to Love – clear in their mission that art is both for everyone, and by everyone – encapsulates this ethos. It was a natural partnership. With a treasure trove of instantly recognisable book jackets at our disposal, Art Director Nick Stearn selected six gems from the back catalogue to send the studio’s way for reinvention.

The artists each found connection with their assigned jackets. For Brian Searle, the process of recreating The Tattooist of Auschwitz brought back recollections of family history. “When I saw the book cover, I thought about my wife’s nan, who was Jewish,” said Searle. “She spoke about her background when she grew up in Brick Lane and why she had to change her name from Solomon to Sullivan and again when she married – ‘cos back in them days you couldn’t have Jewish names. That added a personal touch to the project.”

Billy Mann’s dedication to the commission led to him picking up a copy of E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars and reading along as he worked on his design, drawn in by the book’s resonant subject. “The book is kind of intriguing because it plays around with memory. Very early on, one of the characters gets a brain injury so all the way through you’re thinking ‘what is the impact of that brain injury?’ But there’s a cunning twist at the end! It’s a bit of a page turner.” Lockhart’s narrative and themes of uncertain recollection worked their way into his soft-focus watercolour: “We came up with the idea of doing like a tie-dye wash type thing and blending the colours and making sure nothing was that distinct. Apart from the words, everything blends in.”

Sam Jevon – the self-proclaimed ‘Queen of Wonky’ – was already familiar with Katie Scott’s material after the acclaimed Botanicum illustrator led a workshop at Submit to Love Studios pre-pandemic, and now found herself once again responding to Scott’s art, putting her own patented black and white ultra-detailed illustration to work interpreting the beautiful original. And for animal-lover Cecil Waldron, he discovered a kindred spirit in superstar comedian Katherine Ryan – who’s depicted holding her much-loved pooch on the instantly-iconic cover to The Audacity. “It strikes me that she is very fond of animals. She is so tender, posing with the dog in her hands, you know… That’s what stood out to me. The feeling touched me.” His expressive, joyful portrait pays tribute to this bond.

Sean Carty is new to the studio – only weeks into his journey as an emerging artist. But supported by Carlile, he threw himself into the project, researching the collage that would form the basis of his final piece – and paying tribute to the author by subtly incorporating lines from the book into the artwork itself. “The hardest part was using the scissors without cutting off my fingers,” he laughs. “Art is a way for people to express who they are,” believes Carlile. And you can see the personality bursting from Carty’s modern John Bellairs remix: with red BMW convertibles and Vogue models emblazoning the cover of one of the twentieth century’s most loved masters of children’s horror.

You sense it’s the start of a long road of experimenting with the medium, and it’s exciting to think about what Carty might turn his hand to next. For Mann too – almost a decade into his artistic development, of tapping his feet to the sound of that pure groove as his fingers get to work on his latest creation – the project has already inspired future plans. “I’ve started scouring second-hand bookshops,” he admits with a grin. “I’m thinking Anthony Burgess’Clockwork Orange onto a tote…”

When asked to put her finger on what makes this collective so special, Carlile says simply that “joy always comes to mind. A real sense of people having a good time. I think our mission says it all: Discover. Discover through art. I want us to be known as a studio that really empowers and gives people the opportunity to explore who they are as artists. It doesn’t matter if you have an injury or a disability. You’re an artist in your own right.”

The final word comes from Billy Mann, summing up the unique alchemy of the studio: “You never feel judged. There’s never any pressure on you. You never feel stressed. But things just happen naturally… People sense it when they come in here. It’s not something you can really define. But you’re just glad it’s there.“

 

The limited edition prints of all six jackets are available to purchase here – with 100% of the proceeds going to Headway East London to support their work with brain injury survivors, their families, and carers.