Interview with abstract painter, Alice Calow!
In our latest interview, Britain Uncovered is speaking with abstract painter and body positivity artist, Alice Calow! In addition to talking about Alice's impressive portfolio of artwork, we're discussing eating disorders, body image issues, her motivations for becoming an artist, the ways empowering nude artwork can improve our perceptions of ourselves, her experience posing at a Body Love Sketch Club event, and more!
Britain Uncovered: Hi Alice! Although you’ve been painting from a very young age, it wasn’t until the national lockdown in 2020 that you started creating the empowering body positivity artwork that you’re now so synonymous with!
What was it that most appealed to you about being an artist in your early days, and what prompted you to start celebrating the female form through your art three years ago?
Alice: Hi! Thanks so much for having me.
I always loved the escapism and creativity that art offered me. From a very young age I would sit and draw for hours on end, continuing it through my school days. As I got older, I used art as a way to express myself, often reflecting my emotional struggles in my teenage years.
I had stopped creating art a few years prior to the lockdown, as I was working long hours in a bar. I then moved up to Liverpool during the first lockdown to start my degree in nursing. Like many others, my mental health declined, and I needed an outlet for my emotions. I began painting myself, and was shocked to find that, despite my relapse with an eating disorder, I could see the beauty in myself when on canvas. If even I, with such poor body image at the time, could see myself through another lens in my art, then how could this benefit others? From there, I began painting friends, and an online presence led to strangers approaching me with their own enquiries.
BU: What most appeals to you about this kind of empowering art, and do you feel it can be helpful for women to see their body from someone else’s perspective? If so, in what ways can nude artwork such as yours help women to feel empowered and more confident about themselves?
Alice: For me, artists like Sophie Tea, who embraces women’s curves and the different shapes and sizes of us all, was very helpful in making me feel more confident and empowered in my own skin. Just seeing un-photoshopped women in the media can have a drastic impact on the way we, as women, view our own bodies.
I feel strongly that it can be helpful for women to see their body from another’s perspective. We often see the flaws in ourselves, but not in others. Having someone else create an image of you helps overcome the negative image we so often have of ourselves. I choose to use bright colours in the majority of my work because I want my clients to feel something when they see the paintings – to feel joy and love for the skin in which we were born.
BU: We’ve had the pleasure of speaking with many different body positivity artists over the past few years, and it’s been fantastic seeing such a diverse range of art and hearing about the artists’ philosophies behind their work. However, it does seem to be a crowded marketplace at times, so can it be slightly challenging to stand out from the crowd and to differentiate yourself from other creators in this space?
Alice: My style has definitely developed over the years, with many of my early works reflecting my artistic inspirations at the time. I think the honesty I display with regards to my mental health and why I do what I do often sets me apart from other artists.
Despite trying many styles over the years, I have found that what I truly love is painting quickly, without too much thought. I completely switch off when I paint, letting the brush go wherever it wants to go. By doing this, there is often an abstract element to many of my nude paintings that isn’t often reflected in other nude art. I cannot lie though – this may also come from my lack of patience when it comes to my artwork (haha!)
BU: In addition to all the artwork featured on your website, you also publish a corresponding blog in which you’re refreshingly open and honest about your body image issues and battles with eating disorders over the years – which all started when you were just 14 years of age. How does this complement and tie in with your art, and at what stage did you decide that you wanted to share details of your body confidence journey alongside your work?
Alice: My art is my therapy. I sit and paint for hours, and when I have a busy schedule, I try to set aside at least an hour to paint. My paintings are fuelled by my daily emotions. I also feel that my past struggles with food are reflected in the passion I put into my commissioned pieces.
It took a very long time for me to open up about my battles with my mental health over the years. It wasn’t until I found myself in a much better place that I felt I could really talk about what had happened. When I began opening up, I was flooded with people coming to me and opening up about their own battles, and saying how reading my blog had helped them. I knew at this point that it was the right thing to do.
BU: How does it feel to have shared so much about your journey in these blogs, and do you feel as though reading testimonials such as these can be beneficial to others – and can help people to realise that they’re not alone if they’re going through the same challenges?
Alice: During the time I struggled with anorexia, I found it extremely helpful to read and hear about others’ recovery stories. When you struggle with an eating disorder, you feel completely alone – and it doesn’t matter what anyone else says at the time. Hearing that people who have been through it can come out the other side benefitted me in a way that I didn’t think possible at the time. If I can use my experience to help others the way I was helped, then that’s what I feel is my duty to do.
BU: What impact can a lack of body confidence have on an individual’s mental health (and vice versa), and should there be a greater emphasis on body image issues – and the detrimental impact they can potentially have – within society?
Alice: Yes! I feel very strongly about this. When you have been through what I have, you notice quite how much emphasis is placed on the way we look, through the media, conversations about dieting (my oh my, it’s everywhere), calories on menus, media influencers… the list is endless. We are brought up in a world where far too much emphasis is placed on the way we look, and I hope that through talking about this, we can make a change - even if it’s only a tiny change - and create awareness to this epidemic of body image issues.
BU: Although seeing body positivity artwork such as yours can be hugely impactful for the viewer, in light of your body image issues over the years, has creating this type of artwork and focusing so intently on the human form actually proven to be quite therapeutic in terms of recovery, accepting yourself, and feeling confident in your own skin? If so, how has your outlook on yourself, and on bodies in general, evolved in the three years you’ve been working on this project?
Alice: It definitely has, and I am now in the best place I have ever been in with regard to my mental health. If I told myself three years ago that I would be sitting here with you now, I wouldn’t have believed you. Although I have been very proactive with bettering myself over the last couple of years, and working hard in therapy, I do believe that my art has definitely aided in my journey. Alongside this, the conversations struck up with those ordering commissions have been therapeutic for me, as has seeing the impact my paintings have had on people.
BU: How do you wish for viewers to react and feel about themselves upon seeing your art, and do you feel as though sharing this type of artwork can help others who are fighting the same types of disorders that you have dealt with?
Alice: I hope so! I want people to see my paintings and feel joy, I want them to look at them and think, “That looks like me, and it’s really damn pretty”.
BU: Having gone through these battles, many of which you’ve described via your blog, how would you assess your body confidence levels and comfort within your own skin today – and what words of advice would you offer to anyone going through some of the issues that you had to navigate in the past?
Alice: I won’t sit here and say that I don’t still have bad body image days, because I do – but I am aware of this, and I won’t ever stop working on overcoming this. For me, body neutrality has been more achievable. I appreciate what my body does for me day in and day out. Rather than focusing on loving myself, working on acceptance first seemed much more realistic. Loving it can come later.
What advice would I give? Just keep going, keep going. It will get better. You are strong, you are brilliant, you are unique, and that is utterly wonderful.
Also, educate yourself. There are some brilliant books out there that have helped me over the last couple of years. Books that focus on the view of the female body, misogyny, and the ways in which the views we have of ourselves can impact our mental health.
BU: In what ways has your nursing degree impacted the way you view or interpret bodies and self-image issues, and has this also had a big effect on you as an artist? If so, how specifically?
Alice: Completing my degree, and now working as an oncology nurse, has me feeling both thankful and lucky to be in good health every single day. When working in healthcare, you see that friends and family are the most important thing when it comes down to it. All the things that feel so big, feel so tiny. All those days you spent inside because you didn’t like the way your thighs looked that day seem wasted. Life is for living, so let’s live it while we still can.
BU: Much of your work is commission-based, and it’s great to see that so many women are turning to you to request these fantastic paintings of themselves. At what point did you decide that you wanted to take on commission work such as this, and can you talk us through your process when working on these?
Alice: In 2020 I showed a painting of myself to a friend, and she asked if she could have me paint her own. The feedback I received was amazing, and I absolutely loved the process. When I first created my Instagram account, I didn’t expect the response I got.
Everything is completely confidential, and clients have control over the size, colours, and style of their painting. I send updates along the way to make sure they are 100 percent happy with what I am creating. Many choose to send a photo of themselves, which I delete once the painting is complete. However, I actually have my first in-person commission in the coming months, which I am very excited about!
BU: How rewarding is it to see your models’ reactions upon completion of these commissions, and are there any success stories that you’re especially proud of? Helping people to form more positive perceptions of themselves must feel incredibly satisfying.
Alice: It is incredibly rewarding. I can’t think of one off the top of my head that stands out, but the feedback I have received has been truly amazing, and I love knowing that my art can impact people’s views of themselves in such a positive way.
BU: We were also pleased to see that you have painted men in several of your pieces, which is not something all body positivity artists are willing to do. What first prompted this, and how does it feel creating these in contrast to the women you typically depict?
Alice: Many conversations around body image discard the issues men also face, and I was guilty of doing this in initial stages. I have mainly stuck with women, because I am a woman, and I can use my own experiences to help with my painting. However, painting more men is definitely something I would like to incorporate more in the future.
BU: Do you feel that men can also benefit from viewing nude body positivity artwork such as this, or is there a slightly different approach in this regard? Do the men you’re painting suffer from body image issues in the same ways your female models might?
Alice: I think they probably could! Many men suffer body image issues the same way as women, and a branch of art is definitely needed in this respect. However, I can only speak from my own experience, and therefore I continue focusing mainly on women. In the future, I hope to encourage more men to take part in processes like this.
BU: In addition to your blog, the written word also finds its way into your art at times too – and we particularly love your ‘Your Body is a Work of Art’ postcards, which include your very own body positivity poems! How did the idea for these first come about, and are poems and words of inspiration something you would like to feature more of alongside your work?
Alice: It was an idea that I don’t quite know how came about! I am all for doing what I want to do and trying not to create things just because I see it working for others. My art will remain my therapy and my personal passion, and if I can make a little money from it and help others along the way, I will continue to do so.
BU: Alongside your Etsy store online, you can also be found selling your work in real life over at the Red Brick Market in Liverpool! How is your work typically received by members of the public, and do some people still find this work controversial to a degree?
Alice: To start with, I was a little nervous showcasing nude women in a public space. However, I have been approached by multiple members of the public, who have expressed their thanks for the work I have produced and for sharing my story alongside it. I do think that people still find it controversial, but this is mainly generational. However, I hope that by showcasing it so openly, it will become less so.
BU: What role does both media and social media play in relation to the way we perceive people’s bodies, and do you think there is pressure on people to achieve specific body types? If so, how damaging is this, and what steps could be taken to help avoid this?
Alice: Although this has changed in the last few years, and views on body image have changed drastically since I was a teenager, we still have a long way to go. There is still huge pressure to achieve certain body types, that honestly are just plain impossible to achieve. It’s very damaging, especially to young people, and I think more should be done to educate children from a young age.
BU: Although your artwork celebrates the human form in all its glory, do you feel as though embracing our bodies naked at social nudity events (such as life drawing classes) can help when it comes to accepting ourselves and our bodies?
Alice: I believe they can for many! Body Love Sketch Club is an online life drawing group that I have joined on a few occasions. This is an online life drawing session, where you can choose whether to take your clothes off and be the subject or just sit and draw others. Seeing other people do this was very inspiring to me, and on one occasion I took part. I don’t think I have ever felt so liberated! Once you take those first items off, it becomes less scary and more empowering. I would definitely recommend it. It is exposure therapy at the end of the day!
BU: In one of your blogs you spoke about the benefits of therapy, along with the reasons why you believe everyone should consider this. Could you explain a little more about your thinking in this regard, along with the ways in which therapy has helped you to feel more confident and/or more body confident?
Alice: Therapy has changed my life. And I think that everyone can and should benefit from this. Talking to someone with a completely unbiased opinion, someone that’s heard it all and won’t judge, I think we all need this to some degree. Everyone suffers at some point, and there is still too much stigma around receiving help for something that isn’t physical. Just do it. I honestly think everyone should, whether diagnosed with a mental illness or not. It can be beneficial to everyone.
BU: Shifting gears back to your artwork, what would you consider to be your favourite creations to date, and how was your work developed in the three years since you started on this project?
Alice: That’s tricky! Recently I have started painting on a larger scale. And I love the freedom a large canvas can offer. I did a commission of a naked lady that’s a metre and a half in length. I reckon that was my favourite. But my earlier works that I have in prints are very popular, and I have the originals framed in my home.
BU: Finally, how do you see your art progressing in the weeks and months ahead, and are there any particular goals or objectives you would like to achieve via your work? Will nude artwork remain the focus for the foreseeable future?
Alice: I recently created my own website, which I would like to continue developing over the coming weeks. With regards to my artwork, I hope that many more women and men will come forward with their own stories, and hopefully have themselves painted. I will continue to paint and develop my abilities, and I am hoping in the future to exhibit my work in galleries.
On another note, I have always wanted to turn the diary I wrote while an inpatient with anorexia into a book, and I hope that over the coming years this is something I am able to achieve.
Overall, I will continue to work on myself, and in turn, will continue to create art.
- To see more of Alice's artwork and to read her blog posts past and present, head on over to the artist's official website at www.alicecalowart.com. You can also find Alice on Instagram at @alicecalowart and on Facebook by clicking here, while a selection of her inspiring work can be purchased from Alice's Etsy store.