Whether it be through paintings, textiles or her craftwork, female empowerment has been at the heart of Hannah Howland's diverse range of artwork from the beginning – and Britain Uncovered recently had the pleasure of speaking with the artist about what inspires her creativity, what she is hoping her art will achieve, the ways it's helping Hannah to accept and embrace her own body, and more!
Britain Uncovered: Hi Hannah! Going back to when you first started as an artist, what first inspired you to create artwork based on the theme of female empowerment, and when did it become clear that this was going to be an important concept that you wanted to represent through your art? And how did you want your initial work to be interpreted by the viewer?
Hannah: Hi! So I would say it began when I was in university – that's when I really explored art and started creating for myself, rather than for a class or project. I studied Creative and Therapeutic Arts at the University of South Wales and it really opened up what art meant to me. I saw that it was so much more than pretty pictures, but a chance to say something – and feminism and female empowerment were what surfaced for me.
For my final project, I designed a questionnaire aimed at what feminism meant to the participant, and the responses blew my mind. I knew then that this was where my art was going and what I was passionate about. I wanted to make a statement and I wanted the viewer to see what I saw and feel what I felt reading the responses.
From every questionnaire response I received, I made an embroidery hoop that encompassed the answers and displayed them covering a wall for my final exhibition. I chose embroidery because it's typically seen as 'women’s work'. I wanted the viewer to be surrounded by these people – women, men, daughters, mothers and sons – describing their experiences of pregnancy in the workplace, equal pay, sexual harassment and sexism, among many more issues.
Britain Uncovered: Although you started off as a textile artist, you also decided to start painting during the first lockdown – and this clearly now accounts for a big portion of your overall work! How would you say your style has developed since you first started these types of paintings, and has your approach or outlook on how you go about portraying female empowerment also evolved over time?
Hannah: When we first went into lockdown I made a panic trip to Hobbycraft! I really hated painting previously as I thought it was messy, and I couldn't get the same control as I did from sewing or drawing. So in a time that I had little control, I decided that I would push myself to gain some.
I embraced the messy, and the first painting I did was an almost full-length female figure. There was so much colour and defined brushstrokes and just so much paint, but it was cathartic and that's where my approach changed. It wasn’t just about the figure, but the colours and energy that went into it and came out of it.
During a conversation, I was asked about how exposing I found my artwork, and my initial response was about the nude figure, but it was much more than that; that I was exposed my own energy in the painting and that really changed my perspective of my own artwork. Each one is a piece of me.
Britain Uncovered: What are some of the most satisfying parts of creating this type of empowering art, and would you say that creating these types of pieces has also changed your perception and/or had a positive effect on your own relationship with your body too? Does celebrating women of all shapes and sizes help when it comes to your own body confidence and self-acceptance, perhaps?
Hannah: Definitely! It's a continual growth, but I think it always will be. But creating this artwork and being part of the community on Instagram from putting it out there has made such a difference in how I accept myself. And that's probably the most satisfying part, having people message me in return and express how they see themselves in my artwork and the conversations that opens up.
Britain Uncovered: Would you consider yourself to be a body positive (or body confident) person by and large, or has this been challenging at time over the years? Do you feel as though body positive art such as yours is helping people to feel better about themselves and their bodies?
Hannah: It's definitely been a challenge over the years. I still wouldn't call myself a confident person, but I think the influx of body acceptance and body positivity over the last few years has been a massive step in the right direction, and my artwork is part of that for me.
Britain Uncovered: Several of our previous interviewees have explained to us that desexualising the female body is an important driver for their art, and there’s a belief that empowering body art can also help to normalise the female form. Is this a theory you subscribe to, and is it something you’re also seeking to promote through your artwork?
Hannah: Absolutely – a naked body is only as sexual as you make it. But I do think this is something I consider a lot when making my artwork.
When I began promoting it online I changed my name from my real name, as I work with children and young people as a youth worker and an art therapist. I don’t think it's right, but I was concerned about how my artwork might be received by employers and what that could mean for me. So it is something I still believe needs working on.
Britain Uncovered: There’s been some debate online recently surrounding ‘body positivity’ versus ‘body neutrality’ – with the former suggesting we should actively celebrate our bodies and treat them as beautiful no matter what society says; and the latter arguing that you don’t have to love the way you look all the time, and that your appearance shouldn’t determine your value. Which of the two do you most connect with and why?
Hannah: I'd say I lean more toward body neutrality, but I think the two go hand in hand. It's part of the growth when learning first to accept your body and then to love it. I think the goal would be for everybody to love their body no matter what, but it's more important that we see ourselves as valuable no matter what.
Britain Uncovered: Earlier in the month, you finished your two-year master's course in art therapy – so congratulations are definitely in order! What did the course involve, and how has it helped shape you an artist? What were some of the most important things you learned during this time?
Hannah: Thank you! It was a two-year, full-time course with two days of placement a week. I think it was really important for my artwork, as being online was difficult for me – I didn't actually go on campus once in my final year, so when we had experiential modules I really learnt how to be comfortable with my artwork and sharing it!
Britain Uncovered: How do you intend to use your newly acquired master's degree, and what are some of your plans and aspirations for the future? Are you intending to continue with the body positive art, and if so, what are you hoping to achieve?
Hannah: I want to continue working with young people, as there really isn't enough support for young people that are struggling, especially after the pandemic. I would really like to work in an organisation promoting creative support for women and young people in the future.
I think I'll always make art, and it would be a dream to keep selling it. I hope it evolves as I do!
Britain Uncovered: You’ve mentioned that you will try literally any craft, and we particularly appreciate the fact that you’re also celebrating the female form with so many different creations – including clay decorations and scented female figure candles! What gave you the incentive to work on these types of pieces, and does mixing things up and trying out different ideas keep you fresh and focused as an artist?
Hannah: I think part of it is my own curiosity, as I want to see if I can work with different materials and how they work. All of my work I make for myself, and I never intended to share it online when I began, let alone sell it! So I see it as a bit of a push, but when I see something I want to try for myself I give it a go, so I hope this encourages others to just give it a try too.
Britain Uncovered: What are some of the other items on your bucket list of crafts that you’re hoping to get to at some stage?
Hannah: I am desperate to try silver jewelry making, and pottery on a proper wheel – I am The Great Pottery Throw Down's biggest fan!