Harry Hugo Little, 27, has, in many ways, spent the last three and a half years building up to his first ever solo show. Entitled Don’t Leave, the works from the London-based artist mark a period of personal catharsis, after contending with the emotionally wrenching time of creating pieces that helped him cope with, and come to terms with, the death of his brother.
Before, Little’s work was inspired by how his late brother had described the mental health struggles that he was dealing with – as if they were “spiders on his brain”. But working tirelessly to create hard-hitting and deeply personal paintings took its toll, and Little had to leave London to stay with his mum. It was there that the seed for Don’t Leave was planted.
The exhibition, curated by Brooke Wilson, is built upon Little’s newfound love of poetry. “Working with linguistics via poetry and painting, Little’s practice is in a constant state of flux; where both mediums inform one another,” the show’s press release states. “Written whilst walking the woods nearby his childhood home, this exhibition not only uses a direct sentence from his poem ‘A Lonesome Walk’, but also looks at nature to provide the framework for Little’s earthy colour palette: brown, for the earth’s soil, red, for the body’s flesh, green, for the cultivation of growth, and blue, for the unknown afterlife.”
Words taken from his poem are painted in a gothic style on wooden boards, which distort or reveal themselves depending on where you stand within the space. Uniting a real, profound sense of longing with natural materials helps construct a show that underpins the truths about loss, but keeps a sense of connectedness well and truly alive.
It’s a show that tips its hat at the healing process, whilst maintaining unwavering notions of struggle which melt into a calmness throughout. Maybe it’s the impact of his poetry, but it’s more likely the product of the headspace that Little has been working within. As he says, he’s very much at peace with what happened, and he’s allowing things to stand as they are.
HUNGER spoke with the artist ahead of his show at the Bomb Factory, Archway, London…
HUNGER: Hey, Harry! We’re looking forward to seeing your work at your exhibition, Don’t Leave. How’s the process been for the show?
Harry Hugo Little: It’s been a very long slow sort of cultivation of everything falling into place. I only started these text-based paintings eight, nine months ago that I really started pursuing these paintings that act as condensed poems.
Why did you start focusing your art around one singular word?
All of my work is very much orientated around grief. So everything is within the scope of mental health, specifically men’s mental health with a slant on loss. My brother took his life about three and a half years ago now, and my work is very centralised on how that has affected my life. For a long time I was making very figurative work around the body of the spider because my brother described his mental health problems like being spiders on his brain. That metaphor really stuck with me. The idea that these sort of like strange, uncomfortable creatures could be what’s causing a really bad mental health problem… The visualisation of insects scuttling on your brain.
I was going hard on that narrative and painting a lot of these very uncomfortable spider paintings and it got way too much for me. I had to take a huge step back from my work. I actually went and stayed in my mum’s loft for a few months while I sorted my head out and got everything back on track. When I came back, I wanted to find a vessel to depict that moment of silent clarity at the end of a struggle, when you’re just sitting there contemplating.
That’s interesting because whilst your paintings are striking in their colours and the gothic font of the text, there’s still a real peacefulness to them…
It’s not also just about the finished result, they are very peaceful to make. Whereas before, all of my work was so frantic, there was a method to it, but everything was so subjective. Now, it’s very much about getting the poetry done and then picking a word, drawing it up in the gothic font and then putting that onto the board. It’s almost a mindful exercise in itself.
With your work centred around something so personal to you, do you find yourself occasionally wanting to create pieces that are much farther removed from personal experience? Or have you found a middle ground within making difficult, profound work in a peaceful way?
Because my work has been so intense before, this feels so calming in contrast. I think that there’s a buffer between what I’m making the work about and what it is. My poems are all very traditional mid 20th century sad poems, heavily influenced by nature and the idea of the body being reclaimed by the lands. But that’s where a lot of the turmoil comes out and these almost are a silent reflection. For this show, all of the paintings follow one line from the poems: “For every man is lonesome here as trees give way to blue”. Individually, the paintings aren’t overwhelming or intimidating or very grief heavy. My work has always been a vessel for uncomfortable themes. So for me to want to make something happy or not about something macabre, or dealing with something not to do with my mental health, it would be very foreign for me and I think I would find it really difficult.
Would you say that you’re a poet that makes art, or an artist that writes poetry?
I’m definitely an artist that writes poetry. I’m very new to that world and I’ve never massively read poetry or written it until last year. But it’s just something that’s slowly grown on me. I would be very hard pressed to quote any poems. But there’s this traditional yearning that you find in poetry and that’s really lovely.
And so what was the starting point for the exhibition?
When I said that I had a really hard time and I went back to my mum’s, that was just under a year ago, on the 4th of April. I was in the studio from 9am until 10pm, I hadn’t eaten anything all day, I’d just drank black coffee, and I had been painting this one spidery image of my brother’s coffin being lured into the ground by one of the ushers with a spider just hovering in the air above. I had a big panic attack, probably brought on by the stupid situation of being in the really unhealthy position that I put myself in.
So I went back to my mum’s and I didn’t come back to London for three months. There’s this really beautiful little golf course near her place with some woods. I started walking around there just to try and heal myself, and to be in nature. It was the most I could do; go to the woods for half an hour every day. The show comes from the first line in the first poem that I wrote there: “Amongst the thicket and bush of pine a songbird’s tune is true. For every man is lonesome here as trees give way to blue.” We wanted to play on the idea that the whole body of the show comes together and each individual piece, while it is a piece on its own, it’s part of something bigger. That’s where it stemmed from.
How do you want people to experience and navigate the exhibition in their own heads?
I think to put expectation on how people are gonna view it is naive because I don’t think it would live up to any expectation. But if I was going to say a way that I’d like people to see it, I’d like people to not quite get it. And then take a bit of time looking at the work. There’s one specific spot that I’ve planned for you to stand in the show where it all comes together and it all makes sense. I’d like people to find that naturally.
How has the process been for your own reflection and for your own mental health?
It’s been cathartic. I think it’s been quite stressful just getting everything done. It’s my first solo show ever, so it’s been stressful getting everything together. It’s a nice sort of contemplation and it has made me realise that I can get a lot of stuff out there and I can express a lot of the things that I didn’t quite think I was able to, especially with poetry. I’m very at peace with what’s happened and I’m very much like it is what it is. But I think the poetry has helped fulfil that narrative and really to let bygones be bygones, and allow things to stand as they are.
Well, that’s a lovely note to leave it on. Thank you, Harry! See you at the show.
See Harry Hugo Little’s ‘Don’t Leave’ at the Bomb Factory Foundation, Archway, from 23rd – 30th of March.