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Five Minutes With... Emma Tooth

04 February 2011

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Emma Tooth has been putting the contemporary through a historical lens in her new body of paintings, titled Concilium Plebis (council of ordinary people), they depict Britain’s council estate chavs and dole queue divas in the style of renaissance high art.
Emma Tooth, artist/portrait painter,

Right now I am ...

I am touring my body of work called Concilium Plebis, which is Latin for ‘a council of ordinary people’. Imagine if Caravaggio came to the 21st century and used chavs, hoodies and breakdancers as his models. It’s like renaissance art through a contemporary urban looking glass. I have also just released my first book, From Pig Farmers and Showgirls, and a film called Extraordinary Portraits of Ordinary People, which is a documentary about my work, now available on DVD from my website.
We have put loads of extras on the DVD so there are bonus films, timelapse footage of my paintings coming into being and amazing breakdance performances filmed in galleries and museums amongst my paintings!

My work is ...

I paint in traditional oils on canvas in a ‘hyper-realist’ style - that is to say my paintings look ‘real’ and are sometimes mistaken for photographs! My craft is very important to me and I am always pushing my own boundaries and trying to be the best that I can be. Many people see my work online but I urge people to come and see the works in person because an oil painting always looks so much more in real life, so much better than photographs and computers can capture.

I've been inspired by ...

Caravaggio, as I already mentioned, has been a big influence on my recent work, as well as Holbein, J W Waterhouse -there aren’t many living artists that inspire me actually. I listen to music all the time and sing while I paint, I think I’m very inspired by that, but I couldn’t say how it comes out in my work. I love the Cocteau Twins, Bach, Bjork, Purcell, anything with harpsichords in it, Tori Amos, Japanese biwa music, Regina Spektor, Kate Bush this week, Malice Mizer, Rasputina, gypsy stuff, Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares, Yma Sumac, Dead Can Dance, Joanna Newsom … to name just a few.

I've just read ...

I do read a lot, I recently re-read A Rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans; it makes me laugh because I relate to it a bit too much! The anti-hero creates this imaginary world of his own in his house, which he arranges to explore his own sensations, so that when he dines for example, he can fool himself into believing he is on board a ship, he has shipping timetables framed on the wall - so cute! I’ve also been reading a lot of Japanese culture and history books lately, many on Geisha and the Floating World. The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon is such an odd thing - that this one woman’s little notebook of everyday thoughts from 1000 years ago has been fossilised and is one of the few things really that has come down to us when so much else has been lost forever in the mists of time.

I'm listening to ...

Someone I discovered quite recently was Tom Waits. He had escaped my notice somehow, but when I saw him performing online, standing in a sandbox and shuffling about like a rooster between verses I was enchanted! I love chickens you see, I’m always surrounded by them and to see this little display touched me! I don’t like absolutely all his music but I love his originality, he’s completely off the wall! And I love his sort of dark-cabaret, spooky-circus-type music rather than his more (what I perceive to be) straight-bluesy stuff. In his God’s Away on Business video it looks like they’ve just let him and a few emus loose in a derelict building and filmed it – love it!
some people think bringing chickens in the house and playing with them on the bedspread is surprising but I think nothing’s more homely!

You might be surprised that ...

There’s nothing unusual about me! Let me think… some people think bringing chickens in the house and playing with them on the bedspread is surprising but I think nothing’s more homely! My first chicken Linda was entirely a house-chicken. She could play outside when she wanted to but she preferred to go everywhere with me and sit on velvet cushions. She lived to be 8 years old, a very regal hen and I shall always love her.

As the title of my book suggests, I am actually descended from pig farmers and showgirls; that’s a fact that surprised me. I used to kind of reject the family, I wasn’t interested in any of that, there were no Queens or warriors that I knew of in my family history so I didn’t feel I had a proud heritage. But when I looked deeper I uncovered all these tiny dramas in my blood, which I share in the book along with all my paintings, and I found that if you’re descended from pig farmers and showgirls you can be anything you want to be!

I am really excited about ...

I know this will seem like a dreadfully soppy answer for some, but I’m just really excited about my everyday life right now; I have a wonderful husband, home and hens and just getting to spend the day enjoying the combination of those things is bliss to me. Owen and I have been together nearly 15 years now, we are childhood sweethearts; he’s a filmmaker and runs Toothpix, his own production company. The best thing about the growth of my career is being able to spend less time worrying and more time together. In practice we rarely even get a full weekend together without having to do work of some kind, but that is what I work towards.

It really annoys me when ...

A television is on. That’s the worst! The rubbish that just comes pouring out, the brainwashing, the erosion of people’s expectations by feeding them this ever-worsening quality of drivel! And the ever-more-frequent commercial breaks – do NOT get me started! I never, ever watch TV. Ever. The guilt of wasting my life like that would be too much to live with!

I am just about to ...

I am just starting to shift the direction of my work now, to who knows where. I’ve worked on Concilium Plebis for several years now and let it take over my life. That’s as close to popular culture as I ever want to get! Part of the idea behind the project is to filter pop-culture through an historical lens and make it more palatable to me myself, and try to make sense of what I see all around me and to try to make contemporary life more beautiful.

See for more paintings, photographs and up-to-date details of forthcoming exhibitions.

The DVD Extraordinary Portraits of Ordinary People can be ordered from . You can also see the trailer there too.

The book From Pig Farmers and Showgirls, full of Emma’s paintings can be ordered from the Lazarides gallery shop at

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