• Vol. 04
  • Chapter 07

The Building

others in The Building called me the painter girl. The artist on Level 2. That’s how they saw me. A painter.

Me? I tried to make meaning by painting. That elusive human thing we do. Trying to find meaning and put it on a page. Show it to others to try and make them see.


I looked for something new by mixing colours endlessly in the hot and airless studio in Hackney. It was a dilapidated building, graffiti outside, full of start-ups trying to change the world with apps and tech platforms that simplify the complicated. Or the opposite.

On Level 2 there was a small kitchen unit at the end of the corridor with a grimy limescale encrusted kettle, coffee splatters on the work surfaces. I’d make steaming cups of instant hot chocolate and watch the clumps of powder dissolve and change form, watching the steam go on its own sporadic journey while I warmed my hands.

I remember the windows were incredibly thin throughout The Building and on windy days, when they shook at that invisible force, in my mind’s eye, I could see them shattering — a mist of glass shards erupting into the poorly heated rooms. The whole place was what my dad would have called 'a dump' but it had determination.

My studio was small and despite the large window that claimed the entire length of the left-hand side, the light was poor. The area was built up so the other buildings opposite claimed the light that I wanted for my own.

I had a view of the carpark and a council high rise that had strings of washing hung out on the tiny balconies.


The Building

I'd told no one in my family that I was painting. They might have nodded their heads or they might not have registered it at all. And either response was unsatisfactory. I told no one I knew. At The Building, of course, everyone knew. You could watch people working as you swept through the hallways. Glass walls. You see? Bodies hunched over computers or hands at sewing machines. It was a place for creatives, creators, I suppose.

Maybe it is selfish to start with the self, but that's what I spent most of my time doing, that first summer at The Building. I looked at photographs of myself as a child, as a teenager, or as a round-faced baby. I poured over my reflection in the mirror. I sketched my profile, my chin, my cheeks. Sometimes I would layer sketches of my face at different ages on top of each other tracing familiar and unfamiliar hairstyles, expressions.

Life. Stages.

I painted my face over and over until the colours blurred. And it started to feel like a self-portrait. The light was poor, I’ve said that already, but I found myself seeing things clearly.

I had no face. I was no self. I was no portrait. I was no colour you could name. There one moment. Then gone.