Anna Calleja, a 22 year-old Maltese artist, will be graduating this spring with a Bachelor of Arts in Fine Art from Falmouth University in the United Kingdom. Her engaging and introspective body of work investigates notions of isolation, domestic space, and relationships - including the most intimate one of all: our relationship with ourselves.
Editor's Note: Some responses have been edited for clarity. Modified text can be identified by brackets [ ].
As a young and emerging artist, there's not a lot that we know about you. Tell us a little bit more about yourself and how you came to be an artist.
I was brought up in Malta and moved to the United Kingdom to study [art]. After visiting Cornwall for my interview [at Falmouth], I was sure I wanted to spend years living [there]. It's a very inspiring place: a beautiful coast and an artistic hub full of independent shops and environmentally minded people.
Ever since I can remember, my main hobby and passion has been to draw and make things. After lots of deliberation and trying my hand at other subjects, I came back to art and have focused on it ever since. I love making things, primarily paintings and prints. When I am not painting or printmaking, I knit, listen to audiobooks, and [sketch].
From what artists do you draw influence?
There are too many to list, but at the moment I would have to say that Edouard Vuillard is my current favorite. I draw influence on the history of figurative painting and current contemporaries like Andrew Cranston. Both [Vuillard and Cranston] use colour and a dauby painterly surface that I really aspire to.
Edouard Vuillard's paintings drew me to them from the moment I came across them. There is a sensitive sensibility to the work. Each daub of paint [blends together] colour and pattern to create a loving warmth within the space. My favourite period is when he lived with his mother in her bourgeois home, [and painted] his intimate interior scenes.
Andrew Cranston, a contemporary painter, uses narrative and storytelling in a remarkable fashion. There's a wonderful blend between a dark satirical hubris and a sensitivity within the work. His sense of colour, surface and composition intrigue and beguile.
Tell us a little bit about your process. What are your preferred methods of creating art?
My practice is primarily painting and printmaking. I love that both mediums are loaded with a layer of history that harks back hundreds of years. They are both process-driven, hands-on and require focused attention.
Intimate portraiture seems to be one of the main focuses of your body of work. You present your subjects as vulnerable, but detached. Your color palette is often relatively subtle, neutral, & muted, not overwhelmed by bold tones; in that, it seems to honor the quietude of your subjects. How do you select your subjects? Your colors?
First of all, thank you that’s a lovely description of the work. My process is quite intuitive. I paint those I care about: family, friends, my boyfriend, and my cat. The colours come naturally, I love earthy tones and the subtlety of slight alterations in colour temperature when painting.
Let's discuss current events for a bit, we're curious about how Malta has handled the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. What can you tell us about your personal experiences in the last few months?
Since we were last in contact, I have moved back to Malta. I returned on a repatriation flight in the beginning of April and spend two weeks alone in mandatory quarantine [during which] I painted "Alone in Quarantine." This was partly due to the fact that Malta has been excellent at handling the virus, with a very high testing rate.
Extensive contact tracing was [initiated] very early on and our airport was closed four days after the first case was discovered. Most activities have been banned in Malta; violators may be fined for public health risks.
You decided to return home to Malta shortly after it became clear that COVID-19 was a global issue. What was it like traveling during the height of the pandemic? What protections or restrictions were in place to protect passengers and workers at airports? Were most people wearing personal protective equipment (PPE)?
[It was] stressful to say the least. I had to catch three trains, two taxis, stay in an overnight hotel in Heathrow and finally catch the flight! I felt very guilty throughout the whole journey every time I had to interact with transport workers and drivers. I had never really comprehended how many people work for one person to be able to travel a long distance.
In the overnight hotel at Heathrow, the hotel staff walked around with masks on and delivered food to our rooms. There was fear in everyone's eyes.
In the airport, most people weren't wearing PPE. I was surprised at how little social distancing was enforced. There was an uncomfortable air as half of us looked around uneasily with our masks worn tightly, while the other half of passengers hugged and made fun of the situation as if nothing were amiss.
All of the bars, restaurants and shops in the gates were closed, with only WHSmith and Boots open. WHSmith had a queue of staff waiting to buy Easter eggs for their children. Passengers were hurried through to buy our food for the journey.
On the flight, the middle seats were left empty in each row, but that didn't really make me feel at ease in such a tightly packed small plane. I felt very restless in my window seat, close enough to the person in front of me to hear them inhale and exhale loudly.
A Romanian nurse sitting in the aisle seat next to me turned to me, "Do you mind talking to me for a little bit? I'm terrified of flying.'" We chatted for the rest of the flight which left us in better and more hopeful spirits.
I feel very grateful to everyone who helped me get home.
What was your experience like living in quarantine?
I was alone for two weeks. My living situation was a lucky one, as I was in a comfortable accommodation. My parents packed the fridge for me before my arrival.
When I arrived at the airport, I got into my car and drove there myself. My parents also lent me my cat, Censu, who offered much-needed company during the two weeks. When I needed more food, I got it delivered to the accommodation, and would go down for it after the delivery person retreated from the door!
During that time, I painted '"Alone in Quarantine" and caught up on some books and series. My family and boyfriend called me every day.
I found the first week [to be] quite relaxing after the stressful journey. To be honest, I was just very relieved to be back home.
In the second week, I developed very bad allergies and asthma. I also received an email saying that someone on my flight tested positive for the virus. [That's when I] applied to get tested, and after waiting 5 days I drove to the testing site and got swabbed. It wasn't pleasant, to say the least.
Luckily I tested negative, and by the end of my time in quarantine, I was quite relieved to see my family and be able to go for a walk.
So much has changed for all of us over the last few months. How has your daily life been affected by COVID-19?
I [began] self-isolating [at] the beginning of March. I first moved my studio to my bedroom in Falmouth, [then] set up a studio in quarantine, and now again at home.
My life hasn't settled into a day-to-day routine yet, but I'm sure in the next week, I'll be settled and painting away. My work has been interested in comfort, political instability, and the home for a long while now.
The pandemic has charged the work with a new layer of meaning that I couldn't have anticipated. The use of the domestic space within my practice has become a lot more relevant. I do find that I have been pushed to adapt and be creative in new ways to keep making work especially since I've been moving a lot lately!
How do you feel Malta is handling the pandemic compared to the United Kingdom? Does the United Kingdom have anything to learn from Malta, or vice-versa?
Testing has been very readily available [in Malta]. After about four to five days [in quarantine], I developed cold-like symptoms and asked to be tested. It was free - all I had to do was drive to the testing point and get swabbed. Thankfully I tested negative for the virus, and I returned home after the 14 days were over.
When I was in the UK, the main advice was to stay home, especially if you develop symptoms. Testing was not as readily available.
You were an ex-patriate living in the United Kingdom - did you have adequate access to healthcare?
Since I am an EU national, I was entitled to healthcare in the UK. I feel very grateful to have lived in two countries that offer healthcare as a human right.
Finally, we'd like to discuss your work within the context of the pandemic.
The piece we featured, "Alone in Quarantine," features a young woman in repose on a couch, with her eyes closed. An abstract painting hangs above her. There seems to be an underlying tension and feeling of unease in this painting, indicated in part by the subject's stiff posture.
What were you attempting to communicate by creating this piece? What is your subject feeling?
This is a self-portrait that I painted during my time in quarantine. I aimed to capture the moment, the state of mind I was in.
I'm also interested in the historical trope of the reclining nude in figurative painting. Here, the pose is not activating the male gaze, but [is] passive, independent and introspective.
What inspires you to capture such intimate, personal moments like this one?
We live in a very fast-paced capitalist system where productivity is everything. By creating quiet moments of still introspection, the work becomes a transgressive gesture [compelling the viewer] to stop for a moment.
There is something very worrying, but human, about sleeping [in the presence of] danger. The motif of sleep recurs throughout my work to express political passivity, self-imposed blindness, and escapism.
How does revisiting the painting make you feel?
There is a sense of claustrophobia in the work and a brewing unease that I certainly felt and still feel.
I did indeed want to contrast the stillness of the figure with the moving abstraction in the painting above, almost as if the abstraction embodies the unease within.
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