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Affordable Art! Yours, Mine, Ours

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DB artist Eleanor McColl bridges the gap between thoughtful art and vibrant commerce with her new collection and offers something to everyone. Elizabeth Kerr reports

Getting a cappuccino has never been so complicated. At one of Discovery Bay’s hip new coffee houses, Eleanor McColl is fiddling around with her phone after scanning a tracing app, which doubles as a menu. She looks a bit perplexed; nothing appears to be happening. “I’m not sure I’ve ordered,” she says with a gentle chuckle. But her drink arrives a few minutes later, and, thankfully, it’s a good one.

That makes it sound like Eleanor is a scatter-brained artsy type, and that’s just not true. She’s the first to admit that it’s taken her some time to find the balance of art, entrepreneurship, education and family that suits her, but she’s firm in her statements; a thinker who ponders the world around her (and then recreates it on canvas or in some other art form).

Dressed in a billowy green skirt and sandals, Eleanor admittedly looks like an artist, but over the course of a soft-spoken afternoon she talks about how best to compartmentalise work, how it’s possible to listen to music while working, and her quest to get her three children, aged 12, 11 and eight, to nerd out on Star Trek. “We’ve done all the Marvel films. I love all those,” she comments. “I never watched that kind of thing as a kid. I was all about Green Gables.

I am enjoying all aspects. The meditative work of painting,the challenge of the entrepreneurial side and the giving back element of my teaching practice…

A resident of Discovery Bay for the last 11 years, the Leeds native studied fine art at UWE Bristol and almost immediately after graduation packed up and moved to Hong Kong in 1999. After teaching art for two years she established her own school in Wanchai, Chameleon Workshop, and ran it from 2002 to 2011.
Eventually Eleanor realised her own art was taking a back seat to teaching, so she closed the school, kept the business, and turned her attention to painting full time. Somewhere in between, she met her Welsh husband, Will, who moved to Hong Kong aged two.

“We met through friends at a bar in Wanchai, as you do,” Eleanor says with a laugh. They married in 2007 and after a bit of childless freewheeling on Hong Kong Island relocated to DB. Not surprisingly, the space was appealing.
“It’s refreshing. Will grew up in Stanley so this is the closest thing to his childhood we could find for the kids. They’ve had independence at a young age, running off to the shops and the beach, and being kids.”

Eleanor art 1

Eleanor is currently putting the finishing touches on her new Chroma Collection for the Affordable Art Fair (running August 26 to 29, at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre). This will be her tenth after her break-out year in 2012 and her first exhibition in 18 months thanks to COVID. “I’m hugely excited,” she says. “When you work on your own in your studio, there’s nothing like the thrill of seeing your work as part of a large exhibition; the feeling of being a part of something – it gives you purpose.”

Eleanor’s previously used pop art-style images on 3D commissions, like 2017’s AIA Carnival Art on Cows charity project, The Moonalisa, and Ham Hockney for the Sovereign Art Foundation in 2019 (the Year of the Pig), but Chroma Collection is the first time she’s tried realising the vivid locations, bright colours and soft geometries on canvas.

“I can see the evolution of my work and this collection is where I see myself the most,” she reasons. “I can’t wait to paint different cities in this style, and I have a clear vision for the future of my art practice for the first time in ages. There are so many directions to go. I wouldn’t rule out a 3D collection but at the moment I am enjoying the laser focus.”

Eleanor bag

The Chroma images are also going onto a series of products, like the tote bag she has with her, tea towels, oven mitts, and more. Despite their instant popularity, Eleanor remains ever so slightly conflicted. She’s keenly attuned to the notion that there’s a fine line between art and commerce. She’s treading the same water as Andy Warhol and Keith Haring – artists who successfully jumped the divide between the two. Nonetheless, artists who go down the product road are still dubbed ‘sell-outs,’ which stung Eleanor the first time she was indirectly put in that light.

“That hit me, and it held me back. There’s a feeling, having been to art school, that you’re an artist. You don’t do products. I’ve had to re-programme my brain in terms of how I think about what I’m doing. It’s easy to talk yourself out of things,” she says.

Eleanor’s learnt to tune that kind of restrictive noise out, and now it’s a matter of ‘bring it on.’ No one who’s ever lived as a full-time creative would call an artist a sell-out for putting their work on a mug, she argues, before giving a shout-out to Hailey Shin at DB North Plaza’s Gallery Jeeum for refusing to be restricted by such biases.

“I love the fact that Hailey chose DB for a gallery despite the fact that many people wouldn’t see DB as the ‘right’ demographic. It takes fresh eyes to see opportunity, and not be influenced by preconceptions. I’d love to exhibit at Jeeum.” And as it turns out, Eleanor’s product lines are proving extremely popular. “I only launched at the beginning of July and in three weeks I’d sold over 100 bags alone,” she says. “It feels amazing to make something people want to buy.” You can find Eleanor’s products at www.eleanormccoll.com and, among other spots, at Bookazine, Pollux, Thorn & Burrow and GOD, with whom she finally convinced herself she was a good fit.

When she’s not in the studio painting, Eleanor revels in the balance she’s finally achieved, which includes sharing with the world – she still teaches. “I am enjoying all aspects,” she says. “The meditative work of painting, the challenge of the entrepreneurial side and the giving back element of my teaching practice.”

From her studio in The Greens, Eleanor will be hosting an autumn series of classes on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, for both kids and adults (summer sessions are full), and drop-in classes for those who want to shake off the week with a bit of meditative creativity. She gets help from Art Institute of Chicago grad Esther Chow, an old colleague from Chameleon Workshop.

Eleanor is privileged to see her work as part of larger exhibitions that give it purpose. But not everyone gets that, so she’s filling the gap. “Teaching helps me give back, and I get to see other people enjoy art. Not everyone is driven to do it but everyone is creative,” she finishes. “One thing I’m good at is making people feel at ease with a blank canvas.”

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