2023 looks set to be a busy year for Michaela Yearwood-Dan. Known for her bright, abstract canvases that depict joy and positivity on a grand, sumptuous scale, the London-based artist has just shown at Frieze Los Angeles and she also has a solo exhibition opening in April in New York. Michaela talks to The Glossary about political resistance, her artistic practice and life in the capital.
About five minutes into our Zoom interview, Michaela Yearwood-Dan’s phone rings. “Can I just pause for one second? My dad, I told him I was busy, but he’s ringing me.”
It turns out this is a business call, of sorts. At the time of our interview, Yearwood-Dan’s successful solo show Let Me Hold You, which was the inaugural exhibition at Queercircle – an LGBTQ+ led gallery and charity in North Greenwich’s Design District – had just come to an end. In the show, an expansive curved mural greeted visitors, gathering them into a lush and vibrant embrace; all sweeping brush strokes, botanical imagery and enticing pink drips. Along the wall’s base curled the phrase, ‘I believe that there’s a big future out there full of beautiful things’.
“The wall, obviously, wasn’t actually curved,” Yearwood-Dan explains, as soon as she hangs up. “We built that curved wall, and it was all built in panels.” It is being dismantled, and Yearwood-Dan is keen to recover the most beautiful parts of the painting. This is where her dad comes in. “My dad was a teacher, but he’s a professionally trained carpenter,” Yearwood-Dan tells me. “So I was like, ‘Can you come over today?’”
There is something remarkably endearing about an artist calling in favours from their family, but I quickly realise this encapsulates part of who Yearwood-Dan is and how she approaches her work. Like her paintings, she is lively and bright and fun – sprinkling our conversation with quick-witted quips and Adele quotes. It is also abundantly clear that, for her, art is not only about the end visual result, but creating spaces for community, connection, and love.
“I didn’t want it to be canvases on walls,” she recalls of Let Me Hold You. “I really wanted to create a restful, queer environment.” She means ‘queer’ like a verb – “taking cultural settings and institutional settings and turning what’s normal on its head”. She wanted to make a sanctuary of sorts – a safe, nourishing space that allowed for comfort and joy. “It’s like, so you can’t touch the work? Okay, you’re gonna be able to touch the work. There’s never anywhere to sit? Yeah, you’re gonna be able to sit.” So, what could be a better end point for the panels than being carved up by her “retired, but very busy” dad – her work evolving through acts of assistance and care?
When she was little, Yearwood-Dan didn’t consider becoming an artist, despite always being creative. She thought she would be a teacher, like her dad — “because obviously I’m a millennial child with trauma, so you have to identify with one of your parents,” she says with a delightfully warm and spontaneous laugh. “He would always warn me against it,” she says. “He was just like, ‘Michaela, do you see how stressed I am?’”
Instead, she went to Brighton to study for a Fine Art painting degree. “When I started the degree, I thought to myself, ‘Oh, I’ll probably work in a gallery.’ I’m really good at organising people, and defusing tension!” Yet, she quickly found that working in the creative industries, in a role adjacent to her own art practice, could be stifling. After university, she got a job in an art shop as a paint specialist but grew frustrated “telling people about how to do all these things, and not being able to do any of my own work, because I was exhausted.”
Her artistic saving grace came through fairly unexpected means – she became a nanny for “amazing parents” with an “amazing family” and “amazing dogs”. Starting in time for the 3pm school run gave her a combination of financial security and freedom that, for a young artist living in London, was a sweet spot. “That’s how I started developing a practice,” Yearwood-Dan says, “by having this job that started later in the day.” She still describes it as “the best job I ever had, apart from this one I’ve now created for myself.”
A major moment in her burgeoning art career came in 2017, when she was accepted into Bloomberg New Contemporaries, an organisation which gives visibility, recognition and support to early career practitioners, platforming their work through an annual touring exhibition. Yearwood-Dan went on to apply for a New Contemporaries Studio Bursary in partnership with Sarabande – a foundation set up in 2007 by Lee Alexander McQueen, which provides support for artists and designers through funding and subsidised studios in Haggerston.
In 2018, Yearwood-Dan became the second recipient of the studio bursary. Having just turned 24, and recently gone through a break-up, she moved into the studios alongside a multitude of creatives, most of whom were almost a decade older than her.
For many early career artists this could have been an intimidating environment, but Yearwood-Dan found the experience invigorating. “There were jewellers, taxidermists, prosthetic makers, a couple of painters, sculptors, performance artists, and we were all under the same studio as part of this weird, kind of obscure family.” It was the creative push she needed to take her career to the next level. “Where I started when I was there versus where I ended were two completely different stages,” she says. “And two completely different mindsets.”
One of the most striking things about Yearwood-Dan’s approach now is her deep appreciation for nuance, and her rejection of reductive categorisation. Her exhibition Let Me Hold You felt very important, partly because, as she puts it, “my queer identity isn’t something which I wear on my sleeve in terms of being an artist.” Indeed, she thinks this of all her “minority personas” – despite stressing that her work is “deeply personal,” Yearwood-Dan is keen to resist stereotypical identity markers. “I felt like, as a Black female artist, that was always the thing that people would say – ‘yeah, you’re a Black female artist,’ ‘you’re a Black abstract artist.” For her, this attitude will always be simplistic and tokenistic. “I don’t have the brazen audacity to speak on behalf of all Black women, or Black or queer people,” she says, in a way that makes even thinking of doing this sound utterly absurd. “I have the audacity to speak on behalf of myself.”
This stance, she makes clear, “is political resistance in itself” – “it is truly a political act to choose to not engage in the sort of clickbait that is wanted of lots of Black people, and especially Black women.” All too often, this “clickbait” revolves around Black pain. “As a Black woman, in an industry which is thirsty and hungry for Black people to talk on their trauma,” Yearwood-Dan proclaims she is making “an active choice to not make my work trauma focused and heavy.” “And,” she continues, “when we do touch upon trauma, it will be related around the kind of overarching ideal of love and human connection.”
Again, Yearwood-Dan’s attitude and personality seems intimately entwined with her paintings. In the same way they are densely layered with colour, rippling with different textures and often incorporating quotations and poetic snippets, it feels like what Yearwood-Dan is expressing is a desire for inclusivity. Sometimes her work will have pieces of paper integrated onto them; sometimes they shimmer with embellished beads. “Texture’s really important to me,” she says, “and being able to incorporate different materials or make the paint look like different materials.”
Yearwood-Dan has also been building in ceramics to her work – a practice and medium she has long been intrigued by. “I’ve always been interested in the relationship between craft and art, and their separation,” she says. By way of an explainer, she refers back to her immediate family: “my dad has a carpentry background, my mum is a DIY queen, and my grandma was a seamstress and makes these gorgeous tapestry quilts.” But, despite being drawn to ceramics, until 2020 her experience working with clay was distinctly limited. “The only time I’d ever worked with clay before that was in Year 7 in school,” Yearwood-Dan says brightly. “We all had to make a letter tile and I got ‘S’ and I made a snake, and it was really detailed, and I remember my teacher being so impressed.”
Then the pandemic shook up everything. “I couldn’t go into the studios for about five months,” Yearwood-Dan explains. “I didn’t have enough space at home to paint at the scale I paint at, and I don’t really like painting small. So, I literally just made ceramics for months.” Living in Leytonstone, in East London, she found her life stripped back, but rather than being overwhelmed she found this period of restriction strangely nourishing. “I think that time was very good for reflection, just sort of reconnecting with myself, with things that bring me joy,” Yearwood-Dan says.
One of many things still bringing her joy is reading. “I love poetry, and I love short stories, and I love beach reads,” Yearwood-Dan recites in a sing-song style. “A little bit of Nora Ephron, and Candice Carti Williams and Dolly Alderton – you know, the top gals! And I’ve been reading some short stories that a friend of mine, Amelia Abraham, put together in a book called We Can Do Better Than This.” Later she mentions Abraham again, when thinking about people whose work excites and inspires her. “I almost always go for my friends when I think of creative people who are doing really interesting things that maybe don’t get shouted about as much as other people do.” Alongside Abraham, she lists Jake Grewal, as well as both Joy Labinjo and Miranda Forrester. “Adelaide Bannerman is an incredible curator also,” she says, particularly in terms of “bridging contemporary African art with the Western art scene.”
What connects many of the people Yearwood-Dan mentions is their shared commitment to working across different mediums, their refusal to be pinned down. “If you actually choose to engage with an artist and the artwork beyond what you tangibly see,” she says, “you realise that there is a multitude of depths within them.” Suddenly, her tone shifts slightly and becomes lighter. “Do you know who put it really well? I don’t know if you’ve seen the music video for Stormzy’s Mel Made Me Do It?”
Immediately, I know the part she must mean. At one stage of the seven-minute epic, Michaela Coel – creator of critically acclaimed drama series I May Destroy You and one of the other people Yearwood-Dan mentions as an inspirational figure – narrates a monologue, which includes the line ‘I love my future more than I hate parts of my history’. “That’s exactly how I feel about my creative practice. I am more interested in the life I’m building for myself, than engaging, always with the parts of my history that I hate,” Yearwood-Dan says. “There are beautiful possibilities for me that don’t have to always be shadowed by how badly Black people and queer people have been treated.”
In the art world, beauty can sometimes get a bad rep, I suggest. “That’s because men decided that it was lame to have beauty in your work,” she exclaims. “If women made beautiful work it was kind of uncouth, not very intellectual.” Thinking “very intensely” about this gender divide led her, again, to make work from a place of resistance, from feminine defiance. “I was just like, you know what, I’m gonna make these canvases even bigger than they were before,” she says. “I’m going to make them prettier, and they’re going to be pink. They’re going to be fleshy and feminine, and sumptuous and if anyone wants to say anything about that they can f*** off!” When she says this, she is grinning from ear to ear, but I can tell she is also, in some ways, deadly serious. “It’s fine when Cy Twombly does it, but if a woman does it, it’s like ‘Oh, your work’s very feminine, isn’t it?’ Well, you know what else is feminine? Your mum.”
I’ve never encountered such a perfect use of a playground put down, and for a minute or two I’m incapacitated by laughter. But this is perhaps what Yearwood-Dan does best – effortlessly merges joy and lightness into thoughtful and wholeheartedly earnest considerations. “Everything is feminine,” she says when I’ve recovered: “the world exists because of the feminine. Stop insulting women for being who they are. We deal with enough. Globally and biologically, we deal with enough.”
So, would she say she is reclaiming beauty? “Yes! I’m reclaiming beauty!” She seems gleeful at the thought. “I’m reclaiming beauty. For myself and for all women everywhere. And all non-binary people and all queer people. I’m reclaiming beauty and all the cis het predominantly white men making the laws across the world can go suck it!” Her face breaks into a grin again. “I’m very serious with my pink paintings.”