Lydia Bunt

Cambridge students often have talents that range far beyond their studies, but third-year architecture student Semilore Delano rather exceeds that generalisation. At 21, she’s the first ever student to have works exhibited at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge’s main contemporary art gallery. Two of her pieces have been shown in the gallery’s recent exhibition, The Cambridge Show, featured alongside that of 21 other established Cambridge-based artists.

Although I do love fine art and visual art, I also love the practicality of figuring it out in a physical form

When we meet for coffee on an autumn afternoon, Delano is as put-together as all this suggests (then again, I’m downing a hot chocolate in my sweaty gym clothes, so there’s not much comparison). As we speak, it becomes clear that she is consistently grateful for the opportunities that have come her way – but, equally, deliciously firm in her conviction that, sometimes, her degree comes second when the creative juices begin to flow.

Saturday BrunchSemilore Delano/Kettle's Yard, Cambridge

Delano is in her third year at King’s College; before coming to university, she completed a foundation course at the Royal Drawing School. It’s clear from our conversation that she loved it – a “year of drawing, painting, visualising” appears quite the dream. So, why Cambridge instead of a degree in fine art? “Although I do love fine art and visual art, I also really love the balance and the practicality of figuring out how this can actually exist in a physical form”, Delano explains. It helps that her father is an architect: she grew up surrounded by drawings and architectural quips, not to mention in a house that he designed.

My compositions surround my everyday experience of life

Other influences on Delano’s work stem from her background – she grew up in Nigeria, moving to the UK when she was 13. “My compositions surround my everyday experience of life”, she muses. Her work is centred on the real: family life, going to markets, sitting down and eating with friends. While questions of culture and of, in her words, “difference” may not explicitly permeate her work, they undoubtedly shape her viewing process. And straddling nations has lent her a “dual character”, which influences her her work.

Delano's work exhibited at Kettle's YardThe Cambridge Show, Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, 2019. Photo: Stephen White

But (and it’s no unusual confession for a student here) Cambridge hasn’t always been a smooth road. “The last three years have been super eye-opening in terms of realising what my passion really is”, Delano reveals. She deferred her entry for a year before starting university, wanting a bit more breathing space to explore her fine artistic interests. Reality hit when she arrived. “I didn’t realise the extent to which I was going to struggle with such a new platform at Cambridge”, she explains. “After first year, I was in this frenzy, thinking to myself, 'I can’t believe I didn’t paint or draw for a year!'”

I can’t believe I didn’t paint or draw for a year!

It was in second year that Delano started pushing herself to create her own art, reaching beyond the confines of her architecture degree. She started submitting pieces to competitions in King’s and eventually achieved her first solo exhibition in its Art Rooms. This exhibit, Retelling Retrospect, took place in May this year, planned and curated by Delano herself.

One of two canvases comprising Lekki Market at 4.53pmSemilore Delano/Kettle's Yard, Cambridge

And then, the big time hit. Delano went to see the Oscar Murillo exhibition at Kettle’s Yard last May, and got chatting to its director (Andrew Nairne OBE). He encouraged her to submit work for The Cambridge Show, and two of her pieces – Saturday Brunch (2019) and Lekki Market at 4.53pm (2017) – were accepted. “Both of them navigate an everyday space for me, one with my family and the other with my cultural environment in Nigeria”, Delano explains. She works with oils on canvas, merging spaces together and drawing on influences from everyday life. “It’s been just amazing to be in the same gallery as so many of these people and in the same gallery as artists who I’ve loved”, she says.

One could say that, in general, Cambridge has been a productive environment for Delano. She painted Saturday Brunch at 5am in her room in King’s, but remarks that “the rigour of Cambridge makes me structure my day better”. Apart from this, painting in a place which is geographically and culturally different to the location of her works focusses her attention, paradoxically, on that which is not there. “Because I can’t see my family right there, I rely more on memory and my emotion connected to the space”, she expands. “That sharp contrast hones my own identity.”

It’s been just amazing to be in the same gallery as so many of these people

But studying in this city has also influenced Delano’s artistic work in new and previously inconceivable ways. At first, she felt like art and architecture were just smacking each other head on, persistently refusing to mesh. But, actually, she explains, “architecture has made my painting more meaningful to me.” Last year, there’d be days when she’d sit down with her architecture supervisors and say, “I can’t do any work this weekend – I just need to paint!”

Delano's work exhibited at Kettle's YardThe Cambridge Show, Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, 2019. Photo: Stephen White

Within the Cambridge bubble, Delano cites ArcSoc’s life drawing classes, and support from the team at King’s Art Rooms, as important creative outlets. For this student artist, though, inspiration is clearly all around. As we talk, she gestures to a woman sitting by the window in the café, mentioning how the light is framed around her. We both glance over for a second, distracted. “I don’t find many things visually boring”, Delano explains.

I don’t find many things visually boring

What advice would she offer students looking to give their own creative work a broader platform? “Don’t stop making the work you love to make”, stresses Delano. “Cambridge always makes you feel like you have to choose between what you want to do and what you have to do, but when it comes to creating work, one of the worst things you can do is just let yourself stop.” When she explained to her supervisors and friends that she was struggling to balance the demands of her degree with her impulse to produce fine art, real results emerged – namely, the chance to get involved at Kettle’s Yard. “Tell people what you like”, Delano says as we rise to leave.

It’s easy to prioritise work over play when you’re a student here. Delano, though, is engaged in the subtle merging of the two, to impressive ends. So, when you're floundering on a latest essay and feel like banging your head against a brick wall in a futile search for inspiration, just remember: “There is always time in the day to make art.”


Mountain View

Can art make us healthy?