spectral traces (35mm gloss print)Bella Biddle

I think we can all agree that Cambridge teaches precision. Whether it’s referencing down to the wire or analysing an idea in minute detail, we’re no strangers to exactitude. But what if you want to produce something that’s messy – in fact, all over the place? Second-year student Bella takes that approach when it comes to creative exploits. She completed a foundation course in Fine Art at Central Saint Martins before starting at Churchill, focusing on fine art in two dimensions. Her work encompassed animation, sound and video as well as painting. “In art school,” she explains, “you’re being taught to look in a way only I could look, or think in a way only I could think.”

"I'm actively trying to stop doing things that I'm not excited about" - Bella repurposes weird materials and unfamiliar textures to make her eclectic art

But now that she’s tackling an English degree at Cambridge, things are a little different. “Art is no longer the purpose of my day,” she admits. “It’s not the core thing I’m doing – it gets pushed to the side-lines.” She goes to ArcSoc life drawing classes fairly religiously: “It keeps my eye in with drawing but it’s not necessarily creative.” Despite her assertion, I hazard a guess that what she produces is in fact very imaginative. “I do try and push myself with things like blind contour or continuous line drawings, as well as using weird materials,” she smiles. And when making art independently, she’s found herself straying into the realms of illustration and graphic design, which require less equipment, time and space than projects she’s been used to working on. Though she’s been proud of some of the work she’s produced to a brief, she also tries to think about how the projects she takes on reflect on her as an artist. “I’m actively trying to stop doing things that I’m not excited about.”

olivia (illustration on found surface)Bella Biddle

Since sixth form, Bella has been exhibiting in London galleries, including in an exhibition called Muscle Wire at the Gerald Moore Gallery with established creatives Amy Ash and Emma Finn. How does exhibiting in Cambridge – and largely on a student arts scene – compare? “Student-run arts events are rarely curated to a particular theme,” Bella muses. “I’ve struggled to find events where the collection of art was created to be shown as one coherent exhibition.” Last year, however, she exhibited as part of Consequences, an exhibition run by Fleapit. The students involved met up, exchanged objects and responded to each other’s work in a shared space; there was more breathing space and trust in student artists to create something without having to work to a brief. “I felt like we curated that space together,” she explains. “In student exhibitions, you’re often focused on coming up with a piece that you already know the identity of, but some of the most interesting stuff I’ve made are things that have just emerged over time.” Her insistence on art as an inquisitive process is clear.

“It all sounds creative to the core – and deliciously messy.”

Moving into illustration at Cambridge, Bella has developed a unique style, layering up swimming watercolour backgrounds with ink or pen detail and cloudy, obscured photographs. What’s the process behind these pieces? “I have a folder of textured papers and pre-existing things that I like to draw on,” she begins. She’ll sketch on these or white paper in fine-line marker, scan the drawings in and chuck them in Photoshop. The photographic images she uses as texture are pulled from free stock images. The technique links to not having a great deal of time in Cambridge, but it has also yielded some unexpected results. “If you run 35mm photos under water, the gel coating becomes really soft, and you can just wipe it off,” she explains. “With digital photos, it’s easy to believe they’re doctored, but printed images can be edited too.” Her art runs up against questions of authenticity, mingling methods and worrying the edges of media we might think of as distinct.

how to photograph a sound (35mm print) (diptych part 1)Bella Biddle

I wonder, perhaps a little naively, about the issues that push Bella to create art. “Thematically, I’m very interested in sea levels rising at the moment,” she says, her face lighting up. Leaning back, she explains her desire to convey the effects of climate change in line with her own attempts to lead a zero-waste lifestyle. “But I’m also interested in the visceral, tactile textures of water and plastic,” she adds. Next, her focus is combining the graphic, illustrative style she’s worked out through projects for Varsity and Cambridge theatre with the heavy, thick, sculptural paintings she’s made before. It all sounds creative to the core – and deliciously messy.

But it’s difficult to maintain messiness at Cambridge, as it turns out. “My student room is full of jelly, wire and a twenty-three-year-old curry that a friend dug out for me,” Bella laughs, evoking her friends’ bemused responses when they come knocking. “At the moment, I’m interested in textures like those of jelly, meat or trash, but it’s not very practical!” Often, student art shows are full of very tidy, two-dimensional work: “It’s very liveable-with”. But perhaps the art we make doesn’t have to be like the essays we write – even if jelly doesn’t look good on a bookshelf, or meat-art sounds like something Lady Gaga would have worn back in the ’00s. It makes sense that in London, Bella’s favourite haunts are the ICA and working galleries, where art is process rather than a tidy, four-sided, done-and-dusted product.


Mountain View

Rebecca Algie: “Cambridge makes my art more analytical”

Throughout our interview, I get a sense that artistic space is ever opening up in Cambridge; space to react to and to understand art. But Bella finds the emphasis on craft on the university arts scene a little restrictive. Perhaps it’s time for Cambridge creatives to start thinking more broadly about the art we create – in other words, to allow ourselves to be messy again. Hence her final call to arms, as we pack up to leave: “Rather than just flexing our drawing skills, let’s be more inquisitive and make really interesting work.”