This article originally appeared in WhyNow.
A painter of warmth. A painter of time. A painter of loss. Doreen Fletcher’s art tells a story.
The journey is a mammoth one; from the doldrum of South London to the fringes of East London, so I am overcome with relief as I am welcomed into her house by her husband, given a coffee, and invited up to her studio. Located on the very top floor of their Victorian terrace, it is awash with natural light and stuffed full of paintings, canvases, drawings, sketchbooks and postcards, amongst which Doreen and I sit down and begin to talk about her life and work. Throughout the interview, Doreen has to stop talking at certain points to relieve dizziness, to stop from ‘drying up’, and to move around the room, all side effects from her struggle with (and survival of) serious illness. It is accepted without complaint, with Doreen preferring to stay interested in the present rather than to dwell, evidence of an optimism that has remained throughout her career.
The constant change of the East End forms the focus of Doreen’s most celebrated art. Roadside cafes, aged newsagents, bus stops, tube stations, factories, forgotten pubs and tyre shops. The human, man-made, unnatural structures in Fletcher’s work are often left empty, uninhabited and unused, consigned to destruction and awaiting transformation into something less unique. As the area has transgressed from an industrial dockland to a creative haven to a corporate hellscape, the work provides a constant reminder of the ever-shifting nature of our communities. The places we come to define ourselves in are slowly and surely torn apart to be replaced with a void of glass boxes, providing no character and no identity. So, where is this community? Why do the figures in her works appear alone, peripheral, or absent? Her pictures are about people, not of them. Doreen is conscious of the human cost of removing spaces to usher in modernity. What is lost in the race to build as much spreadsheet architecture as possible isn’t just the bricks-and-mortar of a building, but the village culture, social interaction, community, and individuality that those structures created.
The empty melancholy of these scenes is underpinned by feeling. Fletcher continually adds to her work based on what she feels they need: making the weather more threatening and troubling, giving light to reflections and warmth to the interiors until the desired effect is evoked. Just as the building accumulates memory, feeling and story, so too does the painting, taking 2, 3, sometimes 20 years to complete. Texture is built up, perspective is distorted to reflect reality, and the painting builds as time passes. They are never rushed, unconcerned with immediate social documentary, ignorant of nostalgia, preferring to create a feeling and tell a patchwork story of the East End. Most of this work stems from a 20-year period that ended with a prolonged sabbatical from painting the area in 2004, as the medium of painting fell out of fashion. An endorsement from influential blogger ‘The Gentle Author’ in 2015 has had a tremendous and profound effect on the recognition and appreciation of her East London art. Slowly, surely, Doreen is painting again, secure in the belief that people are sick of the mile-a-minute digital world, that people want to experience life at a slower pace. Her painting requires focus and time. Her painting requires that you stop, that you look, and that you consider the stories that have influenced, shaped and informed what you see before you.
Stories form the heart of her work. Stories the act of painting itself tells, stories architecture tells, the collective identity they have created and are reminders of. Memory floods the empty lots and bus stops, feeling flows through the pubs and factories, there is something inherently special in the art of Doreen Fletcher.