Arabella Dorman is an internationally renowned portrait painter and war artist whose work hangs in high profile institutions and collections around the world. Arabella works from her studio in London on private and public commissions, while her conflict art is drawn from first-hand experience of working in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Gaza, Lesvos and Calais.
Arabella was listed as one of BBC’s Top 100 Women in 2014, and Salt Magazine’s 100 Most Inspiring Women in 2015. Her work has been profiled across national and international television, radio and print, including BBC, CNN, Radio 4, BBC World Service, Al Jazeera, The New York Times and featured on the front cover of The Times, The Guardian and The Sunday Times Magazine.
Arabella is a prominent public speaker and fundraiser. Her recent installation artworks, Suspended (2017 / 18) and Flight (2015) received global critical acclaim, while her last exhibition, Before the Dawn, La Galleria Pall Mall raised over £30,000 for charities Afghanaid and Walking with the Wounded.
Describe a typical day for you?
My day really starts with the children and I singing (badly!) on our way to school – I love the happy chaos of walking into their classrooms where the miracle of youth and discovery inspires me every day! Having dropped off the kids, I walk with my beloved Irish Terrier, Zorba, along the Thames to my studio, always pausing to take in the river and the views over London, reflecting on how lucky I am to live in this extraordinary city.
My days in the studio pass quickly in painting commissions, sketching new compositions, and juggling meetings and interviews before rushing home for precious time with the children; I try and play the piano with my daughter and draw with my son before we all curl up for story time! I am lucky enough to have a wonderful husband who loves to cook, so dinner is our downtime, followed by a hot bath where I can finally switch the brain off!
What do you feel are your biggest achievements?
As an artist, it is in revealing the beautiful, the preciousness of life, the pity of war, the plight of those who suffer the conflict and seek refuge, and ultimately, the importance of hope.
In real terms, I guess it must be the hanging of an 8m boat that carried 62 refugees from Turkey to Lesvos, above the nave of St James’s Church Piccadilly (Flight) and two years later, suspending hundreds of discarded refugee clothes in an installation (Suspended) in St James’s Piccadilly and Canterbury Cathedral.
As a mother, it is in balancing the demands of work with family life, and those miracle moments we all have with our children; in watching them learn the beauty of the natural world or running with arms outstretched across the National Gallery (aged 3 & 5) crying “Whistlejacket” after recognising their favourite painting!
What’s in your handbag/ satchel?
Sketchbooks and notebooks. Phone & headphones (it used to be a CD player, and before that a Walkman – music keeps me going through all things!) An old fashioned page-by-page diary – my lifeline. Dog treats, and the endless stones, shells, sticks, leaves, rubber bands, and other ‘treasures’ that the children gather for me!
What are your ambitions in life?
I would like to create a lasting cry against the horrors and waste of war, whilst revealing the fragility and extraordinary beauty of being alive.
What do you wish you’d known at the start of your career you now know?
Not to rush it. To have been bolder and freer – probably the dream of every painter! Not to have been afraid to turn things upside down and find the different angles in life.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?
Creating more time to play with light – somehow!! Painting, more painting, and exploring the miracles of life, of travel, of my family & friends. My dream is a studio near the sea, filled with light, music, a wood burning fire and the ceaseless movement and sound of water.
What advice would you give a budding artist?
To work hard and never give up. To never let one day go by without seeing and drawing – anything and everything. To have the courage to be honest and to pursue beauty as you see it. True beauty, whether it is of the natural world or the light within our fellow human beings. The world is so astonishingly beautiful. To love your mistakes and embrace them. To believe in your own voice. Not to be afraid of starting again, and knowing when to stop – one of the hardest things!
What do you wish you’d known about motherhood before having kids?
To love every moment – even when they get you up in the middle of the night and drive you mad – to recognise the light that children can shed on all things. I’m glad I didn’t know anything about the joy, pain and beauty of motherhood however as it comes to me as a perpetual and incredible revelation. If anything, I wish I could have relished every precious second even more, you hold on to those moments because life goes too quickly. No time with a child is ever wasted.
Finally, happiness is…
If I am honest, the truest of my many joys – aside from the abiding joy of my children, is painting. It is in the sunlight dancing on the sea, it is shell-collecting in the rain with the children, it is hitting the open road with only a rucksack full of sketchbooks and a few old clothes, it is travelling and discovering remote corners of the world with my husband, it is laughter, it is music, it is the miracle of a shared humanity. Painting, creating, is an unlearning, a re-seeing of the world as if for the first time, and sharing that perpetual revelation with my family is my dream of dreams.