Finding the flow with Natalie Bedford

“My work can end up under the sewing machine or the hose pipe.” Artist Natalie Bedford doesn’t stick to convention and embraces a language of energetic line, texture, and colour. Emma Clegg goes to meet her and discovers a) that she is a dedicated swimmer and b) her exuberant plans for an exhibition with a watery theme.

“I’m interested by the meniscus that separates air and water – above water you have one world, and a millimetre away there is a completely different world.

These are not the words of an artist for whom water is an abstract, visual concept. You see Natalie Bedford is defined by swimming. “I’ve swum all my life competitively and I was also a competitive life saver. I swam as a sanctuary, I took my four daughters swimming – that was the place where we were all level in the water – and since they have grown up I’ve been with the Bath Dolphins. I swam with the Penarth Stamina Swimmers when I lived in Wales, I swam 10km around the Scilly Isles, I did Coniston five miles about a month ago and three weeks ago came back from 25km round Greece.

Natalie continues: “I swim a lot in Vobster Quarry, a freshwater lake near Radstock, which has a circuit of 750 metres. Some people breaststroke round the route and some are triathletes, but the common thread is that we get in and we all come out feeling so much better. Swimming is community and a lot of the joy is knowing the other people swimming with you. I also swim through the winter there, when it’s six degrees, in a wetsuit.”

Above: Boat on the Dock, St Martin’s, Isles of Scilly, 20 x 40cm, oil on board
Above: Vobster Quarry, 30 x 20cm, watercolour and pen;

You’d think with all that swimming, energy for painting might fall short, but Natalie charges her artwork with the same level of drive and enthusiasm. Not only does her Bath home thrum with her often large-scale creations, hanging on and leaning against walls in every room, with bulky canvases packaged up for collection in the hall, but her sketchbooks and visual ideas spill over freely onto surfaces and tables. Her bottom-of-the-garden studio, and the garden itself, is the same. Every moment, every surface, every mark, I gauge, is an experience that’s embraced by Natalie with pace and enthusiasm. Take her Wild and Wonderful Art Workshops, where she encourages students to find a way through the paralysing fear (that many have) of a blank piece of paper – the process starts with drawing in white wax on white paper, which breaks down the nervous, tight gestures of those who say they can’t draw (“You are already over the fear of drawing because you can’t see what you are drawing”), and then leave in urgent search of the nearest framer.

Then there is the painting itself. The recurrent thread is untrammelled freedom. Covering figurative, flowers and landscapes, Natalie thinks organically across media, from painting to printmaking and patchworked art studies to film. There is a constant striving for reinvention, a reaching out for something new, reflected in her subjects and the various treatments and media used. Her soaring, free signature style connects each piece, but each one rebels, reassesses and finds its own character.

When you are in water, it feels different, it is supportive; it can be frightening but it’s also soothing. It’s so incredibly familiar but it’s very personal, too”

There is no fear. A painting of a vase of flowers has no straight lines or studied forms, just suggestive, subtle delineation. The paint draws in volume, the vase is squiffy but grounded on its red surface, in turn roughly painted with daubs eating into the vase, the flowers without definition, just gestural brushstrokes and drags of paint.

Natalie’s In My Element show at 44AD Gallery takes place from 5–16 October. Appropriately, it is a show about water and swimming and it will be immersive (yes, aside from the water). “I don’t want an exhibition that is just paintings on walls. I want an exhibition that’s about engagement, connection, about community, about what water means to you and how it makes you feel. I think this will reach out to a different audience – in lockdown people have been out wild swimming and outdoors more”, says Natalie.

Above: Natalie in her studio with a swimming pool painting in progress

“When you are in water, it feels different, it is supportive; it can be frightening but it’s also soothing. It’s so incredibly familiar but it’s very personal, too.” Her water studies will certainly capture its different moods, from shimmering surfaces and dancing light in the sunshine to underwater absorption and buffeting, energetic stormy seas.

Natalie will be running free workshops for children during her show and teaching is clearly a rewarding way of spreading her ineffable creative enthusiasm. “I like a playful element in my art. I like to think you can smile at it. My work is based in real observation and drawing and then from those roots it can be liberated,” says Natalie.

So when you visit, expect a multi-sensory experience, with big canvases down to smaller artworks, experimental pieces, projected films, photographs, and prints encompassing every watery element and experience – the sea, swimming, boats and fish.

“When you get Butterfly stroke right, it does flow”, says Natalie. Why not go and find her artistic flow at 44AD?

In My Element is at 44AD Gallery from 5–16 October. Check the dates and times of workshops for children and those of Natalie’s Wild and Wonderful workshops on A selection of flower paintings are also currently on display in The Art Bar at The Abbey H­­­otel, North Parade, Bath.