“i’m just drawing” — alice bowsher, niles collectiveBack
We wanted to know how Alice Bowsher, Elliot Kruszynski and Joe Gamble became friends at the Bath School of Art and Design, and we talked about that for a while, and how they all moved to London and became part — with Alice Russell and Caroline Rose, not present — of Niles Collective, and about working as illustrators, and living in London. Then much later this came up, which technically comes first.
“Elliot,” said Alice, “Actually you picked on some of my work in first year.”
“So what?” said Elliot. “It was probably shit.”
“It was awful,” Alice agreed. “Really awful.”
“People in our year weren’t very critical,” said Elliot.
“So you were making a stand?”
“Our tutor said, pick a piece of work you like. And everyone was like, that one, that one. Then he said, someone pick a piece of work they don’t like. And everyone just stood there.”
“And then you picked mine.”
“And then I picked Alice’s.”
“It was a type piece. I was really awful at type.”
“And you’re not doing type now, are you?”
“Thank the lord!”
Apart from that, Alice, Elliot and Joe weren’t friends. Or maybe because of that.
“Until the final five weeks,” said Alice.
“Three years of education, and then came the very last bit, and we all made friends,” said Elliot. “Wait, I should clarify. We did have other friends. There were more people. I did have friends, and so did these guys, and then we made friends. I was aware of them. They were in my peripheral vision. All the time. Just lurking.”
“I started out doing fine art,” said Alice. “I still had all my old fine art friends. So I didn’t really mix.”
“There wasn’t a defining moment,” said Elliot. “It just very aggressively happened over a two week period of hanging out. I always think about the last day.”
“Everyone in our year group kind of tailed off,” said Alice. “It was only us three that ended up going out. That was a real solid moment. We went to Po Na Na’s. It was a Tuesday night.”
“Every Tuesday night was Crash indie disco,” said Joe. “Oh god.”
“There was nothing to do after that because we’d handed all our work in,” says Alice. “Oh my god, it was great. The best three weeks ever. We just did nothing apart from go out, and watch Frasier.”
It feels like years now that we’ve known Joe, whose illustrations have adorned our back pages up in Leeds, and adorned some shoes we loaned him once, and whose presence in a series of exquisitely crafted YouTube videos — boy band syncs, violent French new wave melodramas, cowboy movies with the gruelling flavour of Cormac McCarthy — livens up the office on our moodier days.
“I would love to do some more boy band videos,” said Joe. “I find it hard to organise them in London because they’re all done back home in Ilkley, where we know we can do stupid stuff.”
“You couldn’t have done all that gun stuff in the French videos in London,” said Alice.
We first encountered Joe’s work when he was sending incomprehensibly abstract watercolour paintings of Leeds United players taking corners to fanzine The Square Ball.
“I did that in my first year,” said Joe. “When I just had to fill up a sketchbook with drawings. I was trying to do something from these photographs and I couldn’t quite get it. And it just fell apart from there.
“I think my work has changed quite a lot in the last couple of years. I like to think it’s been a natural progression, rather than specifically wanting to change something. I’ve always been aware that I wanted to change.”
How did it change?
“I think I’ve spent less time looking at other people’s work. I used to get quite bogged down, looking at work I liked and thinking that was what you had to do to be successful. But then I just stopped and started drawing looser.”
You were always pretty loose, we said.
“I think recently it has become even looser. I’m really pushing that. Really pushing the looseness.”
The day after we spoke Alice was namechecked in Elle as one of London’s best young illustrators. There’s a great video introduction to her work online, in which Alice was given several pints of gin and put on a stage, with another pint of gin, to talk about her art, in front of an audience and cameras and everything. Or Instagram: shot after shot of captivating bold ink creatures.
We asked why she switched from fine art at uni.
“On that course they gave you a studio space and you did whatever you wanted. I’d had a year out and been travelling, and I was looking forward to going back to uni to have a bit of guidance. So when they said, here’s a space, do what you want, I didn’t do anything. My flatmate was coming home with all these exciting briefs to work on so I just decided to change. I’d never done graphics before. I had never thought of doing illustration.
“We had a tutor called Angela. I was trying lots of different things that never worked out, and she saw one of my little doodles in the side of my book that I’d been drawing during a lecture, and she asked why I don’t just draw like that. And it was fun. I hadn’t realised you could just draw like that for actual, like, work.”
One of the niches in which Alice can be found is live drawing, at events, fulfilling requests, a curious activity.
“Some people kind of get it, they say, ‘draw me this,’ and then you draw it and it’s quite funny,” says Alice. “But then you get other people who are like — ‘My nose isn’t like that.’ Well, no. No one’s nose is like that. I’m just drawing.”
“People don’t always take into account that you’ve got your own way of drawing,” said Joe.
“When you’re drawing to please someone that is also lots of people, you’ll never please everyone,” said Alice. “That’s pretty tough. They’re right there in front of you, and you give it to them, and they’re like, ‘Cooo-oool.’”
“That’s the worst,” said Elliot. “Seeing their faces just drop. ‘Oh, what is it?’ It’s you. ‘Oh. Cool. Bye.’”
“There was one sort of fashion event, where a lady was getting married, and she wanted me to draw her, on a horse, with her husband to be. I was like, I’ve just met you, and I don’t know what your husband looks like… I convinced her to have something different. Then they started serving champagne and it really picked up after that.”
Elliot, we said. Is it fair to say you’re pretty much killing it?
“Oh no. No, no, no. Not at all. No.”
The client work, though; the New York Times, Anorak, Etsy, AirBnB. Instagram: 11,700 followers, all looking at and thumbing twice on crowds of colourful big legged people with skewed grins.
“Yeah, but that’s not —”
“My mum took a photo of that one in the Telegraph,” said Alice. “Took photographs from many angles, and then sent it in the post.”
“That is on our fridge,” admits Elliot. “But, er. I’m happy. I’m happy with what I’m doing. But I’m still not that happy. I’m doing some alright jobs, but I just don’t think the work is all that good.”
“Work’s constantly developing, isn’t it?” said Alice. “It’s always a case of, maybe I should have done it like this.”
“Everyone is always trying to push their work,” said Elliot. “If I was really content I’d think I was doing something wrong.”
“It’d get really boring,” said Joe.
“If you’re happy you’re not trying hard enough,” said Alice.
“This is a career where, ultimately, you just get paid to draw,” said Elliot. “Which is amazing, it’s one of the few careers where you can enjoy it so much. But if you’re not enjoying it by pushing yourself, it’s probably just like any other job.
“But personal work, that’s always what you’re happiest with. The bigger stuff takes longer to work on, you stare at it for longer, look at it over and over. And by the time it’s in print, it’s months later and you don’t care any more, you’ve moved on, but you can guarantee someone will see it and want you to do that for them.”
How will you ever be happy? we asked.
“No, I’m happy. I am happy.”
“It’s hard because you’re always your worst critic,” said Alice.
“That’ll never change. And I am happy. Like, I’m grateful. I’m more grateful than happy. Grateful that jobs are coming in, it’s great that I’m doing this. And I’m happier than I was.”
“You’re getting there!” said Alice. “You’re halfway up the ladder!”
“I’ll be fine,” said Elliot. “You know. I’ll be fine.”
–THE DARK WEB–
Alice, Elliot and Joe are trained to use ink and paper, and work in print, a medium we’re told is dying; and as print dies, illustrations stay in demand, all over Instagram and web magazines.
“It’s weird,” said Elliot. “Even though paper is physically disappearing, it doesn’t seem like there’s any decline in jobs. It just makes it seem a bit more futile sometimes.”
“I always think that’s a bit of a funny one,” said Alice.
“Because it’s not physically tangible,” said Elliot. “Even if an illustration is in a magazine I haven’t seen, I know that it exists in a shop and someone is going to buy it. It feels a bit more real.”
“Online work feels a bit like, you know when you play an online game, and you buy something?” said Alice.
“I don’t,” said Elliot. “But obviously you do, with your cat game on your phone.”
“That’s a really good game.”
“And your in-game purchases. It’s not a real thing, but money is paid for it.”
“I don’t think I can actually think about the internet,” said Alice. “There’s too much stuff on there, it makes my head hurt. Then when I learned about the dark web, that was too much.”
“I’ve only heard of it in passing conversation,” said Joe. “I’m distant from the dark web. I wouldn’t know how to get on a dark web.”
“I wouldn’t either,” said Alice. “Where do you go? Like, www.darkweb.com?”
“Just Google ‘dark web’,” said Elliot. “It’s got to come up.”
-MOVING TO LONDON-
“I was actually sofa surfing in Bristol,” said Joe. “I got a job back at uni in Bath as a screenprinting technician.”
“You were the only one of us at Bath that actually followed through with the living in Bristol phase,” said Alice.
“Oh yeah, full on,” said Joe. “I went there. But there was a period when I was living in London but working in Bath. Mad.”
“We were going to move to Bristol together,” Elliot said to Joe. “And then I moved. We graduated in July and by October I was living at home and I was going to kill myself. It was so shit. Then my friend rang me up and him and loads of friends had moved into what was basically a car park in Fulham, right next to Chelsea football ground. It was a Europcar downstairs and an old independent college above it. A friend’s mum owned it outright, and we lived upstairs for less than £300 a month.
“It was just the best thing ever. Like, the best thing. Ever. I met a whole new bunch of people, and we’re all really good friends now. Eight months that were so much fun. Designers, illustrators, everyone trying to find their feet, just great.”
“When you called me and said there was a space,” said Alice, “I don’t even think I thought about it. I just said yes. I’d been working at home in a little shoe shop so I’d saved up some money, so I could live there and not think about needing a part-time job to stay alive. It was great to have exhibitions, and do whatever we wanted, with twelve other people going through the exact same thing, rather than being at home and thinking it might be time to get a proper job.”
“I never lived there,” said Joe. “I wish I lived at the car park!”
-LIVING IN LONDON-
Why had Joe, a good Yorkshire lad, been emailing us suggesting a photoshoot in a jellied eel shop?
“That was my dad’s fault,” said Joe. “He came to visit, and because his mum and dad are from London, when we walked past a jellied eel shop he said we had to go in. He was the only one who ate them. But the interiors are amazing.”
“All tiled, really like a Wes Anderson film,” said Alice. “Beautiful. Well, this particular one. Not all of them.”
“Photos might have been a bit much,” said Joe. “We’d have looked fully immersed.”
What’s living in London like? we asked.
“Up and down,” said Joe.
“I don’t really see the negatives,” said Elliot.
“You don’t, do you?” said Joe.
“That’s so personal, Joe,” said Elliot. “‘Yeah, YOU don’t. Not like ME.’”
“I get a bit sick of travelling around everywhere,” said Joe. “Everything is a bus away. To go out to a pub, you’ve got to get a bus to a pub.”
“A bus journey,” said Elliot. “Like, one bus journey. That’s so rough. When you can get one bus and go to anything. Like a cat café. Or a cereal café. Or anything.”
“You wouldn’t go to any of those type of things,” said Joe.
“No, but I’m saying, the option’s there. And all the best museums and galleries in the world. One bus ride away! That’s pretty good.
“I think when people visit for a couple of days, they’re normally in the city, and they get a wrong impression of what normal London life is. If you don’t work in the city you never have to go there. Where we live is so quiet. I cycle to work.”
“I did that for a while, getting the tube every day,” said Alice. “For three months I was working at a publisher, getting the tube every day to Embankment. It started off really fun, and I really loved it because I felt really sassy and I felt like I was in Sex and The City. That wore off really quick. It’s a completely different world if you’re working outside the city in a creative job. Maybe one’s web, and one’s dark web.”
“Alice’s work is extremely simplistic,” said Elliot. “It’s very funny, and it’s character driven. The elements are so defined and clean. It’s to the point; whatever it’s communicating is normally very obvious very quickly, which for an illustrator is what you want.”
“It’s simple in a really good way,” said Joe. “It’s impressive that she can use just ink, and do such a range of things with it.”
“There’s a lot of abstraction,” said Elliot. “And it’s funny. It’s so funny.”
“I really don’t know what’s so funny about my work,” said Joe. “I never see it as funny.”
“But when you draw it, you laugh at it!” said Elliot.
“I suppose so,” said Joe.
“Your portrayal of people is funny,” said Elliot. “It’s an interesting view on what you’re drawing. Normally you’re drawing from something, and that’s why I enjoy it, because I see how you’ve decided to portray it.”
“Errr,” said Alice.
“‘Don’t like it,’” suggested Elliot.
“That’s really hard,” said Alice. Joe and Alice are in what adults call a relationship. “I don’t think I’ve had to describe your work before. Kind of scrappy. In a good way.”
“Do you want me to leave?” said Joe.
“No!” said Alice. “Quick. Spontaneous. Fun!”
“Firm?” asked Elliot.
“Fun!” said Alice.
“I thought you said ‘firm.’”
“Yeah, it’s real firm,” said Alice. “Erm. Football.”
“Lots of key words,” said Joe.
“Elliot’s work is quite amazing,” said Joe. “Because if I draw quite a lot of straight interpretations, Elliot manages to create whole scenes. And it just seems to come out of his head.”
“A whole word,” said Alice. “Just freestyle.”
“And all the layering,” said Joe. “Blows my mind.”
“Oh, I hate that part,” said Elliot. “I just sit there and toss about with Photoshop.”
“But I get jealous of your computer skills,” said Alice.
“It’s always like you’ve created a world,” said Joe. “It’s your little thing, and then everything you draw happens in there.”
“That’s where the name comes from,” said Elliot. “Niles Collective.”
“We used to watch Frasier in the morning then go up to uni,” said Alice. “We didn’t know until someone Snapchatted it. ‘Oh, I watch Frasier in the morning.’ ‘So do I.’ ‘Me too!’ We were all watching Frasier in the mornings.”
“It’s good to have a gang doing art together, rather than being on your own,” said Joe. “Everyone knows more people who can help, and then if there’s five of you doing work, it’s a lot easier to do an exhibition.”
“Like that night we stayed up doing all that wood,” said Alice. “Oh god that was great.”
“Well, it was kind of great,” said Elliot. “It was good company. The actual act, though. We made this massive peg board for a show we were in. It was huge, and we had to drill all the holes in my kitchen.”
“Joe and me went to a gig, and then came back, and you were still doing it,” said Alice. “We said we’d help, and then it was seven in the morning.”
“All the wood shavings,” said Elliot. “My kitchen looked like a desert.”
“It’s better to work with more people,” said Alice. “Rather than just working at home by yourself. It’s nice to get out.”
“I guess that would be quite a lonely way of working,” said Joe. “Just sitting, and drawing.”
Originally published in The City Talking: London, issue 01