I believe choosing a lifestyle is more important than choosing a career.”
Meet visual artist Anne-Claire Fleer. Based in East London, Anne-Claire makes bold and colourful abstract expressionist art. Up until 18 months ago, she worked in finance in the City of London.
Now a full-time artist, Anne-Claire sells her work online, paints comissioned pieces and works with brands. Anne-Claire paints both on canvas and on the female body. And, adding a further dimension to her artistic output, she also paints on her own photographs of painted bodies.
On social media, Anne-Claire‘s personality is one of positive energy, exuberance and excitement. In person, her personality is 100% the same.
We climb out a window onto the rooftop of her flat: her outdoor studio. Tubs of paint outnumber plant pots. Traffic rumbles somewhere beneath an endless row of Victorian terraced houses.
Anne-Claire grew up near Maastricht, The Netherlands, in an entrepeneurial home environment, with her parents running their own business in the fashion industry. An only child, Anne-Claire spent her younger years painting and drawing constantly.
Wherever my parents would go, they would always take me and my colouring pack with me. Even on Christmas I would sit there for six hours and paint, draw. I loved it.”
Anne-Claire started playing tennis when she was six years old, and she left art behind. She was a natural.
My perception of being sporty was that you can’t be creative at the same time. I kind of forgot about art and the entire creative process that had given me so much joy when I was younger.
At high school, Anne-Claire had to make a decision about her career direction. The choice was between the creative art and language route, the science route, and the business and economics route. She chose business and economics route, seeing it as the perfect complement to her developing sports career.
I thought, ‘Business sounds good. I grew up with it. I’m going to do that. I’m quite good at it. I’ll do that.’ That’s pretty much how I decided. Art never crossed my mind, which is funny in hindsight because now I can’t live without it.”
By the end of high school, Anne-Claire had reached such a high level of tennis that she went to Barcelona to train as a professional player. But soon after she arrived, those plans were halted.
During the intensive training, Anne-Claire became injured to the extent that she couldn’t continue what was supposed to be a year’s worth of training. She left Barcelona three months later.
Back in The Netherlands, Anne-Claire began a degree in Business Administration, followed by a masters.
Looking back at my studies, for four years, I studied like crazy without liking any of my subjects. I was just doing it for the sake of doing it, never really reflecting. The funny thing is, at that time I thought I was really enjoying what I was doing. I didn’t realise none of the subjects spoke to me. I was just living my life. I had super fun friends and I did my thing. Even though I didn’t particularly like what I learned, I loved everything around it, visiting businesses, doing internships, walking around in my heels and my dress.”
Five years, one internship in Singapore, and an erasmus exchange in Cardiff later, Anne-Claire started working in the financial services with Ernst and Young.
Anne-Claire worked 60-80 hours a week and travelled more or less every weekend, either to see her partner in London or to go away with friends.
My body has always told me that what I was doing wasn’t good for me. With my lifestyle at work, I had the flu every two months, I was always sick, I was tired, I couldn’t sleep, I had sleep deprivation. And I didn’t even realise, I just kept on going.”
I sat at home, in between jobs, and I was literally just trying to think about the things that I liked when I was younger.”
Anne-Claire was entering into an intensive process of personal development and reaching for a better understanding of herself.
Along the way, reading self-help book after self-help book, Anne-Claire discovered something about herself that she had never considered. She worked out that she was a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). Reflecting back on her office lifestyle, she realised this had manifest itself in many different ways, in particular not being able to concentrate in a noisy office environment.
Anne-Claire was scouring for a new lifestyle that would suit her when she remembered that she had loved painting and drawing as a child.
The more I thought about it, the more I started to get into it again.”
Anne-Claire decided to move to London. The plan was to take it slow, pursue art, and get a part time job.
At first, I didn’t really feel like moving to London. But I thought it would be so nice to actually live with my partner, settle down and have a relaxed life.”
That didn’t happen—at least, not straight away.
I was here and got an offer to be an account manager at Receipt Bank. My ego came up again. I was like, ‘Cool! Rather than do corporate work, I’ll do start-up work, which is more creative… Let’s do it’.”
Eight months in, having had the flu every two months, being tired, not having energy, Anne-Claire decided to quit finance properly.
In April 2017, Anne-Claire began her career as an artist. She initially supported herself by working three days a week in a local coffee shop. And little over a month ago, left the coffee shop to go full-time as an artist.
It was the most natural thing I’ve ever done. It just felt really good. All of it. The entire transition felt really natural. It still does.”
Creative Londoners: How did you start out when you began making art again?
Anne-Claire Fleer: I started out just doing abstract art on canvas and paper. I kept on developing that and just loved doing it. I did so many different styles and started getting commissions.
One day last year, a female photographer friend of mine asked me to collaborate. Her sister’s a life-drawing model. She suggested doing some live body painting. The following Sunday, we were here at the crack of dawn doing body painting. I loved it so much that I decided to keep on going with it. She was busy and couldn’t take photos for me the next time and I had done quite a bit of photography before. So I thought, ‘Ok, I’ll do this!’.
From there on, it just kept on happening, and I loved it more and more and more. So I was like, ‘Ok, I might go into this as well!’ That’s when I also began painting abstract art onto photographs from body painting sessions.
Creative Londoners: How do you do that?
Anne-Claire Fleer: I start by choosing a photograph after a body painting session that I think will work the best in a painting. I then print them onto paper and either work on that paper or glue it onto a canvas. (In the future I want to print to canvas, but I’m still experimenting.) Then I work around it. In that sense I want the body to stand out and blend in at the same time.
I use the same energy and forms as the body in that picture. I make an extension of the body in that picture. But I also want it to contrast. So I make sure that whatever I do on paper attracts the eye more towards the body, but still makes it disappear at the same time. It’s a case of thinking about where the eye is taking you. Is it a trick to the mind to find the body or is it obvious that it’s there? I’m still not sure which one I prefer most.
Creative Londoners: Has being HSP come into your art?
Anne-Claire Fleer: Definitely. I’m highly sensitive to all the sensations that happen around me and get easily overwhelmed. But I also look for sensations. There’s a kind of balance. For me, using the canvas is a way to get that onto paper. When I feel kind of overwhelmed or too excited, I can always express that onto paper. There’s always an emotional meaning to it, that’s for sure.
The funny thing is, when you put it onto paper sometimes it helps you recognise what has overwhelmed you, where it’s coming from; you see links or movements that mean something else to you. And you can connect the dots. I don’t feel like an ambassador of HSP. But it is something that triggers who I am and what I do, and why I’m creative in the way that I am at the moment.
Creative Londoners: How does the body come into your aesthetic thinking?
Anne-Claire Fleer: I’ve always seen my body as a limitation, in the sense that it’s always hurting and holding me back. For example, most people can just start running. I can’t do that. I go running three times and I’m injured again. For some reason, my body finds an excuse to be injured. It’s mostly to do with tension in my muscles and me not breathing deep enough, so that my muscles don’t recover quickly enough. I must admit I miss it though, I used to love being active.
Also, for me the mind and the body are different thing. My mind would always tell my body, ‘You’re annoying. You hold me back’. Whereas that’s a stupid thing to do because they’re one and the same thing; they influence each other. This sounds a bit spiritual but it’s not. It’s biology.
Body painting on the other hand is a way for me to look at the body as something positive. I start seeing the body as something really beautiful—regardless of size, colour, it’s just beautiful. So I think the combination of having HSP and being interested in the body makes up a big part of what abstract art means to me.
For me the body painting is a way to get that together and make the picture positive again.
Bodies are art in themselves. For me, the challenge is, whatever you look like, no one should feel like body painting is only for models. I think everyone is beautiful. Everything you’ve got helps my photo make more beautiful. I see it as really positive for everyone to be different, and for me it’s a real challenge to work with so many different people.
Creative Londoners: How did you develop your art-making into a business? Do you like seeing it as a business?
Anne-Claire Fleer: For me, having business and art combined is the one thing that makes me super happy. If you want to make a living as an artist I don’t think you can neglect the business side of things. Many artists don’t see it that way. But in the end, if you want to make art, you need money. Some people would hate that I’m saying this. But I still believe that approaching it as a business allows you to be a happier artist in the end.
So, business model-wise, I’ve long been thinking about whether I want to go the traditional way of exhibitions, galleries, all of that. Or do I want to go the social media way where I do everything myself. I’m still quite indecisive.
Creative Londoners: You can’t do both?
Anne-Claire Fleer: I feel that to succeed in something you need to do one thing at 1000%, rather than a few things at 50%. Also, I only have £1 I can spend once. And I think it’s a big decision whether you decide to invest it in galleries and art fairs, or if you invest it in social media. Art fairs really help for local exposure, getting to know galleries and expanding your artist network if you’re just starting out. But art fairs are very expensive. I’m still very happy when I get accepted though.
On the other hand, if I spend the same amount of money on social media, my exposure is way bigger. In the end, I sell so much more through social media that I’ve decided I want to spend at least 80% of my money on social media rather than in galleries, the traditional way. I find it a hard decision because, as an artist you think about galleries, you want to be in galleries and all of that. But business-wise, it makes more sense to be on social media these days.
At the moment, I sell my works of art mostly through social media, Instagram and LinkedIn—my network is still big on LinkedIn, which is rare for an artist, so I see that as an advantage. So mostly Instagram, LinkedIn, my website, Facebook, and I just recently started with Pinterest.
Creative Londoners: What are your longterm goals?
Anne-Claire Fleer: I’d really like to work together with brands. Lots of artists would say that’s selling your soul. But coming from the business world, there’s a natural tendency to work together with successful brands. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the biggest brand in the world. But even smaller brands, it just makes me really happy that have that business mind, but who still understand and appreciate art, let you do your thing, be free in what you’re creating for them. I also did a bit of vlogging a while back. I would go around to different galleries in London, vlog about it and then post it online. But I found, after having done that for a while, that my natural connection with businesses if I approach brands feel better than actually talking to people in a gallery. Because I don’t have an art history background—I haven’t studied art. I just get along better with businesses. So I see my future more in working together with them, getting exposure through them and offering my services to them.
Another thing, my mum is really good at what she does in fashion. We’re thinking of joining forces and coming up with a line together. We’ve asked around. But we haven’t made our first step. That would be something that would give me so much satisfaction. Doing what she loves and doing what I love. It comes back to the body, as well. Fashion is a way of making the female prettier. That goes really well with what I’m already doing.
Creative Londoners: You were lukewarm about living in London when you first moved here. Has that changed?
Anne-Claire Fleer: I love it. I love my east London bubble. I love London fields, Broadway market, Columbia Road flower market. It feels like a little village even though it’s in a big city. You’ve got everything as an artist. It’s literally the dream. There are art supply shops everywhere; you can cycle everywhere; there are galleries everywhere. I can constantly get inspired.
But then, central London is just so busy. Even now, I never go to Oxford Street. Only when it’s Christmas and there are Christmas lights. But that’s about it. The other week, I visited a friend who lives in Baker Street. I jumped on the tube to get there and came back by bus. The tube at 6pm. I was like ‘These people have to do that every day?! It just makes me depressed just thinking about it.”
Creative Londoners: Do you feel like it’s a good time to be an abstract artist in London?
Anne-Claire Fleer: For some reason I feel that the London art scene is not so much into abstract art as it is into pop art or classics such as landscapes. When I went to California last year though I saw abstract art everywhere and people seemed very excited about it. So that’s the main thing that makes me very excited to go to the US.
I’m curious about Asia as well. My goal until December 2019 is to do at least one show in either Brooklyn or California, preferably with The Other Art Fair. And I would like to organise a show either in Hong Kong or Singapore. I have a few connections that hopefully can help me organise something there. Very curious to get to know those markets better.
Words and photographs by Oliver Gudgeon.