Volunteer Interview:
Lorna Brown

If you've bought a copy of our new SkatePal magazine, then no doubt Lorna Brown's illustrations will have caught your eye. 

Lorna came to Palestine in 2016, volunteering as a skate instructor in Asira Al-Shamaliya. In between skating and teaching, she somehow managed to find time to work on loads of paintings. We absolutely love her work and were stoked when she agreed to contribute towards our magazine!

Have a read below to find out where Lorna gets her inspiration from, then go buy our magazine to see more of her work!

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Tell us about your background - how did you get into illustration?

I pretty much went into illustration straight from school. I studied Technical Illustration and then completed my degree in Scientific and Natural History Illustration. It wasn’t about being an artist for me. It was more about the challenge of representing information visually. I came out of University in 2001 and painted anything I could to make a living. Portraits, greetings cards, stuff for magazines, anything that people would pay me for, trying to make a decent living in an industry that was about to fall into recession.

I took a hiatus from illustration that coincided with taking up Roller Derby which sapped all my creative energy for 8 years. I travelled the world coaching Roller Derby and playing at the highest level that I could before retiring in 2014 following my fourth sport related concussion! I supplemented that with working as a photographic retoucher - using my painter’s eye to make images for billboards and magazines look ‘better’. That was when illustration and skateboarding came back into my life and the break away helped me to work out exactly what I wanted and needed from both of those things. 

Vegetable shop in Asira Al-Shamaliya.

Vegetable shop in Asira Al-Shamaliya.

How would you describe your work? 

My work now is weirdly specific. I paint buildings and places in watercolour that I feel have stories to tell. I’m drawn (haha) to the character of spaces, to the rough edges, the lived-in bits. It has now become a bit of an obsession. I can’t go anywhere without spotting things that speak to me, that want to be painted. I can walk past a thousand shiny glass skyscrapers and not bat an eyelid, but give me a crumbling corner shop with a dustbin next to it and I have to capture it.

What made you want to volunteer with SkatePal? How did you find out about the charity?

I had this vague notion that I would like my paintings to be more than just ‘stuff I see around London’. I wanted to tell a bigger story. Illustrator-journalist style. That idea really took hold of my imagination. I have a journalist friend that I was going to travel to Beirut to see and base a project on there but that fell through. She then sent me SkatePal’s call out through Huck Magazine saying they were looking for female skateboarders to volunteer and something about the timing just felt right. The combination of skateboarding, coaching kids, adventure and the ability to tell a story through my paintings was the perfect mix. In the end I came out to Palestine for five weeks from the end of August to the beginning of October 2016.

Skating & Painting: Video by Ben Grubb

What were your preconceptions of Palestine before arriving? How much did you know about the region beforehand?

I must admit that I didn’t know very much. I had this idea that there was a wall and everyone on the Palestinian side were left to their own devices. Then, before coming out I contacted a charity that does peace work in Palestine and talked to the Director about the kinds of places I should visit on my trip to tell the story of the place through the buildings. We talked for a long time because it turns out that there is a huge amount to say, so by the end of the call I had a big list of places that I wanted to visit on my trip.

However, at the same time, I didn’t want to read blogs or watch videos on the place before I went out. I wanted to have that magic of seeing somewhere for the first time with my own eyes, to be inspired by that. To not let preconceptions colour my experiences. There was also a little bit of burying my head in the sand for a couple of months beforehand because I was nervous about the whole trip and found myself ignoring it on the horizon.  

Mount of Temptation, Jericho

Mount of Temptation, Jericho

You were extremely productive during your time in Asira, I feel like you were painting pretty much every moment outside of skating. How did Asira and the West Bank in general inspire your work?

I’d given up a lot of work to come on this trip so I made a deal with myself before I came out that it wasn’t a five week holiday, that I needed to work hard whilst I was there to make up for the time away. However, once I got started it turned out that the environment was so inspiring that it was a pleasure to sit down every day to paint. It almost became a meditation and a way to help me process the things that I was seeing and the emotions that were being stirred by the place. 

The dichotomy of the everyday village life in Asira with the military occupation became an important part of the work I produced. I’d heard so little about what life is like in Palestine that I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like. It was the same with the friends and family that I told about my trip. The preconception that it is a dangerous place - everyone I spoke to was basing their mental image on an idea from some news reports in the 90s.

I felt like perhaps my paintings could add some more colour to those mental images, and maybe some humanity. I aimed to be either skating, collecting references, or painting the whole time when I wasn’t at the skatepark with the kids. By the end of the five weeks I’d managed to visit every city on my list so I was really pleased with that, as travelling within Palestine was something that had been concerning me before I arrived.

The separation wall, Qalqilya

The separation wall, Qalqilya

The majority of your work is themed around buildings and architecture. What do you look for in a illustration subject? 

Like the deep lines in an old person’s face, I love to see some sort of history etched on a building. I love the idea we have that buildings are so permanent but actually when you pay attention they are changing all the time. I like small businesses that represent the vision that someone once had. Living in London, buildings are my landscape. Perhaps if I lived in forest I would paint the trees.

One of my favourite quotes is by Winston Churchill “We shape buildings, thereafter, our buildings shape us.” You really get a sense of that when standing next to the Separation Wall in Qalqilya. This huge grey structure, casting a shadow across the land, it’s a symbol. Then when you go and look at the same wall in Bethlehem and it is covered in brightly coloured graffiti you can feel the resistance of the people. 

What's your process for working on a piece?

My paintings take too long to complete outdoors so I start by taking reference photos. I get as many angles as I can of the subject, because I like to be free to construct my composition. I then sketch the proportions and different angles in my sketchbook to work out which kind of perspective will suit the subject best. The most time consuming element is the construction process. This involves a ruler, set square, calculator and my technical illustration knowledge.

I draw it all up in pencil on watercolour paper using perspective lines and it takes hours. I guess that’s where all the decision making is happening but I often get frustrated with how it can take 6 hours to put a few hundred lines on a piece of paper. I then ink all the linework on top without using rulers to keep the natural feel. Painting is my favourite part and the most meditative. Aside from having references open on my laptop, I try not to touch a computer in the whole process. 

Tyre shop, Asira Al-Shamaliya

Tyre shop, Asira Al-Shamaliya

Skating the tyre shop. Photo: Paula Viidu

Skating the tyre shop. Photo: Paula Viidu

How was it teaching the girls in Asira? What were the difficulties and successes?

In all honesty, before going I wasn’t sure how ’skate lessons’ would work. Having been self taught and used to skating on my own most of the time in London, I didn’t really know what teaching skateboarding would look like. The realities of it were much more organic and natural. The kids were great at asking for help when they needed it, and we quickly tuned in to spotting new comers that might be too nervous to get started. The language barrier was definitely the most difficult aspect, I’d spent some time learning Arabic before heading over but it was just basic conversation rather than the intricacies of where your weight should be to do an ollie. Yet we got by. We relied on body language, demonstrations and more often than not, a helping hand and a smile of encouragement.

The thing that extends beyond language though, is seeing someone actively overcome their fear. I never got bored of being a witness to that. It felt like the greatest privilege to be the hand that reached out and helped someone drop-in for the first time. To believe in someone else’s ability more than they believe in themselves and then witness them achieve it. Even to see the frustration when the kids were practicing a new trick, it was all so familiar. These commonalities taught me so much. Despite the places we were from being so different, our past and our future, our cultures and habits, within the skatepark everything felt exactly the same the world over.

Hitching a lift in a tractor with local skater Abdullah

Hitching a lift in a tractor with local skater Abdullah

How did your ideas about Palestine change throughout the trip? What have you learnt?

The hospitality and warmth of the people we encountered changed me as a person. Coming from a place with so much privilege yet simultaneously so much dissatisfaction, to a place with so little and the people were generous and loving, I couldn’t help but be changed by that. I just kept thinking about stupid things that make people angry or despair back at home and how silly they seemed. I guess it put a few things in perspective.

Why do you think skateboarding is important for people in places like the West Bank? 

I know that skateboarding isn’t the answer for everyone, but for a few people it can change their whole world. For the kids in Asira, it seemed to give a lot of them a place to just be kids. I suppose anything creative has the capacity to help people to feel free. Whether it be music, art, dance or skateboarding. I think that feeling of freedom can help you cope with the other aspects of your life that smother your heart. Skateboarding teaches you control and discipline but can also become a form of expression and hope. In my opinion, people without hope are dangerous to those around them. When all you have in your life is the feeling of being trapped, with nothing under your control it can lead to dark places.

Yet this kind of volunteer-run skatepark is as much about the growth of the volunteers as it is about the kids. It gives the volunteers the chance to hear the stories that don’t normally get heard and to feel the warmth of the people. We really felt like part of the community and grew so attached to the people we met. That’s something we will carry with us through our lives as well.

Vegetable shop in Asira Al-Shamaliya, as seen in the new SkatePal magazine. Photo: Christian Nilsen

Vegetable shop in Asira Al-Shamaliya, as seen in the new SkatePal magazine. Photo: Christian Nilsen

Does design work pay the bills? How do you balance between work, life and skating? 

Between retouching and illustrating my bills get paid. Coming back to skateboarding after having competed on a team sport at international level however means that I have zero desire to let skateboarding take over in the same way, and being older means that skating a couple of times a week is about all my body can handle. At the same time, I can definitely feel that itch of withdrawal rising if I don’t get to skate for a few days in a row. Maybe it’s just taking over slowly so that I only notice when it’s too late.

Do you have any plans to come back with SkatePal in the future?

I hope to for sure. Whether it is for a full month or just a visit to see all the great people I met we’ll have to see what happens. Plus I don’t think that Basma will forgive me if I don’t come back! We became such good friends.

What are you up to at the moment?

I’ve just finished making a book of my paintings following Street Art in eleven cities around the world and how the work on the walls reflects something of the unique sociological environment of each place. The idea was inspired by my time in Bethlehem .

Right now I'm working in New Zealand but I have a base in Malmö that I’ll return to in the Spring because the skate culture there is so welcoming. I really love Malmö, after so much travelling in 2017 it was the perfect place to hole up for a few months at the end of the year, paint and write by day and then skate in the evenings.

The book, ‘Painted Cities’ will be out in May 2018 printed by Head of Zeus.

Sofa drop, Asira Al-Shamaliya. Photo: Noah Hella

Sofa drop, Asira Al-Shamaliya. Photo: Noah Hella

What would you say to other female skaters considering volunteering with SkatePal?

It wasn’t nearly as scary as I had built up in my head. There are so many friendly ex-volunteers happy to chat about the practicalities of getting around that it actually makes it easier to see this part of the world than if you were doing a just a regular tour. Being settled in one place for a long time, one of the things I found most surprising was spending time with female groups within the town. We went to a couple of wedding parties and a dinner where we (the female volunteers) were welcomed into a world that men don’t get to see. In fact that was a really special part of the trip and something I had not seen spoken about much before. 

Anything else you'd like to add?

I think I’ve probably said enough….

Thanks Lorna! 

Follow Lorna on Instagram - www.instagram.com/lornastration

Buy the new SkatePal Magazine here.