THERE’S a blend of Western and Eastern influences running through Fiona Rae’s works – pointillism portraits of bears float alongside child-like heart shapes, while fluorescent swirls criss-cross what appear to be giant, black Chinese calligraphy.
It might reflect the 48-year-old painter’s unusual background.
She was born in Hong Kong and raised in exotic locations such as Australia and Indonesia, before her parents came back to live in England in 1970.
“In Hong Kong there was Chinese art everywhere. Then my dad used to take me to see a Walt Disney film,” she says. “Having that mixed up background, I’ve all these different kind of influences.”
Equally ambiguous, but equally alluring is the title of her exhibition which has just been unveiled at Leeds Art Gallery. Maybe You Can Live on the Moon in the Next Century, showcases 17 works from the last 10 years of Rae’s career.
A Turner prize nominee in 1991, aged just 27, the artist studied at the famous Goldsmith’s College in Camberwell, south London, graduating with a BA (Hons) in Fine Arts in 1987. But she had originally chosen to study English literature at University College London.
“I started that degree and was in sitting in a lecture on Milton’s syntax and thought: ‘I’m done here’.”
A one-year foundation course at Croydon College of Art led to the degree course at Goldmsiths.
There she mixed with many of the students who were later to become grouped under the Young British Artists (YBA) banner, including a certain Leeds-bred Damien Hirst.
Fiona said: “Everyone tended to knock around with each other – it was a social scene rather than an art scene.
“Damien Hirst was two years below me. He was very easy-going. I think somebody described him as being like the college cat – he was always lying about the college or playing pool.
“I could never really do the late nights, though, that other people did – naming no names! With painting you have to be up early in the morning to work.”
The road to the Turner Prize nomination began with her appearance in the Freeze exhibition of 1988 in a warehouse in London’s Docklands, organised by Damien Hirst.
It was a launch pad for many of the YBAs and brought them to the attention of collector Charles Saatchi.
Since then Rae, who is married to fellow artist Dan Perfect, has had her work exhibited all over Europe and America.
Her paintings mix traditional techniques with new themes, creating a visual language all of their own.
Last year she crowned her achievements by becoming the first female Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy Schools in the capital – Tracey Emin was appointed Professor of Drawing at the same time.
“The amazing thing about the Royal Academy Schools is that they don’t charge for classes. Which is something I don’t think many people know.
“I was really proud to be elected, because there are still not that many women. If you take part in these institutions, you help them start to change and develop.”
Made a Royal Academician in 2002, the artist is entitled to have the initials R.A after her surname. But doesn’t tend to use them.
“I just like my name to stand on its own, besides...” she says, laughing “...that would make me Fiona Ra Ra.”
To August 26, Leeds Art Gallery, The Headrow, Leeds, free entry, open daily, 10am to 5pm, except Wed, noon to 5pm and Sun, noon to 5pm, closed bank holidays. Tel: 0113 247 8256. www.leeds.gov.uk/artgallery