Written by Joanna Neary


The Unsolved Pencil Case: Harriet Braine

Welcome to the latest instalment of Joanna Neary’s adventures with people in the arts and their associated materials. Including pencil cases. This week, she hears from musical comedian Harriet Braine.

harriet's artworks

A print made by Harriet when she was an art student.

Welcome to The Unsolved Pencil Case, the arts column where we meet artists who work with comedians, and comedians who do art. I’m Joanna Neary, and I’m really enjoying hearing other comedians who went to art school talk about their creative work, because it makes me feel like less of a loon.

These columns are designed to look at how art and comedy work together. Or don’t. Comedy isn’t recognised in the same way as theatre or dance in terms of arts funding (though it’s a source of pride that our comedy doesn’t currently need funding) and comedy is the only artform I can think of that doesn’t have its own Equity category.

Of course I might be wrong about that because I haven’t bothered to check; I’m too busy thinking about making printed wallpaper using a potato, and wondering how many pairs of jeans one person is meant to own. Also, we didn’t get taught how to research at art college. We didn’t get taught anything.

Perhaps if there were more viable outlets for arty alternative comedians, then people who love art but don’t know they’d like standup comedy would come and see the comedians who are actually doing their art in disguise, and they’d be super pleased at the hilarious acts they find.

Maybe one day there’ll be more alternative comedy gigs in art galleries like the V&A and packed out community centres alike. If so, I’m going to do standup dressed as that pile of bricks that was in the Tate because I’m already married and I’ve stopped trying. So let’s meet the next comedian we’d want on the art gallery bill: award-winning musical comedian Harriet Braine.

What made you choose to go to art school?

I was ‘good at art’ at school. I won the sculpture prize for my A-Level work, no big deal. Seriously, though, I loved art and art history so when I saw that Edinburgh College of Art did a course which combined both, I absolutely worked my butt off to get in.

What was your degree in and would you choose that course again?

It was fine art; I specialised in print-making but dabbled in lots of media. My art history courses were really varied – I did the courses with the coolest names like ‘Electric Dreams and Nuclear Visions’, which was about the development of art and science in the 20th century. I would do the same course again, definitely!

What one thing did you learn about yourself at art college that’s been useful since?

That I can work independently and structure my own time pretty effectively.

Good point, I agree. Does your comedy or creative work that you do now resemble the art you did at college?

Nope! I did enjoy putting jokes in my artworks, but in very veiled forms. I even made up my own coded language so I could rage against whatever I felt like raging against at the time, without anyone knowing.

I suppose that’s similar in a way to my comedy: I don’t talk about my personal life or feelings much, and it was the same in my art. I made a piece which was literally life-size images of me and my boyfriend facing each other and tried to pretend it wasn’t about our relationship, but represented something about humanity in general.

Although I started writing these songs for a performance art exhibition (they started out as art! Real art!) I never ‘handed them in’ to be marked. I knew my tutors liked the songs, but they wouldn’t have accepted them as part of my work. Maybe I’m underestimating them…

Do you still do any fine art work as well or is your comedy your art?

Comedy is my only creative outlet these days. I’m so glad I started doing it, it’s way more satisfying than making art, photographing it for Tumblr and then throwing it away. I have gone off making things, I am now a performance addict. I do the occasional drawing just to check I still can.

How do you juggle your creative work with the cogs of normality? Personally, my sketchbooks are at their best when I’m trying to work out what cardigan to wear rather than trying to aspire to high art. I think the things we don’t talk about are more interesting than they things we choose to put out there. What do you think?

I completely agree! That’s definitely something I learned in college, too. In school, my sketchbooks were perfect works of art in themselves – I am really proud of them, but I’m glad I eventually learned to chill out a bit.

I’m so chilled out now, I don’t even keep a sketchbook, I just draw things over past weeks in my diary. Drawing over the past. Sounds profound, doesn’t it? It’s not. I’m allergic to profundity. And gluten.

What single bit of advice would you give to a young person wanting to go to art college now?

Do it if you can, but it’s not the same now as it was. I got in just before the £9k fees came in. I have a very small amount of student debt because of that, and therefore a lot less resentment about not being able to earn much money straight away.

I would imagine the great expense creates a lot of tension. It’s a fact of being in the arts: money, or lack thereof, becomes a big deal.

Which artists most influenced you at college?

In my final year I got really into Asger Jorn, this funny Norwegian guy who painted on top of existing paintings of kitsch landscapes.

I tended to like the really wanky artists like Yves Klein, and do a little project inspired by them and then swiftly reject them. I liked Hannah Hoch, Louise Bourgeois, Grayson Perry… I like irreverent and crafty (in both senses of the word) types of artist.

door printIs there an exhibition on or coming up that you’d recommend or are looking forward to?

I stupidly missed the William Kentridge: Thick Time exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery. He’s one of my absolute favourites.

I’m so bad at going to see exhibitions these days. I have to go and see Grayson Perry at the Serpentine. Have to. I’m writing a song about him, so I’ve got to do the research.

Keep an eye on Harriet’s Facebook page to find out when she’ll be coming to a comedy club near you. See more of her college artwork here.
Catch up on Joanna’s investigation of Adam Buxton’s pencil case here.


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Written by Joanna Neary

One of Standard Issue’s super-talented bunch of illustrators. www.joneary.com @MsJoNeary