We’re big fans of Peony Gent’s illustrations. Since we wrote about her personal work a few years ago, we’ve paid close attention to her creative exploits, and we’ve loved the collaborative work she’s been doing during her master’s in Visual Communication at the RCA. Wonderfully expressive and characterful, incorporating colourful details and elements of written poetry or textual fragments, her works deliver perceptive visual narratives that communicate ideas, concepts and stories with an insightful inventiveness.
Now a seasoned hand at printmaking and self-publishing, Peony describes herself as “a writer and book-maker” and says that “I consider poetry and illustration to be equally important to my practice”. Her most recent publication, Park Bench Kensington, combines illustration with printed text to recreate a conversation she had with a stranger on a park bench, in Kensington. As Peony describes the encounter: “I was eating lunch when a man approached me and asked if I could take a second to talk for a bit. After we said goodbye, I wrote down every sentence I could remember him telling me, and turned it into this comic. I’ve added two sentences of my own, but the rest is all his story word-for-word, as I remember him telling it.” The resultant book is a documentation of what was said, as well as a visual rendering of both the surroundings in which it took place and the emotional undercurrents of the conversation.
Peony summarises what the man said to her: “The story he told me was that he was waiting for his appointment at the Bangladesh High Commission, where he was going to announce himself as an illegal immigrant within the UK so he could return home to his family. He told me about how hard it had been living and working in London for the past ten years, and how his illegal status had made it almost impossible for him to get well-paid work, despite him being a talented chef. He had become very, very depressed, and he felt abandoned after his girlfriend of a number of years had left him. He also felt torn about returning to his home country – looking forward to seeing his family while also feeling sad about losing the freedom London provided him with.”
Because Peony is dedicated in her work, as she tells us, to “confirming the importance of the personal and the inner self in a world that often puts little value on either”, she found it necessary to explore the implications of the conversation in a book format which would allow her to organise the thoughts and feelings that had arisen in response. As she says, “it was one of those small but important encounters that really stuck with me afterwards, and I felt I needed to make this book to kind of exorcise that. There was definitely a part of me that struggled with something that felt almost exploitative (telling a story about migration from a man I had no further contact with), so I tried to keep it entirely honest by only using his own words.”
The book takes the form of a roughly drawn storyboard, with panels alternating between printed, collaged text and pencil drawings. Unlike Peony’s usual, vibrant illustrative style, the hand-drawn pictures in Park Bench Kensington are relatively muted in their tone. Sparsely coloured, pale green foliage gives way to monochrome sketches of hands and almost entirely blacked-out panels. Given this depletion of colour, the blocks of bright yellow and red that appear sporadically on several pages seem all the more startling. Peony says of the book: “I made it really quickly, in a couple of days, using a strict six-panel grid system to restrict myself compositionally. It’s all drawn in pencil, with the printed text pasted down by hand and photocopied, and then coloured digitally. Like most of the work I make, it was done really intuitively page by page, with little more planning than that.” Peony’s improvisatory approach succeeds in capturing, with quick, urgent pencil strokes, the fleeting and unexpected nature of the encounter, while the minimalism of the drawings and the solitary lines of text reflect the sombre mood of the conversation and the quiet desperation of a man who feels trapped and isolated.
Park Bench Kensington is a brief insight into a mind and a life. It is, for Peony, a personal record that responds to another’s story – it is her answer to what the stranger told her, in her own medium of communication. Speaking of what she hopes to achieve with her work, Peony tells us: “I once went to this event where Daniel van der Velden from Metahaven was talking about poetry, and he said this thing I really like, which I’ll shamelessly steal now. He said: ‘Poetry transforms what can be seen or sensed into what can’t be forgotten’, which is something I think applies to the best of illustration as well, and is a sentiment behind pretty much everything I aspire to make.”