By Becky Hancock

Middleground is pleased to present the first of a series of interviews delving into the practices of emerging artists. In response to the lack of connection since lockdown, this series aims to build an honest and insightful discourse to connect the creative voices of today. This week, Becky Hancock talks to artist Holly Orpen about their practice. 

Holly Orpen graduated from BA Drawing, Camberwell University of the Arts London in 2020 and is recently based in Leicester. Orpen is a multidisciplinary artist who explores nostalgia, memory and sentiment through film, installation and drawing. With a particular fascination with the temporality of film, Orpen focuses on Buster Keaton’s films from the 1920’s creating a desirable collection of time and moments.


This is a transcript of a conversation with some post-editing after the event.

B: Holly, would you like to introduce yourself and your practice?

H: Hi! Yeah sure, so I make work that is a sort of memento and love note to the subject – which varies a lot. In 3rd year (at university) it was very specific on the films of Buster Keaton and film stars of the 20s’, creating all these ephemera around the films and things that did and didn’t quite exist; things that feel remembered incorrectly or remembered through a lense of adoration of the subject. Mostly through drawing but sometimes it goes further into physical objects or collections of objects that work up to installations that communicate together. 

‘Morel’s Stage‘, Online installation, 2020 –
‘Morel’s Stage‘, Online installation, 2020 –

B: That sounds great. I remember your work in the studio and noticing how you would fill the space, how have you translated your practice into a new environment in lockdown and since graduating?

H: Yeah it definitely has, I haven’t been doing large work like I was doing in 3rd year – covering a whole wall with paper and drawing with charcoal and making a huge mess – I was aiming to produce a set for a film. Now I don’t have the space for that so I have been making a lot of smaller drawings and looking at styles of old film posters. I have also been working on a project with my partner that I’m living with – we are trying to make a doll of Buster Keaton. So, I’ve been trying some new mediums as well; I have been sculpting which I have never tried before but have been really enjoying. It’s a slow process but hopefully it will be interesting. We are casting it in different kinds of plastics and we are hoping to produce quite a lot! 

B: So do you think it has brought a different narrative to your work or developed into something new?

H: Yeah it definitely has. Everyone’s mindsets have changed since we were in a studio together (at university) – knocking our heads together and getting all these different ideas and pushing each other to do them – I’ve gone back to my comfort zone a bit, drawing small, but it feels good to be trying something new – we have been thinking whether the Buster Keaton dolls can work with the objects I was using in my installations and maybe how we could turn the doll into a puppet to become a performance – thinking of all the different directions. Life has slowed down so much recently that everything is going very slowly, I am hoping that it’s still going in a direction I am interested in. 

Bottom life’, charcoal drawing on paper, A5, 2020
Bottom life’, charcoal drawing on paper, A5, 2020

B: I agree, when you are surrounded by other artists you are bouncing off of eachother with ideas all the time. Some days you get 10 ideas and will want to do all of them – those burst of ideas come a lot less regularly now. 


What are your three essential objects/mediums/things that start your process for you? 


I feel like this is quite a personal question into someone’s practice. 

H: Yeah, I really enjoy this question, I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Maybe first it would have to be a projector because the function of the object relates to my drawings; projecting the essence of something onto a different object. I think it’s a really amazing machine, I like using it and watching them inspires me. Sadly, another essential would have to be youtube. Everything that I make work from is catalogued onto that horrible website. I feel like I’m stuck on the internet even though I don’t want to be. It’s an amazing resource still – it’s got its pros and cons! I think, lastly, a very satisfying box of coloured pencils. Even if I’m not using them for a drawing, having them there makes me excited to use them because they are so beautiful. So it makes me more productive just having them around. 

‘Clara Bow’, coloured pencil on paper, A5, 2020

B: I love that. Reminds me when the drawing course went for dinner and we all got excited about sharpening pencils – that moment makes me happy. 


So, Easter is coming up – what’s your go to easter egg? 

H: It’s a hard one, I know a lot of people hate white chocolate but I absolutely love it, so I’m going to have to go for a milky bar one. It’ll be really sickly…

B: I did not expect that.

H: It’s a classic.

(nonsense chatter)

B: What are your motivations in creating art?

H: I think it is this incessant urge to keep drawing. I feel like I’ve had it ever since I was a child I can’t stop – when I finish something I am itching to start on something else. I have always been searching for some way of making that into a career. That and my pure obsession with things that I get very excited at. I have been doing a lot of introspection in lockdown and it’s made me think about going to get an autism diagnosis because of the pure obsession I have with the things that I love – amongst with other things obviously. Hana Whyte and I (a friend I collaborate with a lot who studied painting), when we first discovered Buster Keaton films, it turned a year or 2 of work for both of us. We got this feeling that felt like our brains had merged. We didn’t know how else to describe it but ‘the feeling’ which we still call it now. I’ve realised recently that that is what I am always trying to get across in my work, ‘the feeling’ in some way or another. To get across that pure interest into other people. I think it is the most amazing emotion. 

B: I love that I now know that.

H: I didn’t really notice that until now. Getting that energy across to people is just amazing and I really hope it comes across in my work. 

He Cuts a Fine Silhouette’ 4 minutes 21 seconds, 2020

B: That kind of goes with my next question, I was watching your film ‘He Cuts a Fine Silhouette’ and I was curious about your composition decisions when editing? It is suggestive and mysterious and I wanted to know more. 

H: Originally I wanted to make a book – I took screenshots from all of the Buster Keaton films with actress Sybil Seely in them – she is one of my favourite actresses that stars in the Buster Keaton films. I took screenshots from different scenes where I found the facial expressions interesting and the text for titles cards. I cut the clips up and made new sentences out of the title cards aiming to make a new narrative from the book. I then noticed my drawings looked like a storyboard from a film – and then I HAD to make the film to see what it would turn out like. So both films are constructed in firstly collage, words and images – and then I tried to give that same sense of collage with the editing process. The audio is also collaged – I recorded it all from a projection in the studio so it also has the background noises and the music from my phone that was playing at the time. So it has all these different elements because I wanted it to look as much of a collage as possible. It’s quite jarring in the cuts.

B: That’s great – the sudden cuts were really effective with just a suggestion of each scene or gesture, whilst watching I found I was trying to find a narrative but the way you constructed it didn’t allow that to happen – it was really interesting!  

Lastly, what do you think should be an essential resource for artists to read or watch?

H: I thought this was a great question as well, it really got me thinking. I think you need something to ground you in today’s reality to make you aware of the time we are living in. Because of that, any book by Mark Fisher. Amazing writer, especially a book called ‘Ghosts of my life’. Really bleak, but such an interesting journey into how the world has turned out how it is now and what role visual media and music and culture plays in the world we live in now. I think that’s really important to be aware of as an artist. As well, anything that Adam Curtis has ever made. Incredible work, especially, a documentary series I’ve recently found called ‘Century of the Self’. A complete journey into how the world got horrible (laughs), It’s incredible to watch. 

B: I’ll add them both to my list. 

H: After all the doom of that you need to watch a Buster Keaton film to remember that the world isn’t all horrible, and that films are one of the best things we have. I recommend ‘Sherlock Jr.’ because that’s my favourite. 

B: Thank you. 

IG: @holly_orpen



‘Ghosts of my Life’ – 

‘The Century of the Self’ –