Blackpool Sixth Form student Ellena Dallas grew up in Fleetwood in a working-class family but her upbringing wasn’t often represented in the films or TV she watched or in the art she found a passion for. As she prepares for university she shares her A Level artwork with Blackpool Social Club, an incredibly accomplished set of drawings and paintings that seek to represent working-class domestic life.

Tell us about the project you created these pieces for and its objectives.
I began this project with the intention of documenting what life looks like for the working class in the 21st century. I particularly enjoy capturing the narratives of people in action and decided to create a collection of artwork showing the daily life of my working-class family, thus representing the people who raised me and the culture of Blackpool.

Although I have always been fascinated by the historical paintings of upper-class life displayed in galleries, it was the few works presenting peasant life, which primarily began to emerge in the 19th century, that caught my eye, inspiring me to create art which gives an insight into the life of common people. Hence, I decided to go large with my drawings – my largest being 25×40” – in order to give prominence to my subjects and catch the attention of audiences from all areas of society.

Tell us about your background and upbringing in Blackpool.
I would say I have had a largely ordinary upbringing, living just outside of Blackpool in Fleetwood. From my perspective, Blackpool culture is highly representative of the working class. Everyone is very close-knit and you meet a lot of interesting characters. Despite the negative criticisms Blackpool faces, I think the variety of cultures and minority representation makes Blackpool a very inclusive place to live, especially in relation to the LGBTQ+ community.

Throughout my life I have been passionate about art and wanted to make a career out of it. At only 18 years old, I have had many opportunities to share my art in Blackpool, including in competitions, the Grundy Art Gallery and even Sainsbury’s mezzanine on Talbot Road. This was heavily supported by my education at Blackpool Sixth Form, where my tutors have pushed my work to progress and encouraged me in honing my drawing and painting skills.

I find that using the people closest to me is essential in conveying the relationship between myself as the artist and my subjects.

Why did you decide to focus on your own family for these portraits and how did they feel seeing themselves represented in your work?
I find that using the people closest to me is essential in conveying the relationship between myself as the artist and my subjects. My dad was also a key inspiration for my project, having been born and bred here, he certainly represents the people of Blackpool well. As a fencing contractor he also does a lot of manual labour, and seeing the way he communicates with local people really demonstrates the impact of his upbringing on his personality.

Though my subjects may not always be pleased with their appearance in my portraits, they have expressed their excitement towards having their likeness illustrated and exhibited online and in public displays, as well as how this has initiated the beginnings of my career as an artist. My dad has also enjoyed informing me of his encounters with customers and friends who recognise him from my work in Sainsbury’s.

Were there any other artists who depict working-class lives that inspired you?
This project was particularly influenced by the photographer Richard Billingham, who produced a collection of photographs in the 1990s which capture his parents living in their council house in Birmingham. The overall effect of his work is gritty and uncompromising, and I could definitely recognise the scenes portrayed and the outdated interiors in the homes of my own family members, most notably in my grandparents’ home and their domestic relationship. This inspired me to photograph my family’s daily activities to use as references for my artwork, including modern-day pastimes like vaping and using mobile devices, as well as activities from the older generations such as shoe-shining and reading which were enacted by my grandparents. Of course the family dog also made an appearance in these.

Tell us about your exploration of the representation of the working class and what you’ve discovered in your research?
According to a government’s Social Mobility Barometer in 2021, 48 per cent of the British population consider themself working class, yet there is very little representation of this social class in the 21st century in comparison to the middle class, which dominates the television industry. To inform my own work, I researched how the British working class has previously been represented by the media, including in the film industry and the arts. I think TV shows like The Royle Family and Brassic were successful in portraying the unfiltered lifestyle of working-class families in a comedic manner in contrast to the negative stereotypes shown in the likes of The Jeremy Kyle Show. These portrayals significantly influenced the nature and content of my work.

Where would you like to see this kind of work displayed? Is a gallery, for example, an appropriate setting for reaching the working class people the work is inspired by?
I think that accessibility would be really important in displaying this project, especially considering I intended to bring attention to the misrepresented working class. It would certainly be significant for this kind of work to be displayed in traditional galleries due to the lack of working-class representation they have in contrast to portraits of the social elite. I believe local galleries would be best to attract the ‘ordinary’ person without the intimidation factor of prestigious galleries, which has ultimately caused many of these spaces to become limited to the middle and upper classes.

Many working-class artists talk about the assumption that art was not a viable career choice because of the necessity to earn a stable income. What are you doing next and what are your hopes for the future?
The end goal would be to establish my own career as a fine artist like those I have looked up to from a young age. I have been very lucky in terms of the support I have received towards my aspirations from both my parents and teachers, which is something I think would not have been the case if it weren’t for all the new opportunities available for artists to make a sustainable income nowadays. With the help of student loans and funding from part-time work and commissions, I am going to continue my studies at university with the hopes of making my ambitions become a reality.

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    Antonia Charlesworth Stack is a journalist and editor from Blackpool. She was deputy editor of Big Issue North magazine and is editor of Blackpool Social Club. Antonia is also the founder of Reclaim Blackpool, a women's safety campaign that began life as an article she wrote for Blackpool Social Club. She's a contributing author to the Lancashire Stories anthology with her story about a Blackpool performer, The Call of The Sea. The book is available for free in libraries across the county.

  • Show Comments (1)

  • Susan Pugh

    Your artwork shows dedication and a great deal of skill. It is refreshing to see a young talented local artist choose to reflect her home and family in such a direct way. Being proud of your roots is a wonderful attribute. Never lose that.
    I wish you well in your future endeavors 😊✨

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