Artist Of The Week : Alex May Hughes

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It's always rather special, in our ever growing digital landscape, to meet an artist who is skilled in tradition. Alex May Hughes is a sign painter and glass gilder, responsible for the Insta famous 'Palm Vaults' coffee shop sign and many hilarious gold leaf interpretations of Simpsons characters. Her work has echoes of Victorian London, but brought right up to date with a bright colour palette, Drake lyrics and commissions for designers like Clio Peppiatt and Skinny Dip London.

For those who don't know, can you tell us a bit about who you are and the work you do?

My name is Alex May Hughes, I'm 27 years old and I'm a sign painter and glass gilder based in West London. I studied typography at the London College of Communication, and after graduating I began a sign painting apprenticeship, then continued making and painting from there.

What inspires you and the pieces you create?

All sorts of things really. A lot of my work is predominantly text based, so anything focussed around language, but also the materials I use (gold leaf, pearl shell) have such a wide variety of finishes and textures it's always exciting to work with them.

How did you start working with glass?

During my apprenticeship with Pete Hardwicke I got to practice and learn about painting and gilding on different surfaces, and it became clear that glass was my favourite. Combined with gold leaf, there's no end to different finishes and combinations that can be achieved.

Can you talk me through the process of making one of your mirrored signs?

Firstly the design or lettering for the sign is created, either for or working closely with the client. From there, the design is painted by hand on to the reverse of the glass, then gold leaf is applied with size (either an oil or water based glue) and left to dry. Lastly any finishing touches like pearl shell elements are added.

What have been some of your favourite commission pieces to do? Have you had any strange requests?

The Palm Vaults coffee shop sign in Hackney was a dream job - lots of pink, gold and palm leaves! I also loved painting the huge drunken fish for The Anchor Tap pub, I got to use lots of yellow and white gold and five types of pearl shell. I've not had anything too strange yet, I do a lot of pet names but I totally get that because we have dog (Scully) that we spoil rotten. I've made one for him too!

Have you always been a Simpsons fan? Why do you think cartoons make such good subjects?

Yes! The show is as old as I am, it's always been there. There's also such a massive Simpsons fan community which is always fun - there was an excellent Simpsons quiz that used to run once a month in the basement at Birthdays. I think cartoons are a comforting and nostalgic link to people's childhoods, but I think the Simpsons characters work well because of the yellow skin/gold leaf link.

Your typography is beautiful - I have such an appreciation for a nice typeface! Have you got any top tips for designing your own?

It varies from each commission/job, I guess trying to use something a little different or with an odd quirk that makes it memorable is always good.

Do you work with other mediums, or do you think you've found your favourite?

I try not to limit myself, so I do take on some other types of sign painting, but I really am in love with glass.

What can we expect from you in the future, do you have exhibitions etc coming up?

I have my second solo show, 'Glass & Gold' at 71a Gallery on the 10th November - come one come all!

Have you ever started painting and really messed up? Your work is so clean and precise; I can't imagine you making any mistakes!

Yes of course - I'm always making mistakes! But that's another great thing about working on glass, it can be really forgiving. The down side is that it can be pretty easy to break, that's only happened a couple times so far…fingers crossed!

What's been your career highlight to date?

I recently got to do a book cover for Penguin as part of their Editions collection, that was pretty amazing.

Finally, if you could collaborate with any artist alive or dead who would it be?

That's such a difficult question! I really have no idea, but I reckon even getting to meet Matt Groening would be a laugh.

Check out more of Alex's work here and follow her here. RSVP to her solo show using the email on the flyer above. Interview by Beccy Hill.