Deborah Azzopardi’s paintings are sold in poster, print and greeting card form globally. And if you do not know her name, you will almost certainly recognise examples of her work, sold worldwide by Ikea and retailers in 50 countries. But what is perhaps more eye-opening is how she became an artist in the first place.
Back in the 80s, she was a young mother in her 20s, happily married and working in retail. “Things were great in my life,” she recalls. “I had a young child and a nice home. I was in a good place.” But then she became desperately ill with meningitis. “I really thought I was going to die.They were asking me if I wanted to see a rabbi and when they talk about bringing the rabbi in you know you’re finished. I remember thinking to myself: ‘What a shame.’ But then I woke up. I couldn’t believe that I was alive. And at that moment I had this thought: ‘I have to paint.’”
Azzopardi was true to her word. After coming home from hospital she quit her job, bought some materials and began to paint. It meant letting go of her previous career and salary. Friends and family thought she was mad but from that point she was an artist. Her explanation is simple: “When something seizes hold of you and you’re inspired, you just have to do it.”
Despite having no artistic training, within a couple of years she was making a living from it, selling her paintings at art and craft fairs. When I ask if she was good at art at school, she has to think before answering: “Yes, perhaps. I always liked art — everyone does — but I never had the time to explore it further. Life was about survival when I was young and I couldn’t afford the bus fare to go to art college.”
However the style of the paintings — she is happy to describe her work as pop art for want of a better description — was there right from the beginning.
Brimming with energy and enthusiasm, Azzopardi shows me around her studio, which is located at the end of the garden of her north-west London home. The style of the paintings is instantly familiar and many of them are wrapped and ready to be shipped out to buyers. Some have price tags attached with several noughts on them. In the 28 years since she started painting, her art has proved massively commercial. But she never bases her work on commercial decisions. Rather, it is about providing herself with entertainment. “I paint only for me. Anything that makes you laugh or smile is good, so if a painting can make you do that, it’s a lot of fun. I think of them as visual jokes. I like large paintings — I paint them as large as I can. If I was taller they would be bigger,” she laughs. “I like colour and I enjoy the humour. I think I would quite easily tire of a painting of a cat.”
Never short of ideas, while she is fully focused on the picture she is painting, she feels that subconsciously she is always thinking about the next one. Her work is known for being cheeky and suggestive — or in her word, “playful. I never set out to be provocative but I end up pushing myself, thinking: ‘I wonder If I could I get away with that?’ When I finish it there’s usually a naughty laugh.”
She says she would love to dress like the women she paints. ”Most women would, but it’s not practical. You can’t go to Tesco looking like that.”
The huge success of her work means she gets to discover how it affects the people who buy it. “The internet opened everything up,” she recalls. “Now I get to hear a lot of stories. People have immediate contact with me through Facebook. One guy told me he split up with his girlfriend because she felt threatened by my art.”
Azzopardi adds that having been property hunting online recently, “it’s really funny because looking at the interiors, I’ve seen hundreds of my pictures. If I do see them when I’m looking around a place I would never say anything, though. I don’t even use my real name.”
She laughs as she recalls a shopping expedition with her son (one of three grown-up children). “I handed over my credit card in a shop and someone said: ‘Oh, you have the same name as a very famous artist.’ My son was a lot more impressed than me.”
A retrospective of her work is being staged in London’s Mayfair next week. Although she does not relish the public side of such a showcase, she is excited about seeing most of her best-known pictures in one place. “The most interesting thing about an exhibition is that you can see everything hanging in the same room and it’s very rare that happens. They have real impact together.”
She still spends every hour of daylight painting, using evenings to catch up with the other aspects of her business. “I don’t think I ever turn off. I never watch TV. There’s a huge amount of correspondence and emailing to do. I don’t mind because that’s the fun part — communicating with people. Otherwise it’s just me in the studio with the radio and a few ants and spiders for company.”
In the winter, daylight fades by mid-afternoon but in mid-summer Azzopardi estimates that she paints daily for 15 or 16 hours. Even with this commitment to her work she says that every canvas takes at least a month to finish. Again she laughs. “I never drink — I haven’t for years. I couldn’t function if I did.”
In fact the only thing which gets her out of the studio is the food cooking in the kitchen. “You want a nice roast dinner but you also want to finish your painting.
“Sometimes I end up hating that chicken.”