For the first six months following Tracey Emin’s treatment for bladder cancer, she couldn’t paint. ‘I couldn’t hold a tea tray, I couldn’t pour a pot of tea, I couldn’t move a chair, let alone move my canvases around or paint. It was really frustrating,’ she says.
When the artist was finally able to pick up a paintbrush again, there was an outpouring of emotion: ‘It was fantastic. I realised I was alive.’ As she says in the short film above, the paintings she made in those first few weeks were ‘like an explosion’.
The surgery Emin underwent saved her life. ‘I wasn’t supposed to survive,’ she says. ‘It made me think about the future.’
That future, the artist decided, would be in Margate, the childhood home she has written and spoken about so movingly in the past. Although she left the Kent coastal resort in 1982 to study at Maidstone College of Art and then the Royal College of Art in London, Margate remained integral to her work, emerging in paintings, poems and installations in all its tarnished glory.
In her autobiography Strangeland, written in 2005, Emin recalled both the beauty and the challenges of growing up in a ‘derelict seaside town’. She wrote bitter-sweet accounts of endless summers of swimming, ‘listening to Buddy Holly and the Beach Boys, wearing star-spangled plimsolls, watching The Banana Splits’, but also told of encounters and experiences that were sometimes traumatic.
However, the artist has never been afraid of confronting the past, and now, 40 years later, she is back with plans to help transform the town into an artists’ enclave — her legacy to the place where she grew up. ‘I’ve been all the way around the world, in all directions, and come back again. And this is what I’ve chosen,’ she says.
Since the 1970s, Margate has changed too. Attracted by low rents, artists have been moving to the area from London over the past 20 years, and the Turner Contemporary gallery opened in 2011. ‘There’s a very strong community here,’ says Emin. ‘It’s such a nice, creative, brilliant place to be.’
She was recently presented with the keys to Margate, an accolade she is very proud of. ‘Only four women in history have been given the freedom of the town,’ she says. ‘I think it means I can drive my sheep up and down the high street.’ The gesture is important: ‘It’s about the fact that where I come from has honoured me and appreciated what I’m doing, and that’s a really great thing.’
TKE Studios (the initials are an abbreviation of her name, Tracey Karima Emin) will open this month in a former bathhouse near Margate beach. It offers 12 subsidised studios for professional artists, as well as a residency programme (beginning in January 2023) of free lectures, tutorials and studio space for 15-20 students.
To help fund the project, Emin is selling the work Like A Cloud of Blood (2022) in the 20th/21st Century London Evening Sale on 13 October 2022. The painting, one of the first she made following her illness, is a vigorous expression of anxiety and euphoria that captures the frailty of the human form.
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‘I thought, this is a painting that’s really important to me — I’m going to hold it forever, because it really explains how I’m feeling at the moment,’ she says. But once the idea of the art school had taken hold, she decided to sell it. ‘If everything goes to the school, then I will feel OK about it, like I’ve achieved something in my life. If my art can make something happen for the future, then I am doing the right thing.’