The night before, she had won the Turner Prize, but yesterday morning Tomma Abts' composure was such that you wondered how she'd look if she hadn't won. The 38-year-old German painter was pleased by the result, of course. But she didn't think it changed anything. "It's nice," she said, in a mild, pleasant voice as she lifted her shoulders in the international sign for "whatever".
Abts' win on Monday night has been widely interpreted as the Turner Prize correcting itself. As well as being the first woman and the first painter to win the prize in almost a decade, after years of artists with personas as feverishly worked upon as their art, here was someone about whom we knew practically nothing: 38 years old, from Kiel in Germany but resident in London for the past 12 years, and (rumour had it) the former girlfriend of Chris Ofili - that's pretty much it. Efforts to extract more would, as you will see, be a painful experience. We meet around the corner from Abts' studio in Clerkenwell, which she has occupied since she first came to London on a grant. She had been living in Berlin, doing a mixed media art course in which she had concentrated mainly on film - "structuralist films" - while doing her own painting on the side. The Berlin art scene at that time was a little "sleepy", she says, whereas London was just starting to swing with the YBA movement. Abts moved to the city not because she wanted to join in - she's not really a joining-in kind of gal - but rather to enjoy, at a tangent, the energy and interest in art that it generated. "It's quite nice to have that bit of distance, to have my own personal space to develop my work," she says.
For a couple of years she got by on the arts grant, and then was forced to find work. "I had strange jobs, like telephone marketing type jobs for German companies." It was only four years ago that she was able to live solely off her art, and it was a huge relief finally to give up the day jobs.
Abts has never had formal training in fine art and hasn't taken a painting lesson in her life. The town she grew up in was "not very exciting" - she summarises its main features as "sea" and "nice landscape" - but the idea that news of her win might appear in the local paper makes her smile broadly. Abts' parents still live in Kiel and told her proudly that she had made the national news in Germany on Monday night. They have always encouraged her, she says, and her upbringing was "very free." I ask if her parents do anything artistic.
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