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Tali Lennox: 'Ian was my best friend, his family were my family in New York, I spent all my time with them, and then suddenly he's not there ... it's completely bizarre'

Tali Lennox was out kayaking with her boyfriend when their boat capsized and he drowned. Two years on, she tells Richard Godwin about pouring her grief into her art - and why her mother, Annie, is her idol

Tali Lennox is aware that her family name comes with certain expectations. And also that the expectations surrounding the children of celebrities - particularly ones who start out as models and then announce that they are actually painters - are not 100% positive.

"It's happened to me so many times that I'll tell someone I'm an artist and they'll ask to see my pictures and they'll say, 'Oh, you know, I thought these weren't going to be very good…'" says the 24-year-old with a rueful smile, her clipped English accent punctuated with the occasional Americanism. "It's almost worth it for that kind of reaction."

We're sitting in a cafe near London's Victoria Park. In front of Lennox are the remnants of a coffee and some dark chocolate. She is dressed in a red sweater that she picked up at a flea market in LA. Her impeccable genes come courtesy of Annie Lennox, the feminist pop icon and activist, and Uri Fruchtmann, the Israeli film-maker. She can thank them too for intercontinental connections: a childhood between Notting Hill and Ibiza (where Fruchtmann lives), and a post-school move to New York, leading to modelling gigs with Prada and Burberry, and a solo exhibition at the Chelsea Hotel.

But the act of standing in front of a canvas, filling it with feeling, is one thing that Lennox feels comes purely from her. "It means that people can see me through what I actually express, rather than what they project," she says.

When Lennox talks about her art - oil portraits, kitschy shrines, unsettling pastels - she isn't just talking about the perils of being taken seriously as a celebutante, but a means of coping with tragedy.

Two summers ago, she and her boyfriend, American photographer Ian Jones (32), were staying at a house belonging to hotelier André Balazs in upstate New York. One August morning, they took a kayak out on the Hudson River to visit a lighthouse before returning to Manhattan. The boat capsized in strong currents. Neither was wearing a life-vest.

Jones helped Lennox to cling to the kayak, but he was swept away by the tumult. Lennox was rescued by a passing boat 20 minutes later. Jones did not survive.

Lennox was distraught. She wrote on Instagram: "My heart is shattered. My best friend, my soul mate, my partner in crime & creativity, the love & light of my life is no longer with me … Let us honour & celebrate this exceptionally beautiful soul & keep following the light."

Over the past two years, she has tried to honour this promise, painting her way through her grief in the apartment they shared and, finally, emerging, blinking in the light.

"Art helped me to heal so much," she says. "I really don't know how I would have coped with that experience without having that. I like forms of healing that come from within. You don't have to go to a therapist, you don't have to lean on someone's shoulder. You have a kind of sacred space for yourself."

Lennox speaks with the composure of someone who has emerged from a difficult period still standing. "It's so surreal when something like that happens," she says. "So real and so surreal at the same time. Someone that you can be around all the time … in my case, it was my best friend. His family were basically my family in New York. I spent all my time with them. And then suddenly he's not there. It's completely bizarre to me."

Lennox is on a flying visit to London for a collaboration with designer Nicky Zimmermann (the pair have joined forces to create a piece of art ahead of Zimmermann's first London store opening next week) but is also using the occasion to raid her mother's storage space for any old Eurythmics costumes she can take back to California, where she lives, having recently moved from New York.

"When I'm in London, I just hang out with my mum all the time," she admits. "She's so curious about everything. She's got such an interesting outlook on life. We often feel the same things, but she has the experience and the history to deal with them."

Relocating to LA, where she shares a hillside home in Silver Lake with two friends, was a way of moving on from Jones' death. "The first place we looked at was the most beautiful house with all the things that New York doesn't have. Plants. Wood. Views. Trees. That was the shift that I'd been craving."

It was New York that enabled her to go deep into her art, but it had become "unhealthy". "I worked from home and lived alone and spent all my time by myself," she says. "I felt like a crazy old lady pottering about in my house, not talking to anyone for 24 hours. When you start talking to yourself to make it more normal, you think, 'Maybe it's time to shift'."

John Currin is an obvious artistic influence; she also cites Roger Dean and Lisa Yuskavage, who both paint from the imagination. "Before the accident, I had been doing some portrait painting and learning a lot about technique, but it was all very exterior. I loved the process, but it wasn't coming from anywhere deep down. But after that happened, it cracked me open creatively. I could access something deep in the core."

Her first picture in the aftermath was an ethereal abstract painting, full of shimmering figures. "It was me trying to work out where we go next. And I wanted that space to be beautiful and open and vast."

Then she painted some "really heavy, dark, angry ones … I guess you have to do that as well."

Finally, for the Chelsea Hotel show, she began to collect old group portraits from junk stores and painted these lost, forgotten people. "I was intrigued by the fact that none of that existed any more. It was my way of trying to make sense of what death is. I did quite a big series on the translucence of time, which helped me understand death."

She speaks completely openly about this process: "I think when you go through the experience that I did, you can't let it cripple you. You have to welcome it and understand it and embrace these heavy things in life.

"I think having that attitude to passing has really helped me cope with change in life."

She credits her parents (who separated when she and her model sister, Lola, were young) with keeping her grounded - and, naming no names, wearies of other children of celebrities whose egos would suggest they're the ones who made it.

Her admiration for her mother is unabashed. When she was younger, she went through long periods of listening to nothing but her music. "I used to get really embarrassed about it for some reason. There's this album she did with the Eurythmics, called Savage, that's much more experimental and weird. There's this song called Beethoven where she speaks as all these characters, and it's so bizarre and sinister. When I did my first art show, I listened to that a lot."

They are, she says, incredibly supportive of her work. "Both my parents are so interested and curious about art in a very non-pretentious, open-minded manner. It's amazing to share that language with them. But it's strange for my mum. Sometimes I'll take a photo that's artistically interesting to her, but as a mother it could be disturbing. I'm like, "No! I'm not going to take that photo off Instagram. It's only a nosebleed." She's referring to the picture she recently posted of her own (accidentally) bloodied nose.

But it's precisely this process of transforming pain into beauty that has allowed Lennox to let go.

"When someone goes, of course you miss them, of course you feel pain. But with respect to them, they're on their journey. Who knows where we go?

"Maybe it's exciting, whatever age you are. I'm trying to make friends with the idea of death. I'm not saying it should be celebrated or not, because nobody knows. But at least we should see death as something that is sacred for the person who leaves and be compassionate towards their journey."

Zimmermann's debut London store opens on Bruton Street on August 3. (zimmermannwear.com)

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