Artist Jill Iliffe on why Lewes FC Women were perfect for a new art exhibition opening at the Depot Cinema in Lewes

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This summer saw the England women's national football team soar to new heights at the FIFA Women's World Cup, with many commentators praising the Lionessses for inspiring more girls to take up sport.

Despite a lingering perception that football is a man's game, community-owned Lewes Football Club is somewhat of a pioneer in gender equality in the game. It is reportedly the only football club in the world where men and women are treated and paid equally. Inspired by Lewes' women's team, Surrey-based artist Jill Iliffe has created a series of paintings and drawings featuring current Lewes FC players, future stars and past footballers. The show, called Women x Football = Art, opens on 11 November at the Depot Cinema in Lewes and aims to inspire women to live their best lives.

By her own admission Jill is not a "sporty person", but has long been fascinated by women's football. In 2007 she depicted two Muslim women playing football for a national exhibition and it was recently purchased by the National Football Museum in Manchester, where it is now on permanent display. "That reignited my interest in football and, as I was in Lewes at the time, I got in touch with Lewes Football Club because I knew that they have a reputation for treating women equally," Jill explains.

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Lewes FC gave Jill access to past and present players and she set about interviewing the women to find out what drives them to keep pushing against the grain of gender stereotypes. "When I met the players I was struck by how young they were: I'm not. They're really sporty: I'm not. But the passion they felt and the fact that they would play football even if nobody was watching struck a chord with me. What was really interesting was that although the young players were aware that what they are trying to do is difficult, they did believe that it was possible," Jill says, adding: "When I was younger football was for boys only. I think that is now changing, but there is still some way to go, especially in other countries. And I do worry that the way women view themselves is going backwards in a way. It's like all women think they have to offer is their looks, whereas when I met the players they were so not bothered, which was really refreshing."

For attitudes to women's football to change, players need the support of football clubs and spectators too. This is something that is explored in the exhibition, with a painting of one of the club's female owners who also happens to run an ethical store. Past and future is explored too - one of the most striking portraits of the exhibition is of 80-year-old Evelyn holding a photo of herself playing as a young woman. Jill explains: "She played football in the 1950s. She was great, because she didn't understand why it was such a big deal as it was less complicated back then. She just said: 'We used to play, have hundreds of people watch us and it was great.' "I also met a team mascot and a player from the junior team, and instead of painting them I drew their pictures on a newspaper page from the Women's World Cup over the summer that was talking about the future of women's football."

The process of creating the paintings was a collaborative one, with Jill asking each player how they wanted to be depicted. The works on display at Lewes Depot will be both oil paintings and drawings that were created in Jill's Surrey studio from lots of pictures taken during her meetings with the players. "I like to work from photographs and talk in depth to the people I'm painting because I want their narrative to be the same as my narrative," Jill says, adding: "I also like to crop things very closely and rarely put in a background because sometimes too much can be overwhelming. And I like leaving things out, so that the viewer can add things in to form their own narratives too."

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As an artist, Jill has always been interested in creating art that investigates a wide range of subjects, like growing older, female camaraderie, mental health, how women present themselves, as well as childhood memories and fun. Many of these themes are explored in this latest exhibition, but one of the biggest themes Jill wants people to take away from the show is the feeling of women living their best lives. "And it's an approach we can all follow," Jill says, using her own experience of coming back to art in later life as an example.

Jill attended art school with Grayson Perry, but drifted away from the art world until her early 40s when she won an award that funded her MA in Drawing at the University of the Arts, London. She recently gave up her job to focus on art full time and was just named as a finalist in the prestigious Holly Bush Emerging Woman Painter 2019.

The free exhibition will be open at Lewes Depot from 11-30 November. The opening night event will feature an introduction by Jill, a talk by a Lewes FC spokesperson who will be joined by a player from Lewes FC Women's current Championship team.

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