Saturday, 31 July 2021

Renaissance grandma

Portrait of my Dad, looking for him behind his Alzheimer's.  I added a little landscape behind my father, with a little figure in a boat on the right hand side of the painting, echoing the tiny patchwork landscapes of my favourite Italian Renaissance art.

In the beginning

It is a well known fact that I am an artist.  I paint, gaze into the middle distance, and once upon a time I had bright pink hair which looked lovely.  If there is an archetype of an artist, I am it.  Being an archetype does not mean I am a wonder, a genius, a trail blazer though I am quite good at painting and writing etc, it means I am a typical arty type and visible as such from miles away.  "Are you an artist?" people ask me, and long ago in my youth, I would not be surprised.  I embodied the bohemian, crazy, eccentric look.  The only other question they could have asked was, "Are you quite sane?" which would have been provocative.  As time has gone by and I have settled into a nice grey haired lady with colourful skirts and earrings, and always the red lipstick, I am a bit surprised when I am asked if I am an artist.  I think I blend in brilliantly with other middle class older ladies who have gone a bit boho. "But how do you know?" I want to say, but don't because it sounds defensive.  "Yes," I say instead, "how clever of you." 

My journey to art-hood was not through art school.  I always knew I could draw and it felt fragile.  Perhaps I felt fragile with it, because as a child and young person I was terribly easily swayed by strongly opinionated people and could find myself in a lot of trouble. Believing I was a fairy too from an early age did not help with my being grounded in reality.  But one thing I did know instinctively was that I could do art and if I went to art school I would lose whatever I had.  If I had to follow art rules, if I could not follow my own inspiration and protect this teeny little flame of absolute certainty that I was already an artist, I would become dissipated and fragmented and stop wanting to create.  So I chose university instead.  I would be safe there, I thought.  Based on what? I hear you say. Precisely.  I have no idea.  But when we are young like this, sometimes we just know things, with no grown up tendencies yet to analyse and dismiss what we instinctively feel.  I ended up studying History of Art at Aberdeen University and left in 1983 with a Masters in Art History.  And during those four years I discovered all I needed to know about the kind of artist I wanted to be.  We had an art library where I would sit for hours pulling out books and reading the lives of artists, looking at their work, and feeling as if I had absolutely come home.  

Pieta by Giovanni Bellini c1455.  Look at the intensity of the expressions, the light on the hair, the halos and the landscape in the corners.

To back track a little, by the time I arrived in Aberdeen I had already found my passion.  It began with my father showing me a Bellini Pieta when I was eight years old.  It blew my mind.  I had never seen anything so powerful, so beautiful, so extraordinary.  Later, while studying art history during my school sixth form, I was introduced to art from the Italian Renaissance, and was hooked.  It touched that nerve that had reacted to the Bellini Pieta when I was eight, and I developed a love paintings (and some sculptures) from about 1390 to about 1500, taking this with me later to Aberdeen, where I was able to study them in more detail.  This then was my passion.  Italian Renaissance frescoes, religious paintings, the lives and loves of the artists themselves and the amazing societies in which they lived.  

In the middle

I don't remember making a decision to base my artistic life on the Italian Renaissance.  It just seemed to happen. Painters and artists in fifteenth century Italy (and Europe) worked for a major family, or the church or a civic body.  These patrons paid for the works they commissioned and the artist and their studio could do very well both professionally and financially.  In my own century, a patron would be a client so I looked for clients and sought commissions. I found I could do portraits, and as a Renaissance artist in the twentieth century as it was then, I took ideas from the works that I loved and began to add attributes to my portraits - clues to who was in the painting, for example a person with a love of music would hold a musical instrument.  A sports player would have something from their sport with them like a tennis racquet or a rugby ball.  I put halos on everyone.  A halo is a circle of light that is painted around the head of a holy figure to tell us that they are divine.  Fine, I thought, I will do that.  Many of my portraits and paintings from the beginning until right now have halos.  I love halos. 

 Jesus on the Tube. A modern icon.

During my time in Aberdeen I found Greek and Russian icons too with the same wonderful lines, patterns and stylised images of the Christian Trinity (God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost), of Saints and Angels that I saw in some of the early paintings in Italy.  Oh my, I loved them all.  For a long while when trying to find my way in the real world after university, I painted modern icons where I updated the subject matter and not only made it modern, but gave it a sense of humour.  For example, I painted an icon in the old style, of Mary, the mother of Jesus, having just given birth to the baby in the stable and having an argument with the Angel Gabriel, who had announced nine months before that she was to have this baby.  Gabriel, a top angel, an Arch Angel, had told Mary the baby would be called Jesus and be the son of God.  In my painting Mary was sulking because she wanted to call the baby Duncan. On a table beside her was a congratulations card welcoming Duncan.  From these icons came the Jesus on the Tube painting which showed Jesus sitting on a tube train looking straight out at the viewer, and being ignored by everyone in the carriage, all of whom are looking away. This Jesus on the Tube painting is my most well known image, having been used all around the world in schools, churches, books, Cathedrals, seminaries and convents.  

And now

Fast forward to where I am now where I can look back with all the benefits of hindsight, where I can make sense of things.  I no longer take commissions, my painting now concentrates on making sense of projects that are close to my heart and these projects are all about me, really.  The A Graceful Death exhibition explored death and dying after the death of my partner Steve and to do that, I needed total freedom to follow where the exhibition and subject would lead me.  These days my painting work is focused on addiction, on telling stories of those in and around it, and for this project I continue to need total freedom and autonomy to follow the subject.  

Lou, from the Addicts And Those Who Love Them exhibition.  Note the halo, the decorative motifs on her clothes and the fact that it is painted on a block of prepared wood.

 But! I carry my Renaissance aspirations with me still.  I add halos to, and tiny decorative motifs on the clothes, of people in my paintings.  Once or twice I have added little far away landscapes behind a portrait, and I am still moved and delighted by those early frescoes on the walls of the churches I used to visit in Tuscany, Northern Italy.  In the old artists' workshops the students would learn their art from their master.  There would be apprentices attached to each workshop and some would go on to become masters themselves, some would not.  Some would be more famous than their masters.  These apprentices all had jobs to do on whatever the studio was working on, perhaps painting the foliage on the bottom right of a painting, perhaps helping to create the long flowing material that the figures wore. Perhaps to paint a whole work themselves if it was a minor commission, so that the master would be free to work on and oversee the bigger projects.  I loved the idea of the bustle and industry, I loved how the skill of painting would be honed over time with actual painting, with just doing it.  This is how I learned my painting, by just doing it.  My teachers were in the books at university, on the walls of the churches and galleries in Italy and in my own imagination.  I was never taught any methods, never explored different media and had no instructions in painting itself which is why, probably, I only paint, draw and write. 

In my own life, that atmosphere of the bigger working environment of the old masters' studios came with meetings with, talking to and interviewing all the people who are part of the exhibitions, and creating with them the images to go into my two projects, on end of life and on addiction.  The meetings take place in my studio here, ideas are discussed and we go over how someone will be represented with their story.  And often, my inspiration comes from fifteenth century Italy.  

Today, I don't have to struggle to know who I am.  I have a clearer idea, and of course we never really know ourselves fully.  It is a life long process.   One thing I can say, is that I am still an artist and that if I were very bold (which I can be) I would say I am Renaissance Grandma. 


The Duke and Duchess of Urbino painted between 1465 and 1472 by Piero della Francesca was the inspiration for the painting below of Stuart and Sue Pryde.


Painted for the A Graceful Death exhibition, we have the bright blue sky of Tanzania where Sue grew up, and the cottage garden flowers that both Stuart and Sue loved so much.  Sue ended her own life, and this is a diptych in her memory, as much as the above diptych by Piero della Francesca was a betrothal portrait.


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