The studio door blog
20/10/2019

What does coming home mean to an artist?

I can't tell you how glad I am to be home....
Waiting to dock, Portsmouth, 6.30am

Portsmouth, waiting to dock, 6.30am

...it takes a week to fight through brain lag when we return to the UK after 5 months in France though I'm enjoying home comforts; central heating, the dishwasher, TV and Kettle Chips. I've been working from landscape and although the arable scenery around our French house is lovely, it's the moors, cliffs and dales of Derbyshire that are in my head and my heart and where I want paintings to come from. Of course I took photographs and sketches to France but there was a conflict between what was in my heart's eye and my immediate, less known, less understood environment.

The notion of ‘home’ is something I've long thought about. As a younger woman I did my share of rough travelling in parts of the world no longer accessible, thanks to political turmoil, war and terrorism. I wasn't brave or intrepid, far, far from it. I shudder at my naivety and ignorance but I was desperate for the world to open its doors to me and to have adventures. Back then home was somewhere to leave, whereas in the second half of my life, home has become a centre, a place of substance and sustenance.

We are nameless out here, 25 x 25cms, acrylic on paper

We are nameless out here, 25x25cms, acrylic on paper

Many artists are inspired by travel because seeing things with fresh eyes is easier when the scenes themselves are novel and stimulating. There's a sudden attack of hyper-vision, all senses alerted and thirsty. As time goes on, a place acquires layers: this is the postman's house, here is where you met the red-hat woman with her shaggy dog. Later you discover the muddy track behind your house was a packhorse route while the one on the left was used to stash bombs in the war. V.S. Naipaul beautifully describes this shift from romance to depth in his novel, The Enigma of Arrival (the title is from a painting by de Chirico).

A sense of place is a cliché for artists but to have a deep sense of place you must be more than a visitor, you have to spend time with it, be patient, wait for its history to show and for personal meanings to grow. I used to think that would be awful, continually passing your younger selves on the street, whereas nowadays I find it intriguing, the warp and weft, with ever more complex patterns showing through later layers. I believe parallels can be drawn with the notion of coming home as an artist.

And even on a stormy afternoon

And even on a stormy afternoon, acrylic on canvas

To begin with there's the fantasy, the romance of the artist as a creature apart from the humdrum of daily life. Add to that the excitement of discovering materials and what can be done with them and the heady road of potential stretches before you. Then comes the hard work of acquiring skills and judgement. So the first layers accumulate. Striving to make your work authentic and honest and discovering your particular curiosities exposes further layers. I went through a phase of doing bright florals and wondered why, when I didn't feel bright or floral. Some at least were decent paintings and soon sold but they quickly stopped being satisfying to paint. Always digging deeper adds more layers.

Somewhere along the way comes the acknowledgement that the itch and the ouch aren't going to go away, you don't want to settle for being a tourist, this is where you live. The roots are growing, so pay the mortgage and hunker down. You are in it for the long haul. Living in village communities taught me that, to belong in a place, as well as claiming it you also have to be accepted by it. For me, in terms of art, this comes from being accepted by my peers, the task being to work out who they are, guarding against isolation and building myself a community of artists. None of this is a linear process but get all these elements sorted and there is a deep core of belonging. Welcome home.

On the bookshelf
Strangest Genius, Lucy Costigan and Michael Cullen


Strangest Genius by Lucy Costigan and Michael Cullen
. A gorgeous book showcasing stained glass artist Harry Clarke (1889-1931), a major figure in the Irish Arts and Crafts movement. It's expensive (mine was a special present) and sumptuous, crammed with images of his work and a summary of his career. I came across Harry Clarke's work years ago in Dublin City Gallery, namely The Eve of St Agnes, his 12 panel piece illustrating John Keats’ poem. I'd never seen stained glass like it: Aubrey Beardsley meets Gustave Moreau meets Arthur Rackham, the whole thing a glory of deep blues and spun silver. The book is mouth watering too.