My family is typically English; we are all very polite to each other and rarely express how we feel, typically, “Stiff upper lip”. I thought that how I felt inside, deep down, was of no consequence. I have an intuitive nature, which lay dormant and ignored for many years.
Half-way through my primary education, on arriving in Cape Town, I was sent to a lovely school, Greenfields Primary, where the principal was a like-minded soul who loved the visual arts. We staged quarterly major productions in which the whole school was involved, with singing, poetry, dancing, acting, music etc, requiring loads of rehearsals, set building and costume production (mostly mums!). These wonderful concerts were staged in the school’s own amazing theatre. I have such happy memories of these productions and it has given me a life-long love of artistic expression in its very varied forms.
My high school years were as barren as the Sahara Dessert; they were devoid of any kind of creative spirit. I was discouraged from studying art and ended up in the Latin class.
I would have loved to study art at college, but without a high school art education this was impossible. I promised myself I would learn to paint when the time and the opportunity arose.
I was drawn to a career in nursing, I felt it would be worthwhile to spend my days doing something beneficial for those less fortunate. When I had a spare moment, I sang, danced and acted with an amateur dramatic group, where I met my Scottish husband – we were partners on the stage!
My husband is highly expressive, a typical Scotsman, you can tell how he feels just by looking at his face. Isn’t if funny how opposites attract? Something in me recognized a quality in him that was so underdeveloped in myself.
I retired from nursing after 14 years to spend more time with my growing children and to have a look at my “wish-list”, learning to paint being high on this list.
About 16 years ago, I went to my first painting lesson and was totally, intoxicatingly hooked, I felt a rush of complete passion course through me, I had come home. I set about getting myself an art education, reading art history books, visiting galleries and going to lectures at the local university and art society. I quickly realized that input from one art teacher would be limiting, I would glean as much information from one teacher and then move on. I learned to paint using watercolours, oils and pastels. I started writing my art journal, keeping notes, so worried that my ADD would make me forget something important.
I was given a huge confidence boost when, my paintings were selected for the South African Society of Artists Annual Exhibition in 1994. This was the first time that I had hung up my work for public scrutiny. My paintings were initially very realistic in style and I felt in my very gut a longing to express myself in a more abstract way, I just didn’t have a clue how to go about this.
You know I hear similar stories from other abstract expressionistic artists. It seems as though we all have to have that element of realism and structure which in some ways irritates us until we have to break through. Art is so much more than technique, isn’t it?
Technique, well bedded down in my subconscious, has given me versatility and confidence to experiment and explore new territory.
It is interesting for me to note your science background (which is so much more structured) come out in your painting with technique. Even with your abstract expressions, your need to completely understand and document various techniques seems to me to reflect back to the detailed record keeping a scientist needs to do. Then maybe it is just my personality type which closes down my creativity with this kind of awareness – which I sometimes pay for, I might add. Do you see this?
Isn’t it strange that we can’t help bringing all that has gone before in our lives into our art-making? I have never really thought about this need of mine to understand and document all that I do as being any different from what you might do, Kim. I think it stems from a need of some kind of security and stability in the face of experimentation. During my creative process, I create without conscious thought for a few hours and then spend another few hours contemplating what I have done and try to understand its significance! I can’t help but swing between the two modes. It is so interesting to become aware that the creative process can be so varied according to our personality type, each person has their own personalized path.
As a painter, I have worked with every type of drawing and painting media I can get my hands on, I love to experiment and get very bored with repetition.
My method of painting continually changes so I will talk about my method at this time. At the moment, I am painting, using my imagination and my intuition. I am painting to please myself, it is a bonus if others enjoy the painting as well. I start in a purely abstract manner, using mainly acrylic paints, dealing only with line, colour and texture. I start my work devoid of any subject matter, allowing the images to be revealed rather than dictating the direction of the painting. As the painting progresses, it may germinate thoughts, ideas, feelings or dreams which need to be transformed into visual images. During the process, I get a sense of what the painting is about, I love to tap into the subconscious and bring up images that have a strong association for me. The painting may take many transformations, until the work arrives at its destination and is complete.
I have been a member of a Plein Air painting group for the last six years. I am now trying to look at reality before me and transfer this into some sort of abstract expression. I have found if I only take huge brushes out with me, I can’t get into too much fiddly detail. It is all about simplifying and getting to the very essence of the subject.
This is wonderful. It sounds to me as though you abstract when you are painting with your Plein Air group, but when you are in the studio the emotions completely take over. The thing is in reality, anything which is abstract has to come from within, do you not think?
I think when I abstract from reality, it is usually an emotional response to something in that realistic image that moves me. Abstracting from reality is a whole different process.
Okay, so I understand. When you paint Plein Air, your abstractions are simply an emotional response to your environments – well, not so much simply, but clearly an emotional response. I think that is really wonderful and you make me think how exciting it would be to paint this way.
I think your horizon series may relate to this type of painting. I read on your website that this series was a response to living on a “Small island”, i.e. Britain after coming from the huge continent of America. You were aware of water being all around you and you created these works. Is this not abstracting from reality?
What or who inspires you to create?
Recently, my circumstances completely changed the way I painted:-
In 2007, my husband and I spent eight months in Sharjah, The United Arab Emirates. I thoroughly enjoyed living in a different culture, meeting people who lived their lives in a way so very foreign to me. I was fascinated talking to women who were one of four wives, we had many questions for each other! As an artist, I struggled to find suitable subjects to paint, high-rise buildings sprung up like
mushrooms on the flat desert sand, so close together, they blocked out the light. Almost nothing growing, just the odd palm tree encrusted with sand grew limply in the 44 degrees and 95% humidity. Frequent dust storms and humidity obliterated the sky for weeks. I felt trapped in air-conditioned rooms where a sensory deprivation set in - no music, nothing visually inspiring and nothing to smell or hear. I realized that I need to have a connection with what I am painting; because everything was so strange and alien to me, I couldn't find a subject to paint. I have painted in an abstract manner before, but I did not understand really what I was doing.I started painting in a purely intuitive manner. I had no external inspiration and so was forced to look within myself for some sort of subject matter.
I lay the unstretched canvas on the floor, squeezed out some acrylic paint and just played around with it on the canvas. My spirits were lifted just by splattering on the paint and moving it around in a sensory manner. The strange thing is, I didn't really believe that what I was doing was valid in any way. I wasn't painting with an end in sight, somehow it didn't matter, I was simply diverting my mind by doing something that I love. I continued to work on two pieces over the next few weeks and I would spend time just gazing at the paintings and images would appear. As I progressed, images would come and go - this process amazed and delighted me. I began to wonder if others would be able to respond in some way to my "doodling". The paintings, "Meditation" and "The Dance" are the two works completed in Sharjah. They have sent me on a new and exciting journey.
These two paintings are amazing without a doubt. I just love this story so much. To me, it completely shares the essence of Abstract Expressionism. If you really think about it, the story is very similar to that of Jackson Pollack when he called to Lee Krasner (his wife) to ask her if what he was doing was art. Like you, he questioned what he was doing, doubted it and kept doing it anyway. I love that about artists.
Out of all of your works, which would you say is your favorite?
Meditation, this is my breakthrough painting from Sharjah. It is intensely meaningful regarding how I was feeling at the time. It was a time of introspection and isolation, this painting is about those feelings.
I can understand how this can be so special to you…a good reminder of a breakthrough time.
What is your time management secret?"
A lot of challenges come along with being a female artist. I have so much to do to keep my home environment ticking over, besides finding time to paint. I find I am pulled in many ways by my friends and family, I almost feel selfish demanding time to paint. I would love to paint every day but find myself allocating some days in the week as full painting days and during the rest of the days, I paint in between my other tasks. I paint while I am cooking – I set my cell phone to ring when something has to come out of the oven.
I think the most important aspect of time management, is to have an abundance of energy. Malaise is my worst creative enemy! The only way to keep the energy levels high is to maintain a healthy life-style, eat a healthy diet and working out regularly. I spend an hour every second day working out in the gym. A great spin-off is that I do my creative thinking while exercising; I often have to go home quickly to write down the thoughts before I forget them.
I think I would have to take a notebook with me, even to the gym. J I have to agree with you about being a female artist with a family…tough to be sure, but we would not have it any other way. Maintaining a very healthy lifestyle is also imperative as we cannot expect the best from ourselves without providing ourselves with the best.
What has been the biggest artistic risk you've ever taken?
The biggest risk was deciding to stop painting realistically and to forge ahead expressing myself using my intuition and imagination.
Another big risk for me was coming back to Cape Town and exhibiting my works done in Sharjah. It’s great to paint experimentally, but very hard to put them up for public scrutiny.
You are right, but an artist pushes and challenges themselves in this way. I think blogging has given me some of the greatest comfort with friends who are there as support when others do not understand works. With some art it truly takes another artist (of some type) to connect with it.
You are right, Kim, blogging has provided me with a co-operative virtual studio, I have found artists who are able to connect with my work and give me encouragement and the confidence to proceed.
The other thing is they can be there when you need them and not there when you need some quiet. I create better alone but also love the interaction.
What is the most unexpected side effect of your success?
Finding the real me – coming to understand who I am and finally accepting who I am without wanting to make any changes at all…. this is me…
I have come to realize I can express myself in a unique way and that I do have something to say.
I have come to understand that my work is valid because it is genuinely a true expression of myself and that it shouldn’t matter if others like it or not (I am still working on this…)
Art really helps move that aspect forward quickly. Some people spend a lifetime trying to get to this place and never quite get there.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishments to this point?
I would say my greatest accomplishment today is that I have come to understand myself and accept who I am and be able to live my life in a way that fulfills all my dreams. As a child, I was shy, introverted and living with a poor self esteem. Being hypersensitive with ADD made me put up a wall around myself in an effort to protect myself from hurt. I rarely allowed others to get too close and so isolated myself. I have learnt to accept who I am and love the real me.
I taught myself to concentrate and pay attention! While attending lectures during my nursing training, I realized that I would have people’s lives in my hands and so I had better concentrate and learn what needed to be learnt. I timed myself initially for 5 minutes, to listen and not think about anything else. I continued to train myself, until I could concentrate for 45 minutes without letting my mind wander. As a result, I was placed 2nd in the whole of the Cape Province in my 4th year of study!
I have learnt to value my feelings, listen to what they have to say to me and express them in written words, paint and conversation. I have learnt to listen to my intuitive voice as my inner guide when making important decisions.
I have maintained a good relationship with my husband through 31 years of marriage and raised two children who are considerate and caring members of the community.
Congratulations on these wonderful accomplishments. Many people have not and will not ever see even one of these. I think you are so right to note them as your greatest, indeed.
I really love your abstract work. Will you share with us the mediums you prefer using?
I tend to work in acrylics when painting my abstract works. I seem to work in layers and so I need a medium that will dry quickly. I have experimented with mixed media where I have used collage papers and acrylic inks. I also paint in watercolours and pastels and hope to create abstract works with them, but am still trying to find a way of using them in an abstract mode.
I have also worked in oils but find I suffer from terrible headaches and nausea after a painting session, even after using water soluble oil paints, so I have decided not to work with anything that is toxic to my system.
We do have to be very careful about the toxic issues. I might recommend oil bars or oil sticks (which are oil paint in stick form and different from oil pastels as they dry harder). As you know I also have issues with inhalants, and art materials are notorious offenders.
Thanks for the recommendation! I have tried oil bars since stopping oil painting and had no ill-effects. I think we are lucky that our bodies tell us when we come in contact with poisonous chemicals.
I feel lucky to have an artist-nurse-friend who understands these issues.
What do you think was most influential in finding your artistic voice? Is there anything you wish someone would have shared with you early on in your artistic career?
Spending 8 months in Sharjah, isolated in an air-conditioned room, 16 floors up, in 44degrees Celsius outdoors, in the dessert with only high-rise buildings and having no friends to support me nearby, I retreated into myself and found my artistic voice.
I wish someone could have stood up for the 12 year-old me when I wanted to study art at high school. My wishes were swept aside and I ended up in the Latin class, which I hated with a vengeance. I look back and wonder why I didn’t stand up for myself more.
Because you were twelve and because you, in some way, knew you needed these other experiences in your life in order to be the artist you are today and value these wonderful lessons you now hold so dear. I was the same as a child (a very different person from my family) and yet I know I had to do it this particular way for some reason. Does this feel true for you?
I have never thought of it that way! I might have had my, “Artist’s voice” completely squashed by insensitive lecturers if I had studied art formally as a young impressionable teenager. By studying art as an adult, I was able to nurture and guide myself in the right direction and avoid those negative people that love to crush emerging artists.
Oh yes, I can understand that, since I had my fair share of watching that happen in design school. Today, I think maybe it is a matter of the program, but that was not the method 20-30 years ago. I am sure there are others out there who can identify with that, too.
Will you talk about the color selection process for your abstracts? What influences the colors you use?
I feel the need to work initially with a very limited palette. I make a conscious decision about what few colours I would like to use on a particular canvas. As the painting progresses, other tints may creep in and then be obliterated or become the dominant colour. I think this is very much part of the intuitive approach, I have favourite colour combinations that I work with on a few canvases at once.
I am fascinated by the way colours can represent certain emotions and feelings. I sometimes paint in very high-key colours and at other times, my colours are somber and dark. I am sure they relate to my emotions and would like to study this aspect more thoroughly, perhaps studying art therapy.
I also think this is an incredible field. In interior design we study a great deal about how colors can affect the emotions and the body (along with light without which you could not see color), and this was the most interesting part of that practice.
I would love to hear what you have learnt about colour and emotions, Kim.
Mmm, you make me think the subject might make some good blog posts. I can tell you my designer self approaches color in a different way than our colleagues who studied fine arts. I will give some thoughts to posts about color and emotions.
How do you like to work? Studio conditions, frame of mind, etc.
I love to play relaxing, classical or contemporary music in my studio, it seems to get me into the painting frame of mind.
My method of working continually changes, so I will tell you how I am working at the moment.
I usually paint flat on the floor, using large brushes. I sometimes use stretched canvasses or otherwise I have a roll of canvas that I cut a piece from … I can then choose my format there and then and not be confined by what I have in stock. I strap the canvas to a board so that I can stand it up to view it from a distance. I use polystyrene fruit packaging to mix up various tints and colours, these I store in plastic food containers with air-tight lids. I recycle other containers from my kitchen to store colour glazes.
I love the random marks made by splatter and spraying, so I have a large drop sheet that covers the carpet in my studio/3rd bedroom. Texture is fascinating to me and so my paintings usually end up with multiple layers of paint taking weeks or months to be complete.
I can spend hours gazing at my work, turning it around, looking at it from all angles, from a distance, until an image emerges, I then get an idea of what the painting is about and proceed in that direction. This idea may not work and I obliterate some of the work and continue in an abstract way until I find a new direction.
I love this idea of working flat on the floor. I have done some of it from time to time, but not often. I also like the idea of working on un-stretched canvas, but then stretching it stops me. You can call me a wimp.
I have some great young guys down the road who make stretched canvasses to order and also stretch paintings onto stretchers - they fetch and deliver free of charge!
My knees have been playing up a bit, so I have been using a trellis table to work on over the last few days, as I say, my method of working adapts to whatever is needed at the time.
Oh you lucky girl, you! Now I would go with some huge paintings if I had this option available to me!
These guys make enormous canvasses, the trouble is, you need to hire a truck to transport them! I see some artists are creating huge images using six to eight similar size canvasses that are hung close together to make up one large painting.
Eeek, you do have to be careful of those joints. Maybe some knee pads gardeners use could be helpful, too. So this trellis table is a low table?
This trellis table has seen a lot of action. I used to make toys out of bits of material and sell them at local craft markets, this table was my trusty sales surface. No Kim, it is not that low – I find if I can move all the way around it, I can still paint in a similar way.
Are there other artists you admire – living or not – and what makes their work/lives appealing to you?
I find the process of working and reason behind the work is equally important as the finished painting in the artists I admire.
I love artists that are able to express their thoughts, feelings and emotions in their work. My taste ranges from realism to abstraction, the underlying thread being the emotional content, the baring of the soul and working from the heart.
There are so many that I admire, but would love to talk about just the few below:-
Frida Kahlo painted for herself for many years without any thought of exhibiting her work. Her surrealistic paintings tell stories of her daily life and many of her paintings really hit me in my gut, they are so expressive! One that really stands out for me is the painting of her sitting on a chair with her hair all cut off and lying around her. Her husband has just left her – she feels an acute sense of low self esteem and loss of desirability and so cuts off her hair. The painting is incredibly powerful.
I love Vincent Van Gogh paintings and letters. He manages to express his emotions in his choice of colour and expressive brush-strokes. He wrote wonderful letters to his brother describing his life and painting process. I seem to be drawn towards tortured artists!
An Australian self-taught sculptor, Ron Mueck, creates these fiberglass sculptures of people that just blow me away. I visited his exhibition in Edinburgh three times, I couldn’t keep away! His hyper-realistic figures are never life size, always slightly exaggerated – his aim is to get an empathetic, emotional response from his viewers. He tries to capture the key moments in our passage through life, dealing with the themes of birth, infancy, youth, adolescence, sexual maturity, middle-age, old age and death.
His figures emanate feelings of joy, introspection, anxiety, depression, detachment and self consciousness. Truly amazing! His figures are often enormous, filling a whole room or can be tiny, never life-size. Have a look at the link, although his work needs to be viewed personally to get the full impact.
A South African, outsider artist, Helen Martins lived in a tiny Karoo village, Nieu Bethesda in her own work of art, The Owl House. Her transformation of The Owl House was entirely motivated by the desire to create a space with expressive significance and personalized meaning. As an undertaking, it was obsessive, spiritual and celebratory. She had no formal training and created her work from unconventional materials, mainly cement, broken glass, bits of wire and even parts of abandoned cars. She hired an assistant to help her with her work, never regarding herself as a fully-fledged artist. It was a private and personal endeavour, a form of self-searching, of personal creative discovery and never created for public viewing.
Oh, these are going to be so much fun to explore. I know this is one question which leads so many people down paths which they may not have ever traveled before. I know it is true for me, too. Thank you for these lovely introductions and reminders of other artists.
Let the Winds of the Heavens Dance Between You
I have been drawn to a great deal of your writing on your blog. Do you enjoy writing about art?
Thank you Kim, I am so pleased you have been able to connect and relate to what I have to say. I have never considered myself a writer, but have found recently that I really enjoy expressing myself in words. I love to express my thoughts and feelings relating to my creative life, I feel the writing has become an extension of my art-making.
Since I started painting, 15 years ago, I have kept an art journal where I have recorded my thoughts, relevant quotes from books and teachers, experimental techniques learnt at workshops and photos of all my paintings. I have a poor short-term memory and was worried that I would forget interesting and important information. By recording my creative journey, I have been able to build on every experience and bit of relevant knowledge.
So many artists fall into the trap of finding a comfortable style of painting and then just repeat themselves, never moving on, never experimenting. My journal doesn’t allow me to do this!
Initially, my writing was wooden and impersonal, but with time and practice I have learnt to write how I really feel and be genuine about my choice of words. I sometimes write a paragraph and when I read it back, I think, good grief, where did that come from? I love the way the words can sometimes just spill out onto the page. There are so many similarities to painting!
I also love my journal. I think I may keep one a little different from the way you keep yours, but it is also a lifeline for me. I just want you to keep writing and keep sharing those lovely ideas. I have found so many visual artists rely on their journals and so many creative writers rely on being able to express themselves visually to keep things going…I find it so interesting. Do not stop writing, though.
Are there other things you would like readers to know about you, your art or your experiences?
Kim, I think I have rambled on enough!
You make me smile…I could listen more and more to what you have to share. I think sharing what is true for us helps so many to begin to evaluate what is true for them, too.
Thank you so much, Dianne! I have so enjoyed our conversation so much and know readers will enjoy getting to know more about your work and your process. This has been a wonderful experience.