As an artist-academic, I’ve been working at home for the past two weeks of Coronavirus lock-down. One of the really joyful outcomes of this is more time and creative energy to paint. That 40 minutes I would have spent cycling between campuses, that lunch break I wouldn’t have taken, or those lectures I’m no longer giving (my university is being rightly cautious about overly rapid moves to online delivery of courses) mean I have a couple of hours a day to work on a canvas started a few months ago, and since then sorely neglected.
When I begin a painting, I always have a narrative in my mind relating to the composition. In this case, the initial storyline combined memories and sensitivity to current social truths. The memories were of my eldest daughter, then aged six, heading out through the carriage porch of the old coach house we lived in for two years near the Forêt d’Halatte with a packed toy suitcase. She fearlessly announced she was leaving home, so I stayed at a safe distance watching her walk through the forest paths until I felt it was time to retrace our tracks! It’s a memory of an almost fable-like moment in her life and mine, with deep hooks in my imagination. Driven by some inner prompting, I linked this with my distress at all the child refugees walking for miles in search of food and safety, and their incredible resilience and bravery.
So, out of all that came this image of two girls, barefooted, followed by a donkey. Definitely an intentional semi-reference to Christ entering Jerusalem on a donkey there, loving and watching over the vulnerable. A lot of my inner storehouse of images seem to come from Sunday school days or from Medieval religious art which I love … I wanted to capture (the artist as hunter?) both the feeling of childhood resilience and innocence and the responsibility of the older girl for the younger one excited by stars in the sky, carrying the small bag of possessions.
Looking at the painting I thought, ‘No, this is too stiff, and the girls are too small. I want them to fill more of the canvas.’ I also suddenly felt a strong urge to try to be freer and less tight in my brushstrokes and composition. If now was not the time to take risks and discover new ways, when would it be?
As you can see if you look closely, I literally scaled up the two girls, using fairly free brushstrokes to do so, then scaled up the tree trunk, and finally brought in some colour to change the night sky to one more evocative of day and sunlight. I wasn’t sure what I would do with the remaining images of girls, but by the next morning a new story and feel had begun to take shape.
A tale of two girls in a northern Europe rural setting, walking in the countryside and with two magpies now present. Definitely a reference here to the counting nursery rhyme about magpies ‘One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy’ etc., with different numbers associated with bringing good or bad luck. But also I’ve always wanted to include a magpie or two in a painting and have never yet done so. Yep, sometimes it’s as simple a reason as that which shapes content! Of course, the work is far from finished yet, so who knows if they’ll still be there when the journey of the narrative and layering is finished …