DWELL is a body of work exploring personal history and living spaces. It began in 2018 from an indelible childhood memory from 1975, Aberdeenshire:
Finding it tough going as a 9-year-old at Torphins Primary, I excused myself from class. Heading to the loos, wanting the ground to eat me up, I conjured up my future adult self – just to have a word. Not much was said but much was felt. I wanted to be him now and skip the years in between. We (me and ‘future-self’) agreed to keep in touch. We did. And still do. Except now I am ‘future-self’, conjuring up the 9-year-old, forever stuck in the school loos in 1975.
Our last family home was a hop from Torphins to the farmlands of Tornaveen. Glenburn was a large awkward granite Dorma bungalow butted next to the only fast stretch of the Aberdeen to Tarland road. Behind the house lay a one-acre mature garden and Learney Hill beyond: an adventure playground to get lost in, enact character and improvise stories. These were precious moments before coming of age and the breakup of our family.
These memories were my starting point. I began a series of small paintings reconstructing what I could remember of Glenburn. Using devices such as architectural floorplans, dollhouses and section cutaways, finding clues from areal maps and structural supposition to visually relive and move around my memories. Each successive work adding something, twisting, distorting and overwriting and becoming a new memory. First, I draw in detail as if constructing the buildings, then add period specifiers before applying richly mixed oil colours. These works were, unusually for me, figure free, so they felt like a stage set waiting for drama to unfold.
I took a break from the project in 2019. When I started again in early 2020, I decided to broaden its scope. I have lived in 29 homes in 56 years from Liverpool, Aberdeenshire, Edinburgh, Chichester, Hastings to Oxford. The specificity of each home providing distinct visual markers, framing memories and pivotal events by association.
The work produced for DWELL emerged as fluidly and lucidly as those improvised stories I enacted in Tornaveen. It tells of my childhood, coming of age, loss, grief and adult responsibilities from the early 70s to the present. I make extensive use of the ‘cutaway’ to allow us to peer in and speculate about these shadows, figures and murmurs from the past.
Most of this work has been made during the pandemic. I embrace working long hours on my own in the studio and so, initially, the impact of COVID-19 on me was not that great. I perhaps should have felt more guilt in taking advantage of the increased time at home to paint. I debated whether these events necessitated adjustments to what I am painting about. Of course, they did, but it had to be through the process of painting. Having retreated into our homes, we now reflect the ‘time before’ COVID as an estranged memory. Watching drama set in the immediate ‘time before’ is a little unsettling, a world full of throngs of people, free to roam and connect. Some of the works I made in response to the immediate impact, perhaps predictably, depict a world barely hanging on amidst global catastrophes. In the months that followed, the works refocussed on the spaces we inhabit and dwell in – more specifically in my homes.
DWELL is perhaps the most personal collection of work I have produced. It links to themes I have returned to throughout my career: domesticity, family, the internal world of childhood and fractured memory Its images are inspired as much by the intricate and forensic cutaway illustrations of L. Ashwell Wood as they are by the lyrical pathos found in Leonard Rosoman and Ben Shahn. But most of all, they are a tribute to my 9-year-old self, forever frozen in the school loos in Torphins who took time out to dwell.
A selection of this work forms part of an exhibition in April 2021 at the Open Eye Gallery.