Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Open Studios and Worn-out Feet

Pigeons: Birkenhead Park Series, by Adele Cosgrove-Bray; 2018; oil on canvas.
The annual Wirral Open Studios Tour took place from 9th - 10th June, a free event wherein many local artists and crafts-workers opened their doors to the public. Venues ranged from garden sheds to community centres, from back bedrooms to rented studio spaces. The work displayed was as diverse as it's possible to get, and a supporting free brochure listed all the participants with little maps to help visitors find their way around.

As I don't drive, there was no way I was going to be able to see everything even though I'd like to. So, armed with an all-day train ticket and comfy shoes, I first travelled to New Brighton where Janine Pinion welcomed me into her front room which has been converted into a bright and airy studio crammed with her incredibly beautiful watercolours. Janine recently won the Open Exhibition at the Williamson Art Gallery.

Bertie, an adorable Yorkshire Terrier, was determined to greet visitors to Breda Whyte's garden shed, which she's cleverly adapted for use as a studio. Her lovely bold, expressionistic mixed media paintings filled the space, along with sculptures and some of her batik designs. Her old bicycle was half-buried beneath a glorious tangle of climbing plants which had commandeered it as a trellis.

Five exhibitors were located within the Floral Pavilion on New Brighton's Marine Promenade. There was also a book fair plus an arts and crafts fair unfolding at the same place, which helped to attract a steady flow of visitors. Emma Johnson was busy working on a lovely commissioned portrait in oils but quickly initiated a friendly conversation about my own work.  Emma creates wonderfully realistic portraits, animal pictures and landscapes, all rich with colour and detail.  Sharing the exhibition table with Emma was her mother, sculptor Jo Burton, who was deftly using a mallet and chisel to shave wafer-thin curls of wood from a block which she was slowly turning into a cat's head. For sale were delicately carved jewellery, various busts of people and animals, and ornamental pieces, all made with remarkable skill.

Also exhibiting at the Floral Pavilion was Rachel Wibrew, an art student, (who doesn't seem to have a website), who was showing pen and ink drawings based on tattoo designs. Gerard McGregor's paintings explored the complex relationship between the human memory and technology, and their fragility. He enlarges tiny bits of technology and turns these into vibrantly coloured, psychedelic, mixed media paintings. Neal Dawson has turned his urban photography into practical, printed coasters. Local buildings, pubs and landmarks, plus textures and patterns, are what inspire Neal who started out as an oil painter then got more into photography. His work is on sale at various tourist venues around Liverpool.

Journey Awaits, by Adele Cosgrove-Bray; watercolour; 2018.


Catching the train to Hoylake, a warm welcome awaited me at Susan Boardman's delightful cottage, where I was immediately offered a glass of refreshing apple and elderflower cordial. Susan's truly lovely textile art was displayed throughout the ground floor of her home. She uses torn paper, paint, dye, beads and sewing plus fabrics to create beautiful landscapes, seascapes and abstractions. She also makes fabric jewellery and cute little peg dolls. In a lovely, plant-packed garden is the shed which Susan uses as her studio. I'm always fascinated by other artists' studio spaces, how they set it out, how they develop their working environment, and of course I love looking at other peoples' sketch books. I would have stayed inside the shed studio for longer but the merciless summer heat made that unwise.

My next port of call was to the home of sea and shore photographer Marianthi Lainas, whose dramatic images have been featured in Countryfile Magazine and the national press. What would have been her guestroom now houses her computer and large-size printer, and her photos seem to fill every available space in her lovely seaside home. She also exhibited her recent experiments with cyanotype photography, describing her processes to me and making it sound like a fun thing to try.

A group of artists were exhibiting at a studio in the heart of Hoylake, and Helon Conning was about to lead a portrait-drawing session as I arrived. Helon runs a weekly life drawing group, and her own colourful, expressionistic paintings depicted her interests in experimentation and quirky ideas. Michelle Murray, (who doesn't seem to have a website), is an illustrator who creates mixed media drawings and 3D sculptures.  Suzy Chappell, (who also doesn't seem to have a website), makes bold abstract mixed media paintings, collages and prints. Emma Dromgoole, who attends the same life drawing group as I do, is a retired art teacher who produces gloriously vivid portraits and figurative paintings which express her love of colour and line. Visitors to this working studio were treated to a generous finger-food buffet.

One of the Open Studio Tour's organisers is Xitina Ferres Zendrera, whose home directly overlooks the broad, sweeping sands of Hoylake beach. Born and raised in Barcelona, and widely travelled, Xitina has worked as an international fashion designer for major-label companies, and as an illustrator.  Her paintings show her interests in surface pattern and abstraction.

On the train to West Kirby, I got chatting to a bearded man whose name I don't know but who I'd seen treading a similar Studio Tour route as myself. We both agreed that it's a great event, allowing visitors to not only see contemporary new art and crafts but to see different workspaces and to meet the creators themselves. Our only regret is that it's impossible to see it all in the time allowed, as the venues cover the length and breadth of Wirral. Even with a car it would be a struggle.

Life Drawing by Adele Cosgrove-Bray; 8B pencil on cartridge paper; 2018.
It was 4pm by the time I arrived in West Kirby. With 18 people exhibiting in West Kirby and neighbouring Caldy, I was left having to choose only two to visit before the event closed for the day. The nearest place was Seagrass Studio and Gallery, which is virtually opposite the train station.  Gallery owner Jo Smith was exhibiting her deliciously textural seascapes - she mixes sand and soil into her atmospheric works. Jo also makes jewellery, and offers work by other local artists. I got talking with potter Jo Williams, who had exhibited last year at Janine Pinion's studio.

We ended up talking about Pretty Ugly Pottery, where I used to work many moons ago. Jo told me that Stan Johnson, who also worked for that company as a thrower, would be exhibiting alongside potter Carla Pownall at her back-garden studio. I would have liked to have visited them both, but constraints of time proved too limiting.

With just half an hour left, I arrived at Lois Hayes-Holland's flat, where the foyer and stairway served as her exhibition space. A retired art teacher, her work was incredibly diverse; she told me she had had to learn how to be, in order to meet the needs of diverse students! I fell in love with two watercolour floral paintings, which had a narrative quality brought to them by the inclusion of straw hats and small gardening tools. These had been commissioned, Lois told me, but the man had vanished without paying. (Unfortunately, this isn't the first time I'd heard similar stories).

Watercolour sketch by Adele Cosgrove-Bray; handmade Khadi paper; 2018.

On Sunday, partially due to having other commitments, I was limited to visiting venues local to me, and so my first destination was Wellington Road Studios in Oxton. The resident artists have been creating a pretty garden area for themselves, which features an old rowing boat. Marie Louise Williams was busily demonstrating her enviable basket-weaving skills, while Marie Louise Mairs was encouraging visitors to sample the lovely buffet on offer. (That's not a typo; there are two Marie Louises there.)

I enjoyed looking through Marie Louise Mairs sketchbooks and seeing her cluttered workspace, which she told me she had deliberately made no attempt to tidy up as she feels visitors need to see a real working studio rather than a carefully manicured space. I have to agree, but then I think that seeing quirky innovations - such as re-used wooden crates fixed to the walls for use as shelving, which I saw in one studio - and organised chaos only add interest. She was also exhibiting her lovely ceramic work, and a large and deeply thoughtful painting about the human cost of war.

Every nook in Wellington Road Studios seemed to have a different artist tucked away within it. These included mixed media artist Janet Ewing, who offered hand-painted baseball hats, plus other works; Mary Bryning, who is inspired by maps and by nature; photographer Victoria Evans and abstract painter Nicky Perrin, (who don't seem to have websites). I hope I've not missed anyone out... The range of work was entirely diverse; something for everyone, really.

Round at the Williamson Art Gallery on Slatey Road, Oxton, there were two photographers exhibiting: Karen Lawrence and George Evans, both interested in land- and seascapes but with quite different styles. Both had a huge amount of prints available for purchase.

I enjoyed a pleasant conversation with David Jones and his partner, who I know as we all attend the same life drawing group. They're about to move to north Wales, but meanwhile David was exhibiting his paintings, illustrations, and miniature model boats which he makes from thin card.

It was a pleasure to chat with LiWei Chen again, whose gorgeous traditional Chinese paintings demonstrate great skill with brush and ink. She has recently begun painting on silk, a time-consuming and delicate process which can require up to 20 layers of watercolour paint - but the results are amazing. LiWei taught art at Yunnan University, China, then at the Multicultural Centre in Birkenhead. She still offers Chinese painting and calligraphy lessons for all age groups at her Phoenix Gallery in Bebington.

Life drawing by Adele Cosgrove-Bray; 8B pencil on cartridge paper; 2018.

Well, that was the end of the Wirral Open Studio Tour 2018 for me. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. As I've already mentioned, there was a large number of other venues that I simply couldn't get to due to time constraints and distance.

One thing which genuinely surprised me was being asked, by several artists, why I wasn't exhibiting my own work. I replied by saying I wasn't sure if it's ready yet, if exhibiting it wouldn't be premature. Almost as with one voice they all said effectively the same thing, that artists never feel ready, and to just dive in and go for it. I truly don't have a huge amount of material, yet...  Maybe, next year, I could borrow a corner of someone else's studio?

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