My mum is an artist. Okay, I imagine you are reading this and reaching for a phone and the social services number. I understand your concerns, I really do. But, no, she is not a conceptual artist. She does not paint using elephant dung, or photograph her unmade bed, or wrestle with sharks to encase them in formaldehyde. My mum is a traditional painter. Although you could be forgiven for not being entirely sure what that means anymore. The notorious Turner Prize and the writings of the latest, eminent art critics have rather blurred the lines. Please allow me to remind you. Traditional painting involves the timeless tools of the trade. The artist’s senses are invaded by the feel of hog hair bristles in brushes; the sight of brilliant colour from the tubes of pigment; and the smell of turpentine fumes. Further, the knowledge and understanding of these materials is used to produce representational pieces that do not require a first-class degree in philosophy to enjoy and understand the work.
Mum considers herself to be a ‘Contemporary, Scottish Colourist’. What does that actually mean? You may well ask. Well, it means she has ruthlessly swiped the term ‘Colourist’ from the famous group of artists that included Samuel Peploe and Francis Cadell. The title was purposefully purloined in the vain hope that some of the glory associated with these guys would rub off on her and ultimately lead to tremendous fame and fortune. She is typical of her type. I mean, if you have had the pleasure of being in the company of artists you will know that they present as ethereal creatures. They assume a disinterested stance. Artists outwardly reject any form of financial gain, whilst all the time looking to their next scam. I know this, because, I have been educated at mother’s knee. I have watched, listened, and absorbed the trickery involved in ascending the greasy pole of artistic success.
In her previous life, mum was a teacher. In those days, despite a long commute and a challenging day at the chalk face, we (dad and I) were guaranteed a hot meal and clean attire. I often reminisce about those happy times. Nowadays, there is cause for celebration if there is a morsel of food in the cupboards or clean underwear in the drawers. I’m not talking Bleak House here, but the pendulum has definitely swung. Dad and I have been abandoned for the sake of art. But don’t write us off just yet. We are steadily adjusting to our new reality. He has finally worked out how to put detergent into the washing machine and I can just about ‘heat’ a supermarket pizza. Sometimes I have to squeeze myself into tiny, misshapen woollens and he has to eat inedible, undercooked cuisine, but we shall soldier on. Meanwhile, upstairs in the ‘studio’, our old lounge, the ‘New Scottish Colourist’ strides back and forth, back and forth in front of the easel, unaware, and unencumbered by domestic chores.
The studio, otherwise known as the ‘Sanctuary’, is a sacred place. Here, surrounded by the paraphernalia associated with her craft, stalks the artist. She who must not be disturbed in any circumstances. Once, in dire need of some love I tried to attract her attention by shouting, “fire, fire”, only to hear a muffled retort referring to that tired, old fable concerning boys and wolves. According to her, this level of detachment is crucial to the application of her brand of ‘sorcery’.
My mum considers herself an ‘alchemist’. A long time ago, she happened upon a book focused on the correlation between science and art, and since then has been banging on about the similarities between the scientist and the artist. She says, “It is all about gaining the knowledge and experience of the elements to produce something spectacular”. As a junior scientist, I disagree, but try arguing with her. I accept that she knows her Phthalocyanine Blue from her Indanthrene Blue, but does she know the composition of these paints – I don’t think so. I was once privy to an in-depth conversation with a sales assistant regarding the attributes of Lapis Lazuli paint. She enquired why it was so expensive, and the assistant explained that the manufacturer had travelled to Afghanistan to mine for the pigment. Now, would you risk your life in this manner? I think not. So, whilst being switched on about finance in some ways, artists are also highly susceptible to every peddler and quack who promises the elixir of success.
Success – that elusive goal. In contemporary times, meaning access to the most prestigious galleries and a healthy following on social media (Leonardo would have loved Facebook). Lately, there has been a certain level of progress. Mum, an acknowledged self-publicist has touted her work around the galleries and through gritty determination is now hanging in some decent places. Clarification required here – artist terminology for being included in an exhibition, she is not physically hanging; although, sometimes that would be the desired effect. Apologies, I digress, after a miss-spent childhood (in and around art galleries) I have gained quite a critical eye. In my opinion, there have been incremental improvements in the work. At the risk of sounding obsequious, the Hebridean landscapes have actually evolved aesthetically, and, now, rightly deserve some critical acclaim.
The thorny price of critical acclaim in the art business is the interaction with the galleries. Without labouring the point, gallery owners are a whole different species to the rest of civilisation. They can be pompous, contemptuous, fastidious and vindictive. As a generalisation, this description is pretty accurate. That’s the nice ones. First, getting a foot in the door can prove a Herculean task. They guard their walls and clientele like Cerberus guarding the gates to Hades. To deal with them you need a first-class degree in psychology. If you are too eager, they sniff you out like a pig going after truffles. An insouciant stance is required for this sport. A certain chutzpah. Throw open the door, swagger in, ignore the proprietor and throw down the gauntlet (I mean the paintings). This usually works. Sometimes, a particularly recalcitrant one gets the sunglasses and gum chewing treatment. Mum is good at that one. The teaching years have helped.
I have just described the entry. The exit is far worse. Sometimes, nothing has sold, meaning that mum has to return to the gallery, tail between the legs, eyes lowered, to collect the unsold work. Sunglasses and gum abandoned. Occasionally, there has been a sale – much celebration and then no mula. When the time comes to collect payment, the elusive gallery owner has ‘gone to a funeral of a dear friend’ or is usually skulking through the back. I know you are thinking this kid is prone to mass exaggeration, but, no, this is a reliable, witness account of the seesaw world of the artist. Lots of dirty derriere and less soaring through the sky. It’s a tough old game. But, mum’s a tough old bird.
This portrait might at times appear somewhat unbalanced, leaning more towards the negative, but that is not the full picture. The reality is that mum is doing something she loves, meaning that she is amenable as long as she has had a successful day at the easel. When teaching, she would come home like a bear with a sore head. There are pleasant jaunts around the country to doorstep the aforementioned ‘charming’ gallery owners; and a planned photographic trip to Stornoway in September. She is to be photographed in the pose of her beloved Joan Eardley (the famed Scottish artist) knee deep in the waves in front of her easel. You couldn’t make it up! But best of all, the pursuit of her goal has rendered her oblivious to the swathes of time I spend playing blood-thirsty computer games and eating carry-out – she was always a dreadful cook. So, life with an artist isn’t so bad after all. In fact, at times, it is rather good.