August 2022 Posts
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Remembering John and Margery Styles, founder members of Smith’s Academy.
07 August 2022
A solo show of new paintings by Kate Westbrook, ‘Writing the Song’, opens at the Brownston Gallery in Modbury, Devon on August 14th. We publish the text of a talk Kate gave at the opening of her Plymouth University Cube 3 exhibition ‘A Figurative Journey’ in November 2011.
“My first year at art school was at Bath Academy of Art in Corsham where we had some starry tutors including Howard Hodgkin. From there I went to Reading University where there were no starry names. The professor of Fine Art had been a student of Sickert. His admiration for Sickert led him to dress in the style of the master with cape, flat broad-brimmed hat and cane. The teaching at Reading was academic, good teachers with old fashioned skills. We did several life classes a week, and drawing from classical antiquity (plaster casts), and there was a lot of emphasis on the history of western art.
Between the two institutions with their very different approaches, I started to learn to draw and to learn something about making a personal vocabulary of colour and tone; that learning process of course continues until we die.
After University I went to live in America for a few years. There I was smitten by the Abstract Expressionists, Clyford Still, Sam Francis, Rothko. I still pursued a figurative visual world, but always taking as a basis abstract values. Into this visual language I introduced recognisable figurative, even narrative elements.
Frequently I find myself referring to ‘language’; painting and drawing are, after all, languages like any other, and require to be used every day if we are to remain fluent and proficient. I have found that if, for some reason, I don’t draw or paint every day, my use of the language falters, becomes stiff. So I do make sure I make some art every single day, even if it’s just a small watercolour in a sketchbook. There are a few sketchbooks on display in this show, including two that cover entire years so there are 365 small watercolour sketches, recording a glimpse of a moment on a particular day.
My first solo show was in Santa Barbara, California, in the beautiful Museum of Art there. By happy chance, in the adjoining gallery was a show by Terry Frost, already an established artist. His proximity meant I didn’t feel homesick. Subsequently I showed in a few group exhibitions in and around Los Angeles.
On returning to the UK I taught part time at Leeds College of Art. In the late 60s early 70s there was a great interest in performance art, installations and mixed media shows.
I got caught up with that movement, but still made figurative work. My solo show at the Serpentine Gallery in London comprised a room full of canvasses over 5 foot tall by approximately 3’6” wide and there was a soundscape running throughout the show designed by the sound artist John Darling taking my paintings as his starting point. This was I hope interesting for people walking around the show, rather less enjoyable for the curators who heard the 30 minute loop many, many times.
I think now that the great virtue of paintings is that they sit quietly on the wall and wait to be viewed, understood. Painting of the kind that I make goes in and out of fashion. Whilst keeping an open mind, one just has to be true to one’s own vision, not be beguiled by trends.
In 1974 I joined Mike Westbrook’s Brass Band and I gave up teaching to pursue a dual career as musician and as a painter. On quite a few occasions now I have had the pleasure of showing work in a Festival and, at the exhibition opening, doing a performance with Mike on keyboard and often with Chris Biscoe on saxophones. We have a Trio with Chris that celebrates its 30th anniversary next year. We have done the Trio ‘world tour’ when we almost went right round the globe.
Now I divide my time between the two disciplines. When I step out on stage with a band I feel ‘Ah yes this is where I belong’, equally when I go up into my studio I feel that I truly belong there. So I’m lucky to have both.
Since moving to the South West some 20 years ago I have become increasingly gripped by the landscape here, Dartmoor, St.Ives… Mike and I go to our small hut on the sea wall most days, being by the sea is an inpiration. By making pieces mostly of local landscape, I can immerse myself in that landscape and, if in the studio I lose freshness of response, I can go back and look again, and draw again and re-connect with my subject.
My starting point for a new painting is invariably a watercolour made in the landscape. These are my tools (current sketchbook, small watercolour box, pencil case, small palette and water bottle on a nearby table) One needs only half a dozen basic colours, good paper and sable brushes, hogs hair for oils. Always the best, otherwise you are starting out with the odds stacked against you.
I am sure a few of you are thinking ‘What about Alfred Wallis with his old cupboard doors and remnants of house paint?’ He made beautiful work with poor materials. Of course yes, and if forced by circumstance to manage with poor materials one would, but let’s have the best if we can.
I usually take a few photographs to supplement the sketch, but I am wary of relying on photographs, they tell another truth. My truth is about being in the place, interpreting the sensations of wind, sun whatever. When I confront the subject I open my eyes wide, register the image on my inner mind’s eye, close my eyes to fix the image. After making the watercolour I do the same again. This is a device I picked up from photographer Henri Lartique who used this means of making an image on his retina when he was still too young to be given a camera.
Every time I start a new painting, often of a subject I have tackled many times before, I always feel that surge of possibilities, the chance to get it right, the chance to tell the truth.
I’d like to end, before any questions and discussion that may arise, that I hope will arise, with two quotes from Cezanne in conversation with the writer Joachim Gasquet.
'Painting from nature is not copying the object, it is realizing sensations.'
'Painting must give us the flavour of nature’s eternity. So I join together nature’s straying hands. From all sides, here there and everywhere, I select colours, tones and shades; I set them down,'
Joining together nature’s straying hands ………………….Thank you.
Kate’s “Writing the Song” is on show at the Brownston Gallery, Modbury, Devon from 14th to 27th August 2022. See Diary for details.
'Writing the Song' 2022
oil on canvas (65x95cm)
Kate Westbrook in her studio
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