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Artists in lockdown

Words by Mercedes Smith

With exhibitions cancelled or postponed from the start of 2020, artists in Cornwall have found their careers unexpectedly on pause.

‘Wait a Moment’ – Jessica Cooper

That said, they have instead had a unique opportunity to express our shared experience of the pandemic through their work, as these three very different painters explain.

Figurative Painter, Jessica Cooper RWA

“At first, I sort of let Covid-19 pass me over. My son was teaching in Shanghai and he returned to the UK at the start of February just as everything kicked off. I felt, at the time, that he was overreacting by coming home, but obviously I was wrong. I spent lockdown at home in Newlyn. My studio is only a short walk from my house, and I was able to work in isolation there. The pandemic affected my creativity from one extreme to another. At first, I worked a lot, preparing for a scheduled show in May. This was strange as the gallery and I were more focused on promoting the show through social media and a virtual reality platform, rather than physically curating the work. I then reached a real low, where I felt there was no point in anything, let alone creating work that may never be seen in the flesh. I threw out a lot of notes and sketch book work and got rid of thirty or so paintings so that the frames could be re-stretched. I thought a lot about life, and about myself as a person, and about the human race. Then I had a huge surge of creativity: I felt lucky that I was able to create and have an outlet away from the turmoil. The solitude of my studio was hugely cathartic, but also raw and emotion fuelled. I worked on a series of flower paintings, I think because flowers are a familiar subject for me and gave me a feeling of safety in this uncertain time.

“The crisis has made me appreciate that as artists, we are used to relying on a certain resilience and living ‘on the edge’, so adapting to change is probably easier for us. I have also found it interesting that, during lockdown, the importance of art and creativity in our lives has become more apparent and more acknowledged. I also spent a lot of time thinking about my practice and where to take it in the future. I am starting a ceramics course, working on some design collaborations, and thinking about a subject for my next short film. My painting, however, will always come first.”

‘Summertime’ and ‘You know how much you are loved’ – Jessica Cooper

‘Starting afresh’ – Trudy Montgomery

Abstract Painter, Trudy Montgomery

“My husband and I considered isolating even before the lockdown, but I was resistant to the curtailment of my freedom. I felt the need to stay grounded in my body and not fall into fear, which is itself like a virus and weakens the immune system. Quite early on I stopped watching the daily news bulletins and focused instead on keeping my inner space clear. I did a lot of meditation and tried to keep fit. I am lucky to have a large studio at our home, so I spent a lot of time painting during lockdown. My creativity became a lifeline as I struggled to process complicated feelings. It is easy to see now how the paintings I made then were a reflection of my inner landscape: at the beginning, in April, I simply could not have mixed the kind of joyous palettes that I was mixing by the end of the summer. Being able to paint from an intuitive space, and express different emotions through colour and gesture, helped me stay present and out of fear. As constrictions began to ease I started to mix lighter, brighter colours. I made a painting called ‘Breakout’ at this time, which reflects the desire to break free.

“My experience of lockdown has made me appreciate freedom and our ability to choose for ourselves. Much of the non-essential has dropped away in favour of things of real value – our heart connections with others and our bonds of affection. I loved witnessing all the incredible resilience and creativity, and people coming together as new communities were forged. In the art world, the wonderful #artistsupportpledge initiative from British artist Matthew Burrows ignited a huge movement that allowed people to buy artwork for under £200 direct from artists via Instagram posts. I know of several artists who really thrived under this initiative. Now that the worst of the pandemic is over, I have an impulse to return to brighter colour and simplified forms with an assertiveness that was not previously there. Painting this way is what brings me joy, and now, doing what you love to do seems more important than ever.”

‘Doorway to the Light’ and ‘Breakout’ – Trudy Montgomery

Top: ‘Ferns of Hawkes Point’ – Emma Jeffryes

Above: ‘Porthminster Tranquility’ – Emma Jeffryes

Seascape Painter, Emma Jeffryes

“Like many people, I was shocked by the reality of Covid-19, and anxious about the uncertainty it brought. Ironically, the most important professional event of my year - my annual solo show at New Craftsman Gallery - was scheduled to open the day after lockdown began. The paintings were hung and the catalogues had been posted, then suddenly the preview evening was cancelled, St. Ives became a ghost town and not one person was able to see my exhibition. This, however, was when the gallery’s social media streams came to the fore, and to my relief collectors began buying online: I will never be more thankful that people continued to buy my work.

‘Summer Drinks Table’ – Emma Jeffryes

“I spent lockdown at our home in Carbis Bay, where I have my studio. What was central to my experience as an artist in lockdown was the fact that the human world stood still: the peace and calm absolutely transformed our world, and having that allocated time for daily exercise was the perfect excuse to experience it. What was most incredible was to be able to observe, in detail, the gradual unfurling of spring. It was as if it was happening in slow motion, and I didn’t have to miss any of it. The local lanes became prolific with vibrant yellow gorse and white hawthorn blossom, which looked snow-like, adorning the rows of trees. Then the gardens of Carbis Bay came alive with colour and vibrance, with blossoms on fruit trees, spring flowers and early flowering shrubs such as azaleas and rhododendrons. It was truly a spectacle to me. The bird life seemed more prevalent than ever, and as we moved into early summer the hedgerows came alive with fresh, luscious greenery, all dotted with wildflowers. I spent time photographing and making sketches, totally transfixed, and wandered the beaches: it was captivating to see them so deserted.

Lockdown absolutely made me appreciate, in more detail, the world around us, and reminded me how pivotal it is to my work to continually observe it. This year’s crisis will definitely affect the work I produce in the coming year and, I almost feel guilty in saying, in a positive way: I have returned to experiencing life in the way that I find most inspirational. Now is where the work really starts.” (for Emma Jeffryes)

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