By Jan Patience
In Heather Nevay’s work, every picture tells a story. In her maker’s mind, the characters and the story are clear-cut, but for the beholder, each painting it is an open book, waiting to take on a life of its own.
Given the finely tuned sense of composition, colour and design inherent in Heather’s paintings, coupled with a fantastical imagination at work, it is no surprise to find her eyrie-like flat across the top floor of a Glasgow tenement throws away the modern interior design rule book, yet works in the most spectacular fashion.
Heather and her partner John Burke have lived in the same building in Glasgow’s west end for over 20 years, but 11 years ago, following a fire in the roof top flat a few floors further up when six student occupants had to be airlifted out by helicopter, they decided to make an offer on it and move up in the world.
“We knew that the landlord would not be able to let it out again for health and safety reasons,” she explains, “so we decided to make an early offer.
“I needed more room to work and we loved living in the area. It’s close to great shops, bars and restaurants in the west end and within walking distance of town. The views out over the rooftops to the Campsie Hills are special too.”
When the couple moved in, they had their work cut out. Not only had the interior been fire-damaged, but years of neglect and abuse had taken its toll on the fabric of the L-shaped apartment, which Heather thinks may have been used originally as servants’ quarters when the Victorian tenement was first built.
“It was dark and gloomy,” she adds. “There were horrible smelly carpets in the bathroom and the kitchen and there was no heating at all. Early on, we had to decide what room was what as all four rooms had been used as bedrooms.
“Initially, the room we now use as a little sitting room was a dining room, with the large lounge as the place we tended to sit in the evening.
“I also had my studio in the room which is now our bedroom, but a few years ago, we swapped things around and my studio is now at one end of the large room we had as a bedroom. I love to base myself around a window and that works as I paint at one end and we use the other part of the room as a guest bedroom.”
The flat has been a work in progress since they moved in, with the couple playing to their own individual strengths. As a civil engineer, John was able to deal with practical structural challenges, such as when they knocked through a wall in search of a chimneybreast and exposed more wall to the world than they had intended.
To tie in with Heather’s aim of ‘not having a fitted kitchen’, he created and customised the cabinetry in the kitchen. An old wardrobe has been painted and fitted with mouldings from B&Q to create more storage space. Elsewhere, on the wall connecting the hall and the lounge, he has installed a small porthole bought in a chandlery. Around the recess window’s, he has built shutters to preserve heat.
Heather likes to be surrounded by things not found in homes up and down the land. “There’s nothing wrong with buying furniture from IKEA, it’s just that it’s not for me,” she says. “We couldn’t afford to buy really expensive one-offs, so our leather sofas in the lounge, for example, were bought for next-to-nothing from classified ads in the local paper.
“I found the small green and white floral sofa and chair in the sitting room on Great Western Road in Glasgow, about to be lifted by the cleansing department. I called John to come back from work at lunchtime so he could lift it up to the flat with me.
“He’s very fastidious and was literally holding it at arms length because it was in such a disgusting state, but it was so jaunty I knew if I cleaned it up, had it reupholstered and covered, it’d look fantastic. And it does.”
Heather, whose degree from Glasgow School of Art, was in printed textiles, has honed her interior design eye over the years to master many new skills, including plastering a fireplace surround and mixing wallpaper paste and yellow paint to create a vivid backdrop for the lounge and the hall.
Her talent as an arranger of seemingly disparate objects is always to the fore, be it in the clever use of painted wooden chairs half way up the kitchen wall as extra shelving, or her humorous take of plonking her friend’s mum’s wedding tiara atop the bust of a little boy salvaged from a chemist where he’d been used as part of advertising campaign. In the lounge, hanging on a wooden screen on the living room, she has a pair of exquisite Chinese watercolour palettes she picked up in a market in Islington. She has customised the upper part of the palette with circular digital copies of two of her paintings.
In every corner of this apartment, from kitchen, to bathroom to lounge and hallway, there is something to hold your attention. Heather admits she is not keen on cupboards, so her world is on display in what feels like a living, breathing very well lived-in theatrical set. It’s not everyone who could get away with having a salvaged statuette of Jesus on a velvet-draped plinth with some nice artificial flowers on his head, but here, it works.
Everything in this house, be it artefact, icon, ornament, foliage, painting or stuffed animal in a glass case (of which there are many), has its own story, from the first ever stuffed animal she bought – an early Victorian version of the King Charles spaniel – to the most recent purchase; an antelope with impossibly twisted horns dating back to 1922.
Currently sitting on a chair in its glass case, Heather says she is unsure of the perfect position for this once wild beast, and it is this approach which sets her home apart from other interiors, where such a feast of detail would become simply a guddle in need of a good dusting.
The couple don’t have children of their own, but Heather’s sister’s children ‘love coming up here’ she declares. “They head straight for the stuffed animals. What they like – and what I love too – is the fact that normally you wouldn’t get so close to them. I mean, where would you normally see a badger? The other good thing is that they’re not difficult pets!”
As well as the stuffed animals, Heather and John also share their home with a pair of life-sized plaster sheep, made by the acclaimed Scottish sculptor, Angela Hunter. Heather and Angela swapped work a few years back and one stands in the lounge by a window, while its mate is in the couple’s bedroom, seemingly gnawing on a piece of foliage hanging above the bed.
As you would expect, the walls groan with original art, most of it by Heather, spanning the 20 years since she left art school. There are early figurative paintings in acrylic as well as the more recent unsettling oils of vignettes of children at play, and several examples of her exquisite hand drawn figures on paper.
In the lounge, she has work by other artists, including an original Jack Vettriano. A few years back, Heather exchanged work with the Fife-born painter, whose work now routinely sells for five figure sums. There is also a small painting by Glasgow-based Peter Thompson, with whom Heather recently exhibited at Glasgow’s Mansfield Park Gallery alongside Thompson’s wife Helen Flockhart. The specially commissioned painting of a Celtic/Rangers football match in Peter’s distinctive highly detailed style was a 40th birthday present for John – an avid Celtic fan.
The hub of the house is Heather’s studio, which like all artists’ spaces is highly personal. Postcards, posters and tear sheets from magazines of figures or faces cover the wall around the inset window. Many are from the Italian Renaissance era, a period that continues to be a constant inspiration in her work. Heather is often to be found in here until late at night, with Radio 4 or a Talking Book for company as she paints.
To the outsider, this space might seem like an essay in ordered chaos, but to Heather it provides constant inspiration – a window on her alternative universe.
WHAT HEATHER LIKES
I’m always rooting about in antique shops and auction houses. My favourite ones are Great Western Auctions and Authentics in Glasgow’s west end and The Thrie Estaits in Edinburgh. If any of them have something they know I’ll like, they call me.
The Mexican painter Frida Kahlo has been an inspiration for many years. Some people have drawings their kids have done on the fridge. I have a picture of Frida.
The Renaissance period in painting fascinates me and informs my work. I particularly like the work of the German painter Lucas Cranach and Hans Memling, a 15th century Flemish painter.
The flat is crammed with stuffed animals, but my favourite has to be the first one I bought – the wee King Charles spaniel, with his jaunty red bow and impossibly tiny jaw. Though I do like my otter in the studio.
As soon as I spotted a wood carving of a seated figure folding its arms to its chest in the Thrie Estates, I knew I had to have it. It dates back to Tudor times and it’s my favourite object in our house. We keep it in our bedroom.
If we ever have any time out, we head to Tighnabruaich, which is a couple of hour’s drive away from Glasgow.
Our favourite restaurant and bar is Stravaigin, which is just a walk away from us on Gibson Street, in Glasgow’s west end.
I love New York, but Italian cities inspire me in every way. John’s mum is from Naples, so that is a great excuse to visit – and we love Italian food.
For more details on exhibitions about Heather’s work, see www.nevayburke.freeserve.co.uk and www.portal-gallery.com
- The story so far
- I'm an arts journalist & PR consultant living and working in Scotland. I've been a journalist for more than 25 years. I write a regular column for Scottish quality newspaper, The Herald. I deliver a PR service with an arty bent and work on a consultancy basis with arts organisations, including Scotland's leading creative industries festival, XpoNorth & broadcast support body, ScreenHI. I am currently co-writing a book about the celebrated Scots artist, George Wyllie, with his daughter Louise. Instrumental in making a celebration of his life's work happen in 2012. For more information, see www.georgewyllie.com When I'm not being a mum/working, I talk to my dog. He laps it up. Contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org (All work © Jan Patience)