- 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)
Tuesday, 3 November 2009
Hippy Child Grows Up: Profile of Whyn Lewis published in Ecosse section of The Sunday Times on Nov 1, 2009
I first met Whyn Lewis at the Portal Gallery's Glasgow Art Fair stand back in March and then again at a preview of fellow Portal artist, Heather Nevay's London exhibition in her home a few weeks ago. Whyn was chatting to me and my artist pal, Sue Biazotti, with more than a little trepidation about her forthcoming show at the Portal, comparing the experience to putting her knicker drawer in display. A solo show is a nervewracking experience for most artists, but in a way, the nerves are a good thing as they show you care. It's a bit like going on stage, if you're not nervous, there must be something wrong. I interviewed Whyn last week for the Sunday Times and we had a great chat about her life and work. As a daughter-of-the-manse brought up in a fairly conventional Presbyterian setting, it seems hopelessly exotic to have been born into a hippy lifestyle on the road during the 1970s. Her mum, the singer Vashti Bunyan, was touted as the 'new Marianne Faithfull' in the 1960s and in recent times, her career has undergone a revival. The reality was very different, I am sure, but it appeals to my imagination no end...
“When I was little, my mum used to tell me and my two brothers not to compare ourselves to other families, because we weren’t like other families,” says Whyn Lewis. “It’s certainly true to say that when we were growing up, we didn’t have a ‘normal’ life,” she adds. “I was the original hippy child. My parents were living in a wagon in Peeblesshire with my older brother when I was born and we were constantly on the move. “I was named after the gorse bushes which were in full bloom at the time of my birth. It wasn’t like the cliché everyone expects, but it was definitely alternative.” Lewis, who is about to have her fourth solo show at London’s prestigious Portal Gallery, is fast becoming one of Scotland’s most highly-rated and collectable figurative artists. She paints, almost to the point of obsession, delicately rendered animals such as whippets, hares, deer and birds, their antennae twitching in the wind as they register the presence of other creatures in a complex and ever changing world. Each painting (which range in price from £1,000 to £10,000), takes more than a month to complete and glows with the quiet energy which Lewis herself has in the flesh. She is 36, but looks much younger. Tall and slim, with long dark hair and wide, soulful eyes, if you were comparing her to an animal, she could be a startled fawn suddenly disturbed in a forest clearing. If Saffy from Ab Fab was a cardboard cut-out progeny of a clichéd hippy mother, then Lewis, who is the daughter of Edinburgh-based cult singer songwriter Vashti Bunyan, is the real deal. Described recently as the ‘Godmother of Freak Folk’ for the way in which she has re-emerged onto the independent music scene to huge critical acclaim some 35 years after releasing her first album, Bunyan only realised she had a cult following around 10 years ago, when she bought her first computer and Googled her name. Now in her 60s, she is back on the road touring and gaining an army of new admirers. Bunyan’s second album, Lookaftering, released in 2005, features artwork on the sleeve by her daughter. Lewis’ front cover image of a startled hare, sits in tune beautifully with the understated, quietly lyrical mood of her music. “My animals are not perfect copies,” Lewis explains. “I don’t paint from life, but that painting was inspired by a real life encounter with a hare when I was living in the Borders before moving to Edinburgh. I was driving up my track and the hare ran out in front of me and just sat there eyeballing me. It was quite magical.” In many ways, Bunyan’s own story has shaped her daughter’s life and art, although Lewis says now that her mother didn‘t talk much about her musical past. “I vaguely knew about her knowing the Rolling Stones, but I didn’t know the details.” Bunyan was discovered playing guitar and singing in a Soho club by Rolling Stones guru, Andrew Loog Oldham in the mid-1960s and immediately signed to Decca. Her first single was a cover of the Mick Jagger/Keith Richards penned song, Some Things Stick in Your Mind. She was touted as The New Marianne Faithful and her first album, Just Another Diamond Day (recorded by legendary American music producer Joe Boyd and featuring members of The Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention) was released to critical acclaim in 1969. But, disillusioned with the music industry, and pregnant with Lewis’ older brother, Leif, Bunyan decided to head with boyfriend Robert Lewis, first to the Scottish Borders and then to the west coast of Ireland. According to Lewis, her parents ambition throughout her early childhood was to own their own home. They finally achieved this ambition when Lewis was nine, moving to a ramshackle farmhouse near Gartmore, in Stirlingshire, and putting down roots for the first time. “They didn’t live in all these different places because they particularly wanted to,” she explains. “They didn’t have any money. They really wanted to own their own home and they eventually achieved it through buying and selling goods in the way they’d been taught to by travelling people when we were on the road.” It was in this first real home (‘which I still dream about’) that Lewis started to gain a sense of rootedness to the land and the animals which inhabit it. “I feel very strongly that as a society, we have lost our connection to animals,“ she says. “Early man had to understand animals and they way they worked, but there is less need now, even though we share the same environment.“ It is this finely-tuned aesthetic which dominates Whyn Lewis work today. She never wanted to be anything else other that a painter, she says. “My parents encouraged all of us in our ambitions. They both said that we could do anything we wanted. “My little brother Ben wanted to be a basketball player from the age of four and he ended up going out to the west coast of America on a basketball scholarship. He’s 23 now and lives out in L.A. coaching and playing basketball with my older brother Leif, who’s a motorbike mechanic cum inventor!” Although the product of an alternative lifestyle, Lewis swam against the tide of artistic convention when she arrived at Glasgow School of Art in the early 1990s determined to follow through her ambition to be a painter. “Before I got there, Glasgow was a breeding ground for figurative art, but by the time I arrived it was all very conceptual. Nobody was painting. It was all 10ft canvases with nothing in it and I quickly realised I could only be myself.” Lewis’ muse during this seminal period as a developing artist was her pet whippet, Indie, a jet black quivering mass of insecurities and hyper-sensitivity. “I was given him by my parents for my 16th birthday and he suffered from terrible separation anxiety, so I ended up using him as my model because that way he could be with me at art school every day.” It is this quiet determination to plough her own furrow which has stood Lewis in good stead in her 14 years as a full-time artist. Portal Gallery director, Jess Wilder was first introduced to Lewis’ work by art curator Sheilagh Tennant who had seen her paintings in an exhibition nine years ago at The Open Eye Gallery in Edinburgh and instantly recognised her as a ‘Portal’ artist. “She has that real attention to detail which is a hallmark of a Portal artist,” explains Wilder, who has just overseen the 50th anniversary celebrations of the gallery which launched the career of a host of celebrated figurative artists, including John Byrne and Beryl Cook. “First-off you think Whyn’s paintings are just nice pictures of dogs or other animals, but when you dig deeper, they are so much more. They are extremely complex metaphors for life and how we live it, with a mix of fantastic detail and haunting beauty. “Whyn is an extraordinarily focused person who has a real following among our clients, particularly in the US. We usually sell every single painting in her solo exhibitions and I don’t see that this exhibition will be any different.” For this latest batch of paintings, Lewis has returned to familiar ground, with subject matter such as the hunter and the hunted (deer and deerhound) and a pair of hovering starlings caught mid-flutter. The backgrounds, as always, are heavily layered, and in one painting, Enchanted, the dense black lacquered feel of the background (made up of around a dozen layers of dark blue oil-paint) creates an almost tangible sense of foreboding, throwing into relief the beautifully detailed, almost louche portrayal of a deerhound (wearing a jewelled collar with the motif of a leaping white deer…) Although she usually works with plain backgrounds that accentuate her figures, she has been experimenting with tiny patterns in the background, which add yet another dimension to the work. Lewis candidly admits that like her mother, she suffers from crippling bouts of self-doubt. “Mum gets so nervous before she goes on stage, she‘s almost ill,” she says. “It never gets any easier,” she admits. “Earlier this year, I had a real crisis of confidence and started questioning why I wasn’t producing anything new and groundbreaking. “Then, in the midst of it, I went to see the Raphael to Renoir exhibition at the National Galleries of Scotland, which had drawings from the collection of the Swiss banker, Jean Bonna and was stopped in my tracks. “The drawing which caught me was Hans Hoffman' study of a wild boar piglet from the 16th century. “It reminded me of what I was doing and why; that it doesn’t matter if it’s not groundbreaking, as long as you put your heart and soul into it, which is what these artists did. I ended up going back to see the exhibition six times and every time, I was drawn back to that piglet. It was so delicate, it was actually heartbreaking. “These drawings were made with such patience and love and it’s incredible to think that 500 years on, these little scraps of paper still hold such magic.” Ends NEW PAINTINGS BY WHYN LEWIS The Portal Gallery 15 New Cavendish Street, London, W1G 9UB 020 7935 5222 www.portalgallery.com From November 9 - November 28