In conversation with Painter Emma Stroude

I was raised in the North of England and studied in London at Chelsea School of Art and The Slade. After that I headed to Dublin where I lived for 6 years before falling in love with the North West and moving to Sligo in 2002.  Ireland’s history and Atlantic coastline influence the two diverse themes which run parallel in my practice. One stems from my interest in women’s role in Irish history resulting in an ever evolving series of charcoal portraits of key female figures. The other is born from my fascination with relationships between light, water and the landscape.

Emma Widows Studio Shot

How did you come to being a full time artist?   I reached a time in my life when it was ‘now or never’. My job had become all consuming and I knew that I had given it all that I had to offer. If I didn’t give myself the chance to become a full time artist I would have been left with the ‘what if?’ question for the rest of my life. It has been very difficult from a financial point of view but I have no regrets.

Talk us through a typical working week.   My ideal working week would be studio Monday to Thursday and on Fridays I facilitate Graphite & Easel life drawing sessions at The Model in Sligo. I find that weekly life drawing supports my studio practice immensely. But it’s rare that a week is as straight forward as that depending on upcoming exhibitions, applications, research, meetings etc. One week is rarely the same as the next…..but that makes for an interesting life!

What artists do you admire? 

I could give you a long list here……..

Kathe Kollwitz is a favourite for her sensitivity of line. She gets so much from so little.

Piet Mondrian’s trees are a fascination of mine. They’re so beautiful and you can see the abstraction coming long before it clearly manifests itself in his work.

Dégas, Vermeer and Caravaggio for light.

Paula Rego and Balthus for atmosphere and the suggestion of a story.

Jenny Saville for pushing the out the boundaries of work on the body.

Rothko for sheer emotion.

I think I’d better stop here.

Do you keep notebooks, have you a system when approaching your work and do you prefer solitary practice or group activities?    I do keep notebooks that contain mostly scribblings of words and ideas that I want to hold on to for my work rather than drawings. I find sketchbooks a bit limiting as I enjoy the more physical side of drawing and the pages never seem quite big enough.   I do prefer solitary practice in the studio. I like the quiet and the chance for clear thought. I went to Cill Rialaig on a residency just before Christmas and was completely blown away by the experience of being able to work solidly for a week without interruption. After a few days my mind felt emptied of the clutter and able to think and see clearly for the first time in a long time. I have recently however stepped outside of my comfort zone and worked on a collaborative project between Joe Hunt (projection designer), The Hyde Bridge Gallery in Sligo and myself called Spotlights and Shadows, part of Sligo’s 1916 Commemorations. I have to say this has been a brilliant experience and the results have surpassed my original expectations so I’m definitely open to working in this way again.

Kathleen On the Wall Spotlights & Shadows 2016The Portrait in all of its guises is a signature of your style.  Can you explore this for us, describe what you see.   Whether it be a person or a house or even a landscape, I do tend to draw/paint them as portraits. I guess I’m back to that search for a presence on the canvas. When I’m working on the women I imagine that they are already inside the canvas waiting to be found and it is my work to find them and reveal them rather than to put them on the surface myself. There is a definite moment when a presence emerges and a dialogue between me and the subject begins. Following that the struggle is in finding a state of resolve where both of us can exist independently of the other and I can walk away without feeling compelled to return and work some more.

 Do you have a favourite form of artistic medium? Is there one that you find particularly challenging?   I am addicted to oils when it comes to painting and find now that I cannot step outside of that, nothing else can give me what I am looking for in my work. When drawing, charcoal on a fine grain canvas is definitely my favourite. The canvas is robust enough to take vigorous work where paper cannot. I can use water, brushes, rags, anything that comes to hand for making the right mark and the canvas will stand up to it.

In this centenary year of 2016 you were drawn towards working on images of the ‘Women of the Rising’, tell us a bit about that, how did you approach your subjects? Was it a difficult process?  Making work on the Women of the Rising has been the result of an unusual chain of events and twists of fate. I had just left my full time job and was taking part in drawing sessions lead by Michael Wann at The Model to try and get back to my own practice as an artist. Originally my intention was to challenge myself to develop my skills in working figuratively and in portraiture as up until 2012 my work had been largely abstract. I was looking for an interesting face to draw and trawling the internet came upon a photograph of Maud Gonne. Her strong bone structure and defiant gaze appealed to me. I felt she was telling me to step up to the mark, to be fearless and courageous in my approach and that she would settle for nothing less. I drew her over and over again in an effort to find weight and substance in the drawings, searching for a presence on the page. The more I drew the more interested I became in who she was and I began to research her life, discovering that she was very fitting subject matter for the challenge I had set for myself, fearlessness and determination being values she held dear and ones I felt I needed to possess to carry out the work I had begun.

Sinéad McCoole, author of Easter Widows, saw my drawings on line and asked me to show them at her book launch in Sligo. Already interested now in the era and in Maud Gonne’s work as an activist, when I discovered the subject matter of the book I felt compelled to make portraits of the 7 women whom the book is about, whose husbands were all executed for their part in The Easter Rising of 1916. Maud Gonne was of course among them. Inspired by their stories and the remarkable lives they lead I have continued to research more women. The latest works are portraits of Margaret Skinneder, Elizabeth O’Farrell and Constance Markievicz.

Making portraits of women from the early 1900s is difficult as I am limited to using photography that can sometimes be of poor quality. I try to use the photographs as starting points and develop the drawing beyond the photograph, my ultimate aim is to reignite a presence on the canvas and to somehow do justice to the memory and the legacy of the person I am drawing.

Would you consider politics an important aspect in your work?   I don’t want to make a political statement with the work, rather my intention is to make work about women from a female perspective and present it to the viewer for their own consideration. Hopefully the work arouses curiosity in some of the more hidden personal stories of 1916 rather than the political ones.

How does family life affect your work? Does it inform your practice?   I don’t think it informs my practice but it definitely shapes it. We’re a one car family of five so after dropping the kids to school it’s straight to the studio for 9.30 until 2pm when I have to hit the road again. I like the routine of this though and I find the rhythm of it suits my practice. I try to keep practical work to my studio time and any admin type work at the laptop for the evenings.

The North West is a very fertile area for artists and creative alike. Was this a factor in your deciding to live here?   It wasn’t but I actually felt quite overwhelmed when I immersed myself in the art world of the North West 4 years ago and discovered such a dynamic community of artists willing to share information and eager to push each other forward as well as developing their own careers as artists. I’m hoping that I can pay forward some of the generosity shown to me in these early years of becoming a full time artist.

My studio is actually at the home of another Sligo artist, Lorna Watkins and although we work separately (she has her studio at The Model) we do bounce ideas off each other and use each other as sounding boards, a friendship and working relationship that I am truly grateful for.

Emma Stroude’s work relating to 1916 can currently be seen in ‘100’ at LUAN Gallery Athlone, ‘NWO’ at Leitrim Sculpture Centre and ‘Spotlights & Shadows’ at The Hyde Bridge Gallery Sligo (After dark). A solo exhibition of new work ‘Glow’ will begin at Hamilton Gallery, Sligo on May 5th. Please visit her website for more details – www.emmastroude.com

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