I grew up in the foothills of the Peak District and under the broodingly beautiful canopy of its millstone grit skyline I played out my childhood. It was only when I was older that I fully realised how forming that landscape and location had been in the development of my artistic sensibilities.
From a very young age I was introspective, deriving most of my pleasures from my own imagination and creativity. As soon as I was able to grasp a chubby wax crayon between my fingers I started making my own personal little marks on paper and anything else that presented itself to me as a canvas for expression. I once drew a green line around the entire interior of my primary school, dividing it into half, for the sheer kinetic thrill of feeling that connection between hand, crayon and wall. I was also fascinated by the reaction. After-school detention for the entire school until the culprit stepped forward. An early lesson in life learned from this artistic adventure was that not everyone was going to appreciate or understand your art.
As I grew so I gravitated from baby crayons to grown-up colour pencils, sleek and silky in a much wider range of colours. With more control over the tools and the media I tried my hand at fashion for paper dolls. I used to buy the Bunty comic (with pocket-money) and design my own clothes for the cut-out model to supplement the meagre amount that the editors squeezed onto the back page. Then it was horses. I never owned a horse of my own (and indeed I never rode one till I was in my 20s) but I read any novels about girls and horses that I could get my hands on and drew pictures – inspired by the prose – usually of white stallions with flowing manes and tails in full gallop across grand vistas.
In my teens, I read the Daily Telegraph over my father’s shoulder (paying no attention to the politics) and discovered the fashion design of Veronica Papworth. I quickly developed my own version of a stylised model with huge eyes, flicked-up hair, square shoulders and endlessly long legs who served as the skeleton for my increasingly zany dress designs – we were in the 60s now – and colour was everything!! I knew her so well that I could draw her with my eyes shut – same shape, different outfit – and she figured frequently in the margins of my school exercise books.
My father’s choice of newspaper coincided with our upwardly mobile move from a small, semi-detached house to a much bigger detached mansion (everything seems so much larger when you are young) with mock stained glass windows and central heating – albeit provided by storage heaters. Situated as it was in a street with much more personal space around each house, it was now possible to view the peaks of Disley and Macclesfield in the distance. Although we couldn’t actually see Lyme Hall itself, we could see the dark hills that enclosed it – white-capped in winter. I used to lean against my parent’s bedroom window sill (they had the front bedroom with the commanding views) and visualise the dark shadows and fissures skulking beneath the black jagged outline of peaks and the clouds that scudded over them.
Somehow, despite all my day-dreaming and doodling in school books, I made it to the local grammar school. I chose Art as an option for one of my O’Levels and was taught for five years by a wonderful lady that we christened ‘Batty’ because she was so delightfully eccentric. She allowed us to paint whilst listening to Led Zeppelin and was a complete advocate of the belief that art was enhanced by anything psychedelic or hallucinogenic. She also taught me how to exercise control over tone by making me paint thousands of squares of greens – in a kind of gross patchwork grass blanket – but where each square differed from the next so very subtly. When I studied the work of Gwen John, much later, I think I only really grasped her command of tone because of that study in green. I also recall, very gratefully, being taught calligraphy (how to paint letters, though, not how to write them in pen) which is why I think I still take delight in the art of handwriting – which is largely what it is these days – an art! I was less grateful (at the time) for being taught how to draw accurate ellipses. I’m not sure I ever completely mastered them.
In the first year of my A Level studies, when Art History had been added to my Art syllabus (oh joy of joys) I thought that my future was all mapped out – I would go to university and graduate with everything I needed to set myself up as a professional artist. What a time that would have been ….. to be an artist in the city of London in the still-swinging seventies ….. had it been my time. But it wasn’t. Very shockingly, for those times, my parents divorced and I was catapulted into the world of work. My education ended abruptly and was replaced by a nomadic lifestyle in which I drifted from one uninteresting job to another. I tried uprooting again. I left the peaks behind me and went south, to sea-level where the horizon was far-less interrupted and the blues were warmer. As restless, unsettled and unfocused as I was, I did stick with the art. I maintained a portfolio of sketch-books and took the occasional commission. My favourite, to this day, was the request to produce a drawing of a lion that would be used as the design for the back of a man’s leather jacket. I still have the original pencil drawing, which reminds me of how wonderful it was to see your work in-situ as a living, moving entity. I like to think of it now as the fore-runner for installation art. When I see the intricate and ornate tattoos that are possible now, I often think I missed a trick.
Marriage, children and two careers (advertising and newspapers) eventually defined me as a person with more demonstrable structure to my life until an all-too-brief adventure in America placed a period at the end of that part of my life. Back in England with young children, no money and no prospects for their future I decided that I needed to complete my education. I took A Levels (Art and English) and then completed one year of a two-year part-time Art Foundation Diploma before being accepted onto an Art Degree in York. Some of the work in my gallery comes from these years and whilst it seems naive now, I am quite nostalgic about it. It’s another demonstration of how memories are formed not just from what we remember seeing, doing and feeling at a given place and in a given time period, but exactly where we were at the time, who we were with and how influential the context was on the way we store and rekindle those memories.
The plan, again, albeit geared towards my children this time, was to achieve a career as an Art teacher, settle down in a family home, become part of a local community and give my children the stability they needed. One day, when they were grown and gone, I would then have that studio and become ‘an artist’.
Yet again domestic traumas (my own divorce this time) forced a re-think about the likelihood of art being a route to financial security for a single mother with young children. I intercalated, at the end of my first undergraduate year, to a different university, in a different town, on a different course. I switched to Journalism and I moved to Cornwall so that I could study at the internationally renowned Falmouth College of Arts. This was not as bizarre a series of choices as it may seem. I had always excelled in English (alongside Art) and I had already worked in the newspaper industry so it made sense to capitalise on previous skills and experiences and graduate in a subject that was more likely to provide good employment. The art career took a backseat once more and even though I promised myself that I would paint as a pastime, the time and opportunity eluded me over the next few years.
I graduated with a first-class honours degree in Journalism and also completed a Master’s Degree at Exeter University. Everything that followed on from here has been as influential on my art practice as everything that did or did not precede it. New Media hit us in the late 80s and I designed my very own static web site whilst still an undergraduate in the mid 90s. At Exeter I was asked to teach a creative writing course online so I further honed my burgeoning web design skills but alongside this, the development of my creative writing (short stories and poetry) fused a connection (like a new synaptic pathway being formed) in my mind between images and words that refuses to burn out and probably started on that first day when ‘Batty’ instructed me to paint the letter ‘O’ at a slight angle (but not italicised) on a huge canvas and make sure all the ellipses were perfectly accurate. I will be exploring this in the near future – in a variety of ways – graphic design, calligraphy, illustration – a melting pot of these forms and influences that will shape my personal inquiry into the semantic significance of words and images combined – so watch this space!
Back to the past and the present – and by a serendipitous series of events – I became a college lecturer in Film, Media and English, starting in 1998. Thus my love affair with the camera started – and both the still and the moving image. I did take a photography elective at university so I knew how to shoot, develop, print and enlarge my own black and white images but new media technologies and communications were developing at such a rate from the 90s onward that you had to embrace them quickly if you wanted to stay in the loop, technically, commercially, artistically ….
I learned how to shoot and edit video. I taught students how to make short films, music videos, advertisements, trailers etc. These technical and artistic skills had to be underpinned by good writing and drawing for story boarding and scripting. I also taught print and web media production so I was able to maintain and improve my own portfolio of photographic images and copy, which is always a refreshing and challenging alternative to pure fiction. Traditional (linear) media evolved rapidly into digital media and the potential for creative expression went through the roof. I learned how to harness the power of Photoshop and Illustrator even while I was still astonished that such software could replace the environments and components of the developing room and the art studio.
The beauty of all of this was the backdrop. All the location filming and still photography was done in the far west of Cornwall with its famous light, beaches, cliffs and moors documented and immortalised in art, fiction, film and television. Again, as with my northern influences, this stunning stage provided direct and indirect impetus for my own art – which at this time I increasingly saw as a secretive pursuit, a guilty pleasure to be indulged in on rare, stolen occasions.
My children grew as I continued to work in my new profession and build this solid career. Many of the resources that I produced for students were stashed away as potential art projects and in the quiet hours of the night when I wasn’t marking examination papers, planning lessons, making tea, refereeing sibling disputes or ironing shirts I would get them out and beaver away at them. Around this time I joined a small but prestigious writer’s group in Penzance, which hosted and judged annual international writing competitions and produced an anthology of selected member’s works. I was invited to illustrate some of poetry and short stories for the other writers in the next anthology and was also fascinated to see how my work was illustrated by others.
Fast-forward … after over twenty years of teaching in creative subjects and nudging my children from under-graduate life to working in lucrative professions in the ‘big smoke’ … I have finally retired from teaching. I was well-prepared for it. Not only did I take financial advice on how to manage myself in my ‘golden’ years, I also started saving all my images on hard drives and in clouds. I scanned those pictures that were small enough to fit on the glass. The rest I photographed for perpetuity.
So, I am almost ready to move to a new country and a new studio. There’s a story in itself there but that’s going to be delivered in blog format – small, manageable but exciting chunks that will explain how I got from where I was (see above) to where I’m headed. In the meantime I have been building my art page on Facebook and uploading all my latest pictures. This was an exercise that was designed to prepare me for constructing this web site. The fact that you are reading this biography means that I must have succeeded. This is definitely an organic web site. It will grow. I will add my work to it regularly as will I write my blog and add other connected pages (that one about words and images, for example).
There is one acknowledgement that I want to make here that I think is fitting because it draws together all the threads of my life and my art and, sort of, explains them. When I was an undergraduate in York I took a module in Creative Writing under the tutelage of Paul Mills. You can read his biography here. I liked his poetry and he told me something of his life. It turned out that he, like me, had lived in both the English Peaks and the rolling hills of Southern California. He had seen a ‘connection’ between them that he could only describe in his poetry. You should read it. It’s something about gazing at something in the near distance that is forbidding, monumental and over-shadowing yet also beautiful, beckoning and promising. The modern artists of St. Ives have shown it over and over again as an ancient yet modern joining of humanity, landscape, knowing and feeling, that is spiritual and inescapable. I don’t know if Paul has ever been to Cornwall. I’ll have to ask him but the longer I’ve lived here the more his poetry makes sense to me – whether he has or not. Something that has nothing whatsoever to do with art (I don’t think) is the coincidence that he went to the same school in Cheshire that I taught at most recently before retiring. I lived for a brief time at the Staffordshire end of the Peak District and this school was on the flat Cheshire plains. Every night I would drive home eagerly, in an Easterly direction, with my eyes fixed on those dark humps.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this. When I read it back I see that it’s an account of how it’s possible to keep a flame alive, despite the distractions of real life constantly threatening to extinguish it. I think my flame is now burning steadily rather than flickering. Please keep coming back to feel the heat.
Elayne Kershaw, 2018