Passing the brush to new artists

Suffolk artist Joy Pirkle has an enviable reputation as a portrait painter having immortalised people like Frankie Dettori, Karen Pickering and David Sheepshanks.

Andrew Clarke

Suffolk artist Joy Pirkle has an enviable reputation as a portrait painter having immortalised people like Frankie Dettori, Karen Pickering and David Sheepshanks. Now she is passing on her skills to Suffolk's school children. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to her.

Suffolk artist Joy Pirkle has been passing on some of the secrets of good portrait painting to pupils at Farlingaye High School in Woodbridge. The pupils have been enjoying a series of workshops with Joy which lead to Joy painting their portraits as well as passing on practical art advice.

The workshops were based on exploring the idea of self-image as part of greater school-wide programme which included looking at healthy-eating and healthy lifestyles.

Joy, who was artist-in-residence at seven Suffolk schools in 2002, said that the whole idea of self-image was very important at the moment because of the whole controversy surrounding the fact that magazine editors routinely airbrushed already beautiful looking people to create that perfect person.

“The art department thought that as their contribution to the whole healthy-lifestyle debate they would look at self-image.” Joy said she was delighted to come into school and help as her children Kenny, Loretta and William were pupils at the school.

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“It's a wonderful opportunity to work with young people and to give something back to the school.”

Joy said that she toured the school with staff looking for colourful and interesting pupils to turn into portraits, while at the same time passing on portrait techniques to art students and promoting the idea of positive self-image.

With pupil Emilie Jane Osborne, she even re-created the famous painting Girl With The Pearl Ear-ring. “The idea is that the art class is running alongside my work, so there can be exchange of information. They can see what I am doing and I can see them. There is quite a lot of interaction between the pupils and myself.”

She said that one of the benefits of having an artist-in-residence at a school was that their knowledge and influences percolated down into the pupils work and showed themselves over time.

“It doesn't necessarily come out straight away but as pupils gain experience, gather confidence, you find that ideas planted by the artist find their way into the pupils work.

“As their ideas evolve you can see that having seen an artist at work, having spoken with an artist and exchanged ideas then this all comes together in their own work.”

Joy says she is very keen to get communities involved in making art. “This has always been part of the reason I have done residencies because it brings together different strands of our society, people with different experiences and gets people talking and communicating with one another.

“Every community project I have done I have been working with children with low self-esteem or doing pieces of public art which helps raise the profile of working through art. There are two strands to my work - my own work, which is normally as far away from portraits as I can get it, just so I can have a balance in my work an then the otherside of what I do is being placed in situations where either art has taken a back seat in a school - there are children with either social or emotional problems so portraits are good way to help find something that they like about themselves. That's something I have done since 2002 and since then I have come into contact with a vast number of children.”

She said that by getting children working on portraits helps them take a look at themselves in a different light. She said when she toured Farlingaye looking for subjects for her portraits she wasn't necessarily looking for the most beautiful or even the most striking individuals to commit to canvas.

“It's difficult to put into words but there is some element within that child that compels me to draw them, and I was looking for a broad range of children. Also I was very interested in what they were interested in as people - whether they were in a band or in the school play or were sporting types. It all informs the picture and helped the overall healthy life-style aspect of the general programme.

“It was important that we showed that the people's interests were all quite varied. With Emilie the resemblance to Vemeer's Girl With The Pearl Ear-ring was so striking that I knew immediately that I wanted to paint her and she even brought in a pearl ear-ring which was terrific.”

Joy was born in Ipswich but grew up in Worlingworth, near Eye, and was among the very first intake of girls at Woodbridge School. She said that there were just a handful of girls “no more than 18 or so. It had been an all-boys school and was pretty frightening. We felt rather outnumbered.”

She studied art at Ipswich Art School when it was still in the High Street before before going onto Canterbury University. Half way through their studies her grandmother died, leaving her, the then considerable sum of �1,000 which she used to live life and travel the world. She trekked across Africa, Turkey and the USA before returning home and got a job as a personal assistant to the district works officer at RAF Bentwaters.

Her travels had fired her creative imagination and she was still painting which led to the Bentwaters base commander appointing Joy as artist in residence. Not unexpectedly Joy married a US airman and by the time the base closed she was expecting twins. The marriage didn't last but once the children, Kenny and Loretta - and then William - were at school, Joy returned to Suffolk College to complete her degree course.

Once again her skill as a portrait painter found her being asked to paint principal Professor Dave Muller's portrait, which led on

to further college commissions.

Joy says that the secret to her success is striking a balance between being practical and following your heart and being true to yourself.

You can see a retrospective of Joy's work at Stowhealth centre, Violet Hill Road, Stowmarket at the end of February for one month.

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