Suffolk dozen represents artistic snapshot

As you enter the Peter Pears Gallery, off Aldeburgh High Street, laid out before you are not only the portraits of 12 of Suffolk’s leading contemporary artists but tucked round the corner is a fascinating collection of alternative portraits - portraits of their studios and workspaces.

Each studio is as different as their owner. Artist Gill Thomas said that she became fascinated by the artist’s studios because they provided a glimpse into the personality of the people who worked there. This look at this creative slice of Suffolk is then rounded off with some well-chosen examples of the work produced by the artists in the pictures.

Gill Thomas has long been a mainstay of the Ipswich Art Society and has been a champion of the Anna Airy Award which recognises young talent but eight years ago, Gill returned to part-time education as a mature student to gain her degree in fine art - 50 years after she first went to art school – The Birmingham College of Art – to learn illustration and graphic design.

“If truth be told I think I am more of an illustrator than a fine artist. That’s my background. I spent many years working on magazines in London. I think that background makes me think a certain way. I don’t like doing random portraits. I like my work to have a theme or a central premise which binds it together - so I created a project to create portraits of my friends and colleagues within Suffolk’s artistic community.”

It’s a star-studded collection of people who have been captured at work and had their work space recorded for all to see. The Suffolk Dozen are: Judith Foster, Mark Beesley, Richard Scott, Lindsay Harris, Hugh Webster, Paul Richardson, Kate Reynolds, Mark Titchiner, Laurence Edwards, Richard Pinkney, Claire Lambert and Jevan Watkins Jones.

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The exhibition is sub-titled Artists At Work because it is very much about people who create. The portraits capture people in the act of creation. These are portraits with a lot of life and activity in them.

“The exhibition is organised to celebrate the variety and richness of the Suffolk art scene. I knew when I finished my degree course I knew I would find it difficult to suddenly stop having all that stimulus and structure to my days.

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“So I knew I had to plan well ahead to have something really demanding and interesting to await me when I finished the course.”

She said that during her time at college she specialised in portraits and had even produced an educational/tourism brochure the Suffolk Arts Trail which she wrote and illustrated celebrating Suffolk’s rich heritage.

As an extension of her studies she started painting the portraits of artist friends and that formed the germ of the idea.

“So after I graduated I started painting portraits of artists I knew and had met through the Ipswich Art Society. Very varied people doing pottery, paintings, drawings, 3-D constructions, computer graphics... a wide range of disciplines and as I was going along meeting them in their studios I began to find their studios absolutely fascinating. So I have added very detailed pen and water colour drawings of their studio space with all their gear which adds so much to the exhibition because each studio is totally different. There wasn’t one I found similar to another.”

She said that the addition of the artist’s own work helped complete the picture. “For example if you wanted to know about Laurence Edwards, for example, the creator of the Suffolk Creek Men at Snape, you would find my portrait, then displayed alongside would be some examples of his work, which would be for sale, and then on another wall would be my drawing of his studio and workspace.”

She said that she decided to have the studios displayed as a group alongside one another rather than with the portraits as it was more interesting to compare and contrast the varying ways the different artists worked.

Gill said that although she started the first portraits in 2004, the series didn’t really get going until 2008 and it has taken her until now to complete the full Suffolk Dozen. She then went back and interviewed the artists to compile a small booklet which chronicles the training of each artist which again brings further detail to the exhibition and adds to the information supplied by the portrait and the studio drawing.

“Some artists were born and raised in Suffolk. Others have moved to Suffolk after they finished their training. I ask what drew them to Suffolk or if they were born here, why they stayed? What is it about Suffolk that nurtures such a rich cultural heritage?”

She said that she was also keen to include their own personal statement - about how they saw their art and how it fitted into the world around them.

“I am really hoping that this exhibition will focus on artist’s at work and introduce people to what is involved in the creation of a unique piece of art. When a person comes into an exhibition they don’t necessarily know the artist or their work, they don’t know what to expect, and I hope my exhibition will give people an introduction to some of the liveliest artist working in Suffolk at the moment.”

She said that having worked as a teacher for many years, it hard to stop including an educational element in her work. “I like working with a theme. I don’t function well just painting a random series of portraits. There has to be structure to my work, a sense of purpose. I need to be heading towards a goal.”

She said that she embarked on a degree in fine art as she entered her 70s because her husband, artist Ray Thomas, had always encouraged her to get involved in community life. “We moved here 11 years ago and sadly after a year-and-a-half my husband died. We had both joined Ipswich Art Society after the sculptor Paul Richardson suggested we get involved. I worked for a number of years on the committee and it was a suggestion from a fellow committee member that I could go back to college and do a degree.

“I signed up for a combined fine art and art history course and I was so thrilled to be back at art school after 50 years. It was even better second time around.”

She said that she studied at Birmingham College of Art from 16 to 18. “Most people stayed on to do a four year National Diploma of Design, as it was then, but I wanted to get into advertising studios and do graphic art. I had an uncle who had been a successful cartoonist and a grandfather who had been a court lithographer, so the commercial side was really in my blood. My father helped me get started at a tiny advertising agency in Birmingham, where I started on 30 bob a week as a filing clerk. I had worked there in the summer holidays as a holiday relief, drawing odd bits and I had learned more in those weeks than I done during all my time as college. Then after I joined full-time, one of the artists left to do his national service, I collared the managing director and asked if i could have the spare desk. He couldn’t really refuse. I had been collecting ads and cuttings from other agencies as reference material, so they could see I was really keen.”

She said she worked there for three years before moving to London to work on various women’s magazines. “It was there that I met my husband as he was employed as an artist. We met on my first day. I was 21. So my background is essentially that of an illustrator and I think really that is what I am.

“I see myself more as a graphic artist rather than a fine artist.”

She said that she found her return to college life hugely stimulating as it encouraged her to devise projects and see them through. “In the past, I thought, rather naively, that all fine artists if they were any good, they sat their waiting for inspiration to strike or waited for the commissions to roll in. Now I realise that the most successful artists are also entrepreneurs. So I set about writing and illustrating a brochure about Suffolk’s rich cultural heritage and finding routes across the county where you could follow the story and get a sense of beauty and history of Suffolk. Then this Suffolk Dozen was a project to follow that.

Gill’s next exhibition will be staged at the Suffolk University Campus foyer gallery in September. The exhibition is her prize for winning the UCS Alumni Award for 2009 and will present an over view of her work so far. “I’m really pleased that I have the university exhibition coming up because people have warned me that there will be a big low when this is over, because it’s really the first time since I started the course that I have don’t have a project to concentrate on.”

Then when that is underway, Gill has been toying with writing and illustrating a book about her wartime adventures as an evacuee away from Birmingham. “From the age of seven to 14 I lived on a farm in the Cotswolds, I was sent to boarding school and for those years my life was very rich on those years because of the war. It seems a dreadful thing to say but I experienced a more exciting, more varied childhood than I would have done had I stayed in Birmingham. The war opened up life to me and I can revisit those places. I go and visit a cousin in the midlands and the farm is still there, all my childhood haunts and I am looking to revisiting my childhood.”

Suffolk Dozen: Artists At Work is on display at the Peter Pears Gallery, High Street, Aldeburgh from today and runs until April 14. The accompanying booklet with details of all the artists featured in the exhibition is on sale from the gallery.

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