Letting Go, Moving On
by Vicky Brand
Growing up in our small town in Cheshire, I enjoyed an interesting life as the eldest of three sisters whose parents worked hard at a business making cardboard boxes for the catering trade. From an early age I loved to draw. I remember one picture in particular because I drew four very strongly featured, black and white heads in charcoal, most likely a re-imagining of the four granite heads carved from the cliffs of Mount Rushmore in America. My parents thought that these heads were very strange and rather worrying. I was not encouraged to continue.
I joined the Police cadets at sixteen, which no girl in our town had ever done before. Two and a half years later I left to become a nurse. In the nearly thirty years that followed I would work as a surgical staff nurse, midwife, and Marie Curie affiliated Community Night Nurse. Occasionally during those years I attended a life drawing class and thought that perhaps one day I would see if I had enough talent to push myself a little further. When I reached the age of forty-three I realised that time was passing very quickly and if I was ever going to make my dream of one day becoming an artist a reality, I had better get on with it.
The women that I worked with for twelve years on night duty in the Community were all very supportive when I told them of my plans to go to college and study for a fine arts degree. Nevertheless, I couldn’t discuss all my new experiences with them because learning to be an artist was so very different from the world of nursing. And even though I too found the principles of conceptual art difficult to understand, being there with other artists was like coming home.
I first became interested in feminine identity whilst at college, although if asked if I was a “feminist,” I would generally deny association; the idea of “feminism” was looked upon with scepticism by some of the other students in my cohort and questions from male colleagues generally came with a sense of derogatory implication. Of course, I was trying to give both myself and all the other “quiet” women of my generation, who were content both to work and raise their families, a voice of their own through my art.
The first feminist piece I completed at college is titled, “Mirror Essence” and consists of six bordered canvases measuring 5′ x 3′ 6”. (Oil on emulsion paint) Each painting shows the reflection of a woman studying herself whilst she tries on new clothes in front of a mirror in the changing rooms of a ladies clothes shop. The “mirrors” are life-sized and the reflections of the women are accurately scaled. The figures are black and white; the new clothes are in colour. My intention was to highlight and differentiate between the two images that the woman had of herself.
A discussion with six friends taking part in the project resulted in some consensus that it is women’s hope that they can change their “personal identity” by altering their appearance. This belief being both initiated and reinforced by constant pressure from advertising in the media.
I enjoy this kind of collaborative project and continued to explore the subject for my degree show, which then took a more rigorous look at female identity. The exhibit included another series of six paintings, each portraying a pair of hands emerging through black holes into the gallery/viewers space. Here I was interested in the subjective nature of identity whereby people judge each other, often with only limited visual information.
I invited the ladies into my studio and asked them to stand behind a large piece of cardboard with two holes cut out of it. They then placed their hands through the holes and assumed the pose, which they thought, best described them and their own personality. I then painted these isolated hands.
Angela was a patient whom I nursed on nights. She was dying from lung cancer and was too ill to go anywhere, so one day I visited her in her warm sunny conservatory full of plants. She was brave and funny, and even though she had very little hair left after undergoing chemotherapy, she kept her beautiful nails, long and red and shiny. She continued to smoke because she enjoyed it, despite the fact that this was the probable cause of her illness. For me her frail frame encapsulated the whole indomitable human spirit.
Shortly after graduating from The Kent Institute of Art and Design in 1999, I took very early retirement from nursing to be a full time artist. Myself and four other women artists formed a group called “Les Femmes Anglaises” (our play on the cult of the Young British Artists from the “Sensation” show.) We used an image of a red teapot as the group’s logo to denote the quintessential middle-aged English women that we all were. We exhibited together and toured a show called “Bodies” around the Kent Library galleries. I presented a large quadruptch called “Family”. Each of the four oil paintings, which measures 152cms x 100cms shows the head and the shoulders, of one family member. Mother, Father, Son, or Daughter, carved out of the chalk of the white cliffs by the sea where I live. Coming full circle, (although I didn’t realise it at the time) this once again referenced the heads at Mount Rushmore. I was talking about the fragility of family life and how it has to be protected. “Les Femmes” has now disbanded and I still miss the camaraderie, and the differences of opinion!
A couple of years after my father died I am ashamed to admit that I fell out with my mother. The relationship is still strained today and I don’t expect that it will ever be what it once was. For my first solo show I decided to investigate the complex relationship, which exits between mothers and daughters. This was important because I wanted to try and understand what had happened between my mother and me, and I also wanted to try and avoid making the same mistakes with my own daughter. I talked to other women with daughters and tried to capture the emotive elements of the competitiveness, camaraderie, protectiveness, secrecy, love, and pride through a body of work on canvas.
For my work titled, “Bloodties” I asked my daughter Esther to pose with me inside a very large nightgown. My husband took photographs of us. I wanted to show by the placement of our arms that we were related and in harmony. The big nightgown around us was intended to show how mothers love and try to protect their daughters, similarly the entwined legs. When the photographs were developed it was obvious that for my twenty-year-old daughter something very different was happening. So I decided to paint this situation as it had appeared in the photographs as honestly as possible.
Looking at my daughters face she looks angry and perhaps feels trapped by the situation, or by me. This was something that I was completely unaware of at the time, as we had been laughing and joking just moments before the photographs were taken. This painting was also the signature piece in the “Art, Age and Gender “ exhibition by the London based Foundation for Women’s Art.
I had the idea for the painting, “Independence” for several years before I plucked up the courage to do it. My daughter took the source material photographs at my request as I was embarrassed by my “size”. I had gained a few pounds and the annual holiday was looming. Like most women I was very worried about what I would look like in a bathing suit. Despite the fact that I am getting older and rounder my husband still loves to see me in a bikini. I was thinking, wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could swap my own body as easily as I used to as swap the clothes on cardboard cut out dolls when I was a child.
For a long time I called this painting “Fat Suit”. Then I realised that I no longer cared, perhaps because of the cathartic experience of painting the image and learning to accept it’s appearance? So I renamed the work “Independence” exhibited it in a gallery and felt liberated!
In June 2002 I attended a seminar at the Women’s Library in Old Castle Street, London, about the recent “Art Age and Gender” exhibition, organised by the Foundation for Women’s Art. At the end of the day the acclaimed artist Maggi Hambling gave a short presentation. She had recently lost a dear friend and showed us slides of some of the last portraits she drew of her friend during her final illness. It was very moving and I wish that I had had the courage to speak to her about this afterwards.
In the months before my own friend Audrey died from breast cancer in March 2005, I made a point of photographing her frequently. She insisted in removing her woolly cap, which she wore to keep her baldhead warm, in case later I wanted to paint this. Audrey always supported whatever mad venture I was planning and loved one of my more surreal paintings called “Banana Women” and kept a poster of it on the wall opposite her chair, because it made her laugh.
I have never been able to paint Audrey when she was ill because it was too painful for me, so I painted contemporary “Vanitas” during this time. Audrey loved Disneyland in America and visited with her family many times. She also loved the A A Milne stories and had helium filled balloons of her favourite character “Piglet”at her funeral /celebration of life. I have recently started a new painting, which will in a way say goodbye and also introduce my next series, which will also feature balloons.
Maggi Hambling greatly admires Francis Bacon and says “he reminds you with a jolt that you’re alive”. And also that one of the most important comments Bacon has made is that “a painter must not be afraid of making a fool of himself.”
It is good to know that all artists face the same doubts and fears. The knowledge that to be an artist needs a certain “arrogance of purpose” This is something that most mothers give to their sons, but that sadly most women have to fight to achieve.
On the wall in her studio Maggi Hambling keeps a poem by Rudyard Kipling, written out with a brush by a friend. It’s a hymn with a typical jig- rhythm and it imagines the paradise for painters at the end of time: And those that were good shall be happy, they shall sit on a golden chair. They shall splash at a ten-league canvas with brushes of comets hair… And no one shall work for money and no one shall work for fame But each for the joy of working, and each in his separate star Shall draw the thing as he sees it, for the God of things as they are.
I would like that.
About the Artist
Vicky Brand lives in Kent, England.