By Aaren Madden, February 2015
Using the fundamentals of gesture, line and colour, Gillian Redwood paints invisible energies into visible form.
Back in 1965, when she was attending the newly-opened Cardiff School of Art, a young Gillian Redwood brought some work home to show her mother. She held up a painting of a greyscale, much like dozens of others she had done. Her mother was…perplexed. Yet those greyscales and other simple exercises became the means by which Redwood, now 66, gives expression to intangible concepts.
Under the direction of the iconoclastic Tom Hudson, Cardiff School of Art emphasized the radically (at the time) modernist teaching of Basic Design, specifically form, space and colour, in order to dispel students’ preconceived notions of art. The approach attracted many artists to the Welsh school, including contemporary abstract painter Mike Tyzack, who was “thrown in charge of us rabble,” Redwood recalls fondly. “He just said, ‘well, you are going to be painters, obviously’—although he never asked us that—‘so we are going to find out all about paint, line and colour.’ We would be doing charcoal for days. And then we would be mixing grey for days.”
She eventually trained and worked as a graphic artist, but continued to paint. Once she married and had three children, she would carve out hours to devote to painting. “You make the time. I used to get up early in the morning and stay up late at night,” she says; her children are now grown, and she beams when announcing she is about to marry again.
Redwood took various courses over the years, including one in 2004 in Chinese brush painting. It equated mark making with pure gesture, as established in her formative year, when “the use of line and form was an extension of movement and of the body itself.” Three years later, she spent six months at St Ives School of Painting, a haven for artists due to the quality of light (Emily Carr retreated there during her time in England). She was beckoned by the life drawing sessions, attending three per week, and found the human figure a rich wellspring of expression. She rolled the resulting drawings up and took them travelling before moving to Canada; she has been in Victoria for the past two years and lived in the Kootenays for four years prior.
Previously she had concentrated on landscape, but in “the energy and the vitality of the figures.” Redwood found a visual manifestation for her growing interest in various forces of energy. “I was just starting to get interested in and committed to the idea of personal energy,” she explains. The notions came from many sources: friendships with the members of Labrador’s Innu Nation taught her about the energy in land and all natural things; friends who did body healing work made her aware of different layers of energetic fields—the meridians, or streams of energy in the body in Chinese medicine; and learning native Hawaiian culture while living there showed her layered meanings and ways of understanding the world.
These notions combined with her fascination with quantum physics. “The idea that everything, even the most solid objects, are full of this pulsating, vibrating energy at a basic level—that all life is connected by these energies—that just blew my mind. I really wanted to paint some of this unseen energy,” she shares. She has done so in two previous series using those early life drawings, one focusing on female energy and one on male. Her most recent series, “Energetic Universe,” combines both. Using sketches of a group of models with an existing rapport, she considers relationships between the body and space, the body and the ground, and bodies interacting.
In “The Four,” figures shimmer against a dark background “interacting, noticing each other, mirroring each other in certain ways,” she says. Their shared energy radiates through the blurred outlines of their auras, while streaks of bright yellow and white come down from above, “so the universal energy has been drawn into the figures, then back down into the ground again, Redwood explains.
She sought to capture the effervescent potential of human energy in “Piquoia,” in which a figure crouches away from the viewer. “He could be crouching in order to spring, run, or just to focus on something,” she suggests, “but there’s a connection with the land there.” It’s shown in the sweep of green layered upon layers of gold, yellow, orange, and more green, while the spiralling coil within the figure anticipates action. Kinetic potential sparks against the contemplative ground as warm and cool colours emit their own vibration.
Another painting celebrates the connectedness of all energies and has a delightful backstory. Redwood tells how, in an abandoned house in the Italian village where they live, her daughter and her daughter’s partner found a sack of beans that must have been 50 years old. They planted them and, lo and behold, up came a small crop of luscious vermillion beans, the shade of which became the sky colour in “Borlotti Beans.” While sketching her daughter and son-in-law as they cleaned stalks after the harvest, Redwood had a thrilling realization: “The spirals on the beanstalk were exactly the same spirals I’ve been creating in my paintings in the vital energy of the figures,” she says.
She creates those spirals by laying the canvas flat and using a syringe to apply the marks representing energetic forces so that, when stretched, “the lines continue around the edge in a natural way, extending their energy.” She renders most of her figures with minimal yet efficient defining lines, using the quick stroke of a palette knife. They contain the immediacy, physicality and visual effect of the Chinese brush strokes she had studied earlier.
Painting is therefore a whole-body practice for Redwood. Her canvases are large and filled with the broad, gestural strokes that document the transfer of energy from her body’s movements to the picture plane. She theorizes that her early training in ballet and continued enjoyment of many forms of dance play a part in her visual expression. “When I use my body, the lines that I make are stronger and you can see and feel that in the painting,” she explains.
The spontaneity of her figures also stems from her preference for working from sketches as opposed to photographs, which she finds static and documentary. “My drawings hold the things I am interested in, even if they weren’t what I had intended. The quirks of my hand are there; the ‘mistakes’ are there. And it’s those things, very often, that hold the real creative part of a drawing. Those are the things that I want to bring to a painting, and so I try to forget about mistakes and just be able to be bold and creative with gesture, line and colour.”
Those are the same principles she learned from her influential first teacher. “[Tyzack’s] focus on gesture, line and colour, this is the basis of my painting, and what I put into it is my feeling. I want to step into another world where these energies are visible,” Redwood states.
“Energetic Universe,” New Paintings by Gillian Redwood, opens at Martin Batchelor Gallery on February 7, 7-9pm. Short introduction by the artist at 7:30pm; music by acoustic guitar soloist Caelen Starblanket La Rocque. Exhibition continues Mon to Sat from 10am-5pm until March 5. 712 Cormorant St, 250-385-7919, www.martinbatcheorgallery.ca, www.gillianredwood.com.
Aaren Madden still marvels at the latent energy and potential for nourishment held for over 50 years in a humble dried bean sitting forgotten on a dusty shelf.