Jeremy Williams-Chalmers, Arts Correspondent

Artistic Mind: Abigail McGourlay

Abigail McGourlay was in the middle of finishing her 2nd year of studying Fine Art at The University of Leeds and was working as a swimming instructor when lockdown hit. She has been furloughed from her job and has been continuing her studies from home. Inspired she created some new artwork, and has now found herself shortlisted for The Arts Society’s prestigious Isolation Artwork Competition with two pieces. We caught up with her to find out a little more.

Can you tell us a little about yourself...

I'm 20 and currently finishing my 2nd year at The University of Leeds, I'm studying Fine Art. I live with my boyfriend in Sheffield with our gorgeous corgi, Austin. I'm Furloughed at the moment but before lockdown I was working as a Swimming teacher part-time, which I really love. Over Lockdown I've been finishing my final projects for University and focusing on rekindling my relationship with the painting medium, which I felt I lost slightly, as my focus turned to sculpture at university. I've also been trying to use my time productively, reading more, trying to learn some french and working on my fitness. I also work as a Well-being Rep for the Arts Humanities and Cultures Well-being Project, I'm part of a small team, we run a social media and run various events over the year that aims to get a conversation started on mental health and provide information and guidance on generating and maintaining positive well-being both mentally and physically. This sort of mentoring side of education is something I've always been involved in throughout my school years, I also act as a student leader in my school, as I think it's really important for the student voice and experience to be heard and used to help develop universities.

As an artist, where do you seek inspiration?

If I'm ever actively seeking inspiration it will usually be through research whether that's on a topic or through different artists. I love discovering different artists but I seem to be constantly drawn back to specific ones such as Phyllida Barlow and Andrew Salgado, who have had quite a large impact on my practice. However I feel that inspiration can come to you at any time, I often find myself finding some of my best ideas as I'm trying to get to sleep and my brain just won't shut off and I'll have to jot them down quickly on my phone before I forget. With my sculptural practice I find I'm very inspired by industrialisation and construction materials like concrete, timer and steel. Colour is very important in my work as well, I love bright bold colours and this carries across my practice. It's also very easy to be inspired when I'm in the studios at university, it's a very creative space and you bounce ideas of other students, the sheer diversity of work across the year is really amazing to see, our end of year exhibition 'Clump' is available virtually on Instagram under @clump.exhibition. With my painting work I'm often drawn to interesting and often quite exposing angles that also feel as if they are invading the scene, that bring the viewer into the piece like they are participating in the moment captured.

Can you tell us a little bit about your piece for the Isolation Artwork Competition...

Out of the two pieces 'Brewing' was painted as a direct response to competition, I started sketching it out back in the first year of uni, but like many projects it was put on the back burner when my focus changed. 'Brewing' is a self-portrait which is really unusual for me, I'm never usually the subject of my own work and this piece really allowed me to study the details of my own form and challenge me to find comfort in that. I also played around with my style in this piece, using a mixture of intricate details and loose strokes. I worked around the clock on the piece to get it ready for the competition and during this time I felt like I regained that love I had for the painting medium. That feeling of utter consumption in a piece, like an almost hypnotic state, is how my dad used to describe me when I painted and I feel like through the intensity of this piece i recreated that relationship with the painting medium. It captures a moment of comfort on a few levels, in the bubble bath and cup of tea, between me and my own body and between me and the audience. The second piece, 'Thalia Dorme', illustrates a dark, almost menacing scene that draws on the original story behind the fairytale sleeping beauty. In the story a cursed and sleeping princess is raped by a prince who finds her there and she becomes pregnant. She is then awoken, not by a kiss, but by her devilish children, sucking the thorn that cursed her from her finger. You can really feel the isolation and distress of the character in the piece and I used theatrical elements, such as lighting, staging and costume to portray this narrative.

What were you wanting to say when creating the work?

Both draw on elements of isolation but in different ways. 'Brewing' is a much more personal approach to this theme, whereby you are shown directly my escape within the parameters of my house, a nice warm bubble bath and hot cup of tea/coffee. By then exposing this kind of ritual, allowing people into this moment it's then no longer an isolated experience but something shared with the audience and I feel like it's no longer confined to the space it was set within.

What do you like most about your work?

I find that I end up not liking my work after spending so much time with it, but both of the pieces that are shortlisted are actually my favourite pieces to date. I really love watching my work evolve, starting as shapes and forms mapping out space and composition and layer after layer becoming a fully formed piece. I also really like that people can take what they want from the pieces and how each individual will have their own unique experience as the 'viewer' and the 'viewed' that is out of my control.

Is you art always reflective of what is happening currently within society?

I do feel like art is so useful in interacting and engaging with current events and wider society but this is it's not often a purposeful focus with in my work, I'm very interested in materiality of the mediums i use, whether that's in painting or sculpture, learning about the medium's properties and how it behaves. I used to be quite fixated on creating an intricate context for my pieces, weaving a story through them, which I still find interesting, but I also have been developing a kind of confidence to just let art be for arts sake, allowing it to question the subject of painting itself, for example, rather than the narrative.

Whose work do you feel has help shape yours?

I discovered Andrew Salgado during A-level Art and Design and I was quite obsessed and he still remains one of my favourite artists. He incorporates mixed media into his paintings, using oil paint, oil pastel, patchwork materials and stitching. His use of colour is amazing, his works are so vibrant and bold and almost sculptural and I will always credit him with keeping my passion for art alive to push me forward into Fine art at university. Within University Phyllida Barlow has had a huge influence on my work, I had the pleasure of seeing her latest exhibition 'Cul-de-sac' at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and it still has a profound in pact on how I approach my sculptural practice .

What was the first piece of artwork that made you stop and really think?

That's a very difficult question, it has to be the Hayao Miyazaki films i watched (and still watch now) when I was younger, i was absolutely blown away by the idea that someone had drawn every single frame of what i was watching. I was also very drawn to a print of Tamara De Lempika's painting 'The Green Turban', which has, for as long as I can remember, hung in my family's house. I was always intrigued as to the relationship of the two women and the piercing quality of their eyes. I also analysed the details of the piece, from the soft glow of the women's skin to the sketchy emerald triangles of the women's clothing.

What is your favourite artwork?

Again, very difficult. I really love Paula Rego's work, I studied her when I was in A-level, particularly her piece 'War'. In her practice she creates props and characters which she then sets up as a theatrical scene and then draws from this in her artworks and its this element that fascinates me. Her pieces of work are amazing but its the development and journey to the finished works that adds interest and meaning and has always been something that has stuck with me.

How would you define the role of an artist?

Everyone will have different opinions on this and I don't think there is a definite answer to this question, all I can say honestly is that I don't know. This is something I'm learning at university, trying to discover how you want to operate within the artistic field. Art can provide a very thoughtful and powerful critique on systems of society, culture and politics and because it can be central in generating large scale engagement with these issues many artists will believe it is almost their duty to be involved in and develop these conversations. I have also done quite a bid of research into the relationship between art and science and like scientists artists share this curiosity that drives them to explore the world, draw meaning from it and make sense of what they see and feel through artistic expression.

What is your dream project?

My dream project would actually reflect what my future aspirations are, i would want to stage manage a theatre production. Something bursting with colour and life and of course plenty of music. I've volunteered with the stage management team at the Sheffield Crucible on several productions and I fell in love with the role. It allows you to create something bigger than your own individual projects and work alongside a variety of different people with different skills and insights. Making and problem solving, using a really hands-on approach to create a beautiful collaborative piece of art, is what I want to do and what I see myself doing.

If anyone would like to vote for their favourite pieces in the competition, voting is still open until the 30th June, just click the link and it will direct you straight to the page: VOTE HERE

And to follow my artistic development I have a very active art Instagram under @mcgourlayart