York artist Sharon McDonagh finds beauty in decay in a city where buildings are losing their soul

Shades Of Decay 1, by Sharon McDonagh

SHARON McDonagh cannot recall any past Urban Decay exhibition in the historic city of York.

“So, this show will be quite unique and probably a tad controversial for York,” she says, introducing her Fragments artwork as lead artist in the Urban Decay winter show at Blossom Street Gallery, in the shadow of Micklegate Bar, York.

“With the new development plans being released late last year for Piccadilly and the public view on the design of the new hotel, especially the Banana Warehouse façade, I’m exhibiting my paintings of these buildings, as well as a new one of the lovely derelict ‘Malthouse’ building in The Crescent that was, up until recently, taken over by Space Invaders as a pop-up arts, craft, food and drink space until its demolition.”  

Sharon is drawn to painting the “darker side” to York, in particular to its derelict buildings, against the backdrop of her high-profile past career as a police forensic artist. That work required her to draw dead bodies, creating artist’s impressions of unidentified fatalities from mortuary photographs and crime-scene information, and you can make the psychologist’s leap between death and decay if that is your Freudian wont.

“It might seem mad going from being a forensic artist depicting bodies to doing paintings of decay, but I suppose it’s all an organic path of death and destruction,” she says.

Driven by a passion for a nostalgia and a fascination with urban decay, the Holgate artist sees both dereliction in York and now dereliction of duty among the city’s architects and developers.

Switched on but empty: one of Sharon McDonagh’s Fragments at Blossom Street Gallery

“Redevelopment, if it’s done in the right way, is fine, but I don’t think they’re empathetic with what the building was originally. They’re too consumed by money, not by aesthetics, which is ironic when we’re living in a beautiful city like York.”

Sharon took part in York Open Studios for the first time last spring – and will do so again at Venue 57 in April – when her exhibition of derelict buildings had the title of Transition. “What’s been lost in York’s buildings is soul,” she says.

“Like when Space Invaders took over the ‘Malthouse’, different organic communities came together and gave it soul – it was always busy, it had such a good vibe, and because it was off the beaten track, you didn’t get stag and hen party groups going there – and it makes me mad that other places in York are not doing the same.

“So, when I saw the plans for Piccadilly, I thought ‘here we go again’. It’s not about being radical; it’s about being in tune with how York was.

“I think of all of York’s forgotten buildings that people walk past but don’t give a thought to, but people worked in those buildings, lived in those buildings, had businesses in them, and we need to utilise what’s been left derelict. But, as I said before, it seems to be York is becoming soulless.

The Front Elevation, The Malthouse, by Sharon McDonagh, the latest addition to her Transitions series of derelict York buildings

“The opportunity to make something of York’s old buildings is wasted by lack of creativity and empathy for what was there before, and I just don’t know what designers, planners and architects are going to do with the city next.”

You will not be surprised that Sharon is a supporter of the somewhat contentious Spark:York small business enterprise in 23 “upcycled” shipping containers in Piccadilly. “I love it! People who don’t go there are the ones who criticise it, saying it’s an eyesore, but there was nothing there before, and yes, four of the businesses that started there have moved to bigger premises,” she says.

Sharon has another reason for “always loving” derelict buildings, she reveals. “I enjoyed the rave scene of the late Eighties and early Nineties that took over derelict places, though I was more intent on looking around the buildings than dancing!” she says. “I know it was illegal, but you could walk around these amazing old buildings, which was fantastic.”

For her Fragments show, she has complemented her 2019 Transition buildings with new paintings inspired by her work in end-of-life care, personal experience and working with dementia patients.

“The Fragments series is an exploration into the fragility of life,” she says of her tactile paintings that evoke emotion, nostalgia and intrigue. “The vintage light switches and sockets symbolise the person, while their last moments and memories are represented by the fragments of wallpaper and tiles. The last glimpses of life, the last remaining fragments before they die.

“I thought of light switches and sockets, because of the act of switching on and off lights and then life finally being switched off.”

In her artwork, she creates highly textured acrylic and multi-media paintings that examine “the beauty that nature makes through decay”. Basing her Fragments designs on vintage wallpaper, she makes and hand paints all the pieces of wallpaper and tiles separately. She then distresses them to look old and decayed before adding them to her paintings.

“When you see a derelict house, there are so many levels of paint and wallpaper, so many different lives have been lived there, so many layers to those lives, that it’s akin to your own life, which has many layers,” she says

Analysing her subject matter, Sharon notes: “I always have a bit of a dark side, don’t I? People think I must have a broom and cauldron at home and fly around at night! But I love how natural decay can cause beauty.

“It’s about change; urban decay is about natural change, but we don’t like change, or people or things dying, but we can’t shy away from it.

Miss You, by Sharon McDonagh, dedicated to her late father. Note the receiver, dislodged off the hook

“It’s that simple. We’re here and then we’re gone, but people don’t like to talk about death – but it’s been in my working life for a long time, first as a police forensic artist and then at the hospital.”

Her artistic outpourings have helped Sharon deal with her own grief. “When a parent goes – my dad had cancer – that grief changes you forever, you feel it every day, but you grasp at what keeps them alive in your thoughts, you grasp at what reminds you of them. That’s why there’s nostalgia in my paintings,” she says.

“I’ve dedicated the painting of a telephone in the Fragments series to my father, so I’ve called it Miss You, and symbolically the receiver is off the hook to signify the last missed call.”

Sharon always paints “from the heart, not from the bank balance”. “That’s the right way. If someone stands in front of one of my paintings and gets an emotional response, that means more to me than money in the bank,” she says.

Shades Of Decay 2, by Sharon McDonagh, at Blossom Street Gallery

“When I’m painting, it has to mean something to me, or it won’t mean something to someone else when they look at it.

“I also like my paintings to be tactile. If you can touch something, it evokes memories, and that’s why I like doing 3D pieces and collages, so you can touch them and all your senses are working at once. I love touching paintings, though I once got chucked out of a gallery for doing that!”

From paintings, to prints and cards, Sharon’s Fragments are in touching distance at Blossom Street Gallery until the end of February. “It’s great to be invited to do an exhibition on Urban Decay, which I don’t think has been done in York before, and it’s been really good to get  feedback on it,” she says.

What would York’s planners, designers and architects make of it, you wonder.

York artist Sharon McDonagh, standing by her Fragments artwork at Blossom Street Gallery’s Urban Decay exhibition in York

Did you know?

FOR many years, Sharon McDonagh created artist’s impressions of unidentified fatalities from mortuary photographs and crime-scene information.

She gained recognition for her work within this field on television, as well as in the media, on account of her unusual work and experiences.

She was commissioned as an artist by the BBC to produce the drawing of a late relative of footballer-turned-television-presenter Gary Lineker for BBC1’s Who Do You Think You Are?. 

She has been involved in community art projects with disadvantaged young people and now works with teenagers from challenging backgrounds, promoting art as a way to express themselves. 

At York Hospital, she is delivering a unique project on the dementia ward, using art as a way to encourage patient interaction and alleviate anxiety. 

The Banana Warehouse, Piccadilly, one of Sharon McDonagh’s Transitions series, to be exhibited at City Screen, York, in May and June

Sharon McDonagh’s exhibitions

Urban Decay, Blossom Street Gallery, Blossom Street Gallery, York, until February 29. Joint show with Fran Brammer, Linda Harvey, Simon Sugden and Jill Tattersall.

York Open Studios “Taster” Exhibition, Central Methodist Church, St Saviourgate, York, April 3 (private virew), 4 and 5.

York Open Studios, Venue 57, Holgate, York, April 17, preview evening 7pm to 9pm; April 18, 19, 25 and 26, 10am to 5pm.

City Screen café bar, Coney Street, York, May 19 to June 15, featuring six Piccadilly paintings. “The café has soul,” she says. “The wall is exposed brickwork, which is a perfect backdrop for my work.”

Resonate solo exhibition, Basement Arts Project, Beeston, Leeds, June 22 to July 21. “It really will be in a basement,” she says.

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