YORK Heroes artist Sue Clayton is participating in the nationwide #portraitsfornhsheroes initiative.
Her subject is Rachel Beal, a “vibrant, young, positive” nurse in charge of a Covid-19 ward in Rotherham, who Sue has never met but was struck by one photograph of her in particular.
“The initiative was created in early April by Tom Croft, an Oxford artist who was on the 2018 Sky Portrait Artist series,” says Sue, from Wigginton, York.
“The idea was to celebrate our NHS heroes in portraits, to which he invited artists to participate. On our social media sites we posted a green canvas to say ‘I’m offering a free portrait to the first NHS key worker to contact me’, and the finished portrait is then posted to the ‘model’ as a thank-you.”
Sue’s offer received an immediate response. “I was delighted that within two minutes I had a request from a chap who wanted me to paint his wife, who’s a nurse in charge of a Covid-19 ward in Rotherham,” she recalls.
“The photos sent over showed Rachel as a vibrant, young, positive nurse. One image particularly drew my attention: her smile beaming as she held her hands up in a heart shape.”
Sue felt a spontaneous bond. “The first thing that struck me about Rachel was…this is the gal I would want by my bedside in ICU. She appeared to have a cheerful glint in her eyes and a smile to give hope.
“I felt a connection as two Yorkshire lasses whose glass is always half full. I also loved the composition, a wonderful triangulation. Finally, I loved her nose ring and tattoos set against a crisp uniform with the traditional silver filigree belt clasp.”
Sue’s response was to produce an expressive portrait, joyous even. “Perhaps strange considering these strange, sad times, when many fantastic portraits have been created showing masked nurses, fatigue and sadness etched in their eyes – really poignant and emotional to the viewer.
“But, conversely, I wanted to show a time that has also shown the strength of human kindness and that hope still shines through, and here was a girl from Rotherham to prove it!
“My main focus obviously would be Rachel but I wanted her to be surrounded by free, bright, colourful brushstrokes symbolising her energy, vitality and hope.”
By necessity, Sue’s working practice differed from her York Heroes portraits of pantomime dame Berwick Kaler; motivational speaker, charity fundraiser, author and Huge frontman Ian Donaghy; “unsung hero” Andrew Fair, stalwart Sainbury’s trolley attendant at Monks Cross; York Against Cancer co-founder Steve Leveson; Nuzzlets animal charity driving force Mary Chapman and the late police constable Suzanne Asquith, who was awarded the Gold award for Inspiration at the North Yorkshire Police Annual Awards.
Unlike the 2018 series, there were to be no sittings this time, no voice, no chance to see facial expressions in motion “I worked solely from my response to Rachel’s photo without knowing anything about her, but the story that she sent me after seeing the painting assured me that I had captured her character,” says Sue.
“I painted purely from instinct, which was an interesting challenge for me and a new one. Usually, I will have met and chatted to a sitter and as a norm I find this important.
“I can build up a ‘feeling’ about someone, even down to what colour I feel portrays them. I will watch for quirks, their gestures, how someone talks: are they animated and excitable or quiet and reserved?
“These things I have in my mind and pre-form how I paint someone. In the case of a posthumous portrait, the loved one commissioning it will tell me about a person, what they were like, and it’s sometimes their response and feeling to their loved ones that come through when I paint.”
For Rachel’s portrait, Sue decided to “just go with the flow and see how it developed”. “For instance, as I began the portrait, the background was plain aqua colour but, as I progressed, I knew vibrant colours needed to be there to suggest Rachel,” she says.
“She felt to me to be a buzzy, vital character. The bold, spark-like brushstrokes seem to come of their own accord, creating a dazzled aura and perhaps subconsciously giving a nod to the rainbow we’ve come to symbolise our NHS at this time.”
On receiving her portrait, Rachel sent a message to Sue to say: “This is so lovely! Thank you so much! It’s more than amazing!
“I’m a wife, mum and a nurse. I love Disney and creating a colourful, happy, healthy, fair world. I am passionate about helping people feel comfortable and empowered about their care and love working with patients to help them manage and maintain their overall health and well-being.”
Rachel said she was a firm believer in always having hope: “During these terrifying, unprecedented times, I find hope in the smallest of human gestures, which gives me the strength to keep smiling and caring and sharing positivity.
“I believe we will have our Victory over Covid and that our Victory will be beautiful! The NHS is something I cherish, I give my heart and soul to it. As staff we are family and I am extremely proud to be a part of that.”
Although Sue does not envisage meeting Rachel once circumstances allow, she says: “A lovely connection has been made with both her and Greg, Rachel’s husband, via social media. I think the ‘call and response’ nature of the initiative is great.”
NHS Heroes is a term often heard since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, hospital staff putting their life at risk for the good of others, even drawing comparison with the young soldiers sent into the trenches in the First World War. “We as a nation will be forever indebted to our NHS workers,” says Sue.
“I will be forever saddened and shocked that we asked them to go into a situation without adequate protection and that as a result people have died, saving others. How many other professions would find this acceptable, to know this and still go to work potentially risking their lives?”
First York Heroes, now NHS Heroes, what makes a hero for Sue? “Interesting question. I remember when I approached one of the ‘York Heroes’ to ask to create their portrait, they took some persuading.
“They did not consider themselves a hero, although all the nominations that came for them begged to differ!” she says.
“One of my final emails to persuade them was to just copy the definition of ‘hero’: ‘a person who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities’.”
Adapting to life in lockdown, Sue is “grateful to be home, safe with my two children, in acknowledgement that many are unable to be so”. “I’m missing my partner terribly as, due to vulnerable health in both our households, we have to be cautious,” she says.
“From an art point of view, the urge to paint left me temporarily, which frightened me. However, home decorating began instead and my creativity was encouraged this way, from ripping up the stairs carpet and painting the stairs in rainbow colours to remember this period, through to painting a cupboard with a Chinese heron/crane.
“There’s no real reason for the choice of a Chinese heron/crane, I just thought it might add interest to the cupboard, and as usual I went off piste and used black Sharpie pen to scribble in blossom…I liked the effect though!
“I’ve been through a real ‘make do and mend’ episode at home, revamping without cost: the fireplace has been made over too, using mountcard off-cuts and shed paint…as you do!”
The NHS portrait project gave Sue the jump start she needed to paint again. “I tend to paint in the early hours now as the house is peaceful and as a mum I’m off duty!” she says.
This week Sue has conducted her first art workshop via the Zoom video app. “It worked OK thankfully: such a huge relief to know I can deliver art sessions and still have some connection with people. I’ve so missed it,” she says.
“I’ll start two new weekly sessions in June, one purely portraits and the other, Clayton’s Art Club. If it’s good enough for Grayson Perry, it’ll do for me.”
While on the subject of Grayson’s Arts Club, Sue has played her part in Perry’s Monday night series in lockdown on Channel 4.
“My portrait of Sainsbury’s trolley attendant Andrew Fair appeared on the first episode. It was an absolute shock to me, but a bittersweet moment too, as I missed the original showing due to shocking news that a friend was unconscious and on life support fighting Covid,” she says.
“I had been making calls to friends to update them on the sad news and had taken a bath to just ‘be’ and reflect as the news had shocked me so. But my phone kept pinging and a friend phoned to say ‘Sue…I’ve just seen you on TV!’.
“So, the first time it was aired, I was in the bath, but I’m delighted to say my friend recovered and is now home…so it will always be a poignant moment for me.”
Grayson’s Art Club had asked for submissions of art for the show, accompanied by a video clip “telling him who you were and why you were submitting your painting”. “The first week was ‘portraits’ and I knew straightaway I should send in the image of Andrew, one of the York Heroes,” says Sue.
“As he works at Sainsbury’s, I felt it was an important nod to other key workers during this time but also because I love Andrew; he is such an amazingly, cheerful soul who loves his job. Getting to know him through the project was a happy time.
“He had just turned 60 and he’s now shielding with his mother and I know he would be so proud to see his portrait on TV.
“It was one of my most joyful moments painting Andrew. The delight and pride he had at being painted was so touching. He’s a prolific letter writer and has written to The Queen, Prince William and the chief exec of Sainsbury’s, to name but a few, to tell them he was selected as a Hero of York. He’s a very sweet, endearing man.”
Sue is delighted by the impact of Grayson’s Art Club. “I think Grayson’s show will introduce many to creating, both its power and how stimulating it can be. It’s also a positive, uplifting show,” she says.
“I’ve loved seeing other artists appear too, both celebrity and world-renowned artists. So great to see Maggi Hambling on there, I love her. The exhibition at the end will be interesting too, a testament to this time…a time capsule, a snapshot of creations.
“It’s interesting that as more cuts are made to the arts sectors, we are so lost without it. Where would we be now, in this period, without our music, the arts and museums’ online tours, the live theatre show streaming, movies, Netflix?”
Sue’s Downright Marvellous…At Large! exhibition at Pocklington Art Centre had to close early after the Coronavirus shutdown in March. “I was showing 12 new portraits in celebration of Down Syndrome, in part to mark my son James, who has Down Syndrome, turning 18 this year, this Friday in fact,” she says.
“I’m pleased to say that the exhibition will be shown at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford from November, then York Hospital in February 2021.”
Coming next is Sue’s Double Portraits project, placing two contrasting portraits next to each other. “It’s still in its very early stages but the first portrait has begun,” she says.
“They will all be large and at least a metre. I want to challenge the viewer. For example, a large, colourful, brash, full in-your-face portrait of a man with facial paralysis will be shown against a sombre painted, full nude study of a confident man comfortable in his own skin. Do we at first glance acknowledge that they are the same person?
“Or a man in his prime, top of his game, delivering lectures to hundreds, assured, knowledgeable, performing…set against a desperate, sad portrait image of a ‘black treacle’ time – his words – when depression hits him. A monochromatic study, possibly painted in tar.
“As usual, I have nowhere to show these yet, nor thought to try and find funding, but it’s something I need to do. The ignition has been lit!”
Did you know?
Two more York artists are taking part in the #portraitsfornhsheroes project: Lucie Wake and Karen Winship.