YORK artist Karen Winship’s poignant tribute to the selfless work of front-line NHS workers during the Covid-19 pandemic is on display at Hull Waterside & Marina until June 20.
Eleven of Karen’s NHS Heroes portraits were first shown at York Art Gallery in the Our Heroes Welcome thank-you to essential workers from August 1 when Lockdown 1 eased last summer.
Last August too, 13 more made their debut at City Screen, York, where the exhibition included a montage of all 24 that is being gifted to York Hospital by Karen, whose self-portrait of herself painting one of the NHS Heroes completes the collection.
The original paintings have been presented to the sitters, but the 24 portraits have been given a new life, reproduced on biodegradable boards for outdoor display by Pocklington Arts Centre (PAC) at a larger size than the originals.
First shown side by side on the railings at All Saints’ Church, Pocklington, from late-November to January, the portrait prints have headed further east to Hull, where they can be viewed for free, thanks to PAC joining forces with the marina managers, Aquavista.
“I’ve had a great response to the portraits so far, so it’s incredible that Pocklington Arts Centre is now taking the exhibition on tour into the wider community,” says Karen, whose work also features in Portraits For NHS Heroes, a fund-raising book for NHS charities.
“It’s been such a challenging time for everyone, especially our NHS front-line workers, and this was my way of recognising everything they do for us, so it’s fantastic that this recognition can be expanded even further. Art doesn’t get much more accessible than an open-air exhibition.
“I’m delighted to see my portraits lining the railings along Hull Marina, which is a landmark in itself, and I hope the public enjoy them too.”
NHS Heroes is one of two pop-up touring exhibitions being taken into communities across the region by PAC. York artist Sue Clayton’s collection of 21 portraits celebrating children and young adults with Down Syndrome was unveiled last Tuesday at the NHS York Vaccination Centre, at Askham Bar, for browsing by those attending jab appointments in the “Tent of Hope” until June 13. Plans are being put in place for the “21” show to transfer to Hull Marina after Karen’s show closes.
PAC director Janet Farmer says: “Making our exhibitions accessible to the public despite the pandemic has been really important for us, and the feedback has been really positive, so we’re very much looking forward to enabling even more people to see these incredibly poignant portraits created by the talented Karen Winship.
“We think they will make for a striking display along the marina. Our thanks to Aquavista for helping to make this possible.”
Aquavista took over ownership of Hull Waterside & Marina last year and were only too keen to support PAC’s pop-up exhibition plans. Manager Graham Richardson says: “We’re delighted to support this fantastic initiative. The marina is a popular visitor destination, so we hope to see lots of people coming to view the portraits over the next few weeks.”
Karen, artist and educator, had begun her career as a graphic designer, later gaining a teaching degree and subsequently working for 15 years at a maximum-security prison as head of art.
Embarking on her journey as a professional artist in 2012, she is “living the dream” in her words, not least as a community-minded artist who enjoys “giving back” through her involvement in community art projects.
NHS Heroes is her latest public-spirited endeavour, this one inspired by Tom Croft’s #portraitsfornhsheroes project for artists to complete a free portrait in appreciation of the NHS for gifting to the worker depicted.
“There was a shout-out on Facebook across the country from Tom Croft, calling for artists to take part, and I was inundated with ten requests. Then I appeared on Look North and got even more,” says Karen.
“Tom Croft has now put together a book of 300 of the portraits, including one of mine, the one of Samantha, when she hasn’t got a mask on, but you can see all the creases on her face from the mask.
“Portraits For NHS Heroes is available in hardback on Amazon with all proceeds going to NHS charities.”
Among Karen’s portraits is one of her daughter, Kelly, who works for the NHS as an occupational therapist, bringing home the challenges faced by frontline workers in the pandemic. “I even had to do her portrait from photographs,” says Karen, to whom most of her subjects were unknown.
“They were a few people I know from York, but the photographs came from all over. Newcastle, Northern Ireland, Scotland. At first, I thought it might be difficult to work just from a photo, because I’m used to doing portraits from people sitting for me, but because these photographs were taken as they were working, looking into their eyes, you can see the trauma, the sadness, the exhaustion.
“Normally, you can see a sitter’s mouth, but invariably in these photographs the mouth had to be covered with a mask, so the eyes become even more important.”
Karen’s portraits were first “exhibited” informally. “My neighbours in my cul-de-sac [St Thomas Close in Osbaldwick] put them in their windows,” she recalls. “People even came from Beverley and Newcastle to walk down the street, and one told me their back story…and you then carry those stories with you.”
She found creating the NHS Heroes portraits “so intense”, she eventually had to stop. “I tend to work quickly because I like spontaneity,” says Karen. “Normally with portraits, I work from one sitting and then photos, but what was different with these portraits was that I was totally absorbed just in painting. Normally, we would be chatting at a sitting.
“I was exhausted, doing one after another from photographs. I just kept going until they were done. Afterwards, I immediately went on to do something that was colourful: a couple of autumn paintings, still lifes. I had to do something that was completely contrasting.
“And I’ve also been lucky that since the NHS project, I’ve had various commissions as I had to cut back on my teaching during the lockdowns.”
For more information on PAC’s forthcoming exhibitions, visit: pocklingtonartscentre.co.uk.