Lockdown stirs Ails McGee to go down to the sea again…for her return to painting UPDATED 26/07/2020

Artist Ails McGee: Picking up her brushes anew in lockdown

RETURN of the Mc could not have gone better for Ails McGee, whose “comeback” exhibition at According To McGee sold out at yesterday’s launch in York.

Gallery co-director Ails unveiled Return Of The Painter: The Sea, The Sky, The City from midday to 4pm as the ebullient Tower Street art space welcomed browsers for the first time since the Covid-enforced shutdown on March 23.

“Thanks to everyone who came today,” Ails and fellow director Greg McGee tweeted afterwards. “The paintings of @AilsMcGee connected with collectors and are now sold out. She is taking commissions and is preparing for the next group exhibition. We open next Saturday. Come see us!”

Ahead of the launch, Ails said: “This is our 16th year anniversary, and we had innovative plans with big innovative events to celebrate. Performances, installations, digitally illuminated projections: it was an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, but all of that was kicked into the long grass in March. Since then, I’ve gone back to the drawing board, so to speak.”

So much so, Ails has picked up her paint brushes again, in part inspired to do so by “parsimonious proposals from politicians on essential exercise”.  

“I remember thinking while I was alone in the middle of Rowntree Park at midday, there were certain people who would have reported me to the police,” she says. “It was a hard time to go outside and watch the season change. I don’t have much memory of seeing the cherry blossom this year as it was a complicated thing just to go outside and enjoy nature. So, I thought to myself, if I can’t experience the real thing, why not paint it?”

Before establishing the According To McGee gallery with her husband and business partner Greg McGee in 2004, Ails was a successful painter, exhibiting in her native Kelso in the Scottish Borders and around Yorkshire.

Ails and Greg McGee after the successful launch of Ails’s Return Of The Painter show as According To McGee re-opened.yesterday afternoon

Her painterly arc flattened with the arrival of children – “three under three years old at one point,” she says – and her forays into charity work and The Artillery art enterprise. Now, however, the arid aspects of Covid have helped Ails focus on how important painting is to her.

“It’s everything. It forces you to see more clearly and, though it can be frustrating trying to harness what you see – all those shades, curves and colours – it’s the mixture of poetry, prophecy and religion that is so empowering and addictive,” she says.

Painting in lockdown has been “very liberating” as Ails built on her experiences of nature in the Borders, this time basing her compositions on the visual power and bitter beauty of the North East coast.

“It’s funny, seascapes come with the unfair caveat that they’re twee and calming, but it’s the opposite of that which intoxicates me and which I hope I am beginning to harness in my paintings,” she says. “The sea can be savage and changeful, on the point of bursting into full bloom, but in a painting it’s rarely twee.”

Bringing her new seascape collection to the commercial market after her hiatus does not unnerve Ails, “It’s the perfect time,” she argues. “I’m in good company: Freya Horsely and David Baumforth are internationally well-regarded masters of their craft in this field and, to be honest, I’ve already made some pre-exhibition sales.

“So, I’m in a very fortunate position. I’m producing paintings, I get to hang them in my gallery, and I’m selling them to collectors who enjoy the visuals of a sea in constant change.”

The difficulties of running a gallery under the shadow of Covid are surmountable, reckons Ails. “We’re launching with a day-long happening,” she said before yesterday’s event. “The gallery won’t be too busy at any given point, we have the attendant sanitisers, and we’re happy to welcome anyone who wants to come: old friends, artists, clients, collectors, new collectors,” she says. “Quarantine has cut culture short for too long. We can’t wait to get back in the groove.”

No York Open Studios this weekend, but all that art still needs a new home, so look here…DAY 25

Land, sea and Freya Horsley

LAST weekend should have been spent visiting other people’s homes, not staying home. This weekend too.

This is not a cabin-fevered call for a foolhardy Trumpian dropping of the guard on Covid-19, but a forlorn wish that York Open Studios 2020 could have been just that: York Open Studios. Instead, they will be York Shut Studios.

Nevertheless, in the absence of the opportunity to meet 144 artists at 100 locations, banished by the  Coronavirus lockdown, CharlesHutchPress is determinedly championing the creativity of York’s artists and makers, who would have been showcasing their ceramics, collage, digital, illustration, jewellery, mixed media, painting, print, photography, sculpture and textiles skills.

Each day, in brochure order, a handful of artists who now miss out on the exposure of Open Studios are being given a pen portrait on these pages, because so much art and craft will have been created for the event and still needs a new home. Home and studio addresses will not be included at this lockdown time.

Meanwhile, York Open Studios artists are finding their own way to respond to the shutdown by filling their windows with their work instead. Look for #openwindowsyork2020 to locate them. “If you see one in your area while taking your daily exercise, take a picture and let us know,” they say.

Furthermore, look out for plenty of the 144 artists still showcasing their work over the York Open Studios period online. Visit yorkopenstudios.co.uk to take your own virtual tour.

The website says: “We’re doing a Virtual Open Studios, with artists posting based on a daily theme for the ten days spanning our two weekends. They’ll be showing you their studios and workshops, favourite processes, answering your questions, and of course lots of pictures of their new work!

“Search for #YorkOpenStudios anywhere on social media or follow your favourite artists to see more.”

First, however, here are six more artists and makers for you to discover…

Student artist Monica Marshall

Monica Marshall, mixed media, student

EMERGING artist Monica is a fine art student at York St John University, where her practice centres on coping with life and the psyche, and how this is affected by Asperger Syndrome.

“I explore the complexity of emotion and the subconscious through the use of text and expressionist mark-making in a variety of media, primarily through drawing, painting and printmaking,” she says.

In her experimental art, she plays with scale, distortion and using colour to convey certain emotions. “My work is mostly monochromatic, combining text alongside self-portraits and other characters,” says Monica. “The results communicate a powerful message while retaining elements of humour.”

“The results communicate a powerful message while retaining elements of humour,” says Monica Marshall of her art practice

She takes inspiration from German Expressionism, Surrealism and outsider art. “In regard to media, I am very open-minded and experimental. My preferred medium is usually printmaking, using a colour scheme consisting primarily of red, green, black and white, as well as oil painting on a large scale,” says Monica, who divides her time between York and Brighton.

“When I’m not scribbling, painting and/or hiding in the print room, I enjoy finding and photographing monkey puzzle trees – otherwise known as Araucaria Araucana, penury, Chilean pines and an assortment of other aliases – as well as writing poetry, prose and short stories.”

This was to have been Monica’s first year as a York Open Studios artist. Discover more at monicamarshallblog.wordpress.com.

Past And Present, by Richard Barnes

Richard Barnes, painting

RICHARD’s distinctive, dazzling work in York and London has focused on drawing and photographing the cities as the light fades.

“I record the sounds, movement, architecture and atmosphere of the ancient buildings within a modern context,” he says of his cityscapes. “Our brains are bombarded with digital information; the resultant paintings explore a reality beyond this facade.”

His cityscapes are ever evolving. “I am looking to highlight the sensations of life and light, movement and stillness, the changing and new juxtaposed with the permanent and prevailing history.”

“I am looking to highlight the sensations of life and light,” says Richard Barnes

For contrast, he paints Yorkshire landscapes. “In my landscapes, the idea is to escape the noise and to respond to a natural but often equally dramatic environment,” says Richard.

Living in York since 1984, working as both an artist and art teacher, he completed his PhD in 2006, exploring the use of digital intervention within a traditional, intuitive painting practice.

Now, the development of Richard’s images often involves drawing; photographing; printing; working on top of this print; re-photographing; re-printing; re-working, many times over, “until a final image is arrived at that captures the visual and tactile nature of the experience of being in a particular place, at that particular time.” Visit richardofyork.com for further insights.

Overlapping, by Emily Harper-Gustafsson

Emily Harper-Gustafsson, painting

BOOTHAM School art teacher Emily creates delicate and contemplative paintings that seek to capture small moments in space and time.

“Familiar objects are transformed by the use of negative space and subtle subversions of traditional perspective,” she says.

Emily Harper-Gustafsson: “Subtle subversions of traditional perspective”

“My paintings attempt to render the apparently everyday and mundane a matter for epiphany, contemplation and reflection.”

Emily can be contacted via e.a.harper@hotmail.com.

Glancing Light, mixed media on canvas, by Freya Horsley

Freya Horsley, painting

TAKING landscape and seascape as her starting point, whether in Yorkshire, Europe, the Himalayas or Canada, Freya’s abstract paintings focus on transient effects of light and weather and the changes they bring to the face of land and sea.

Whether drawing on the spot outside in the landscape or painting larger works back in the studio, she uses a wide variety of materials and experimental processes to create her surfaces and atmospheric effects.

“I’m increasingly exploring in greater depth the relationship between what is being painted and how it comes about, how much is real place and how much painted space,” Freya says.

Freya Horsley: Focusing on transient effects of light and weather

“In the first stages of a painting, I pour and drip very liquid paint, manipulating it by tilting and moving the support on the floor and easel. Gradually I refine this process, responding to the marks and to my own sense of the space that emerges.

“I also often use wax, collage and other media, alongside the veils of thin acrylic and oil paint, to explore these different levels of looking and ways of experiencing a place and space.”

Based in York, Freya exhibits in Yorkshire, London, the North West, Lancaster and Cornwall. She was to have shown her work at Bootham School, as usual, at York Open Studios, and still in her diary is Coast, at Porthminster Gallery, St Ives, Cornwall, from June 13 to September 5. Take a look at freyahorsley.com.

“I aim to push ideas through a range of unorthodox methods to create a new body of work,” says Benn Jackson

Benn Jackson, painting

BENN’S practice involves experimenting with a range of processes that never end or finish, pushed through different methods to create something different.

“The ‘process’ refers to the process of the formation of art: the gathering, sorting, collating, associating, patterning, and moreover the initiation of actions,” says Benn.

Benn Jackson at work on his process

“’Process’ explores the way the artist forms decisions. With my practice, I aim to push ideas through a range of unorthodox methods to create a new body of work.”

That work, spanning print, collage and painting, would have been exhibited at York Open Studios for the first time. Check him out at instagram.com/jelly-benn.

Jelena Lunge: Drawing inspiration from people, emotion and nature

Jelena Lunge, drawing

JELENA’s work is concept and progress driven. “Using pen and ink, I draw inspiration from people, emotion and nature,” she says. “Mostly I create drawings that are thought provoking and illusory.”

Jelena graduated from Vilnius Academy of Arts, in Lithuania, with a BA in sculpture and qualified as an art teacher. Her drawings have been shown at international exhibitions in the Baltic States, Russia, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Germany, the USA and the UK.

Jelena Lunge at one of her many York exhibitions in 2019

“I now live and work in York, where I display and sell my work from creative spaces and galleries,” says Jelena, who last year exhibited at City Screen; York Explore library; Angel on the Green; Naburn Lock; Spark: York; Clements Hall and the Golden Ball pub.

“My drawing combines portrait form with the abstract, incorporating symbolism with touches of fantasy,” she says. More info at jelenalunge.com.

TOMORROW: Sarah Raphael-Balme; Lesley Seeger; Evie Leach; Ric Liptrot; Katrina Mansfield and Kitty Pennybacker.