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Artists in THEIR Residence – Martha Kelsey

5th May 2021 – 31st May 2021

Martha Kelsey

Artists in THEIR Residence; A virtual Project

Each year The Wilson invites artists into the museum to take over a gallery, as an artist in residence. This year, we felt it was more important than ever to give 6 local artists a platform to exhibit their work and engage with local audiences. We have revised the traditional format for the residencies so they can take place safely from the artist’s home or studio.

Meet Artist in THEIR Residence Number 5: Martha Kelsey

Born in Cheltenham in 1995, Martha lived for three years in Bath, studying at the School of Art and Design. Completing her creative arts degree in the context of the buried Roman spa, and surrounded by Neoclassical buildings, had a strong effect on her artistic practice. Her work returns continually to study stone facades and grandiose, faded architecture.

Specialising in 2D painting and drawing, she discovered the medium of Gesso, a wonder material of medieval and early Renaissance paintings. The marble dust included in her Gesso paintings evokes the texture and depth of stone surfaces. Hand-engraving this material with the likenesses of pillars, buttresses, archways or gargoyles has become a signature method for her; she sees this as a way to mimic the hands of the anonymous stonemason, an everyman figure locked in the past, whom she idolises as a semi-mythic character.

Martha’s work has been shown in London, Bath, Bristol, Stroud and Cheltenham. Her first solo

show, Latte Leninism, was shown at Bristol City Hall’s Vestibule in 2017. This exhibition comprised 10 works that explored the unmade city of Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) and her own personal journey to meet her estranged grandfather in the city. People and relationships are a hidden but important theme in her work.

In 2020 she produced My Gloucester Nine, a community photography project that documented the city’s spaces as part of the Gloucester History Festival. In 2021 she will be the curator for a group exhibition at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Stratford-upon-Avon, which will draw attention to the melancholy felt by young people today, in the context of a 16th Century building.

Living once again in Cheltenham, Martha continues to explore the concept that historic architecture can be used, like a clouded mirror, to glean some reflection upon our present-day world. She believes there is humility and insight to be gained by exploring the futile repetition of construction, decay and redundancy that is traced by the buildings people leave behind.

Introduction to my residency

I’m really excited to be starting my residency, which will explore a local landmark with a community centred mission; to champion local women and provide Cheltenham with depictions of women’s diverse stories and strengths. We continue to live with the spectre of Covid-19. Meanwhile, the national lockdown of 2020 casts a long shadow. My own personal recollection of that dark time is dominated by memories of financial worry and emotional strain. The experience of providing emotional support to my partner, an exhausted key-worker manufacturing emergency ventilators, prompted me to make a painting called She Who Bears the Weight. This painting used classic architecture to represent the heavy burden I felt upon my shoulders. I was inspired by the famous caryatid sculptures from the

Acropolis of Ancient Greece. Since then I have been eager to explore two key subjects in more depth. Firstly, I am aware that, if I felt a heavy and invisible weight during lockdown, how many other local women carried their own, far heavier emotional burdens? I intend to use my residency to collect women’s stories and further examine the idea that the emotional labour of lockdown was carried disproportionately by women. I will be meeting local women and creating their portraits. Secondly, I wish to explore the form of the Caryatid more fearlessly. When you walk through Cheltenham’s upmarket Montpellier quarter, you can hardly miss the 32 identical stone women who bolster the frontages of restaurants, beauty parlours and fashion houses. What you may miss is the modest placard on Montpellier Walk, which tells us that these armless ladies — known as the Montpellier Caryatids — are Victorian appropriations of Ancient Greek statues.

Being a manifestation of how a male and colonial gaze has aped classical sculpture throughout Western art, this Cheltenham landmark is guilty of promoting a passive, feminine and homogeneous view of womanhood. The Caryatid is divisive in 2021 and due for examination. Cheltenham must question whom and what it puts on its public pedestals. This is where my art will step in to do a bit of imaginative re-carving!

Joyfully, my residency will attempt to subvert and reinvent these Cheltenham statues. I will be creating six portraits in the style of the Caryatids that will, crucially, offer a fresh, inclusive and contemporary representation of Cheltenham’s myriad strong women. It’s not too late to become a part of the project. If you or someone you know would make a fascinating caryatid portrait, get in touch. No story is unimportant and I would love to hear yours.

My studio

Building upon the introduction to my residency, now is a good time to introduce you to my setting, studio and materials. Cheltenham’s 32 armless ladies are found in a very concentrated area of the town, which is the run of shops along Montpellier Walk. The early stages of my residency will take place here, getting a feel for the material quality of the statues. Once I have made observational drawings of the statues in situ, paying close attention to form and texture, I will be returning to my home studio to work up my drawings.

My studio is our spare bedroom. I am fortunate to have this space, albeit of modest size, and it is blessed with a south-facing aspect that lets in plenty of light. It has been my refuge and creative hub during the last year of working during the lockdowns. This will also be the office from which I reach out to the women participating in my project as sitters. Limited by social-distancing measures, this is a process which will take place remotely, and I am hopeful that, with a little determination and the asset of digital technology, I will still be able to meet an array of inspiring women and get to know them a little.

This small 8 x10 foot room will then become my priming workshop. I will be using traditional gesso materials to create marble-like surfaces on panels, which I will then engrave.  The materials I work with at this stage are whiting, Gesso di Bologna, rawhide glue and marble dust. I am looking forward to documenting this process and sharing it with you soon.

Stick with me and you will see yet a third transformation of this space, into a painting studio.  Mostly, I work flat at a table, rather than at an easel or wall, and I use a lot of turpentine mixed with oil paints to create soft and fluid paintings that evoke the colours and textures of stone itself.

I originally intended to make six paintings, but already I am sensing that this won’t be enough to represent all the incredible women I will meet! Towards the end of my month-long residency I hope I will have completed two paintings and begun the preparatory work for several more. My residency will become the bedrock of a project stretching out further into the future. I hope you will stay tuned to see how it develops!

Creating Work 1

 

For the last few days I have been researching and recording what I find through drawing. A strong drawing forms the centre of my work, and drawing is the stage of my process that decides the ultimate success of my final paintings. For this project, I will be studying real life women of Cheltenham, combining their contemporary image with the visual language of the Montpellier Caryatid sculptures. My contemporary portraits will be intertwined with the classical tradition, with the aim of reinventing and overhauling the sculptures for the present day.

It is often said that you need to know the rules before you can break them; this is very true for this project. I must understand the visual language of the Caryatids, so that I can then knowingly subvert and rearrange their troupes. Salvador Dali made a surreal ‘Venus de Milo’ chest of drawers by firstly studying the original sculpture. For the same reasons, I must get to know the Montpellier Caryatids, and I have done so by making lots of studies of them.

My tool of choice at this stage is fine-liner pen. I like its permanency. There is no option to erase, and when I come to engrave my portraits later on, I will be working with the same immediacy. I must get confident with my compositions and my mark-making, and the pen is the best tool to encourage this. I am also making studies in pencil and watercolour, as these materials enable me to explore highlights and shadows, which will be centrally important when I come to represent three-dimensional forms in two-dimensional paintings. I am also exploring the virtues of digital drawing, as this allows me (and you!) to see the way I work when drawing. I’m not sure if I’ll be giving up paper for tablets just yet, but it was fun to try it out! They next stage is to take what I have learned from these drawings and apply my insight to the portraits I create of the women taking part in the project. I have started doing so, and will be introducing some of these to you in due course. I will also be creating the marble-like surface of my paintings with gesso very soon, so stay tuned.

Creating Work 2

Welcome back! Have a watch of my process video to see what I’ve been up to lately.

As my research shifts from studying the Montpellier Caryatids towards meeting and interviewing inspiring women from the community, I have reached a bit of a dovetail in my residency. My time is now split two ways — between interviewing the first of my sitters (coming in the next post, which I am really excited to discuss), and the practicalities of preparing my paintings.

Preparing my panels is a methodical process, although not necessarily a predictable one! Every time I make my gesso primer, it has a slightly varied consistency, and this makes the stone-like texture of each panel individual. This is the first step that decides something of the final character of each painting.

I’ve spoken a little already about my raw materials and this video shows how I go about warming a quantity of pre-hydrated rawhide glue and use it to ‘size’ a birchwood panel. This process protects the untreated wood and makes it strong and stable.

The rawhide glue then warms on the double boiler for a second time.  This time I combine it with my three favourite mineral powders, which are calcium carbonate (limestone), calcium sulphate (gypsum, also known as Gesso di Bologna), and marble dust (containing powdered quartz). This creates a warm, liquid ‘gesso ground’ that I apply with a brush. The gesso hardens over 24 hours into the chalky foundation layer for my paintings.

When applying the gesso, I use my priming brush in a way that introduces a high level of texture to the paintings. The result will be revealed more clearly when I apply the first washes of colour later on. For now, I am happy to have made three panels which have a luminous white shine, thanks to the marble dust I included. The gesso has hardened into a layer that is nevertheless soft enough to be carved with hand tools. When you consider that the original sculptures of Ancient Greece were hand carved from limestone or marble, it seems particularly apt to use the very same materials and methods in my paintings,  which always seem to return to that classical tradition, albeit with the intension of playing with it and subverting it.

Creating Work 3

I am really excited to be progressing my work away from the original Montpellier Caryatids, and towards the living, breathing women of Cheltenham. After all, that is what my project is all about. I have reached the point where my next task is to find women who are happy to share their stories and provide inspiration for a portrait. And what a task this is!

Let me begin by saying that this exercise of interviewing and drawing local women is proving greatly humbling. I have been prompted to check my own privilege. I have realised, more profoundly than before starting this residency, just how lucky I have been throughout the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Certainly I have felt some pressures. But, speaking to even just a handful of Cheltenham women has made realise how fortunate I have been; I have not had the difficulties of this pandemic compounded by pre-existing barriers surrounding disability and health, race, sexuality or financial deprivation, as some of my sitters have. I feel greatly honoured to hear their stories.

I am grateful for their time and how they have shared personal accounts of hardships surrounding ill health, financial worry, childcare, isolation, loneliness, stress and fatigue, to name just some.

The experience of speaking to and drawing these women affirms the truth that I hope sits at the centre of my project: that Cheltenham’s women represent wondrous diversity and that every life story is resonant.

When I look at the homogenous Montpellier Caryatids now, steeped in outmoded Victorian values, I feel even more determined to reinvent them, to supersede the, slim, white and silent model of what a woman ‘should’ be. Thank you to the women of Cheltenham I have met so far for helping me achieve this — your individual strength has humbled and empowered me.

Creating Work 4

Thanks for staying tuned to my residency! I hope that my previous post about the women of Cheltenham has got you thinking. It’s hard to find words profound enough to discuss such a meaningful and weighty topic. Do you think the emotional labour or lockdowns and the pandemic have been borne disproportionately by women?

While I am still grappling with that significant question, I have also had some practical work to do. I have spent the last few days working up my drawings of a couple of my sitters. I have created composite images that celebrate each woman’s individual identity in a style that still references the classical Caryatid sculptures.

Let’s not forget that the original Ancient Greek Caryatids tower to colossal heights, making Cheltenham’s 32 petite incarnations from the Victorian sculptor Rossi seem rather flimsy. I hope that my project will bring something of the gravity of the originals, together with the individualism of each contemporary sitter.

One aspect of the Caryatids that I have chosen to redress in my versions is their hitherto reoccurring ‘armlessness’. We can account for the lack of arms in the original Ancient Greek Sculptures — after two-and-a-half thousand years, arms are often missing from stone figures. What is more disquieting in my opinion, is how the lack of arms has been aped in Neo-classical copies. Not only has Rossi shrunk his women from an Olympian to a domestic scale in Cheltenham’s landmark, he has also featured their lack of arms a defining feature. His women have no hands. The part of the body that represents active agency to impact and shape the world has been purposefully omitted. It’s just my opinion, but I don’t think this is coincidental. The narrative of women as passive bystanders to their own lives is unarguably outdated. Therefore including arms in my portraits becomes absolutely necessary to ensure that this narrative is left firmly in the past where it belongs.

And so, I have worked up this drawing of Emma. I have taken great joy in including her arms! Her arms are present and they are active, cradling her baby bump.

Creating Work 5

It’s an exciting day for me today. I have been engraving the first of my portraits.

I have been using this method for about five years. I first experimented with carving gesso at University, shortly after learning about marble dust and its inclusion in gesso. I suppose it was the natural amalgamation of two of my great interests —the first being my general fascination with ancient and classical civilisations, and the second being my specific fixation with the materiality of art and how the material choice of an artist is inexplicably linked to what their art is about.

I suppose this part of my process is a meditative form of mimicry. I enjoy play-acting the movements of a stone mason, chiselling a relief into a panel in much the same way as artisans have done for millennia. There is something satisfying about the act of imprinting some notion of time and place into a hard, mineral surface. I can only dream of carving true marble, but I do find this method helps me to get into the head-space of craftspeople long lost to history. It’s easy to forget that the decorated temples of the ancient world had to be deigned and carved by someone. I hope to tap into those anonymous artists’ original processes, even in this small way, and hope that something of the truth of the original forms are captured in my work.

It’s easy to get lost in this thought-process. Some might call it post-rationalisation, although it isn’t in my mind. I find it best to remember the basics. At its most basic level, my art is representational. I am representing carved marble by carving a marble-based surface. The simplicity and aptness of this appeals to me.

This stage of my process is great fun to do. The true importance of this engraving to my final artwork will be revealed in full when I flood colour into the composition. Stay tuned to see this happen in the next post…

Creating Work 6

I am now enjoying the lengthy task of completing this first painting of my intended series.

I am excited to be laying the oil paint down, and to see my Caryatid portrait of Emma take form. Having been imagining how these composite portraits might look for so long, it’s incredibly exciting to see one taking shape.

I usually add paint to my engraved panels in three sittings. This time-lapse video shows the first and second sittings. In the first sitting I lay down a diluted ground colour of orange. In sitting two, the most involved stage, I wash and blend different colours together to pull my image out from the background. I have chosen orange as the base colour for this painting. I want a warmth to shine through in the final image. The marble-dust in the gesso serves to enhance this process, and does so in a way that acrylic primer on canvas never could.

You can see that I use a lot of turpentine spirit with my paints —this is what gives the almost watery look that is somehow more reminiscent of the tradition of watercolours than oil painting. Having said that, the studio smells like an oil painters studio! The turpentine has a heady, astringent odour and the oil paints have a richer smell, like butter and solvents mixed.

There is some rhythm to mixing oil paints, and the colours that crop up in my mixing again and again are Burnt Sienna, French Ultramarine, Alizarin Crimson, Titanium White, Prussian Blue, Viridian Green and Lemon Yellow.

So those are the ingredients of my paintings. But a painting is a lot more than the sum of its parts; it is a complex process given form. This is the process that I find hardest to narrate. It is the most intuitive stage of my work. This painting is still not complete. I hope you enjoy seeing how I create my paintings, and I hope you will stay tuned to see this painting completed very soon.

Creating Work 7

I am now close to finishing the first of my portrait series. Simultaneously, I have begun working on a second portrait, of Margaret, and also a third, of an inspirational NHS nurse who wishes to remain anonymous. Working in this way is habitual for most painters I would think — there are always times when one painting is drying, a second, or even third painting can be worked on. It can feel a bit like spinning plates to start with! There is something rhythmic about moving back and forth between separate paintings which can be really enjoyable, as long as you have the physical space and the headspace to devote to the process. Both my physical and mental space are at capacity right now!

I am starting to get a clearer picture in my mind of what the final series of painting will look like. Although I tend to use the same seven or eight colours in all my work, the quantities of each can have a drastic effect on the resulting image. I have decided to use colour in quite an exaggerated way in this series. Each sitter has their own character, and variation in colour choices is a wonderful way to explore each sitter’s individuality.

With three paintings on the go at one time, I feel that I have my hands full. I will wait until I have set my first painting down before introducing a fourth one into the mix.

On that subject, I have been in continued conversation with further sitters for the project. This is the privileged and unique opportunity that this residency has afforded me — I have met some truly inspirational women, and am looking forward to making their portraits in due course.

For now I will keep painting… each day’s work on one of these portraits is a meditation on the stories of strength that I have heard. I look forward to introducing the first of the finished works to you very soon.

Final Reflections

This video presents two new paintings for the first time. They are both portraits that depict two different women from Cheltenham — Emma and Margaret — in the style of classical caryatid statues. I hope to be able to exhibit these and several more at The Wilson in the future. Alongside each work will be a paragraph detailing the sitter’s experiences of the coronavirus pandemic and resulting lockdowns and changes to her life.

Hearing these women’s experiences and difficulties has inspired me to make work that celebrates their profound strength. Most often quiet, internal and private, the inner and emotional resilience of all the women I have met over the last few months is truly staggering. I am immeasurably grateful to them for sharing their stories. Below are extracts from the paragraphs that will accompany Emma and Margaret’s portraits:

“Margaret is a resilient and quick woman in her 96th year. Living alone in a flat in Tivoli, affected by the burden of sight and hearing loss, the events of 2020 have tested her independent nature. Relying on her daughter for provisions, Margaret is one of many shielding individuals who has to stave off feelings of isolation and boredom. She is determined to make every day count and tries to fill her days as best she can. She retains her sense of humour and is looking forward to normality.”

“Emma is a working mother who, in March 2020, was living in Bishop’s Cleeve with her husband and three-year-old daughter. Emma’s final trimester was complicated by a diagnosis of gestational diabetes. With her husband at work and the support of her own parents denied by lockdown rules, Emma was often alone and caring for her young daughter whilst anticipating her labour. Born at the peak of the April pandemic, Emma’s newborn son was admitted to the ICU, an incredibly stressful event made all the more frightening by the threat of Covid-19. Now home and healthy, Emma continues to care for her two young children and is grateful for contact with her family and friends, as and when lockdowns allow.”

Do stay tuned to my project and the planned ‘Artists in Their Residence’ exhibition. These women’s stories will be shared in full, alongside their portraits and those of the other women I continue to meet…

Summary

I have become enthralled by this Residency which has pushed my practice in new directions. Although my 4 week takeover of The Wilson’s online platforms has come to end, my output of work certainly has not. I am delighted to have produced 4 finished paintings in this short amount of time, and I will be continuing to work on the project over the next couple of months. By the time our exhibition at The Wilson rolls around, I hope to be able to share a completed collection of 6 portraits. I imagine that some of my sitters are keen to see the painting that I will create in their image — I am really pleased to have the chance to continue this project well into the future. Never predictable, the process of making each painting is unique and I look forward to grappling with each one in turn!

Introducing ‘Lucy’ and ‘Kathryn’, two further works.

Early on in the pandemic, Lucy was devastated by the death of her grandmother, followed swiftly by that of her uncle. Due to the lockdown restrictions at that time, Lucy was unable to attend either funeral, a circumstance which severely impacted her and her grieving process.

You can find out more a about Lucy’s story in the summer exhibition, and see her portrait. Kathryn’s portrait will also be there. When the pandemic first struck in March 2020, Kathryn’s husband fell ill with suspected Covid, and she had to shoulder the terror of this alongside the pressures of caring for and homeschooling her children. Although her husband recovered, stress of the unknown was prolonged for Kathryn by the postponement of a routine medical procedure which left her terrified by the potential of an undiagnosed tumour.  

I am so thankful to Lucy and Kathryn and to all the other the local women who have become part of this project; Emma, Margaret, Anna, Jessica, Ally, Jacqui and the inspirational NHS nurse who wishes to remain anonymous. You have all been so generous with the time and good-will you have shared with me. Without you I simply would not have been able to complete my Residency.

One of the sitters who will be featuring, whose portrait is shown in progress, is Jessica, a seriously unwell young woman who is currently fundraising for essential treatment. Please consider donating to her vital surgeries here: https://www.teamdiamondfightforalife.com/  Her first-hand account is far more powerful than any I could write.

Project Funding

This project was funded by the Arts Council England Emergency Support Fund

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