My Sister the Artist
by Gill Smith
Did you have a dream when you were younger which you were unable to follow through on? Many of us do. Life, the need to earn a living, getting married and having children perhaps – all of these things can take us away from that early yearning, which we put on the back burner and even forget about.
This was the case with my sister Kath and her art. I remember well when we were children how amazed I was at some of the things she sketched and painted and it was obvious she had a natural talent. Indeed one of my favourite paintings still, to this day, is Antique Rose which was painted when I think she must have been only 16 or 17 years old.
Then “life” took my sister into the workplace, marriage to her still-husband Jim and then the birth of her two children Andrew and Angela. Kath worked hard and successfully in a number of admin, secretarial and then management jobs for some of the UK’s leading corporate companies, excelling in the organisational arena.
And then, in March 2003 when she was 51, life dealt her one of the cruellest blows imaginable when her son Andrew was diagnosed with bone cancer, with no prospect of recovery. She and the whole family fought to save him, but it was all in vain and he passed away on 1st September 2004.
Such a crushing blow means life will never be the same again and the whole family were impacted in all sorts of devastating ways by Andrew’s death.
Even I myself moved back to the North East of England because of it, having lived away in other parts of the country for over 27 years. I wanted to be close to Kath again and help her in any way I could. Unfortunately, I was of little help to her initially, finding myself in a new job which was so demanding I could hardly spare a moment. It was terrible.
Kath took early retirement and pursued a number of options from healing and alternative therapies to organic cooking and catering – and she was again pretty successful in those areas, running a Healing Centre in her local Community Centre and providing organic catering to various people, culminating in running her own stall at Seaton Delaval Hall when it was re-opened to the public after it was bought by the National Trust. She also did a variety of other volunteering jobs for the National Trust. She was fighting through her profound grief, even though it was often overwhelming for her.
Eventually I was able to give her some support. I have always enjoyed looking at art and one thing she wasn’t pursuing was her initial dream of being an artist. I don’t remember exactly how it happened but I did talk to her more and more about that option and on our travels visited the Laing Art Gallery and other smaller art galleries in the North East and the Borders. I’d known all my life about the potential she had, but somehow it had lain buried for so long she had almost “forgotten” it. So I encouraged her. She had doubts about her own ability, whereas I didn’t. I told her she didn’t have to aim to be the next Van Gogh (!), just paint her own thing – if only just for herself.
In 2008 she presented me with one of her first attempts, The Twilight of the Year, and I loved it. It was extremely personal, with an inscription invoking a walk she and I had taken together shortly after Andrew had died. Looking at it now, yes it does look amateurish compared to how much her art has progressed since – but I still love it, especially as it was her beginning again to believe in herself and remember how much she loved painting.
And luckily, she continued to paint, with more early works quickly following. She is totally self-taught and uses a variety of mediums from water colours to pastels and recently even oils. I can’t claim to know anything about the artistic process itself – she will enlighten you in the rest of this book no doubt – I only knew it was something she loved and something she was good at and that was enough for me to want to encourage her as much as possible. That included being honest with her and telling her when I didn’t like something! I tried to be a “critical friend” in those early days, as I believed it was important, and luckily we love one another enough to know it’s not “personal”. Or, rather, it is in honour of that love to not pander and lie to one another. If I had just praised her work, what good would that be? Criticism when delivered with love is just as helpful and supportive as heaps of praise.
Kath started exploring a variety of subject matters from landscapes to seascapes; I think I encouraged her to explore flowers (because that’s one of my favourite subject matters!) and even pushed her to do a couple of things outside of her normal comfort zone, such as Caldbeck Cottages. (Eventually she gave herself her own challenges, commencing pet portraits and even a wedding portrait).
Kath had a major breakthrough when The Glendale Art Gallery in “Florin”, Wooler, Northumberland wanted to take some of her paintings to hang in their gallery (and I know she still retains a close relationship with the owner Sheila to this day, who still displays her work for sale). Around the same time there was also another breakthrough with a studio close by to Caldbeck in the Lake District, where a gallery owner asked her to be an “artist in residence” for a while, which she did and also accomplished well. In many ways I think it was more of a confidence boost to her – it was one thing me and other members of the family complimenting her on her art, but quite something else to have the outside world say the same. Shortly after that she also got accepted to have a stand at the Alnmouth Arts Festival – and was so popular she has been an exhibitor there ever since.
Those three public events gave her the confidence, I think, to go from strength to strength, making important contacts in other places such as The Garden Station and local art galleries in Blagdon and Whitley Bay and even locally in Seaton Sluice at the Waterford Arms. She started teaching small groups in a number of locations and her students love her. She teaches them the same message – you can paint, and enjoy it, and I’ll show you how!
For some while Kath used to thank me for my encouragement and input, and whereas I am thankful to receive this acknowledgement, and was and am always happy to support her, I always remind her that actually it was she who “ran with it”. It has been Kath’s hard work with both her art and her determination to promote it, sell it, make important contacts and so on which have been the most important factor. She likes to give the credit to other people – whereas the reality is that the credit is all hers. And her artistic ability is definitely all hers.
Most recently she has just pulled off a stunning 2-week Arts & Crafts Exhibition at Whitley Bay’s “Under the Dome Festival”. She organised it all, bringing in a myriad of other artists and crafts people and exhibiting herself. It was sort of a marriage of her organisational abilities from her working life with her blossoming artistic career, and I know she is now thinking of putting on more similar events.
But her artistic career is as organic as her cooking, so she will also go in whatever direction she feels is appropriate at any given moment and as life presents itself to her with its various opportunities and barriers.
I am so proud of her. She is an amazing role model to anyone who thinks it is too late to follow their dream – and she shows you can do this even if it is born out of tragedy and adversity.
More than anything, I am just so happy that she has finally been able to pursue her art, her passion, and is growing every day with it, receiving more and more critical acclaim locally, nationally, and even internationally. Long may it continue, and long may you blossom Sis.
Gill Smith, CEO Carers Association in South Tyneside
7th August 2015