Every Tuesday for the duration of Waterloo Festival 2020, we'll be meeting an artist who either lives in or is connected to Waterloo. Sheila Wallis is our guest this week.
I’m an Irish painter with a studio in South London. I took my Master’s Degree at the City and Guilds of London Art School in 2014, where I received the Principal’s Prize. Last year I won the London and South East Regional Prize at the Discerning Eye Exhibition. In 2009 I received the Winsor and Newton Painting Prize, the Watt’s Painting Prize and the Threadneedle Prize. I’ve lived in Waterloo for the last ten years.
I was born in Derry City in the north of Ireland. The Derry I recall from the 1970s was both drab and dangerous. Fortunately for my older sisters and I, our parents had the good sense to move from the bombed and barricaded city centre to the quieter suburb of Pennyburn, where I was born. As a small girl, I remember trying to ‘read’ images the way others read words. I would spend endless days alone poring over all the pictures I could get my hands on. I imagine this was when I developed my love of line and colour. My earliest memories are of making pencil drawings from magazines or falling asleep at night with my fingers tracing the tiny anaglypta flowers on the wallpaper beside my bed.
When my oldest sister left for university, she would send me back art books – the Renaissance, Impressionism, Art Nouveau. Their pages, however partially, revealed a world of creative skills and imagination, offering an entrancing alternative to the stern realities of the car bombs and army raids occurring on the streets of our city. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I first came face to face with actual paintings (at London’s National Gallery). What a revelation it was to realise that the reproductions in my books were so fundamentally different from the original paintings, with their huge variations in scale, visible brushstrokes, crackled glazes and motes of dust!
Process and product
I’m a traditional figurative artist, making oil paintings and watercolours. My visual research can be quite wide-ranging. I’ve used cinematic film stills, photojournalism, daguerreotypes and Victorian photographic archives as a point of departure for my paintings. More recently I’ve been selecting images from museum collections of butterflies to inform a cycle of small paintings. I also take occasional portrait commissions.
Poor Creature (after Mike Leigh's Mr Turner), 2019. Oil on panel, 2019. 5.5 x 10.5 inches
Interior from William Oldroyd's Lady Macbeth, 2020. Oil on oak panel. 5.5 x 10.5 inches
Cinema is captivating in its ability to sustain and develop a narrative through moving images. As a painter, I necessarily treat arrested movement. It’s precisely this difference that I find exciting when I employ cinema as subject matter. For instance, a painting made from a selected film-still might begin to hint at the possibility of an alternative narrative, one that isn’t actually chronicled in the film itself. Or painting might begin to distil the substance of an entire feature film, balancing the narrative demands of the film with the formal qualities of painting. My Cinema series may be seen at: www.sheilawallis.com/cinema
I have an enduring love for watercolour painting. It seeps and stains across paper in such beautiful yet unpredictable ways. As I started making my series of boxer’s heads I recall being struck by how unlikely this ‘genteel’ medium might seem to be in the depiction of violence, pain and struggle. Young men in my hometown of Derry were deeply attracted to boxing, traditionally the case in many working-class communities. Now I find myself living very near the historic home of British boxing, which lies just across the road from The Ring public house on The Cut.
This small painting was shown at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2018, curated by the artist Grayson Perry. I was attracted to the subject, a public bench, by its appearance of uncomplaining dilapidation. It was sited on the same quiet London street where the famous landscape painter John Constable had lived, describing his address as being one from where he could ‘...get away from idle callers...’
Clemmie and Alice, 2017. Oil on canvas,. 20 x 16 inches
Marta, 2018. Oil on panel. 4 x 4 inches
Beetles, Oxford (detail), 2020 Oil on Oak Panel. 7 x 9 inches
In portraiture, I like my sitters to appear to be fully conscious of the artist’s scrutiny. This presents the painting’s eventual audience with an active, rather than seemingly passive, subject. My portraits may be seen at https://www.sheilawallis.com/#/portraits/
Strengths and weakness
The creative people I know make the best of their weaknesses, as well as actively developing their strengths. The point is to recognise the difference, which is not always the straightforward task that it might appear to be. My love of materials, hand skills and craft significantly inform my work. These constantly evolving abilities have supported my development since childhood. That said, I’m not necessarily the world’s best professional networker. Whilst the indispensable seclusion of studio practice has always felt natural, I’m less well-grounded with the more outgoing requirements of successful self-promotion.
The current lockdown
Before the coronavirus Lockdown began in March, I had exhibitions scheduled in Birmingham, Norfolk and London. All three shows were, in the circumstances, cancelled. Disturbing and distressing as the present social restrictions may be, I continue to count my blessings.
Now, as a gesture towards their unflagging service on behalf of us all, I’m very pleased to be able to take part in painting the portrait of a nurse under the initiative of the artist Tom Croft to offer a free portrait to an NHS worker. Claire Appleton works in Cumbria as a rapid response nurse and Team Lead, she tells me she has been looking after a lot of very poorly people recently. To see my portrait and track my progress you can follow me on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/sheilamwallis/ or see #portraitsfornhsheroes
I keep up with friends and followers, sharing pictures and videos from my studio on Facebook and Twitter regularly. To see my work in full, you can visit my website at www.sheilawallis.com
5th May 2020