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Artists in Waterloo #7: Gillian Melling

Throughout the Waterloo Festival 2020, we've been platforming artists who either live in or are connected to Waterloo. Today, we hear today from visual artist Gillian Melling.

As a child I had always loved drawing and art classes at school. When I was 14 I saw an image of a Francis Bacon painting, ‘Pope innocent X’ in a newspaper and knew that I wanted to find out more about painting.

I left home at 16 and moved to Bristol worked many part-time jobs while doing O and A levels at a local technical college. In the mid 1970’s education was still free if you were on low income. It was quite a shambolic time and hard to keep on top of things over these years. I didn’t take a Foundation Course until I was 20. It was a rather unstructured course, with scant tuition, but I enjoyed it, spending most of the time in the Life Room and studio. Artists I liked at that time were from the Secession such as Egon Schiele and Kiimt and the German Expressionists.

Installation I

After that I applied to take a Degree course in London, a city I was desperate to get to for the art and galleries. I didn’t really understand the application system or which college might suit me best and was rather overwhelmed. When I visited London to look at colleges I kept getting lost! (no smartphones in those days…just an A-Z!). I didn’t really get see enough institutions to make a sound judgement. In the end I plumped for Hornsey College of Art, which was then based in Alexandra Palace, mainly because I loved the dishevelled huge studios and views over London. Again I had lots of part time jobs to fund rent and day to day living but (again) I did not have to pay fees. It is terrible that today young people on lower incomes do not have that opportunity.

Installation II

In the mid /late 1970’s art colleges were still very misogynistic places. As a female student it was hard to be taken seriously. The college only had 3 very part-time female lecturers. It was also a time of Conceptual art and painting was not particularly encouraged. As on my Foundation course tuition was virtually non-existent so we were pretty much left ourselves. Conceptual art facilitated theory and critical thinking. During my three years there I made many installation pieces and free form hanging sculpture. Much of the subject area was about visualising inner feelings through motif and material. I also used found objects and reconfigured them.

Family (1998) - Oil on Canvas 2'x3'

I had not understood the importance of ‘networking’ at college or preparing myself for the art world beyond an institution. So on leaving, like many others, I felt unsure how to continue. I realised I wanted to get back to painting and drawing because it is direct and full of chance and I missed the challenge of it. I was living in Ladbroke Grove then and signed up to local evening classes to hone life drawing again. Eventually I got a cheap and cheerful studio space off the Old Kent Road… a heck of bike ride! Money was always a problem as I always put art first, so I continued with part time jobs and began casual teaching.

Harrassers (2004) - Oil on Canvas 6'x3'
Waiting (2005) - Oil on Canvas 4'x 2' (Portrait Commission of SF)

I came to live in Waterloo over 30 years ago when my first child was a baby…. we moved into the Peabody Estate on Stamford Street. To cut a long story short I eventually had 2 more children and brought all 3 up on my own. It was a lovely, chaotic and inspiring time. I had to give up the studio as I couldn’t get to it and couldn’t afford it. Although it was a challenge I managed to keep my art practice going. We moved 3 more times in Waterloo and each time my bedroom became my studio. I enrolled at Morley College as then they had a subsidised nursery and I could leave the children there and attend the Life class. After finishing my teaching qualifications I started teaching there and have now been at the college for over 20 years. The courses I teach are Portraiture, Life painting, Personal Projects, Painting from Observation and Urban Landscape. Adult education is very vulnerable in these times but thankfully the original ethos of Morley College is holding on despite severe cut backs from the government.

I have a huge interest in art history, women’s art and world art and there is always more to learn.

Upper Ground Meninas (2011) - 3.5'x 2.5'
Southend Portrait (2016) - Oil on Linen 16' x 3'

My subject area has always been personal and sometimes political. Most of my work is in oils on linen or canvas. I make most of my own oil paint because I like the process and the quality is higher than standard paint. I work figuratively with elements of abstraction so I prefer not to plan too much beforehand in order to make changes along the way. I like to experiment with the ‘tussle’ and physicality of oil paint and mark-making.

Roscoff (2018) - Oil on Linen 2' x 4'

In the past my palette has been warm tones of reds and gold but in more recent years it has become cooler with greys and blues. I work from both imagination and observation and sometimes use specific photographs as a starting point. I also paint many portraits and urban landscapes.

In order to keep my observation skills en point I sometimes work outside, working from landscape using water based paint. These studies are fast and a helpful contrast to my oil painting and mixed media work.

Over the years I have had work in several mixed exhibitions and galleries in London, and Vienna and one solo exhibition. Details on my current website.

I have never painted to sell. This is not very practical. It means (in my case) that I have never been able to live from my work. It would have been nice but because my painting is so personal and I change techniques Iit not appeal to most galleries. At 63 I have made my peace with this fact, and that’s ok as I will never stop painting and engaging with the challenge. The time I have left I need to paint as much as possible. I take portrait commissions when the opportunity arises.

Rotherhithe (2018) - Watercolour sketch A3

This May 2020 I was due to have solo show in a gallery in Ladbroke Grove. It has been some years since I have exhibited work so it was hugely disappointing that it was cancelled due to the lockdown. Hopefully there will be another opportunity in the near future.

Amsterdam (2019) - Oil on Linen 3' x 2'

I have also had the virus and been pretty unwell since March and not able to paint as much as I would like. Not being able to go to galleries, museums and exhibitions has been really disorientating. Teaching is mostly on-line at Morley at the present time but I am hoping to be back there in September to run small (socially distant) courses in the studios this coming September.

Gillian Melling

19th June 2020


Instagram provides a useful sharing outlet for artists and I put more recent work on there.

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