Shelves of Inspiration


Shelves was painted in 2016 in response to the theme Inspiration, for a competition. It won the competition. It was also the painting that got me shortlisted for the Artists and Illustrator’s magazine “Artist of the Year 2017” award.

Inspiration is quite a tricky theme. What inspires? What inspires me? Was it even tangible, paintable? I decided that there were a lot of things that inspired me, and so the painting would need to show multiple sources of inspiration. They would need to be shown clearly, and they needed to be organised in some way, rationalised. The idea of shelves occurred to me and, as I began to design them, and the painting, I was reminded of Mondrian’s minimalist grids.

I knew that I was abusing Mondrian’s beautiful idea quite horribly, but it really did seem to work, and I was rather pleased with the way that it makes a subtle reference to  modernism and art history.

I intended this to be a piece of trompe l’oeil (literally: “fool the eye”). I wanted to make it believable, even the bits that were unlikely or impossible. I measured quite a lot, and drew construction lines (usually I rely on the accuracy of my observation, but these shelves were imaginary, so I had to rely more on geometry). I tried to keep the scale, the perspective and the lighting consistent.

Shelves of Inspiration, acrylic on wooden panel, 40 x 40 cm, £950

Most of the objects on these shelves hold multiple meanings. Some may be obvious; others are personal to me. The collection of objects is certainly personal, and in many ways this is a truer self-portrait than a standard facial representation could ever be.

In order to represent the countryside and the ocean, I used windows set in to the shelves. I had wondered about using “photographs” or more “sketches” like that of the Devil’s Den (pinned to the top of the shelf unit and representing my interest in prehistoric monuments as well as the idea of sketching from life), but the idea of windows seemed more playful and more direct. The windows are effectively impossible; the scale isn’t right and the waves could not be breaking above the calm rural scene.

I felt slightly sad that I wasn’t using my beloved knife for any of this, and so I included it as part of the picture, hanging on a hook on the central vertical (this particular knife is the first painting knife that I ever bought. It was, by chance, a good choice – a Winsor and Newton number 27 – and remains my favourite. I’ve had it for over 20 years, and I’ve only ever used it for oils).

I’ve painted my tools before, and so they can readily be classed literally as an inspiration. They also stand for the more nebulous idea of being inspired by the act of painting – of complete absorbtion the process and the feedback and of responding directly to the media. There are several in the mug (the wooden fountain pen also refers to writing and is included partly for its own beautiful appearance. The domestic paintbrush in the little compartment near the centre is there as an artistic tool, not as a direct reference to DIY. I rather enjoyed painting its extreme perspective.

The white mug in the large white compartment stands for ordinariness. The design on it is based on Celtic knotwork and represents my fascination with that system. It is heart-shaped to represent the concept of love, which is important beyond words but sometimes we need reminding of this. There’s a badly folded little map of the London Underground on the same shelf is there because I admire the simplicity and functionality of Harry Beck’s concept. It also refers to my nationality, to maps in general and to graphical communication and design.

Pinned to the top of the shelves is the rather small sketch, mentioned above, that was copied from a larger sketch made on site (I used a Molotow marker pen filled with “hybrid acrylic” for this, and for a few other elements that required fine linear detail). Beneath it is a slightly curled ticket for a generic imaginary rock concert. Music is inspirational, and while I like many forms of music, my tastes are unashamedly quite popular.

The next compartment contains a little address book. This represents friends and family – people who are important to me. Again, I had considered a “photograph”, but it seemed awkward to identify individuals in this way, and it didn’t feel right to invent or obscure faces either. This shelf also has a necklace on it, with the beads cascading from the edge. It’s not an expensive necklace, but I like the colours (colours themselves can inspire) and I like its transparency and the way that it catches the light. On its way down to the red bookshelf square, the necklace passes a Lego spaceman figure. He (I’ve always thought of him as male, but the figures are nicely androgenous and it could just as easily be a woman) represents a lot of things: childhood and playfulness; science; science fiction and, ultimately, hopes for the future. I think this particular figure belongs to my husband, but I had two or three identical ones when I was a child. All of the ones I had were white (you could get them in blue, yellow and red, as well). It also represents a series of small (7 x 7 cm) paintings that I made between 2011 and 2014 of Lego figures, most of them standing face on with a white background – rather like this fellow. (Technically, that series is incomplete: it was intended to reach 100 but there are only 96).

In the blue corner, which isn’t recessed as a shelf, there is a brass porthole-style window (completely invented), that shows waves breaking on the shore. Don’t think too hard about the logic of this window, because it doesn’t really hold up. Below that is a narrow shelf with some rocks and a snail shell on it. Some of them are beach pebbles; one of those is a heart-shaped one that my daughter found several years ago and gave to me. It is one of my treasures. The more jagged one towards the back is a piece of flint, repesenting some of our local rocks and also the neolithic age.The snail shell (from our garden) represents nature and spirals, and hints at fossils and at the golden ratio. The rocks are here because, to put it simply, I like rocks, especially ones with interesting colours and textures. I like fossils, too.

Pinned (with a dressmaker’s pin) to the edge between the marine porthole and the small rocks are three imaginary commemorative postage stamps. Each features a significant figure from history: Marie Curie, George Stephenson (via his Rocket locomotive) and Rembrandt.

Below the mug there is a sprig of rosemary. This is there in part because I’ve always liked its smell, but also because it represents nature, mankind’s use of plants, and, symbolically, remembrance. Below the rosemary is a tiny, open window with a view of rolling agricutural hills. There is a daisy on the yellow-painted sill, reiterating the themes of nature and of the everyday.

Hanging from a nail, there is a mechanical watch on a chain. This is a cheap modern watch from China, but it has a clear back, making the mechanics of it visible. I painted the back, with the fascinating intricacies of cogs and balances, mainly for the beauty of the engineering. The next compartment contains a chunk of lichened branch and an ivy leaf: more reminders of the natural world.

Lastly, we are left with the red bookshelf. The first item is not really a book: it’s another map. This time, it is an orange Ordnance Survey map, one of a nationwide series of “explorer” maps at 1:25000, suitable for use when walking. Then there are three invented hardbacks about artists and a scaled-down representation of my paperback copy of Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time”