The following interview was conducted with Fiona Wilson, a rapidly rising star of the Scottish contemporary art scene, in advance of her solo exhibition 'Fading Memories'. The exhibition will launch at ScotlandArt on Saturday 1st August. We hope the following provides an insight into the intricacies of her process and the complex and personal inspirations that inform her highly evocative paintings. The full collection of Fiona's works featured in the exhibition will be available to view online here from July 30th 2015.
Fiona Wilson graduated from Glasgow School of Art in 1991, after which she spent thirteen years teaching art, design and animation in universities and colleges across Scotland and the North of England. It was in 1999 that, on her return to Glasgow, she spent a summer creating artwork in the Glasgow Print Studio, and decided she never wanted to swap the studio for the classroom again. After enrolling herself and her mother for the TV programme Brush with Fame, Fiona was encouraged to pursue a career painting full-time by the art critic David Lee; she has never looked back, and currently works from WASPS artists’ studio in Glasgow. Here, she talks influence, process and inspiration to Sam Reilly of scotlandart.com.
The French Impressionist Edgar Degas once confided in a letter that 'Even this heart of mine has something artificial. The dancers have sewn it into a bag of pink satin, pink satin slightly faded, like their dancing shoes.' Viewing her through her art, Fiona Wilson at first seems to be cut from the same cloth. Her paintings, often taking up Degas’ subject matter of dancers in motion, seem to instil in you a poignant reverence for the lost glamour of the past, for elaborate costumes, and all-night cabarets. The very titles - ‘Nostalgia’, ‘Faded Memories’ – themselves sound the muted notes of the time-worn, which find their echo in Wilson’s subdued colour-tones to give us the uncanny impression of being confronted with the nearly, albeit reluctantly, forgotten.
However, closer engagement reveals a powerful kind of vitality in her work, a facility for catching emotional subtlety in her sitters which makes the artist seem entirely of her moment. Where Degas, ever cynical, declared that ‘the dancer has been for me a pretext for painting pretty fabrics and for rendering movement’, you suspect that, for Fiona, the opposite might be true –capturing a moment of movement, or engaging with ornament and embellishment, might really be a means of conveying people and their personalities. Not least her own - one aspect of Fiona’s work which viewers find especially intriguing is the strong facial structures which seem to characterise the women in many of her paintings.
"It might relate, a little, to the structure of my own face. Sandie [Fiona’s friend and mentor Alexandra Gardner, a celebrated Scottish painter whose work is featured in collections around the world] says that in every portrait, there is a bit of yourself as that is the face you know best. I have to concentrate not to draw people's eyes too small or their ears too big!
"Recently, I’ve been attracted to models with beautiful but unusual faces, which present a challenge to me, in that their features are very different to mine.
"I like to think that the women I portray all have an inner strength and I guess that is reflected both in the way they hold themselves and in the structure of their faces."
So there’s a fascinating element of collaboration, of give-and-take between the personality of the artist, and that of the sitter, which may go some way to accounting for the complex contemporaneity of old and new in Fiona’s work. She primarily uses oil paint, partly for its ‘durability’ – for the knowledge that her paintings will be seen for many decades to come, involving her in the long artistic tradition of Degas, of other idols such as John Singer Sargent. Paradoxically, her previous career teaching animation has instilled in her a fascination for modern developments in documenting the instantaneous creation of an artwork - of charting each stroke and playing it back.
"I wouldn’t think my paintings are set in the past or the present, really. You might say the pin-up girls I paint are stuck in the ‘50s and ‘60s, on a sense, but really I think of it more than anything as fairy-tale time.
"I’ve always liked old things, so I tend to surround myself with them. I’ve just moved to an old house; I love going to Mr Benn’s Costume Shops and finding Victorian oddities to try on my models. And my models must be actresses – they bring their own thing, but the costumes have to sit right on them in the moment, and I’ll ask them to depict sorrow, or other such emotions.
"So I wouldn’t say it’s quite fair to say I paint the past; I paint a past as perceived from now, from a future point."
Equally at home with comic self-deprecation and the odd well-placed lyrical flourish, Fiona comes across as unpretentious, self-aware, and entirely committed to her art. In one breath, she laughs about how her sporadic desire to don her old prom dresses in the studio might not prove entirely practical; in another, she tells me that the more muted palette which now characterises her work, punctuated by shocks of bright detail, comes from having learnt, through decades of experience, that she must ‘let it sing, rather than make it fight’. It’s a phrase which perfectly describes both the peculiar charm of her paintings and her entire process, from draughtsmanship and colour to the vital relationship she develops with her models.
"Matisse once said something about the importance, in any portrait, of their being a happy and respectful relationship between the artist and the sitter. I've really struggled with portraits when I didn't get on with the sitter, and tightened up so much that I couldn't find room for any of my personality in the painting, began to treat it almost as a piece of graphic design.
"But on another, much more fruitful occasion, I was chatting away with one of my sitters, half-consciously really, I was focussed on painting - and it was only once I'd added the finishing touches that I realise the decision to situate her in a background of bright turquoise came at the same time she was telling me about her work as a lifeguard; only then that I made the connection as well with the deep, bright blue of her eyes.
"I feel this shows that there’s a powerful subconscious element to painting. You have to lose yourself, before you can paint yourself – have to shut out all of those worries which nibble at the corner of the mind. Even if that means sometimes yelling at your husband who has, with the best of intentions, interrupted you with a cup of coffee.
"It comes back to this idea of fairy-tale time, of fiction. When I was ten, we were asked to paint our ideal day – I showed myself, beside a pool, being served ten cocktails by ten different men. Likewise, I used to want to be a flamenco dancer, before I injured my foot, so now I involve myself in that life-which-wasn’t through art.
"Ultimately, I’m forever painting a life which doesn’t exist."
'Fading Memories' will launch at ScotlandArt Gallery on Saturday 1st August at 4PM with a complimentary cocktail reception and a Q&A with the artist. Please email email@example.com or telephone 0141 2221 4502 to reserve your place at the launch. The exhibition will run until 31st August.