From WE, THE MUSE
Pilgrim trails, ritual walks;
voyages in, an interior path;
imagined geographies, memory maps.
A place within a landscape corresponds to a place within the heart.
Based in rural Fife, Scotland, Jane Wheeler describes her work as a way to recall a sense of being in a place and excavating the memory of that experience. Her mixed-media abstract paintings incorporate acrylic, oil, pigment sticks, and collage along with layered and partially-obscured text inscribed into the surfaces. Invoking both literary and visual interpretations of her surroundings, Wheeler often assigns poetic titles to her paintings, suggestive of transformation and movement through the environment.
Kate Mothes: You’ve worked with ceramics and textiles in the past, as well as painting. Does your experience in these other mediums influence how you approach painting in any way?
Jane Wheeler: Yes, I think working in textiles made me more confident with colour and composition. And with ceramics, the accidents of high-temperature firing in terms of colour, although very subtle, were very exciting as abstract marks. The texture of clay and manipulating it with various tools fed into working with paint in the way that I do. I learnt a lot from doing that. In fact, I think I should look at my ceramics again and see how that could influence my painting!
Why do you think you’re drawn to painting specifically?
I feel freer with paint, and somehow it’s more personal and from the gut, even when it isn’t gestural painting.
You fairly recently moved up to Fife, Scotland, within the last couple of years. Where were you before that?
I was in Norfolk for 20 years, actually. And that’s where I come from. So I moved back in 2000 after I’d been in Newcastle for 10 years. Now, my daughter’s been teaching at St. Andrews University for five or six years, maybe longer. And I was fed up with the journey. After a couple of hours, I’d be aching, I’m like, why am I doing this, driving?
Are there elements of Fife or the Scottish landscape specifically you find you’re drawn to?
I had a few days in Assynt last April which were quite game-changing. I got very interested in the spectacular geology and in the Gaelic place names, so much so that I have started learning Scottish Gaelic online. But Fife has a Gaelic-speaking past too, and before that the Pictish. Its geology is fascinating—sandstone with fossils—and then the younger Carboniferous with the remains of volcanoes. A place I walk a lot near here is Kemback and Blebo, where the very steep woods and coniferous plantations hide a landscape of quarries, springs, and waterfalls with a lot of industrial history. I am putting together a collection of poems about it, and it is very present in the paintings.
The idea of landscape as an entity I have borrowed from the Australian writer Tim Winton, and the leaning into landscape via place-name, history, myth, geology, etc. from the writer Tim Robinson, whose books about Arran and Connemara I have read several times.
Is painting something that emerged more so once you moved up into Scotland?
I did ceramics at art college, so I did a degree equivalent. It was new and exciting, and I had a female tutor—the only one in the college. In my twenties, I messed around with horses and stuff, but I got back into art and painting in my thirties. And I was a bit self-taught, really although the foundation course I did was very good on colour and mixing oil paint and drawing. Then I went and did the Fine Art Masters in ‘89-’91 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, which was a really brilliant course. I was painting, but also running a knitwear business, with a mortgage and as a single parent. Life made painting more difficult at the end of the nineties. I started a practice-based PhD, but actually the university was really unhelpful.
Yeah, any PhD program has so much to do with the tutors and that give-and-take, and it seems especially tricky when it comes to practice-based work.
What I was doing is actually nothing to do with what I paint now. It was very much to do with trying to reinterpret the gaze for painting—painting women—which is all very problematic. And I looked at a lot of cinema writing and literature. Actually, because my daughter teaches film, she’s taken on quite a lot of the books!
I focused right in on the figure, particularly on clothes, which overlapped with what I was doing in my business at the time. I had it in my head that I wanted to paint abstract paintings, but I had no idea how.
Was there something that you looked at, or artists that you were aware of at the time, that you were drawn to specifically? Things you were seeing that made you think, this is a direction?
Incredibly vaguely, yeah. At some point I caught on to doing ceramics again, because I met somebody interesting. And I bought a place in Norfolk with loads of room, loads of sheds. So I had room to build a kiln and do all the things that I just couldn’t do when I left college, because it took money.
I was quite successful with the pots. I had exhibitions in Japan, and they sold. But the knitting business introduced me to people who got me into shows and things, so that was nice. I showed in New York twice a year, so I went and looked at a lot of art when I was there. That was amazing. And then around about 2000, I started going to Paris instead. We had a little group with a couple of Japanese designers and Italians; it was really fantastic, actually. And I did really well for a little while; I sold lots and lots of hats in Barney’s and people still occasionally email me and say, can I have one of those hats? It was on House, that doctor program.
I love that!
It kind of dwindled then, and I packed it in, in 2016 or 2017. I thought, well, I’m over 60—I was 67. I think that’s enough, I thought, because I’d done it for 44 years. But it had always allowed me to paint—and also write. I started painting again, although with great trepidation, because I felt I’d really lost all my skills.
Because of time?
Yeah, since the last paintings I did in Newcastle, it would have been 15 years, maybe? Quite a long time. Somebody started an art club up in the village, so I thought, oh, well, I’ll go and help. But actually, he was quite a strong character and really wanted to teach people, although he didn’t really have that sort of background. Anyway, so, that got me back into painting. And I dipped my toe into abstract and found, actually, it wasn’t as difficult.
When you picked painting back up, is that what you started with? Did you just kind of say, I’m just going to give this a shot; we’re going to try abstract painting now?
I’d been on a course about mark-making up here in Newburgh, with a wonderful guy who used to be head of the San Francisco Institute, I think, and he died very recently. We did this mark-making week, and after that, I was all kind of, ‘I’m abstract!’ Duncan, in Norfolk, wanted to show everybody how to paint the figure and face and then landscape, and I was really sniffy because he was, oh, we’ll take photographs and paint from that. In acrylic! Oh my God, I’d only painted in oil until he started that. But acrylic was much easier to deal with in a village hall environment, and I found that actually a palette knife is a great way to use them.
Do you prefer to work primarily in acrylic now?
Yeah, I do have some oil paints, and I did use them last summer. Plus oil sticks, which take forever to dry. I’ve just brought a painting in from the studio, which is still slightly tacky. One of the colours, Indian yellow, is four months old. It can be kind of mental then, when you’re combining numerous different materials, but I think you shouldn’t listen to rules too much.
I’ve got so many flipping paintings. I’m 73 in April, and I’m quite happy with the idea of going on for years and years, just painting over stuff. A lot of it sits around in the house, and then sometimes I just get an inspiration from something I did four years ago. I think, oh, why didn’t I do that?
What do you do to prepare for your work? Do you take lots of walks or take any photos?
Lots of walks—I am usually out walking for a couple of hours every morning—repeatedly in the same places. I write lots of poems about the places, and my poems are pretty wild, abstract things in themselves. I use words and phrases from them in the paintings, which are mostly scratched into the paint, but sometimes written with brush and paint or with charcoal or pencil. They often get partially or completely covered up during the process of layering.
I do take a sketchbook out with me on walks and draw very loosely from the landscape, sometimes with my eyes shut, but I don’t often use the drawings. I take photos, but I don’t work from them. They might remind me of a feeling. They are a by-product of the walks I suppose, just taken with my iPhone, and useful for the blog, which I started for the photos really.
Do you view most of your paintings as landscapes or is it centered around that idea?
I don’t like the phrase abstract landscape very much. It’s either a landscape, or it’s an abstract. Then I have painted things which are as if you’re looking from above, they’re still only an impression, an idea. I’m trying to not be too focused when I paint.
When we think about landscape often we think about a traditional style of oil painting, say, a hundred years ago, very bucolic countryside. But what we think of as a landscape in terms of our even experience of just being in an open space and the memory that you take with you after you’ve been on a hike somewhere—those things can fold in.
Yeah, I mean, it’s kind of, we’re really going over the same old material with painting and trying to find something new. Or some people don’t really seem to be finding something new, they’re just plastering the paint on and getting nice effects and calling it a landscape.
Do you ever think, ‘Am I contributing something new to the language of painting?’ as a problem to solve?
Not so much finding something new for painting in general, but for myself. It is a tricky one. If you get too worried about it, you would get blocked, I think. I really love a lot of the Australian landscape painters. Idris Murphy is a big hero, and he manages to meld abstraction in terms of composition, colour, and a place that he’s been, which I think is stunning. Not that I’ve ever seen it in person of course. I love Instagram because of that, but also it’s a trap because I can fall in love with people’s work and then go, oh, I should be painting more like that.
Have you ever put anything away that you thought was definitely not working, but then pulled it out months later and knew what to do with it? Or has anything surprised you in that way?
Oh yes, sometimes I look at photographs of things that I covered up, and think, oh, that’s a shame, why did I do that? And the other tricky thing is that in some paintings, you put the first few marks and bits and pieces on it, and it’s really working… and then you don’t know where the hell to go after that.
And you do quite a bit of writing, in addition to your blog?
I write poetry. I have 3 poems in the spring issue of Tears in the Fence, an internationally recognised independent literary journal. One is about Tentsmuir, one about Assynt, and one in memoriam of Sarah Everard. I’ve also written a group of poems for a local wood, which has something called Jenny’s Steps—212 steps in one of the woods that I go to. You walk up, and she lived at the top. And nobody knows anything more about her apart from the fact she might have had an illicit whisky still.
* Since this interview took place, Wheeler has been working on a new direction in her work which includes figures and landscape elements / objects. This can be seen on her Instagram page. See below.
See more from Jane Wheeler: