Art in Isolation: Abigail McGourlay's award-winning painting | Living North

Isolation Art: Abigail McGourlay's award-winning painting

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Abigail McGourlay's award-winning painting Brewing
Abigail McGourlay, a 20-year-old artist from Sheffield, has won The Arts Society’s national Isolation Artwork Competition, with her incredible painting titled Brewing. We talk creativity in lockdown, her artistic influences and plans for the future

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m a student studying Fine Art but I also work as a swimming teacher but I’m furloughed at the moment, which has had its silver lining in helping my art. I recently jumped back into painting and focusing more on self-led work rather than my usual commissions. I work best when my work is self-led. I’m living in Sheffield with my boyfriend (and my dog). Lockdown has been pretty normal. I was in a little bit of a hard space at the beginning and was unproductive but I started exercising and reading more, and diving back into and looking at online exhibitions and theatre productions.

When and how did you get into art?

It was a natural desire. For as long as I can remember, I have always loved art and had a drive towards it. I have always done it. My earliest memory was with my nan. She’d draw a stick man and I’d always tell her she wasn’t doing it right. I’d use acrylic paint and draw flowers and I’ve still got mountains of work from school and my A Levels. I won’t let them go.

What is your favourite thing about art?

Expression. I’ve definitely got more of an open mind now that I understand my relationship with art. It’s an escape and expression that I can’t get with words. I was expressing other people’s feelings through my commissions so it wasn’t coming from my own. Now I have gone back into doing art for me, based on how I feel, I’ve regained my expression. The benefits of art are huge.

Does studying in Leeds and being from Sheffield inspire your art in any way?

Definitely! Being in Sheffield and so close to the art scene is insane to me. There’s so much culture and creativity – and it’s the same in Leeds too. It’s so diverse that we can go from the city to the country so quickly in Yorkshire. I wouldn’t live anywhere else because I’m so influenced by where I live.

Lots of people got into art during lockdown, why do you think that is?

Throughout lockdown, people weren’t just stuck in their home but in their head too. Art doesn’t require a huge amount of space and you can escape with it. I feel like it helps my well-being massively. When I am painting, it’s like a kind of therapy. People often view art as a luxury but are realising that it’s a necessity. People have been accessing art in all of its forms and more people are appreciating it and realising how much we need it. There are questions of whether art and theatre will survive, but I think it shows that when we were in this situation, people really rely on art – and we should remember that. 

Explain the inspiration behind ‘Brewing’ and the way you created the painting?

I started sketching the piece in my first year of uni. It’s like a ritual that I have. I always have a cuppa in the bath. I’m like a hermit (now and before lockdown), so that is a moment of comfort in my own home. While sitting there, I thought ‘this might be an interesting composition’ so my boyfriend took a photo, which turned out well and I painted it. When I heard of the competition, I knew Brewing was the perfect piece to showcase my version of lockdown. I didn’t even notice the hours slipping by when I was painting. It was one of the first self-led pieces I’d done in a while and painting myself was very daunting at first but it’s had such a great response. 

How did it feel when you found out you had won the competition?

It was amazing. I never expected it because the level of work in the shortlist was incredible. Being in the shortlist was enough for me. I found out early before they released it  and so many people showed their support that I just wanted to shout from the rooftops and thank everyone. It was a really great moment. I have never felt more part of the art world as I have in the last few weeks. When things like this happen, and you’re recognised and people like your work and understand it, it’s a real confidence boost. This moment will forever be ingrained as my symbol of lockdown.

You work is now displayed in an online exhibition, but where would be your dream place to display your art?

I’d love to be in the Louvre in Paris because I love France.

Which artists inspire you most?

Phyllida Barlow. She was huge for me in the first year of uni. She’s been such an influence in my work. Andrew Salgado. He does amazing work with loads of colour. I always think back to his work. There’s also loads of art on Instagram that inspires me every day but those are my main favourites and have been for the last few years.

What advice would you give young people who want to get into art? 

I would say it doesn’t matter how much experience you have now, and it doesn’t matter if you haven’t got the best tools. You can create art with anything. Just start. It’s a learning process. You’re not going to be the best you can be today. A few years ago I wasn’t as educated as I am now and I’m still learning. Just have a go and enjoy yourself. 

What are your plans for the future? 

I have started collecting things and buying off eBay to create a series of paintings, and I’m forcing my friends to be models. I still have commissions to finish but I’m feeling a lot more inspired with them now. I can’t wait for this to be my full time career, but I still want to work with theatres. I’d love to work in stage management but I want to continue my painting because who wouldn’t want to do something they love for the rest of their life?

Abigail’s artwork, alongside the other 7 shortlisted artists, can be viewed as part of a virtual art exhibition here at connected.theartssociety.org. See more of her work on Instagram at @mcgourlayart.

Published in: July 2020

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