Capturing life through art

2012-08-09 00:00

“BECAUSE my work is subjective, it reflects my view at the time in which it is made,” Heather Gourlay-Conyngham says of her intriguing paintings, which are currently on show in the main exhibition hall of the Tatham Art Gallery in Chief Albert Luthuli (Commercial) Street, Pietermaritzburg. Titled Unfoldings, the exhibition is a retrospective of Gourlay-Conyngham’s past 20 years, and therefore reveals the time in which she has juggled being a teacher, wife and mother, with her need to paint.

Now a woman in middle age — a stage when she is becoming more conscious of mortality — an aspect with which she has engaged and is seen in this exhibition, is the reality of ageing and how people and their bodies change as time unfolds.

This interest is captured in a series of paintings of figures, using what appears to be an almost photo-realistic style. There is a beauty in the truth of these images. Gourlay-Conyngham hasn’t tried to “photoshop” or idealise her subjects and, in so doing, challenges the stereotypical preconception of what constitutes beauty.

She lovingly recreates every fold in a piece of cloth, and every wrinkle in the skin of the subject is shown. The result is captivating.

The Hilton-based artist is, however, keen to stress that she doesn’t want to be seen as simply a “copier of photographs”, adding that while she might use photos for reference, she feels compelled to go beyond the photographed images in order to express in paint the essence of her subjects.

“I think that is why it is so important for me to paint people I know and who interest me. But it’s about more than the accuracy of their appearance. The painted image has to take on a life of its own,” Gourlay-Conyngham says of the portraits of family and friends, as well as paintings of nude models which make up the exhibition.

“In my attempt to capture something of life, I seek to find and celebrate the inner and outer beauty of the models. This can be an empowering experience for the person being depicted, as indeed it is for anyone who confronts and is comfortable with who they really are, frailties et al.”

Born in Durban, she was encouraged to study fine art at the then University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg by her art teacher, Lyn Stonestreet.

“I couldn’t take art as a matric subject, as there were not enough girls to make up a class,” she explains. “Lyn offered to teach me and a friend privately. She became a friend and mentor, and encouraged me to study and even drove me up from Durban to register for a degree in fine art.

“The aesthetic grounding that she gave me was crucially important. Lyn had studied at Pietermaritzburg varsity’s fine-art department, and, following in her footsteps, it was possible to effectively build on the foundation which she had laid.”

Gourlay-Conyngham later did a teacher’s diploma, and from 1980 to 2011 taught art at Durban Girls’ College, Grosvenor Girls’ High School, Epworth, Hilton College, Indumiso College and St Anne’s College.

Throughout this time, she continued to paint, taking part in a number of group exhibitions, including 2004’s Imvubelo at the Durban Art Gallery, 2007’s Hanging Together at the Atrium in Johannesburg and the 2003 National Portrait Competition: King Cetshwayo, the 2000 and 2004 Midlands Biennale and 2009’s Contemporary Reflections: New Art from Old, all at the Tatham.

Unfoldings marks her first solo show at the ‘Maritzburg gallery and will be followed by a solo exhibition of nudes, also titled Unfoldings, at the KZNSA Gallery in Bulwer Road, Durban, from September 11.

Having been a little apprehensive about how her work would be received, Gourlay-Conyngham said: “I have been very encouraged by the opening and the walkabout ... people have been warm and supportive.

“It is not my intention to produce cutting-edge art that pushes the boundaries of contemporary art. I just want to produce an honest body of work that will be taken seriously and therefore be remembered.”

Unfoldings can be viewed until September 7. An exhibition catalogue is available to buy in the Tatham Art Gallery shop.

• The Tatham, which is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm, is also hosting the exhibition, Liaisons Intimes — French Connections, which features works from the permanent collections of the Tatham and the Durban Art Gallery until August 19. The exhibition forms part of the French Season in South Africa, during 2012 and 2013. Inquiries: 033 392 2801.

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