Each month, Seasalt celebrates Cornwall’s vibrant artistic community by shining a light on the county’s creative pioneers. We spent the day in Porthmeor Studios, St Ives with Felicity Mara, an artist who has lived and worked in Cornwall since the mid-90s.
You’re based at Porthmeor Studios with an amazing studio, looking out towards the Atlantic, how long have you been in this space?
I’ve been in this space since the studios were renovated. Before this the building was in a very bad state – almost falling onto the beach. It was a major renovation project which took about five years. Without changing the spirit of the place, the architects kept all the fabric and the beauty of the studio, so I was very lucky to move into a wonderful new space, just before new year in 2012.
St Ives has a thriving artistic community. What’s it like in St Ives and Porthmeor?
This building has been used for art and fishing for so long – the two have always worked alongside each other. It could potentially be quite inhibiting to think about all the history and people who have worked here, but at the same time this belief in making and painting gives you permission to just do it.
How does this location influence your work?
Whether or not you are conscious of it, the outside environment comes into the work – the light flooding into the room, the sounds from the beach, the sea being constantly there. Although I am not looking at the sea all the time, it definitely finds its way into the work.
There is a feeling of suspended time in here, which helps you to focus. It’s like being on a boat or train journey, you’re just able to work and it’s a gift to anyone who is in here.
What first drew you to Cornwall?
It’s a strange, round-about story. My parents came down here before I was born, to work as actors in the theatre in Penzance. I always remember them talking about Cornwall as a mythical, creative place.
When I returned, years later, I realised that it was perhaps the only place in England where it was ‘normal’ to be an artist! I felt drawn to this place, but it was quite a gradual thing – it was a long time before I had an opportunity to come and live here.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a series of semi-transparent, painted fabric panels. I’ve hung them up so that they filter the light. It’s a bit like the process by which we’re always filtering our perceptions. The panels change the dynamic of the space.
The idea is that I can look through them at the paintings or the window. It’s like a painting within a painting – they give me ideas about the work I’m doing. I’ve done some short films of the panels when they’re moving in the wind – they do look rather beautiful.
You’re stretching a canvas, for new work. How do you begin?
I start with the materials. I’ve made my canvases since I was at art school, which was a good thing to learn. I can think about the scale and get the size of support I want. I’ve been working on large canvases that respond to the scale in this studio.
I like the process of making a canvas, it gives me time to think about what I’m going to be doing in the work. It’s all part of it, it’s practical and quite meditative really.
We’ve noticed a few smaller studies; do you make time for smaller studies before bigger pieces?
Not studies so much – things appear while I’m painting or afterwards. I suddenly look at something on the wall and see how it’s related to a painting that I’m doing. It’s strange how you build your references, and somehow they come into the work – as does what you can see outside or what you’re feeling. It’s quite mysterious. I prefer paintings which are a bit mysterious. They don’t reveal everything immediately.
I work on several things at once, which is quite a crucial part of being able to stand back and look and leave a painting for a while – to leave them when they’re not working, or if you don’t know what’s going to happen next. It’s sometimes best just to let them rest.
Sometimes I start a painting on the wall and then work on it on the floor. I move my work around a lot too. It’s good to be able to move paintings from one place to another. Seeing them in a different light, you look at them in a different way. Sometimes I turn the canvas – it livens things up and you can suddenly see something that you didn’t see before. I’m lucky to have the space here to move paintings from one side of the studio to the other, to really step back and think about them.
How has your palette and style evolved over time?
Colour has always been central to my work. From my earliest, more figurative work at art school, strong colour has played a big part, and I love the work of great colourists, especially Matisse and Bonnard. I tend to start with quite minimal, calligraphic marks – a kind of notation. Even a small amount of colour in the right place can change a painting and activate all the shapes. But I also like a feeling of stillness and quiet.
Do you do all your painting in the studio?
I do most of my painting in the studio, but whenever I go away or walk out on the coast path, I like to take my sketchbook and just use line and charcoal. I don’t tend to take a full set of paints out. I don’t like being watched so it’s just very quick things, which sometimes can be just as good as spending a long time over a very laboured drawing.
What sort of clothes do you prefer to wear in the studio?
I love natural, beautiful materials and colour – light things with layers underneath that will keep me warm. Even with the wood burner it can get very cold in here, especially with an onshore wind. I’m moving around all the time, which is great. I’m always working when I’m here, so I keep myself warm.
What does your perfect day look like, the perfect day of Felicity?
A perfect day would be coming into the studio, opening the window and the light and sounds of the sea coming in. Then just getting on with my work, and feeling the outside is coming into my painting.