Hilarie Stelfox: And now for something completely different
THE painter Georges-Pierre Seurat had an obsessional approach to art.
He’d stay up all night, feverishly applying the dots that characterise his work, filling vast canvases with carefully contrived colour. His style was called Pointillism – a mocking term that was coined by art critics but later simply recognised the technique used. Perhaps they should have called it No-Pointillism, if they wanted an insult that lasted.
For his art Seurat neglected his friendships, lover, child, and, ultimately and most unwisely, his health. He died of some unspecified infection – probably a combination of meningitis, diphtheria and other unpleasant diseases – at the age of 32.
I’d previously thought him quite mad.
But that was before I enrolled in The Art Class. Now, I’m with Seurat.
A few weeks ago I wrote about joining a beginner’s art class with my friend, Cathy. We are both of the creative persuasion and had long talked about doing something arty when our children left home.
Tuesday evenings are now spent at a place called Artworks, an independent art and craft school in Halifax (opposite The Shay), where we can play at being art students. At first I found art to be an absorbing hobby and the studio an oasis of de-stressing calm. The Man-in-Charge whacks racket balls and squash balls to exorcise his demons. I choose to wield a paintbrush and 4B pencil.
I noticed that the two hours I spent painting and drawing passed remarkably quickly and kept my chattering mind in check. In fact, I become so engrossed that I even forget to talk to Cathy or anyone else for that matter. This is, as anyone who knows me will tell you, quite a big deal because I like to talk.
For the first few weeks I thought I had found an alternative to meditation, but one that I could actually do. (Meditation and I are like old acquaintances who know they should speak to each other but can’t quite get around to it). At the end of a creative evening I feel better.
And then our tutor Simon, having taken us through exercises in volume and shading, introduced us to the concept of composition and asked us to create something that could be scaled up. At which point I began to understand how artists become obsessive compulsives.
I could hardly wait to get my hands on the giant, blank sheet of virgin white paper stapled to the wall, so giant that I have had to stand on a chair in order to reach the uppermost parts of it. Seurat would have approved – his most famous work A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte is 10ft wide.
However, unlike Seurat, I didn’t have two years to dedicate to my picture, Untitled. I had only two hours, once a week. And it wasn’t enough.
Each week I have had to be prised away from the wall, my hands stained with oil pastels and greasy with cooking oil (which we use to thin the pastels). I have become so obsessed I have been agonising in my sleep over what colours to apply next. I have shown photographs of it to just about everyone I know, asking for opinions on how Untitled could be improved.
My design itself has attracted, shall we say, a certain amount of attention in the art school.
“People have been commenting on it,” said Margaret, a fellow empty-nester who is taking several classes. I didn’t ask what those comments were.
“What have you been on?” said Stan, who leads a life drawing class in the studio next to ours on Tuesday evenings. “It’s like something from Monty Python, quite whimsical.”
Cathy has been complimentary, praising the 3D effect I’ve achieved through hours of rubbing black pastel obsessively across the paper, but then I think it’s fair to say that the members of the student body are generally supportive of each other. We’re all novices together.
And this is what Artworks is all about – encouraging people such as ourselves to explore creativity without fear of criticism. There are no rights and wrongs in art because all judgements are entirely subjective. Our art works are our personal signatures – every one as individual as ourselves.
Some of us, myself included, are frustrated art students who would dearly love to enrol on a degree programme. But we have mortgages, jobs and families to consider, so instead we have gone back to school once a week.
But, as I have discovered this week, even David Cameron won’t be able to stop me when the time comes because there is no age limit on tuition fee loans from the Student Loans Company. So when I retire I can borrow £27,000 and apply to have the art education I always wanted – with absolutely no prospect of paying it back.
Who says this Government isn’t supporting the arts!