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‘It is work!’ says Rowena McWilliams with conviction. ‘If you want to take it somewhere you need to put the hours in’. Her view is informed by many years spent painting, curating exhibitions, mentoring emerging artists. Right now, she feels she is in a good place. The 2020/21 coronavirus lockdown has clarified for her the direction she needs to take and she has embarked on the next phase in her artistic journey – and her joyous anticipation is palpable.
“If you want to take it somewhere
you need to put the hours in”
Born in London, Rowena enjoyed art at school – she remembers one amazing art teacher Mr English who did ‘wacky’ things. She went up to Edinburgh to study art history and a job at the Arts Council followed. Then a big move: she relocated with her husband to Botswana. Before long, the headmaster of a local secondary school had persuaded her to have a go at teaching his pupils about art – and Rowena found she loved doing this. So, when she subsequently moved to Zambia and then Malaysia she continued with the teaching.
The new surroundings also provided plenty of stimuli to be creative. Rowena painted the animals she saw in the wild and did screen prints inspired by the landscape on her doorstep. She had a few exhibitions overseas, two in the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur and one in Kota Kinabalu.
In 1992 Rowena returned to the UK. Having moved around quite a lot in the early part of her life, Rowena says with a little laugh that it’s odd to think she has been in one place now for 30 years. After her return, Rowena decided to obtain a PGCE at Canterbury so that she could teach in the UK – which she did from 1999 to 2014 as Head of Art at Marlborough House School in Hawkhurst. Such happy years, she recalls.
2014 proved momentous. Smallhythe Hall, right next to where Rowena had made her home in Smallhythe, Kent, suddenly became available and Rowena decided to transform this into her own gallery, Smallhythe Studio, working with her colleague Deborah. She felt it was the right moment, she was ready to move on, to get more involved with art than just teaching it. Having a gallery would give her the opportunity to showcase her own work and offer exhibition space to promising new artists.
SEEING AND FEELING
Rowena’s preferred medium is oil. Her landscape inspired paintings combine what she sees with what she feels – ‘One eye sees, the other feels’ as Paul Klee put it. Inspiration also comes in the form of words, e.g. a line from a poem, or from emotions about something that has happened, such as a loved one’s death. Ideas for a painting mature in Rowena’s sketchbooks, thoughts and studio, sometimes over a lengthy period. And collage is an integral part of the process. Her work is defined by an abundance of shapes and flowing lines that lead you into the picture. Rowena uses the word ‘emotional’ to describe her use of colour.
“One eye sees, the other feels”
When you look at ‘Battersea Power Station at Night’ you get a sense of the gigantic industrial building in her abstract piece. It started as a collage to sketch out the composition, then was underpainted in acrylics before applying oil on top. Rowena often uses acrylics in her underpaintings because they dry quickly and she admits to being not very patient. With oil, she loves the texture and the colours and likes to use big brushes and a squeegee. Sometimes a painting sits on the easel for a fair while with the debate going on whether it is finished or not.
Talking to Rowena about the point at which she realised that she was an artist, for her that point was reached about ten years ago when she was exhibiting and selling while still teaching. She could see where she was going. And people began to recognise her style. But she is adamant that it is a gradual process, in parallel with the evolution of skills. Recently, she has been experimenting with digital art, making videos of her art and uploading them on YouTube. And what is the story behind the Norwegian waterfall that she painted on the steps to her studio? Well, it’s the story of wanting to go to Norway on holiday but not being able to because of lockdown. So then, after watching a film about a Norwegian waterfall a McWilliams version of the waterfall took shape on the steps. Rowena says she sent a video clip to Grayson Perry’s art programme where it was duly featured.
Over time, Rowena has attended her fair share of workshops with other artists – it’s what you do all the time, she says, but it’s the type of workshop you choose that changes. She mentions Will Kemp’s YouTube demonstrations as something worth looking at for beginners and Emily Ball courses for more advanced artists. Nick Archer in Rye is another recommended tutor. Peter Doig, Ivon Hitchens, Graham Sutherland, Pablo Picasso, Michael Armitage are some of the contemporary painters that Rowena is drawn to. She has stood transfixed in front of Rembrandt, Titian, Monet, Ai Wei Wei and Mona Hartoum.
What is intriguing, Rowena says, is how your whole life, everything about you, informs and emerges in your art.
You can detect the strong affinity Rowena feels with Smallhythe Studio, a lovely space where she has organised many dramatic exhibitions. She has always enjoyed curating and has a good eye for what goes well together.
Rowena mentions two exhibitions at Smallhythe that stand out for her. In 2019 there was ‘Feeling and Revealing’, a solo exhibition that revealed some of the processes and ideas behind her work. This exhibition also holds a special memory, an absolute emotional highlight: when her son and partner came to view the exhibition and were so visibly moved to see a large body of her work all together. That reaction, Rowena says, was amazing.
The second exhibition that Rowena singles out as special is the current one, entitled ‘Muchness’. The term is borrowed from the Mad Hatter who says to Alice (in Wonderland) that she has lost her muchness – lost some essence of who she used to be. A little like us, in the time of Covid. Yet with this exhibition, Rowena wants to document that she and her fellow painters haven’t lost their muchness, quite the opposite, they are raring to go.
However, if Rowena had to pick one exhibition, it would be ‘A Garden in Your Pocket’ – one of the first held at Smallhythe Studio when writers and artists worked together to produce a truly memorable event. Creative writing workshops held at the gallery produced words that were sent to artists and they, in turn, responded with a creation. The title was inspired by a Chinese saying about always keeping a story in your pocket. Words are important, also to Rowena and her art.
“With pricing it’s hard to factor in the hours taken”
Inevitably, when you exhibit your work or curate the work of others, pricing is a consideration. Rowena says that her husband helped her come up with an equation of sorts to arrive at a price. You need to establish what the lowest and the highest price might be, taking into consideration whether the artist is a beginner, emerging or established, the medium used, and the size of the painting. It’s a tricky equation – you need to cover your cost of materials and take into account the commission charged by galleries. It is sometimes hard to factor in the hours taken and it is important to be consistent.
Rowena initially joined WOKAS (or rather WOKAG as it was then) 25 years ago and rejoined 10 years ago. She has given demos of how she works for the society’s members and says it’s good to belong to a group like this as it makes you try different things. Giving back has been an important part of Rowena’s life in the shape of teaching and running art workshops. She has been an enthusiastic coordinator for South East Open Studios since 2014 and is also an ambassador for Pure Arts – a group that offers support and mentoring for emerging artists in contemporary art. A natural facilitator, she sees keeping people in touch as one of the most important aspects of her role. However much you love art, Rowena admits, it can be a solitary occupation. You need to be part of something bigger as well.
“Art is a solitary occupation
so you need to be part of something bigger"
In the course of the conversation, Rowena says that life is a journey just as art is a journey – certainly in her case that journey so far can be neatly divided into phases. And now a new phase beckons. ‘Muchness’ will be Rowena’s last exhibition at Smallhythe Studio before the gallery is sold. Given that many artists have felt paralysed during lockdown, Rowena’s reason for selling comes as a surprise: lockdown has afforded her the space and time to paint non-stop while the gallery remained closed and she realised that this is what she needs to do now – concentrate entirely on her painting.
So what will she be aiming for now? It would be nice to be appreciated and recognised by somebody significant in the art world, Rowena says after a moment’s reflection. But everything takes time – you don’t suddenly get offered an exhibition in the Royal Academy; you don’t go from nothing to everything overnight. And Rowena wonders which artists alive today will people look back at with reverence in 300 years’ time. It’s a sobering thought and only time will tell. For the moment, Rowena feels lucky to experience the joy and therapeutic solace of creating art, day in, day out – with her muchness thankfully intact.
Rowena McWilliams is based in Smallhythe.
Gunda Cannon was in conversation with her in April 2021.
The exhibition ‘Muchness’ at Smallhythe Studio is open in April and May 2021 on selected days – please check website for details
Rowena McWilliams, April 2021
Battersea Power Station at Night
Marsh Conversations – oil on board
In the studio 2021