Saturday, February 25, 2012

Grace Gardner ~ a life in abstraction

 ‘I paint because there is nothing in life I would rather do.’

In her younger days, Grace Gardner was described as ‘delicate’. So I expected to be greeted by a figure of frailty when I first met the artist at her home near Falmouth. As a young woman in Chicago she had been admitted to a tuberculosis sanatorium just as the bombing of Pearl Harbour took place, plunging her country into the Second World War. The outcome of long months of treatment in those days was far from certain. Grace and her fellow patients, conscious of their vulnerability, were plagued by fear about their possible fate at the hands of the Germans or Japanese, should the United States be invaded. Though she was discharged after nine months, it would be a further five years before her health was fully restored.

Despite her slight frame, the firmness of Grace Gardner’s handshake as she welcomed me into her living room left me in no doubt that this was a woman to be reckoned with. At a time of life when lesser mortals would be putting their feet up, her creative energy remains undiminished. In her studio at the top of the stairs, progress is under way on a number of ambitious canvases.

Born in 1920, Grace grew up as the only daughter of Matthew and Ruby Brennan, in between two brothers. Despite the privations of the Depression, her home environment provided her with stability and a strong sense of her own identity. From a very early age she was taken by her father on Sunday afternoons to visit the Art Institute of Chicago. While he marvelled over the Old Masters, she was fascinated by Picasso, Matisse and Cezanne, claiming later in life that ‘I may always have seen the world in abstract’.

Grace’s early fascination for art was encouraged by her mother, who was keen for her to attend Saturday morning classes at the Art Institute. But this proved impractical due to the distance from their suburban home to the centre of Chicago. The exclusion of art from the school curriculum during the tough economic climate proved a further setback. Yet this could not prevent Grace from filling the margins of her schoolbooks with sketches. Her instinct for colour gave her the confidence to start designing and making her own clothes from the age of twelve.

After leaving the sanatorium, she spent the long period of convalescence teaching herself how to draw and paint from self-help art books. She copied details from Renaissance portraits, and even went so far as to study the ‘bible’ of medical students, Gray’s Anatomy. Not yet fit enough for work, Grace joined a group of artists who met regularly to paint. This led to a meeting with the first of three influential teachers, Frances Wright Richardson, who introduced her to watercolour and oil technique, her favourite medium. Under her tuition, Grace produced some remarkable cityscapes depicting Chicago in sombre mood. A lack of models initiated a series of experimental self-portraits in oils, reflecting her growing confidence. These were signed simply ‘Brennan’ in block capitals, in proud acknowledgement of her Irish ancestry. Self-Portrait in Red Sweater is Grace’s favourite. The assertive stance and uncompromising gaze in this striking image proclaim the painter’s determination to take on the world.


Self-Portrait in Red Sweater c.1960
Oil on canvas board
75 x 60cm
Private collection
© Grace Gardner


For many years Grace had dreamed of visiting Europe. In 1952 she set off alone to spend ten weeks exploring London, Paris and the art treasures of Italy. This was the beginning of a love affair with European culture, which continues to this day. On a second trip in 1954, this time accompanied by her mother, she re-acquainted herself with Italy. The pair also spent time in Ireland, where Grace felt a spiritual connection with her Celtic roots.

On her return home, the Art Institute of Chicago began to play a more prominent role in her life. She enrolled in their Saturday classes, under the tutelage of Rudolph Pen, who immediately recognised her singular talent. Alone among his students, she was given the freedom to abandon representational painting and embrace abstract expressionism. ‘I felt I had graduated from kindergarten’ she later wrote.

Grace spent several years working in advertising. In 1955 she applied for a vacancy in the Art Institute and began a new working life as a secretary in the Decorative Arts department. There followed an eight year period of enormous fulfilment, during which she immersed herself in the life of the Museum and embarked on a study programme of History of Art three evenings a week. This she grew to love almost as much as painting itself, but she stopped short of taking her studies to degree level.

In 1963 Grace married Bill Gardner, a widower with two grown-up children. Giving up her job, she was able to devote more time to her painting, and found a ready market for her work in galleries and at art fairs. She took on her husband’s name, from now on signing her paintings ‘Grace Gardner’. A banker who enjoyed woodworking in his spare time, Bill converted their very large garage into a beautifully panelled studio for his bride. She found an art class nearer to home under the tutelage of Kwok Wai Lau, formerly a pupil of Rudolph Pen. Lau encouraged his students to develop their own unique creative powers. While attending his classes Grace switched to acrylics, a medium which suited the hard-edged abstracts she was working on at the time. Lau’s students were disappointed when he decided to move to California, but a select few, including Grace, were invited to show their work at his gallery in Los Angeles, exhibiting under the name ‘Fourteen Artists’.

The grid motif has always been integral to Grace’s artistic life. She has childhood memories of helping her grandmother and aunts with the making of quilts, and recalls an occasion when, confined to bed through illness in the 1960s, she sketched a quilt cover whose pattern was distorted by the shape of her knees beneath. This led to the development of the grid paintings, elements of which infiltrate her work up to the present day. The extent to which the grid underpins her creativity is evident from her statement: ‘Undoubtedly the greatest influence on me was Cezanne, whom I studied more intensely than any other. Even in my grids, I feel Cezanne choreographs my composition.’


Untitled c.1965
Acrylic on canvas
50 x 60cm
Collection of the artist
© Grace Gardner

Grace was diagnosed with cancer in 1966. Treatment was swift and invasive, and though she made a complete recovery, the fear of recurrence cast a shadow over her life for a long time.

To avoid Chicago’s extreme weather conditions, and to make the best use of their leisure time, the Gardners became accustomed to spending the winter months abroad, lingering to savour the unfolding of the early southern European spring. They developed a particular affection for Portugal, where Grace recalls her artist’s eye associating the gnarled branches of ancient fig trees with the tentacles of a squid. Images such as these, encountered during her travels, would often direct her creative mind into unexpected realms, engendering a new series of paintings.

Unlike many women artists, Grace was blessed with a husband who supported her endeavours. With Bill’s encouragement she began to exhibit more extensively in group and solo shows, winning awards at art festivals throughout the Chicago area. During this time she became involved in the anti-Vietnam war protest movement, creating a series of silkscreen posters bearing the peace motif, which were reproduced in thousands.

On trips abroad Grace was now showing her canvases to galleries. Her first solo show in London was held at Drian Galleries in 1972, and was followed by several more during that decade. The prestigious art magazine Apollo described her work as possessing ‘an exuberant, restlessly organic swirling movement (which) gives an optimistic vitality to the impact that is analogous to the brash vigour of rock music.’


Déjà Vu 1975
Acrylic on canvas
61 x 45cm
The Grace Gardner Gift
Courtesy of Falmouth Art Gallery
© Grace Gardner

After exhibiting in Italy, three of her paintings were donated to the American Embassy in Rome. A further three were acquired by museums in Poland. In 1973 she participated in ‘Fanfare for Europe’ in London, and her work was included in a 1976 exhibition at the Universities of Hull & Leeds, entitled ‘American Artists in Britain’.

The death of her mother at the end of 1976 was followed only a few months later by that of Bill. Grace continued to paint, albeit with difficulty, struggling without the companionship of her husband.


No Exit 1978
Acrylic on canvas
76 x 101cm
The Grace Gardner Gift
Courtesy of Falmouth Art Gallery
© Grace Gardner

Grace commented on No Exit: ‘One friend said that it looked as if my life had become unravelled ... or that I was weaving it back together. It was both.’ At this time she found a compatible studio partner in Richard Carney. Together they organised two highly successful national exhibitions, ‘Black & White’ and ‘Vehicles’. In the catalogue accompanying the Drian Galleries 1979 exhibition, Carney described Grace’s No Exit series as ‘thin linear forms, seemingly free of gravity, floating up like dust clouds in partial suspension, then cascading into new dimensions and reaches of quiet mystery.’

A new direction was established in Grace’s work by creating large canvases laid flat on the floor, and pouring watered-down acrylics on them. From this she developed the technique of brushing diluted acrylics onto a large piece of fabric (usually white) which was subsequently draped and pinned to the wall, in a style reminiscent of the stain paintings of the Colour Field movement.


Genesis II 1982
Acrylic on canvas
41 x 51cm
The Grace Gardner Gift
Courtesy of Falmouth Art Gallery
© Grace Gardner

A trip to Japan in the early 1980s inspired yet another change of focus. The etching Blue Grid combines the distorted patterning, characteristic of much of Grace’s work, with the Chinese collage technique known as chine collé. This image is an etching created from a large plate which enables copies to be made on paper, but the subsequent incorporation of threads and paper endows the piece with a texture and layering, making each print unique. Grace returned from her travels with scraps of paper printed with Japanese characters, which were integrated into a series of distinctive etchings, whose subtle colour range creates an impression of delicacy. ‘Found’ objects such as these have become central to an imaginative manipulation of media resulting in compositions both unexpected and delightful.


Blue Grid 1986
Unique etching with chine collé
42 x 49 cm
The Grace Gardner Gift
Courtesy of Falmouth Art Gallery
© Grace Gardner

In 1982, while exhibiting in London, Grace was invited to stay with a friend in Cornwall. Enchanted by its tiny harbour and picturesque narrow streets, she settled in Flushing two years later. Surf, shore and sky now provided the stimulus to her artistic creativity. In Grace’s words ‘the Surf series was an expression of the wind and the waves in Cornwall, something I had never experienced before.’


Surfsong IV 1988
Acrylic on canvas
90 x 150 cm
Private collection
© Grace Gardner

Grace found a warm welcome in the community of St Ives artists. Here the prominent printmaker Roy Walker encouraged her to experiment with monoprinting, which she took to immediately, perfecting the technique over the next few years. 1985 was the year of her first solo show in Cornwall, marking the start of a long and fruitful association with Falmouth Art Gallery. From then on she became a regular exhibitor throughout the county and beyond. Although she made Cornwall her home relatively late in her career, Grace’s contribution to the local art scene has been significant. As Brian Stewart, the former director of Falmouth Art Gallery, stated: ‘Abstraction is central to Cornwall’s rich heritage ...Grace has become an important figure in this movement and her work continues to speak to new audiences.’ In 2004 she generously donated a substantial body of work to Falmouth Art Gallery. Known as ‘The Grace Gardner Gift’, this selection has boosted the gallery’s existing collection by 38 of the artist’s own works, plus several by contemporaries in Cornwall she admires, such as Paul Feiler, Gill Watkiss and Ralph Freeman.

Soon after moving to Cornwall, a chance encounter with a Penryn gallery owner led to a lasting friendship with Dr Helen Andrew, and introduced Grace to the New Gallery, Portscatho, on the Roseland peninsula, which has represented her work ever since. Chris Insoll, the owner, a well-known local artist, wrote the preface to her autobiography, ‘Grace Notes’, acknowledging her encouragement and support of his art practice. A solo show at the New Gallery in 2000 took a closer look at the interplay between colour and grid in Grace’s work, exploring the range of colours within the spectrum. One of the most arresting canvases, Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Heart, was described in an article by art historian Dr Helen Andrew as ‘an intense chromatic masterpiece expressing blackness without once resorting to black. The result is a startling and vibrant exposition of Black as idea.’ For Dr Andrew, ‘the creation of a whole which is at the same time harmonious and disruptive’ is engendered not only by the artist’s emotional response to colour, but also by an approach which is highly intellectual.


Black is the Colour of
My True Love’s Heart 2000

Oil on board, 92 x 122 cm
The Grace Gardner Gift
Courtesy of Falmouth Art Gallery
© Grace Gardner

In 2004 a major retrospective of her work was held at the Mariners Gallery in St Ives. Encompassing the first fifty years of her career, the show was so well received that it was followed by an exhibition of her new work in 2007.

‘Effortless Brushstrokes’, the latest exhibition at Falmouth Art Gallery, celebrates the work of a wide range of artists, such as John Singer Sargent, Lamorna Birch and Laura Knight. In a prominent position on the large end wall of the main gallery is a monumental canvas by Grace Gardner, entitled Forest Murmurs. Her inclusion in this show is a testament to the role Grace has played in the artistic heritage of Cornwall since the latter part of the twentieth century. It is also a tribute to an art practice which, while rooted in abstract expressionism, charts a course both unpredictable and engaging.

Unlike many of her generation, Grace has been eager to take advantage of technology. A digital project which began in 1998 as a series of Christmas cards reveals the playful side of her nature. Drawn simply by using a mouse, these cartoon illustrations display an extraordinary degree of technical skill. In 2002 they were published as a delightful book entitled ‘Once more from the beginning’ – a depiction of familiar Bible stories with a contemporary twist, enjoying wide appeal. Since then Grace has generated sufficient cartoons to form the basis of a second series. Not only that, but she assures me that she has ‘at least’ ten new Christmas cards in the pipeline - evidence that she has no intention of retiring. Looking ahead, she expressed the hope that, provided her eyesight does not let her down, she will continue to paint.

Grace is extraordinarily active and thinks nothing of taking the bus to nearby Falmouth or further afield to Truro. Relishing her independence, she still enjoys taking holidays in Europe, accompanied, as always, by brush and easel. To my question as to when, over the course of such a long life, she had been happiest, Grace responded with a smile ‘Probably right now.’


‘I want to find my biological father’
from ‘Once more from the beginning’
© Grace Gardner

(c) 2012 Helen Hoyle

 

Grateful thanks to Dr Helen Andrew for her invaluable help.
Thanks also to Andrea and Chris Insoll for permission to use Self-Portrait in Red Sweater.



News Update ~ Grace Gardner died in July 2013, aged 93.

Further reading:
Grace Notes ~ A Life in Art by Grace Gardner – published by Halstar, 2009
The Grace Gardner Gift – published by Falmouth Art Gallery, 2004
Once more from the beginning by Grace Gardner, 2002

6 comments:

  1. What an interesting life and body of work.

    ReplyDelete
  2. That is my great aunt..she is pretty incredible

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes ... Grace is an extraordinary lady, with a real zest for life.

      Delete
  3. melindaturbeville@yahoo.comJune 17, 2013 at 7:21 PM

    I have just recently found a painting by grace Gardner copy righted 1978!!!!! It is beautiful!!!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Grace is my step-grandmother. Thank you for such a wonderful article about her life and work!

    ReplyDelete