Art and Opportunity


Carey Mulligan as Maud Watts, a foot soldier in the British women’s suffrage movement

A woman’s role in society and social justice interest me and I like to explore these issues in my writing. Recently I went to the cinema to see Suffragette and I was pleased to see that the working class perspective was also highlighted, not just the work of the Pankhurst family and other wealthy women.

Films like Suffragette show how far we’ve come in the pursuit of the right to vote and yet one of the most poignant scenes for me was at the end when a timeline showed how it was much later that women finally achieved suffrage on equal grounds to men in other countries.

mswwebgraphic-470x664px-fa2The opportunities available to women was again on my mind when I went to Edinburgh to see the Modern Scottish Women exhibition at the National Galleries for Scotland and attended an excellent illustrated talk delivered by Alice Strang, senior curator, who selected the works for the exhibition. During the presentation, Alice explained that many of the extremely talented female artists had their careers cut short due to the Marriage Bar preventing them from continuing to hold a teaching post after their marriage.


Hard to pick a favourite but this stunning self-portrait by Doris Zinkeisen stood out.

This seems outrageous and quite shocking these days but although times have changed, I wonder to what degree women of all backgrounds have the same chance to make it as an artist. Many of the women artists featured in the exhibition had come from privileged backgrounds, with parents who were artists themselves and who could afford the tuition fees for art school and trips to Paris for life drawing classes, had access to studios and materials and no real necessity to earn a wage to support a family.


A dreich day made brighter by a fantastic exhibition.

Fast forward a hundred years to 1985, the era of my novel, Talk of the Toun, and the main character Angela is a gifted artist who desperately wants to go to Glasgow Art School. So what’s the problem? She’s hoping to leave the council scheme she’s grown up on and pursue a different path but her parents want her to get a job straight from school, just as they did.

‘Listen hen, ah enjoy making ma nail pictures but it’s a hobby. Ah ken you like tae draw and paint but that’s no something that’ll pay the bills.’

‘It’s mair than a hobby.’

‘It’s awright for the likes of Mr McDougall tae fill yer heid with ideas but he’s no living in the real world. What kinda of job could you get after art school?’

‘Ah could be a graphic designer or a portrait painter or an art teacher or…’

‘Wheesht, when was the last time you saw any of those jobs advertised in The Falkirk Herald?’

‘But there are loads of careers with a degree in art, you can…’

‘Look, yer dad kens what’s best for you, no Mr McDougall. Ah cannae see you in amongst arty farty folk. And ah wouldnae want you tae be disappointed when you couldnae fit in.’

Thirty years on, are things any easier in 2015? I’m not convinced that Angela’s dilemma no longer exists. The talk was free but to visit the exhibition I spent £9.40 on a train ticket and entrance admission of £9 so not a lot of change from a twenty pound note. I’m lucky that I can afford to indulge my interests but how many aspiring artists from a deprived area could access the event and be inspired?



9bcc24c7145293007f43a3daab1a63dfThe scary bit of being any type of artist is having the balls to put you and your work out there leaving it open for criticism. This is an issue I have struggled with in the past (and still do). I’ve been accused and found guilty of “holding back” for fear of exposing thoughts and feelings that might make certain readers feel uncomfortable and alter their view of me. But as my confidence has grown (a work in progress, quite possibly a lifelong challenge) I’m getting braver and dare to use strong language and adult themes in my writing. It’s not easy to share writing which some readers might find offensive and this leaves me feeling exposed and open to judgment. I’m not alone in feeling apprehensive about pushing artistic boundaries and when I met photographer, Matthew Boyle, we shared our thoughts on feeling ‘Naked’, in an artistic sense!

Here’s Matthew’s blog post on how he feels about exposing more of himself in his art.

_MG_2803I had such a great conversation last weekend with Helen MacKinven! What with Helen being a writer, I confessed that I (along with only every second person) would love to write something fictional. I have never done such a thing, and although I would really enjoy it, I just don’t think I would be brave enough. Before I go on I think it is worth saying that I really enjoy the process of writing. I like  choosing my words, and I like editing a roughly written piece to make it read sensibly, so why am I not a natural prospective writer? the truth is, I’m afraid of the nakedness! Not literally you understand, it’s the cold openness of people seeing you as the writer differently or anew. Imagine I wrote a love story or a romance of some kind, what would people think about what was in my head? Would people think I was a closet romantic, would they guess I was about to “come out of the closet”?, would they think my writing was un-serious and trivial? Possibly my favourite novel ever might be Anna Karenina, or Wilkie Collin’s The Woman in White, or come to think of it, maybe Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day; are you getting the pattern here, I like romantic novels, but I would never be brave enough to try to write one even if I had the writing-chops to pull it off! (Just for the record, I love lots of genres of writing, from sci-fi to crime, the former being a disappointing piece of information for my new friend Helen)!

So what is the photo-link here? I found myself thinking a lot about art in terms of how “naked” it leaves us. There is a long-standing question about how much photography is an art form rather than a technical or even trivial exercise? I subscribe to the view that it exists on a wide spectrum that can include both aspects very comfortably, but for most serious photographers their work will contain some artistic merits at least. I then wondered whether all art left you exposed or “naked” to some degree, and indeed whether it was a defining quality of all art that it does this to you? For me in photography this is certainly true, and it is something that I probably haven’t sufficiently acknowledged. The truth is that my photography is constrained by my sense of vulnerability in terms of what I imagine the viewers of my photographs attribute to me when they look at my pictures. This is not the same for all of my pictures. I mainly find landscapes, (when I do them), to score low on my nakedness scale. I don’t feel that they are hugely personal, and indeed they virtually seem to have evolved into a canonical form that allows you to contribute without people thinking “what the hell was in his head when he took that”? They are in fact fairly impersonal. Flower photography, which I have enjoyed a lot of is similar. There are trends in the look and feel of these that mean any picture I post will tend to simply contribute to the body of current flower photos, and again, no vulnerability. The problem is that my favourite photographic form is portraiture. Some portraiture can be fairly anodyne, for example business portraiture. Other portraiture can be incredibly challenging and deeply personal. (E.g. Mapplethorpe) I like a particular kind of portraiture, natural portraits which attempt to capture people in a relaxed and at least partially realistic way. I like that because I like people in general, and I like to try to capture what it is I like about them. This is the relatively safe ground I stand on; I try to make pictures of people in a slightly interesting, but not too challenging way. I hope that people will look at the pictures and feel the same sense of curiosity and pleasure in the people, that I did when I was taking the pictures. Critically though, I don’t want people to think that I thought anything inappropriate, or that they would gain any insight into my feelings about the subject beyond what I am happy to give away freely. This may well be limiting my photography, as my fear of being artistically naked, (that means I would struggle to write creatively), may also mean that I am becoming a technical portraitist who is afraid of pushing the artistic side further.

e490b1e7d539d44799209871c44a7befI think there are in general, two sides to this artistic “nakedness”. One is the general degree of “provocation” in the creative sense. Does the image shock, challenge, surprise, make you question, reframe assumptions etc. The second is that we as individuals have a personality and a comfort zone associated with who we are. We can feel a little “stripped” when our own espoused values are challenged. If you only ever take landscapes, and someone asks you to photograph them for a personal portfolio, you may feel that viewers of these pictures will wonder what personal relationship that sudden shift reveals? The same images from a regular portraitist will not even give  second thoughts if they are just normal people-pics!

The truth is that while I think of myself as a fairly self-confident and brave individual, in matters of expressive art, I may well be a bit safe and comfortable. Oddly, as an occasional musician, I used to write songs when I was in my teens and early twenties. Whenever I try now, I just cringe at what I am coming up with and imagine what people would think when listening to it. The songs never get off the ground.

What art could we be making if we weren’t afraid?

The picture is one of mine from a 2010 stroll. It is a nice simple, and above all safe landscape.