Sharon Thomas and Frances Robertson: Conversations Across Time (March 2021 edition)
Frances Robertson introduces the conversation:
At the start of the Herstory Portrait project back in 2010, before any sketches or paintings were produced, Sharon asked me to work alongside her in order to turn her proposed portrait sittings with powerful and influential women into conversations, joining her in our journeys to meet the sitters, taking notes, and adding more context to the process. The interview texts in Herstory Portrait come from those encounters; they are a poignant reminder of a particular moment of meeting, and to the painter, writer and sitter they will evoke the day when we met. In addition (and I am speaking for Sharon and myself here), these texts echo strangely across time. We recall the shared journeys and the work on the project, our discussions about the reality of women’s lives—and we also remember our own lives then—and the unforeseen future experiences that came after, setting up a resonance of two memory states.
The interview that has been missing until now is with Sharon herself—or rather, the conversation between Sharon and myself. We have known each other since the late 1990s when we were both undergraduate students in what was then the Drawing and Painting Department (Fine Art) of GSA. I graduated the year before Sharon, in 2000. We were both ambitious to continue studying—Sharon continued her distinguished studies as a painter with postgraduate training and residencies in New York and Rome. I, older, and with a family to support, chose academic research and teaching, with only sporadic creative projects. Whenever we met, at exhibitions or gallery openings, or just going back and forth to the studio, we’d fall into enthusiastic and freewheeling talk—enjoying for a while the feeling that we were part of the ‘republic of art’ that was the unspoken but seductive ethos of GSA. That republic supports me in spirit still—to some extent, and with some valued friends and colleagues. But by the time of the Herstory Portrait project in 2010-2011, both Sharon and I had come to realise in different ways that the circumstances of histories—and herstories—matter. The republic of art promises freedom but not all her citizens have the same room for manoeuvre. Herstory Portrait celebrated successful women—in part because unlike men who had been in similar positions of power, women’s faces are hardly featured on the walls of art schools, council chambers, and other corridors of power.
Now, Sharon and I share our motives for working on Herstory Portrait and our reflections of that collaboration a decade ago in a conversation across time in the form of letters: firstly Sharon, then myself, Frances.
Sharon Thomas: My Story
Much of my work stems from anger and frustration. It has always been a means to understand what is going on around me. I don’t set out with a specific goal in sight. My work is always a journey to create context and record the journey in process; hence why my work flits between media and subject: it is a direct sensory response – a means to control.
As time has gone on, it is painting that has created a context for me to understand how I am portrayed or contextualised. At 18 I came to see I was a working class woman from North West England with an attitude. I am no different now: I am still frustrated and hungry to explore context, but I am now due to age and experience better equipped to express that.
Making Herstory Portrait was a journey that was very tiring, but necessary.
In 2009- my mother’s mother died. I was 30, an artist recently back to Glasgow after 5 years abroad, now a mother to a 2 year old. I attended the funeral not expecting an explosion to then occur in my brain and practice.
At the funeral a fight erupted between men I did not know which had to be separated. At the time I was documenting my mother, aunties and uncles as they stood together in the garden, many I had not seen since I was a child. Nothing about the fight was spoken about.
It was a few weeks later that the subject of the fight was quietly explained to me by a close relative traumatised by the information that had been exposed.
The story that I was informed about was that my maternal grandad had been a paedophile. The man had terrorised the family for many years and had never been confronted publicly about his abuse. He had died several years earlier whilst I lived abroad. At the time I had been angry that my mother had not told me about his death. She displayed no emotion when confronted about this- the irreverence I saw in her then began to make sense. He had died years earlier never having been confronted publicly about his abuse.
My history fractured- and I desperately needed to understand what was going on. I felt lost: a scenario I refused to accept. I therefore confronted the information and simply mentioned to my mother during a phone conversation what I had been told at her mother’s funeral. The awkwardness was intense, but my mother dismissed the stories as bogus: just typical fear mongering local gossip. But as I analysed my past memories of visiting the house that my mother grew up in with her brother and sisters, images that I had seen as an innocent child were then seen through a woman’s eyes.
It was games that I began to recall, such as playing peekaboo through all of the large holes in the bathroom door that were stopped with twisted toilet roll. Advice had been given by my uncles about how to jump out of the bedroom windows as quickly as possible, or escape routes out of the house that did not involve the stairs. This was advice that was not about fire safety. I had been confused by all of this chaos but had not questioned it. These memories now took on new meanings. During seldom visits to the house, I reflected upon how awkward my mum would act. We would visit knowing that my grandad was out. She would chain smoke by his chair standing by the living room window- peering out of the lace curtain watching who was in the street. She would look out for who was looking back out of their windows too. It always felt claustrophobic and nervous to be there, though I loved to visit as I wanted to get to know my auntie and uncles better. I had no aunties or uncles on my dad’s side. My dad had been adopted as a baby. My grandparents- his adoptive parents were the most amazing people in the world.
I could not comprehend this data. So I pursued the subject again; now nervous, angry, and at the same time wanting to cause no hurt to anyone. I simply talked about these memories and asked my mother if she had experienced abuse as a child. It was with my second enquiry that she confirmed that my grandad had abused her and others in the house as children.
I did not anticipate the weight that then landed on my chest. I became witness to a story that I could not change: unable to call to justice or punish the evil person that caused such horrible abuse.
I had not felt this kind of anger since 9/11 when I was in New York and where I was part of story- trapped- unable to fix anything. Both stories were too big, each started long before I was born and with each I had been forced into a position of voyeur watching other’s sorrow.
I talked with my mum a little about her experiences, but had to stop as it was too hard to take in. I was not experienced in talking about stories that were so close. I could not be an ‘outsider’. But I could hear as some painful stories were told the relief in her voice. She was being listened to.
My head really struggled at this time as I was trying to fix something that I could not. At the same time I was in a place where women around me were not shouting about their successes.
My solution became simple- to start documenting the women around me and have them tell their story. The women I knew had so many experiences that I wanted to know more about. There were so many stories that had not been told which I simply wanted to listen whilst I drew: to try to understand and contextualise before making my own future decisions.
I talked to my mother (as usual every Sunday evening since I had left home at 18) as I made this work over 12-18 months: whilst also catching up about my brothers and sisters and how my daughter was doing: now a toddler starting nursery school. She drove up to Glasgow for the opening of Herstory Portrait in 2011 at Glasgow Trades Hall. She met the sitters and we all raised a glass to the Centenary of International Women’s Day.
That came to be the last time that I saw my mother. She suffered an unexpected heart attack a few months later. She was a woman that propelled me to paint, yet she was the woman that I did not actually paint.
I dedicate Herstory Portrait to my mother. The power in the love and support that she gave to me was thunderous. The stories I listened to during this period urged me to lead further projects, next to commission a city monument to recognise a woman called Mary Barbour.
I came to find that Mary Barbour died the year that my mother was born: in 1958. These two great women left great legacies and have many more yet still to see.
Frances Robertson: In response-Dear Sharon,
It’s ten years since the Herstory Portrait exhibition, and in the time between I’ve not seen Sharon very often—quick sightings and short greetings, in a time when we both—as have many—struggled to keep going in the face of bereavement and illness. It’s almost impossible to speak up or appear downbeat in these situations, just smile instead. It’s only now, after a long reunion and talk (courtesy of lockdown Zoom), and Sharon’s letter to me, speaking generously and freely of her hidden anger and frustration, that I feel I understand and can speak of the Herstory Portrait project more clearly across time; what it means now and how it made me feel to be part of it then.
When I started working with Sharon in 2010, I felt optimistic, reaching the end of my doctoral studies, about what exciting new projects I might take on, and pleased to be invited to take part in her meetings and conversations as observer and writer. I had seen and been excited by Sharon’s paintings which manifested—I thought—enraged Bakhtinian skirmishes into sexual politics. I had seen her pastoral landscapes of female yearning (as for example Regina Res Publica (2004)—which will be shown again in a forthcoming exhibition by the New Glasgow Society), and the subsequent Punch-and-Judy transformation of that pastorale, with canvases invaded by overweight, morris-dancing male nudes with their regalia of brotherhood, trampling through beautiful Constable-esque copses and meadows. Those figures were ludicrous in their priapic obsessions, and terrifying in their unquestioned masculine ability to carry out their fantasies. I was cheered by the contemptuous fairground roundels of the male portraits in the 2008-9 Apotropaic series such as Sweet Cheeks in Blue (Ripe for the Picking) (Band of Brothers).
Sharon had approached her sitters for Herstory Portrait in a confident and resourceful manner; as these were not commissioned portraits, the subjects were often giving up valuable working time in busy schedules with good will to allow the project to happen. Our meetings took place by agreement in the sitters’ natural working environment, allowing us access to spaces that we might never get access to otherwise, such as the Lord Advocate’s Chambers in the Crown Office, Edinburgh (Elish Angiolini), The Council Chamber of the City Chambers, Glasgow (Jean Mcfadden); or the Director’s Studio in Glasgow School of Art (Seona Reid). The finished portraits and associated sketches and texts demonstrate, I hope, the respectful and friendly intentions of this project, and give insight into the political and public leadership and the background and motivations of the sitters. The portraits have warmth and intimacy, in part due to the medium of painting (egg tempera on gesso). When they were completed, however, I found myself puzzled by the quiet and respectful quality of these works; they felt subdued in comparison to Sharon’s other earlier paintings I had seen. These portraits were intended to assert the standing of female players in public life; to celebrate the power of women as fearless speakers and leaders but they seemed to have a modesty and self-effacing quality. What had happened here? I am only too ready to accuse myself of being feminine in this way—back in 2011 I would never have asked this question, feeling it was not my place, but know that Sharon would repudiate this persona; as she explained to me proudly last week, she wants everybody to ‘have an ego’ and to insist on being heard, and not to care about being seen as loud or unfeminine.
In Herstory Portrait part of this restraint in the paintings I feel comes from the medium—egg tempera on gesso; an historical technique associated with Renaissance artists such as Cimabue or Giotto, and which Sharon had been taught, laboriously, during her postgraduate MFA at the New York Academy of Art. At the time, this had felt like a penance, mastering an obsolete methodology (albeit one that has had such memorable and luminous results in the twentieth century work of American artists such as Andrew Wyeth). But later, studying in Rome, the technique—and its use in devotional paintings, made the method come alive, as a medium of slow contemplative build-up. When we met last week, Sharon talked about how she chose tempera in part because of its resonances with frescoed images of female saints, laid into the plaster when wet, impossible to erase as long as the walls stood, and in the fabric of the building, as art for collective sustained immersion, present but always with further depth.
We also talked about the range of other historical techniques and marks in her work—the language of transcendent landscape –as for example in the Hudson River School—cruelly transmuted into the threatening pastorales of male domination of nature. Sharon is a sophisticated and sardonic user of beautiful mark making, and beautiful human nudes—she cannot forget the functions of beautiful art in ideology even while she also loves the marking, the shaping, finding the right form, medium and texture.
Drawing and painting are deep interpretive wells for Sharon—as she explained eloquently in her series Epilepsy and Eye (2016): ‘when spoken language lets me down… the images are fluid’. With painting and images, Sharon can see into the future or interpret the present, even while she is unaware of a situation in consciousness. Thus, the scornful and loud feminist carnival of her early paintings were a analysis not only of the ongoing situation of all women in a patriarchal world, but also an uncovering—unknown to herself—of the family abuse and atmosphere of anxiety she writes to us about. I think—and this is only my suggestion—that the restraint in the Herstory Portrait is double-edged; it is a homage to the intimacy and respect of these meetings and it is an attack on the vainglorious civic portrait style. Now, I find the images incredibly moving. But without our meeting up again, sharing and listening, and the new conversation across time, I would have stayed back there in the past—and remained more tongue tied.
Copyright Frances Robertson and Sharon Thomas 2021