Cambridge Open Studios Interviews 2014 - Melanie Goemans

In the second in our series of interviews with Cambridge Open Studios artists we meet Burwell based painter and printmaker Melanie Goemans.

Karen and I enjoyed viewing the paintings in your studio, tell us about how your works on canvas evolve.

In my work I take photographs and make drawings of conventionally insignificant, value-less forms in nature, and through painting I draw attention to them. I like the idea that the painting invests them with importance, because for me the things I choose to paint have greater importance than for most people, who might overlook them. I think there is a great beauty in, for example, tangled weeds or the overgrown, especially in contrast with the man-made forms around us.

I like finding out the history of places I am painting, and try to tell something of the story of each place through the lines I put down. For example, last summer I photographed some cow parsley growing in the local churchyard which the council mowed down the next day. Tracing the shadows of these lost forms onto my gessoed canvas, the painting begins to tell a story of absence and recollection rather like the churchyard it came from. The portrayal in traditional materials, the portrait format and the title, ‘Queen Anne’s Lace’, all play on giving significance to a subject that had no commonplace value.

The colour palette you use is very soft and muted, yet the images we see are very powerful. Tell us about your mark making and tone choices.

When I was younger I used to think art had to be really complex to be good, but with time I have realised that keeping things simple or paring them down can be a bigger statement. The materials I use are traditional - oil paint, canvas, gesso, linseed oil - and come from my interest in History of Art and wanting to connect with the past and see if I can use old materials in new ways. I like looking at complicated shapes and painting them with a very fine brush. The act of painting like this feels almost like stitching or weaving, and slowly with each brush-mark the work comes together.

The work you make using printmaking methods shows the same visual language as your paintings, but your process is quite different. How do you tackle your prints?

I take photographs a lot, gathering source material for paintings and etchings. I keep zinc plates that I have prepared with a hard ground in my studio and draw free-hand on these, looking at my photographs. One Saturday every month or two I go to the Curwen Print Study Centre to etch, sometimes aquatint, and print the plates I have drawn on in my studio. Sometimes I apply a soft ground to the plates and roll them through the press with pressed or dried flowers. The results cannot be controlled and a greater element of chance comes into play. This is exciting, for example when the results seem unbelievably symmetrically perfect, as is the case with this etching (below)!

 ‘Clematis Montana’, etching, 2014

Describe your studio space.

We moved to Cambridgeshire four years ago and set about converting the garage of our new house into my current studio. It has a huge north facing window and a couple of east facing ones so a good steady light. It is detached from the house (a short walk across the garden!) and only my work happens in there so it feels a focused creative space.

Where did you learn your craft?

After school I studied Florentine Renaissance art at the Courtauld Institute, London and spent a lot of time in Italy studying art and teaching English. Then I studied Fine Art at the School of Art, University of Gloucestershire alongside teaching Art and History of Art at Cheltenham College. That is my formal training but the posts of Artist in Residence that followed - in Cheltenham, then at Blundell’s School in Devon, then at the Florence Trust, London - gave me the space, exposure and feedback that really helped me to refine and define what I was doing. I am relatively new to etching, having taken a course with Valerie Sims at the Curwen Print Study Centre a few years ago.

How strict are you on spending time painting and printmaking

We have three young children and five pets so home life is pretty busy! My youngest is now at school so I have between 9am and 3pm weekdays and evenings to do my work. So daytime hours are precious and I try to spend as many of them as possible in my studio.

Tell us about the teaching that you do, and how that can impact on your own practice.

In term time on Thursdays I run two courses at the Community Education centre in Bottisham, one in Fine Art and one in History of Art. This is an opposite sort of day in my working week to the quiet reflective days in my studio. A different sort of creativity is involved, but above all it seems important to me, fortunate to have studied both History of Art and Fine Art to MA level, to pass some of this on.

I also do occasional workshops, for example working for a day in my local primary school with 60 Reception children (age 4-5) to make a 5 metre wide Christmas display.

In my twenties I taught Art and History of Art in schools and still feel highly moved and rewarded to hear of any impact I have had. For example last week I was thrilled to read some lovely words from a former student who saw my work at the Affordable Art Fair, Hampstead: ‘… she made me see how soulful and unique being an artist and creative is and allowed me to believe that I could always make this a part of my life!’

Do you have a gallery that represents you? What impact do they have on the sort of work you make?

The Rebecca Hossack Gallery (London and New York) took me on this year and represents my work. The gallery has been running for 25 years and I have always been interested in the artists they exhibit as there is an emphasis on strong drawing and painting, and high levels of craftsmanship. Rebecca has encouraged me just to paint and paint, and to work on a larger scale. She has an excellent ‘eye’ and high professional standards and to meet these, she asked me to start framing my canvases with tray frames in white or silver leaf.

Has there been one piece of advice that has spurred you on to work in a certain way?

Jeremy Deller was a friend when I was at university. We had coffee together a few years ago and talked through ideas. Rather than make things, he makes things happen so I was keen to have his opinion on the kind of ‘things’ I make. He said he likes paintings and etchings, as long as they are relevant. This insistence on ‘relevance’ sharpened my thoughts. My materials and methods are old - oil paint, canvas, etching - and come from my interest in History of Art and wanting to connect with the past, but there is no point in doing this unless I can use old materials in new ways to make work that is relevant now and can resonate in this time and place.

Where can we see and purchase your work?

Rebecca Hossack exhibits my work at her London galleries and at the ‘Affordable Art Fair’, London and overseas. Locally, I am exhibiting in the launch exhibition of ‘Cambridge Original Printmakers’, 27th September - 5th October, Pitt Building, Trumpington Street, Cambridge. As well, of course, with Cambridge Open Studios next month. You can also see my work and find updates on my website:

Describe the sort of work people can expect to see at your Open Studio this summer.

Some paintings and my most recent painting in progress; Etchings and aquatints (framed and unframed); Tiles designed from my etchings; or to borrow the description of a COS visitor from last year:  'This year my favourite visit was to the studio of Melanie Goemans, an artist I hadn’t discovered before ... Hers is a beautifully quiet, subtle, provincial art evoking a sense of transience and of receptiveness. It felt very English and somehow akin to poetry. I could well imagine her work accompanying the poetry of Philip Gross, for example, or Edward Thomas.' (Anthony Haynes, publisher)

What days are you open for Cambridge Open Studios?

The first three weekends: 5th & 6th, 12th & 13th, 19th & 20th July, 11am – 6pm, other times by appointment.


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