Landscape artist Heather Duncan
Ashley Franklin meets artist Heather Duncan
Since the turn of the millennium, Derbyshire Life and Countryside has brought attention to an exciting wave of local landscape artists, who bring to their painting their own special, expressive, abstract view of the land. While established artists like Lewis Noble, Kristan Baggaley and Rex Preston have become widely recognised and increasingly collectable, there is a group of painters blazing a trail just behind them. These notably include Jen Aitken, Gareth Buxton, Colin Halliday and Mark Preston, all of whom have recently been highlighted in these pages. By an extraordinary coincidence, these four artists have now forged a friendship: as often as they can, they convene at the Hollybush Inn in Makeney to share a few pints and chat about art in all its aspects. In coming to write about another freshly fted landscape artist, namely Heather Duncan, I have discovered that she is the fifth member of the 'Hollybush Set'!Heather's work was briefly featured in my article two years ago on Banks' Mill artists' studios. She had been there only three weeks when I first saw her bold, colourful, richly textured landscapes. What I also recall was Heather's passion for her art. Now ensconced in a studio at Darley Abbey mills, that passion is even more palpable. Her landscapes, too, have become more abstract, with much freer and more exhilarating expression, evoking an emotional and spiritual response to the landscape. Never showing what it looks like; more what it feels like to be there. Some of her finest canvases like 'Dark Landscape', 'White Fields Derbyshire Dales' and 'Cheshire Wall' convey the bleak beautiful immensity and intimidation of the land, pointing up our smallness and insignificance. Compelling, too, is the build up of paint and the vibrancy of colour. As her friend, the poet Jo Bell, wrote of her landscapes recently: 'Into those wide spaces, Heather Duncan splashes celebratory pink; deep sulky orange; a blue so deep it bruises the eye. These are not the colours that you can already see - what would be the point of that? These are the colours that you feel as you stand on the top of a ridge in the Peak District, or in an Arizona desert.'As Heather herself reveals, her paintings are 'about edges, light, boundaries and how colours and textures collide', adding that they 'celebrate the beauty of the landscape'. To the eyes of Derbyshire's most eminent art critic John Fineran, there is even more depth than that. Her oils, he acclaims, 'celebrate the emotional appeal of colour and revel in the sensuousness of paint.'Although Heather's paintings are essentially abstract impressions of the land, they are as much pure expression of colour, shape, line and texture - a celebration of not only the beauty of the landscape but also painting itself. Indeed, as John Fineran further discerned: 'This is painting as process in all its affecting poetry, tactility and unpredictability. The painting as subject - not painting of a subject.' As Heather herself affirms: 'I am trying to find and depict the hidden poetry of those landscapes that resonate with me. I like to think my paintings turn the ordinary into something more magical.'It is these profound qualities in Heather's more recent work that have seen her career spiral in the last 18 months. She has had solo exhibitions at Derby's Tregoning Gallery and the Over The Moon Gallery in St Agnes, Cornwall, as well as seeing her work on the walls of Number 9 The Gallery in Birmingham, the Walker Gallery in Harrogate and as part of an exhibition of 'Rising Stars' at the prestigious Belgravia Gallery in London, who hail Heather's paintings for their 'vibrant colours and textures which show a deep sense of thought and talent.''Heather is a lively charismatic person', remarks Lee Benson of Number 9 The Gallery. 'The experiences and aspirations she draws from life transcribe onto the canvas with a vitality that jumps off the walls. Her work has been much admired here in Birmingham.' Heather's work can be further admired from 11th April when she unveils 'Remembered Landscapes', her first solo show at Derby City Gallery, and her vital canvases will also be jumping off the walls at Rowsley's gallerytop this month as part of a mixed landscape show.Heather is clearly thrilled that she can now consume her passion full-time, 'living and breathing painting' as she terms it. She also lived and breathed the landscape from an early age. 'My childhood was spent on the moors of northern England,' reveals Heather. 'I was like Kathy in Wuthering Heights. When I was five or six, I would come home from school and play outdoors until it was dark. I naturally developed a deep connection with the landscape - all that openness and freedom. Our landscape heritage filled me with wonder and awe.'Coupled with an early talent for art, it would appear Heather was destined to paint landscapes. However, she discloses that she initially lacked the confidence to believe she could take up art full time. Heather did at least embrace her love of the land by graduating as a landscape architect in 1988. It was while lecturing one day a week in landscape architecture that she found the courage of her convictions: 'I got such a buzz sharing ideas with students that I thought about lecturing in my real passion - art.' After gaining a teacher's certificate based on her portfolio, she soon graduated from lecturer to Head of Art and Design at Erdington Sixth Form College. She gained her first exhibition and then destiny took another turn. Heather met and married Angus, an IT consultant whose work took him to the USA. As she wasn't allowed to work, Heather painted. 'It was then I decided that this was what I wanted to do,' she recalls. 'It was a case of "it's only one life" and I didn't want any regrets.' Later, on returning home and becoming an 'incubatee' at Banks' Mill, this fledgling artist spread her wings. 'It takes a lot to really believe in yourself as an artist and I'm indebted to Banks' Mill for giving me that belief. At that time, I had a reputation for painting large graphic canvases of single flower heads but although commercially successful, there was no essence of "me" in them. But those meditative flower paintings gave me the confidence to call myself an artist and I eventually devoted myself to landscapes.'However, as already intimated, there is more to Heather Duncan's canvases than a pictorial representation of the land. For Heather, the landscape is just the beginning of a fascinating process. 'Yes, my paintings have a starting point in landscape,' states Heather, 'but I am affected not only by the landscape or the memory of landscape and the experience within it, but also by what is flowing through my mind. Music is an essential component of my studio practice: I lose myself in the music that I play and it allows me to paint from the subconscious rather than trying to control it all too much.'Emotions, too, can play a crucial part in the outcome of Heather's paintings: 'When confident or on a high, my paintings are freer and more dramatic,' she reveals. 'A crisis of confidence or a lack of inspiration can result in paintings that are tighter and more controlled. I look at my paintings and see a diary.'Heather's latest blog speaks of a low point at the end of last year when 'my Muse left me stranded', though her entry ends with the reproduction of an exuberant painting entitled 'Dramatic Skies over Pendle' which represents a resurrection of confidence after 'coming out of the gloom'. There's a similar vivacity to 'Near Settle' and great vigour in the bold splashes and strokes of paint in 'Edern Walk' (based on a family 'adventure' in the Lleyn Peninsula of North Wales). Indeed, most of her recent paintings seem to reveal an artist brimming with assurance, belief and optimism. Heather's paintings, although based on memories of a landscape and 'worked out' through her emotions and thought processes, can be freely interpreted. 'One of the most important things about works of art is the personal and unique response that the viewer brings to them, not just what the artist was thinking or portraying. It's all about the relationship between the art and the viewer, not the artist and the viewer,' she comments. Prior to her Derby City Gallery exhibition, she is conducting two workshops where she will ask people to write about what they see in her paintings - and these will appear alongside the paintings.On hearing this, I mentioned that I found Heather's works 'Enclosure', 'Changing Horizons' and 'Back to Where I Know' like topographical views of the landscape, almost aerial or even satellite views. I wondered if this was the result of her years as a landscape architect? 'Even more than that,' declared Heather. 'Since I was very young I have poured over maps - old maps, new maps, OS maps, hand drawn maps. I even created maps of my own. Together with my love of wide open spaces, an enthusiasm for hiking, my absorption in landscape design and my passion for painting, you have most of the strands that make me the artist I am.'Interestingly, there is a fresh strand soon to be added. Having alluded to the importance of music as she paints, Heather will be taking this idea a fascinating step further: on 16th April at Arnold's Bonington Theatre in Nottinghamshire, she will be painting live on stage 'in response' to the improvised jazz of an up-and-coming band called Birdfood. She'll be repeating this form of action painting at the Melbourne Arts Festival in September. 'When the jazz band leader invited me to take on this challenge, my immediate response was "wow",' said Heather. 'Then I thought: hang on, this is well out of my comfort zone! But potentially it's very exciting.'With the excitement of her first solo show at Derby City Gallery in April, does Heather feel she has 'arrived' as an artist? 'It's difficult to say. What I can say is that I am always looking to challenge myself as well as set new targets. All those years ago, my ambition was to get into a particular open exhibition. Then I upped the stakes and aimed for a certain gallery, then aspired to getting work hung in central London. Maybe I just keep arriving at the next point of departure! I would love to hang in New York and in the Tate Modern. ... I just have to paint and I love everything about it ... even the sensual action of squeezing the paints from their tubes!'