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Issue 94 - Artist in residence: Lesley Banks

Scotland Magazine Issue 94
September 2017


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Artist in residence: Lesley Banks

Roddy Martine meets Lesley Banks, Gongoozler

Part of it is the opportunity to be out of the house and in the fresh air, perhaps walking the dog, and thinking – all of the time monitoring the seasons and observing the leaves as they change colour. The next step is to interpret everything into paint. That is where the artist's genius reveals itself.

Lesley Banks admits to having been fascinated by waterways since she was a child – finding the fluidity of their surfaces and the structures that align with them captivating. In her paintings, the images are vibrant, compelling and often mysterious.

“I had wanted to be an artist for as long as I can remember,” she reflects. Early on, Lesley won scholarships to visit and paint the canals of Amsterdam and Venice. But that was just the beginning. When she graduated from the Glasgow School of Art Painting Department, she says that initially she felt a bit flat. “To pay the bills, I worked at the Cul de Sac, a bar in Glasgow's West End, before winning the Elizabeth Greenshields Award, which allowed me to travel,” she continues. “That was amazing. Then the late Cyril Gerber, who owned a gallery in Glasgow, came to my flat to see my work and offered me a part-time job that literally propelled me into the Scottish art world.” Lesley's first solo show was in the Compass Gallery in Glasgow, in 1990, and she was subsequently awarded a Leverhulme Trust Research Award and a Laing Landscape Award. Her works can now be seen in the collections of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery, Perth Museum & Art Gallery, the Stirling Smith Art Gallery & Museum, the Lillie Art Gallery in Milngavie, the Aberdeen Art Gallery, and more besides.

There followed marriage and children, and then it was time for a come back. But where to begin again? She admits to finding the growth of social media daunting. “With Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, you just have to keep on top of things all of the time,” she says. “Ironically, it's much more difficult to sell paintings now than it used to be.” Lesley grew up near Denny and explains that her initial idea was to focus on the lowland canal between the Falkirk Wheel and the Kelpies. Having approached Falkirk Community Trust, she was offered a temporary studio in Callendar Park and the opportunity to exhibit in the Park Gallery. Simultaneously, she received an offer from the Lillie Art Gallery. Lesley certainly believes in serendipity. A conversation with the sculptor Andy Scott, who designed the Kelpies, led to an introduction to Richard Miller, director of infrastructure at Scottish Canals. Thanks to Richard, with funding from Creative Scotland and supported by Falkirk Community Trust, the project expanded into Lesley being appointed Artist In Residence at Scottish Canals, a body that includes in its portfolio the Crinan Canal Walk, the Monkland Canal Walk, the Caledonian Canal Walk, the Union Canal Walk, the Forth and Clyde Walk, and the 35-metre tall Falkirk Wheel.

The Scottish Canals footpaths are accessible to everyone and provide an easy, flat and continuous walk. No maps are required to explore them and each route is uniquely different. Lesley's paintings reveal moored boats and the Vic 32 Clyde puffer at Crinan, the sky pale after a rainstorm; the 'ghost canal' element of the Monkland, with leaves and twigs floating on the surface; Thomas Telford's white, bay-windowed houses on the Caledonian footpath; the aqueducts, bridges and 630 metre Miley (Falkirk) Tunnel that was built to shield the Callendar Estate from the Union Canal Walk; and, of course, the towering silver Kelpies on the Forth & Clyde. “I'd never walked over an aqueduct before,” Lesley admits shyly. “They're really amazing.” With such a broad spectrum of landscape to cover, Lesley intentionally decided to take her time interpreting the characteristics of each waterway.

"The Crinan Canal is only nine miles long. The sea lock looks out towards the islands of Jura and Scarba, with a diminutive red and white lighthouse marking the meeting of sea and canal,” she explains. “I stayed in a former lock keeper's cottage at Lock 11, bordering on the village of Cairnbaan, and instead of walking I cycled to Ardrishaig daily, stopping to draw whenever a suitable view presented itself. It was August, sunny and scorching. It reminded me of childhood holidays. Everything came together perfectly,” continues Lesley.

“My Crinan paintings are all landscape, as you are constantly looking from side to side. With Monklands, which is no longer navigable as a complete waterway, the canvases are square.” Lesley admits to having been inspired by the 19th-Century Japanese printmaker Hiroshige's The 53 Stations of the Tokaido, in which each journey undertaken charts a different experience. In this manner, her recent works have moved from her earlier figurative style towards exploring the impact that human beings are having on the environment. In so doing, her approach as a gongoozler (an term for individuals seen loitering on a towpath and watching the activity on a canal) brings an entirely fresh, almost voyeuristic depth to her work. There is a lot going on in the sweeping brush of Lesley's pictures. Her vivid palate provides a deceptively subtle impact to the narrative and the quiet observational details contained within.

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