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Issue 97 - Artist in Residence

Scotland Magazine Issue 97
February 2018


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Artist in Residence

Sheila Mullen at the Clock Tower Gallery, Glen House, Peebleeshire

Surrounded by the gentle, undulating hills of the Tweed Valley, Glen House, close to Innerleithen in Peebleeshire, is one of Scotland's finest baronial houses and is situated within easy reach of Edinburgh and Glasgow. The Clock Tower Gallery, which backs on to the courtyard of Glen House, has been renovated to become Scotland's latest contemporary arts venue. The initiative of Tessa Tennent and her husband Bill Staempfli, this imaginative space provides a unique and compelling showcase for some of Scotland's outstanding creative talent. Exhibitions are curated by the artist and former 369 Gallery director Andrew Brown (See: Scotland Magazine #84), whose plan is to feature an ongoing series of shows displaying the work of female Scottish artists.

How appropriate that his first choice should be the landscape painter and Glasgow Art School graduate Sheila Mullen, whose magical landscapes in this exhibition depict the Kinnel Valley of neighbouring Dumfriesshire.

Although her work is held in the collections of the Bank of Scotland, Leeds City Art Gallery, and the Duke of Buccleuch & Queensberry, Sheila's marvelously expressive pictures have not to date received the widespread promotion they deserve.

Working from a remote Dumfriesshire farmhouse in the out-of-doors tradition of that great, innovative Scottish artist Joan Eardley, Sheila's lyrical canvases triumph in capturing the complex woodland and hidden places to be found in the rich folklore and poetic traditions that have surrounded her for most of her life. Both vibrant and vivid, Sheila's brush strokes penetrate into the very soul of the Borderland countryside that she loves so much.

"I'm only interested in using colour to express the emotions of landscape," she explains. "For example, on the river just above the floodplain is Elizatown, a ruined village of about 10 houses with their animal pens and sheds. To go to the local school at Goodhope, the village children would have had to cross the river and climb steps cut into Lunan's Leap, a cave beneath a huge sandstone rock.

It was so called because it was once inhabited by a highway robber called Lunan who robbed travellers going north and south between Edinburgh and England."

"Robert the Bruce and William Wallace passed this way. One of the tributaries of the Kinnel is known as ‘Bluidy Rin’ after Wallace killed a group of English soldiers quartered at Lochmaben. This same road was used by the Jacobite Army on its retreat from Derby in 1746."

There is an infectious, down-to-earth honesty that is instantly recognisable in Sheila's engaging personality. This is evident in all of her paintings and in the love that she clearly holds for Scotland's Border Country, the ‘debatable lands’ of centuries past.

"Everywhere I go in the Scottish Borders and Dumfriesshire is wild and secret, with those little signs of habitation from long ago," she says. "The rocks, waterfalls, calm pools, pebbley banks, trees, wild flowers and wildlife exist alongside an underlying darkness - decay of long ago and the determination of the human spirit to survive." Throughout Scotland, the colours and remnants of the past are inescapable.

Born in Glasgow, Sheila's family moved to live in Fife, where she grew up near the small Royal burgh of Auchternuchty. After attending Glasgow School of Art, she began painting professionally in 1978. In 2010, she was the subject of The Bairns O Adam: The Paintings of Sheila Mullen, a monograph by Ann Matheson (Stenlake Publishing).

In 2006, she collaborated with the collective of of Scottish Writers known as the Crichton Writers in a project called The Art of Ballads and Bards: An Anthology of Work by the Crichton Writers and Art by Sheila Mullen. This led to a published volume documenting the series of workshops and sessions between the group of writers and Sheila herself.

On an average day, regardless of the weather, there is nothing Sheila loves more than to set off on an excursion into the unknown. "She was never like some genteel lady artist with fine brushes and watercolour paper sitting perfectly admiring the view," says her daughter Katy. "She will strap a massive canvas onto her old-fashioned bicycle and, with an old army bag full of oil paints, turps and big brushes, peddle off to find the wildest and truest corner she can possibly find in the hills. Having set up her tools, she will just sit there and wait for the inspiration to take shape."

According to Katy, it is after a while of stillness and contemplation that her mother becomes part of the land itself - feeling the woodland, heather and grass stirring all around her and taking over her being. It is only then, immersed in the rich and constantly changing light of her surroundings, that she begins to paint.

In Scotland you can experience the four seasons of the year in one day, but that does not deter Sheila Mullen. Quite the opposite. The results are there for all to see in the strong, expressive canvases that she produces for posterity.


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