Catalogue Essays

Hope is Something Rooted – the work of Catherine McWilliams by Dr Louise Wallace

Catalogue Essay for Catherine McWilliams Selected Work 1961 - 2021 at the F.E.McWilliam Gallery & Studio
Co Curated by Dr Louise Wallace and Dr Riann Coulter 2023

Hope is Something Rooted – the work of Catherine McWilliams

‘Pandora has a box filled with all the woes and miseries of the world. When she opens the box and lets them all out, the one thing left is hope’
Catherine McWilliams

Catherine Mc Williams is singular among artists in Northern Ireland. She has painted life in Belfast for over 60 years, a period of great difficulty and change in the North. The overarching stimulus across these works may be termed ‘painting as empathy’, a practice that mines deep and complicated feelings for a city, its people and environs. McWilliams’ commitment to that project elevates her depiction of the everyday to the status of radical act.

In some ways, her project begins with Self Portrait (1961) where she captures her own resolute gaze in a range of Van Gogh yellows. McWilliams’ use of yellow across key works may be seen as a marker of hope, an attribute which Liam Kelly describes as her ‘irrepressible tendency’. This tendency radiates from the image of herself as a young woman to encompass and define her life’s work. For McWilliams, hope is something rooted in home and hills, in city streets and back gardens, motifs she returns to throughout her career.

McWilliams moved to North Belfast in 1966 with her husband, fellow painter Joseph McWilliams. From this point onwards, her practice becomes largely focused on the urban. While art history highlights the isolation of the painter’s studio, McWilliams’ seems to be full of locals: people running in the park; dinner ladies; council workers with a digger. This connection to people has been evident from the beginning. In her early career she was an art teacher at St Gemma’s in ‘The Bone’ area of Belfast. The locale was marked by social and economic deprivation. During the conflict the schoolgirls would be subject to nightly riots and police raids. McWilliams describes the art room as an oasis for her pupils amidst the darkness of surrounding streets. She taught the girls life drawing and they looked at each other to study form. As she puts it ‘I drew them and they drew me’. There is a great tenderness in McWilliams’ pencil studies, empathetic encounters that do not need words.

Girls and Motorbikes (1973) is a complex study of life in Belfast at that time. There is an anarchic energy to the group of girls out after dark. There were 1800 explosions recorded in the city between 1970 and 1975. Belfast’s back streets were spaces of sudden, mindless violence. Despite the immanent danger, here is a moment of meaningful exchange between McWilliams and the girls. It is an excessive image because of the unusual depiction of a female gang on large motorbikes, holding the viewer’s gaze. The artist remembers the chance meeting as immediately ‘powerful…I had to get home and paint that right away’. Although the group is in shadow, there are bright lights behind them which McWilliams describes as windows in a nearby tower block. Here, yellow is symbolic of indominable agency.

Fionna Barber notes the painting’s significance in relation to the depiction of the conflict, “Girls and Motorbikes represents an important corrective to the currency of representations of women as ‘victims of the Troubles’.” Barrister Michael Lavery purchased the painting the same year it was made. At that time he was defending Liz McKee, the first female to be interned at the age of 19. Lavery greatly admired Girls and Motorbikes and believed the figure on the far right to be a portrait of McKee. Although McWilliams did not intentionally depict McKee and makes no claim to be a political painter, the painting is a memorable image of feminine power at a time of great uncertainty and fear in Belfast’s history.

Writing in 1977, Mike Catto described the depiction of the city during the conflict as the preserve of ‘the urban landscapist…here the painter or sculptor must contend with what men are and what they do with and to each other.’ Catto’s statement reflects the way that art made during the conflict has been collected, curated and canonised. This has arguably led to the conflation of the masculine with the urban and an emphasis on violence and victimhood. Dominant discourses have pushed the remit of Northern Irish art away from domestic, feminine or maternal spaces. Yet these are precisely the sites that preoccupy McWilliams’ urban landscapes: an empty playground with paramilitary graffiti; pupils in a local all-girls school; an elderly lady outside her home after a police raid. These paintings bring the ‘domestic spectre into focus’. They are extraordinary in the visual schema of ‘Troubles Art’ for representing the vital role women played both at home and within the community. McWilliams remembers that ‘women were left to hold onto things and keep everything going’. This recentring of focus is as a radical reinterpretation of power during times of conflict, placing women at the centre of the narrative. Writing in ‘Fortnight’ in 1985, Ann Davey Orr states,

Instead of painting … the bombings and destruction, she painted people who in general took no active part in it. She did a series of paintings of the children she taught and the women she met. Most of that work was bought by the women of the area.

McWilliams’ more personal work documents her home life and marriage to Joseph, a union of two artists based on reciprocity and understanding. As she describes it ‘we both agreed that we would go into teaching somehow or other and would make our lives as painters’. McWilliams was committed to family life and art. She and Joseph met the influential German performance artist Joseph Beuys when he visited Belfast at the height of the Troubles in 1974. Three years later, the young family joined a group of artists from Belfast who Beuys invited to Documenta 6, the international arts exhibition in Kassel, Germany. The couple were also involved in exhibiting and selling art through the Cavehill Gallery which they established in 1986 in their home in North Belfast. Initially exhibiting their own art in the two large front rooms, they soon expanded to include the work of friends and other local artists. The gallery lasted 16 years and became a focus for artists and art enthusiasts in the area. McWilliams’ children remember that making art was simply part of family life; even on holiday both parents would spend time drawing and painting. Inevitably, they also became her models and Boy with Pigeon’s (1982) is a portrait of the artist’s son, the painter Simon McWilliams.

All these aspects of life - teaching, motherhood and marriage - are folded into McWilliams’ visual language.

In particular, the artist elevates the everyday intimacies of her long relationship across domestic scenes which are reminiscent of Pierre Bonnard’s late interiors. Where Bonnard painted his wife Marthe in the bath, McWilliams draws and paints Joseph in the shower. There are similarities in the formal devices of both artists. Bonnard and McWilliams frame the figure within the confines of the bath or shower. There is a familiarity with a particular body, reviewed in the act of washing. The flesh tones in both artists’ work are reimagined through memory and painterly touch. In McWilliams’ case, she uses vivid pinks and oranges to suggest the heat of skin warmed by water. Both artists are interested in capturing a partner lost to her/his own private thoughts, locating the meditative moment within a habitual act. This similarity to Bonnard may be seen again in Breakfast Table (1987) where Joseph’s figure is mostly hidden in the kitchen clutter and potted plants. These works are instinctive for McWilliams but are nonetheless progressive for picturing her husband in the role of muse within the domestic interior.

McWilliams depiction of the male nude was both unusual in Irish art and controversial in the context of the social and religious conservatism of Northern Ireland. In an unpublished text written in 1983, the art historian Eileen Black discussed how McWilliams’ life drawings and male nudes became the subject of controversy when exhibited at the Royal Ulster Academy and in an exhibition at the Peacock Gallery, Craigavon

The drawings received praise from local art critics but attracted … abuse from other sources, who took predictable offence at Catherine's unfettered approach to male nudity (while, of course, not raising too many objections to the nude women she portrayed). In fact, a second showing at Craigavon in 1983 … found Catherine being accused of producing ‘pornographic graffiti’. Pornography is, in this instance, very much in the eye of the beholder. For Catherine McWilliams, the human form has been, simply, her chief source of inspiration for many years.

Studio Interior (1991) may be read as another landmark composition in Irish painting. McWilliams was asked to make work for a maternity hospital in Dublin on the theme of giving birth. She decided to document the birth of a painting, recasting the art historical model of the virile, promethean artist as a mother. The image has all the energy and physicality of painting as an embodied experience. She describes the work as ‘expressing something about the need (to paint); I wanted it to be gestural and painterly’. The figure in the composition seems to twist and dissolve into the brush strokes. Again, the colour yellow foregrounds this positive energy, the desire to inhabit the painter’s body and to make painterly painting, where the ‘sense of the artist’s touch … allows for a deep connection, painter to painter.’ This work is typical of a particularly haptic quality to McWilliams’ compositions. It is a tactile practice, where viscous paint holds the gesture of the brush and heavy impasto work often pushes the surface towards three dimensionality.

McWilliams’ dual relationships with the medium of paint and the city of Belfast are co-dependent. Her imagination is captured by local streets and urban life. Even when her compositions deal with the surrounding landscape – Cavehill, Black Mountain and Divis – the artist’s viewpoint will frequently pull in nearby housing estates, Lenadoon and Ardoyne. McWilliams’ landscapes may be read in opposition to twentieth century Irish painting used to promote a nascent cultural identity. At the start of that century, Northern Irish artists Paul Henry and Charles Lamb journeyed into the rural west of Ireland to depict an idealised ‘cottage landscape…romanticised and emptied of critical contents such as references to poverty’ . Tricia Cusack relates the folk roots of this type of painting to a pre-colonial and pre-urban golden age that exists only in the Irish imaginary. Fintan O’Toole describes the resulting visual history as predicated on ‘the disappearance of Belfast’. Paul Henry’s work is defined by ‘the aesthetic of emptiness…wilderness is seen as innately more noble, and infinitely more worth looking at, than ordinary urban existence’.

McWilliams shatters this fallacy of a pre-colonial idyl to insert Belfast into painting’s history, depicting its colonial present. Ardoyne and Lenadoon are the product of Northern Irish emergency housing policy during the 1960s and 1970s, when swathes of houses began to cut into the hills to form Belfast’s edgelands. Those communities were forged through shared experiences of deprivation and the trauma of conflict. McWilliams’ depiction of housing estates is in contradistinction to an aesthetics of emptiness. The lights are on in Ardoyne and Lenadoon; boys are playing football in a field between the houses and the hills; life goes on, no matter what.

When McWilliams turns to the Pandora myth for a series of works in the 1980s, she realises an opportunity to reiterate her theme of resilience. Three of these important paintings were selected for the exhibition Pandora’s Box which opened at Rochdale Museum and Art Gallery in 1984 and toured to several regional galleries in the UK. In Woman with a Security Barrier (1983) the delicate lyricism of the female figure contrasts formally with the dark lines of the metal fence behind her. Jill Bennett locates the potential of affective art as a way of processing trauma and conflict. Bennett describes how an artist’s relational understanding of specific sites can reproduce ‘…a perceiving body in ways that illuminate encounters with specific postcolonial locations’ In Woman with a Security Barrier McWilliams reproduces her own perceiving body and her physical experience of movement through the city during the conflict. At that time such movement was curtailed by check points, barricades and bodily searches conducted by the police. Yet McWilliams chooses to paint a female body lit from within, whose luminosity has the capacity to dematerialise the barricade she passes through. The artist explains,

I portrayed Pandora as a Belfast girl … (who) is accepting of the greyness of the barriers and the soldiers, they are part of her landscape. However, she can lift herself out of it. You can live with all that trouble as everybody did in those days and still elevate yourself out of it.

In this way McWilliams’ empathetic practice opens up a range of complex emotions for the viewer, moving through trauma to articulate empowerment and hope. In somehow making visible this experiential arc, McWilliams is painting ‘something irreducible and different, often inaccessible.’ S.B. Kennedy suggests that the Pandora series nods to an art historical idea of Mother Ireland, however McWilliams’ treatment of myth goes beyond such tropes. Although her female figures are absolutely tied to an idea of land and history, her women are always active, not passive; urban, not rural; corporeal, not sainted.

The link between land, female figure and mythology recurs across McWilliams’ work. She has been interested in the legend of Tuatha Dé Danann and Danu or Dana, the earth goddess of Celtic mythology and first interprets Danu as a woman bringing peace to the North. More recently the goddess has become Gaia, highlighting environmental concerns that have taken precedence in sculptures and paintings. Where McWilliams’ previously saw the Belfast hills as protective arms outstretched to Belfast, she now urges her audience to return that consideration. It is clear that she feels a sense of kinship with this narrative, stating ‘I want to be Gaia myself almost.’ It is tempting to view McWilliams’ treatment of the Gaia theme as another self-portrait. The works are representative of a powerful life force and determination, qualities that were first present in Self Portrait (1961). In this way her project of ‘painting as empathy’ has come full circle. Above all, McWilliams’ late career is testament to her enduring relationship with the land. The artist finds her own hope through this vital connection to place and derives a sense of peace from her beloved Belfast hills.

‘I still walk up to Cavehill and then you're surrounded by the trees and you can look across at Black Mountain, you can look across at Divis and feel that they are there. That’s the best part of Belfast for me.’

Dr Louise Wallace