The year was 2010. Heading to our favourite cafe/gallery in Castle Douglas one gloomy Saturday, we paused at the front window. A large watercolour painting was mounted on an easel and seemed to be lighting up the whole High Street.
Electric blues and vibrant greens shone out around a quirky white cottage. In the foreground, as if on a window ledge, was a pot of purple flowers, itself decorated with a red heart. The sky looked like the northern lights. The whole painting exuded a sense of energy, yet at its centre was a sense of quiet, rural calm. In an instant, Dr G strode into the shop and within moments she had made a purchase.
Thus it was that the work of Hazel Campbell found its way into our home. It is my pleasure to enjoy that painting multiple times each day as I go in and out of my house. It is the first thing visitors see on arrival and the last thing they view on departure. Fastened to the wall with strong mirror plates, it has become almost a part of the building itself.
Inspired by it, some friends came with us to Hazel’s gallery/home during one of the Spring Fling open studios events. I stood with them transfixed by what I considered to be the best painting in the show. As I gazed in admiration, my friends ruminated: where would they hang it, would it clash with the decor, was it too big, or too small, and so on. Then, suddenly and as these discussions continued, the long arm of the artist reached across our shoulders towards the painting, and deftly popped a small red dot in the bottom left hand corner. Their opportunity had gone.
It was hardly surprising. Hazel has a devoted following. Her work is loved in south west Scotland and far beyond. Her interpretations of the local landscape are an ongoing vocation that has sustained her for decades. The buzz in the room that Spring Fling day was typical of the excitement her work produces and the real feeling that you want to have her paintings around you, not just at exhibition time, but all the year round.
In this fascinating interview she explains how all this came about, the influences that shape her work, and her evolving choice of subject matter. I hope you’ll enjoy this encounter with an artist whose use of colours bright and dull, coupled with raggedly enthusiastic strokes of the brush, portray the very essence and magic of the place where she lives – Galloway.
1. Where were your brought up and educated and did art play a significant part in your early life? What influenced you in your chosen career path and did teaching help you to deepen your interest in painting?
I had a lovely upbringing in Galloway on a farm near Parton and most of my secondary education was at Dalry school. When Archie Sutter Watt was drafted in to help with O Level Art I remember being slightly taken aback at his loose, splashy approach to painting. Remember, this was the era of colouring books and ‘not going over the lines!’
He also taught us the principle of dividing a page into three parts — sky, distance area and foreground. I use this lesson often when teaching my classes.
I didn’t really consider a career in art, mainly because girls were being encouraged to be teachers, nurses or secretaries! Having trained as a primary school teacher I didn’t realise how much three years at Jordanhill would influence my own approach to teaching adults.
I met Alan soon after starting teaching and before I knew it, I was at home with three small children. Alan has always been so supportive of my art and encouraged me to attend classes with Archie Watt at Kirkgunzeon. The rest as they say is history! For thirty years I went to Archie’s classes and was constantly impressed by his ability to push the boundaries of paint. Even now, when a painting isn’t working, or is plain boring I ask myself: ‘what would Archie do?’
2. At what point did you get into teaching adults about painting?
On the eve of my 50th birthday I was helping Archie run a summer school in Kirkcudbright and later some of the students suggested I could run my own classes from the farm. At that point there was a European Regional Development Fund available to encourage farmers to diversify into businesses other than agriculture. Much form-filling later we got the go ahead to turn an old stable into a studio which backed onto the vegetable garden (which is still productive). I have run painting classes since then, until our recent move to town dwelling and my present studio opposite an artisan baker!
Encouraging individuality, adventure and most of all fun are my USPs. I have a few lovely people who have come since the start. Each class starts with a demonstration fuelled with huge amounts of adrenaline (what if it doesn’t work?) and much showing off. The end product is usually more interesting than if I was alone.
3. Can you describe your artistic journey in terms of the styles and subject matter you have worked with over the years? Are there distinct ‘periods’ in your life as an artist?
Landscape has played a significant part in the work of many 20th century Scottish artists. Think of the Colourists, Anne Redpath, William McTaggart, and Joan Eardley to name but a few. William Gillies taught Archie Watt at Edinburgh College of Art and Archie’s work influenced me greatly, with landscape the main subject matter.
Looking at the winter landscape just now I feel so drawn to paint it. Over the years I also have sessions of painting vases of flowers and plates of pears, which can be just as challenging.
Some years ago I ventured into collage, which I love. Mixtures of paintings, Lino prints and bits cut out of magazines led to a series of little works which gave me so much fulfilment. The following Spring Fling I mounted many of them and waited for a response. People were interested, asked lots of questions then turned round and bought a landscape painting. I should have stuck to my guns and not heeded the response, but it was a bit dispiriting.
I am trying to abstract my work at the moment but with little success. I love Howard Hodgkin’s work and also the American Expressionists, particularly Richard Diebenkorn.
4. Along with ASW, is there anyone in particular who has been especially important to your work?
I have a copy of Duncan Shanks‘ sketch books and marvel at his ability to convey a landscape in a few bold, colourful strokes. His daring to put a slash of blue across a Lanarkshire landscape and make it work. I also admire Barbara Rae’s paintings and prints, which like Duncan Shanks also demonstrate nerve!
5. Am I right in thinking that in recent times you have focused rather less on landscape work, buildings and vistas, and perhaps more on still life or garden subjects? If so, why is that?
During Covid I have painted so much. I have a studio in town, five minutes along the road. Occasionally I pack the basics into the car and escape to a quiet road, and just paint what is in front of me. The biggest problem is the state of the car! I have been much influenced by the work of Michael Honnor and would repeatedly tell myself ‘just splash it on and see what happens’. I find it relatively easy to paint a ‘nice picture’ but that isn’t good enough. Bringing an element of risk and boldness is the difficult part. Last summer during the good weather I brought paints and materials to our garden and attempted to paint a herbaceous border. Success wasn’t high, but I think I learned more about proportion of colour and the use of ‘dull’ colours. Bold colours only look good besides areas of neutrality.
I have tried to abstract my work but somehow need a horizon. I also try to have a day’s ‘mark making’. Great fun, but somehow trees end up looking like trees instead of interesting marks. Must try harder!
6. Much of your subject matter comes from places in Dumfries and Galloway, how has your artistic interest in place evolved over the years?
Many years ago we visited the Rhins of Galloway and I was very taken by the village of Ardwall. A row of little cottages with glimpses of sea behind. I still have the photos I took that day, little knowing it would start the ‘cottage era’ in my paintings. Similar in many respects to the view of Rhonehouse from our farm: white buildings, dark sky and untidy foreground. The artistic opportunities are endless! But I have to be careful. It could become a cliché so easily.
I hope after all the decades of painting that my work has a sense of place. Galloway is so beautiful at all times of year and although I don’t consciously try to convey this I hope it comes through! Hopefully the landscapes don’t look like the South of France. Don’t get me wrong— I would be there in a minute! Hoping to cycle along the Loire in May, sketch book in backpack!
7. Amongst all the paintings you have done over the years, is there any one that’s a particular favourite, and why is that?
The painting above is called Galloway track and was done in 1989, I think, and was entered in the Laing (builders) competition in various parts of the country. It was selected to hang at Kelvingrove, where 10 or so were chosen to go to The Mall Galleries in London. It was finally chosen for the Laing calendar for the following year.
The exciting part was going to London to see the exhibition. It was the middle of lambing time and Alan was busy, so I got the overnight bus from Castle Douglas at around midnight and eventually reached London having had almost no sleep! Much shopping was done, then the preview at the Mall Galleries, then back to Victoria to catch the bus home! Fabulous experience!
7. Finally, you are also an artist firmly embedded in the local cultural landscape, what does it mean to you to be working in such a rich community of artistic creativity?
Spring Fling is about to celebrate it’s 20 year anniversary. I have taken part in every one, and it has become the highlight of my year. I cannot over-estimate the help an organisation such as Spring Fling/Upland has been in developing my work and in saying that, I think I speak for many fellow artists and makers. The area was lucky that the funding allowed us to start on a high note, and thanks to the present generous funders, the organisation has gone from strength to strength. Various ‘get togethers’ have meant that we all know each other better and I certainly have appreciated the widening of horizons. Lovely to see so many new names involved in this year’s event.
I am looking forward to Spring Fling June 2022 . The creative life in Dumfries and Galloway has benefited so much from this organisation. Long may it continue!
For more information about Hazel Campbell and to contact her, please go here: http://www.hazelcampbell.com/