Visionary Vigor Meets a Child's Story
'LEAFY and Adam at the Seaside" is a story by James Maudsley, written at the age of 6. He won a school prize for it.
James's mother, Carol Ann Sutherland, is a Scottish-born (1952) artist. When her London dealer, Gillian Raffles of the Mercury Gallery, suggested Sutherland might make an "artist's book a group of etchings illustrating a story or simply a group of etchings - it was her son's little narrative of a mermaid, a dragon, and a small boy that gave her the impetus to "go off on her own tangent" and work up to the suite of seven colored etchings.
Although witty, with more than a nod towards the images and fantasies of a child, these etchings, the first this painter has made, have an attacking vigor and a visionary sophistication that carries them into her own imaginary world of enigma and dream.
Though the book was conceived as a book for an adult to read to a child, an "artist's book" is in fact a special genre commanding high prices, limited to a small edition, and printed and bound by skilled craftsmen working with the artist, who signs and numbers each volume. Hardly "a kid's book" in any conventional sense.
What matters here is the inspiration that unlocked Sutherland's own hard-won creativity. Six years of telling stories to her oldest child, and having him tell her stories back, formed a "bonding" that made it possible for her to "see and feel what his little people were about."
He also draws in her studio while she is working. They respect each other's freedom to work.
"We talk about the sea a lot," the artist says. She herself has lived most of her life near the sea - in different parts of Scotland until she moved to London. She used to sail a great deal. Now living in Kent, she is again quite near the ocean.
The house Adam's house" in the story - belongs to her dealer. James has been there. "It is on the waterfront. A lovely Victorian wharf building. I mean - it's like everything I do, you can go back to where it originated."
The plump dragon owes much to James, who loves dragons. But the bald mermaid originated from the days when Sutherland was a student in Glasgow and drew some "camp" actors rehearsing: Idiosyncratically, the "vanity" of women's hair was hidden at this theatre's rehearsals under skullcaps. The mermaid's tail is also like a costume. And when she is depicted on the beach, her tail is provided with toes. In this, Sutherland followed the reasoning of James, who pointed out the difficulty for mermaids required t o walk on land.
Sutherland's work never comes to her cold. She can work for long periods before feeling that what is locked inside her is at last appearing. A painting can come together only in the last hour or so of its making.
She destroys work quite frequently. (Her dealer takes things "into custody" to rescue them from the temporary fury that wreaks such havoc.) She talks of extreme highs and lows in her self-esteem. She is sensitive to good work by other artists that seems to diminish hers; equally, she feels that disappointing work by others somehow "muddies the waters" for everyone.
She is intensely serious about her work. And one of her disappointments is when people simply find her work "nice" or "charming," missing - because her "subject matter isn't harrowing the actual rigor and demand of her very subjective and rather puzzling visionary world.