From a former spy boss to her own grandma, Michelle Clarke-Stables tells Sarah Freeman about her two-year mission.
Thinking up a title for an exhibition is an art form all of itself.
Some go for the deliberately opaque.
There’s one currently at Leeds Art Gallery called Polychromies: Surface, Light and Colour, or how about another dedicated to the work of Vladimir and Georgii Stenberg just around the corner at the Henry Moore Institute? That one comes with the slightly baffling tagline Construction for a Spatial Structure VI (‘KPS6’ 1919/73).
Michelle Clarke-Stables decided on something altogether more straightforward. The Barnsley artist’s latest collection is called Brilliant Women, because that’s what it is – 31 portraits of well, brilliant women.
Some, like former MI5 director general Elizabeth Manningham-Buller, the writer and reformer Vera Brittain and the fashion designer Jean Muir are famous names in their own rights. Others are ordinary wives, mothers and sisters. The one thing they have in common is that they were all suggested by women as their own personal inspiration.
Over the course of the last couple of years, Michelle wrote to friends, relatives and a number of celebrities asking for help and while inevitably a number of those handwritten letters went unanswered, the momentum soon began to build. It was Dame Judi Dench who plumped for Manningham-Buller, Brittain was comedian Jo Brand’s choice and and it was Joanna Lumley who cited Muir as her inspiration.
“I was really quite overwhelmed with the response,” says Michelle. “I wrote to the American author Maya Angelou because I’d read some of her books. I honestly never thought that she would write back. I suspect that she’s probably got a 101 better things to do than write to an artist she doesn’t know from a place she’s never heard off. But then one day I got a letter and inside was a photograph of a woman called Mrs Henderson, her grandmother.
“I didn’t suspect people would be quite so open. One of my friends nominated her great grandmother, Mindel Hoffman. She was a Russian Jew who emigrated to America. She came on one boat and her husband came on the next. Yet when she went to meet him she discovered that he had died on the journey and his body had been buried at sea. That history is written into her face.”
Brilliant Women combines Michelle’s long-held fascination with family snapshots and portrait painting and the seeds of the project were sown when she began to think about her own artistic inspiration when she was growing up in the 1980s on a Staffordshire council estate. It wasn’t, she admits, the kind of background that usual nurtures artistic talent.
“If it hadn’t been for my grandma things could have been very different. As a child I used to spend a lot of time at her house, most weekends in fact and it was really she who encouraged me to be creative. Her thing was food, and while she was in the kitchen baking, I’d be at the table drawing and making collages.
“I lived in a bubble really. One in which I listened to endless stories about the war and ate her buns all while making my own paintings. I used to go to school on a Monday morning and realise that for most of the time I was living in a very different world.
“I come from a working class family, the kind where art is seen as a bit pointless, certainly something not something you could suggest as a sensible job. Thankfully, my grandma allowed me to be a bit bonkers. Without her I’m not sure I would have had the confidence to be an artist.”
Michelle’s grandma, known to the rest of the world as Midge Holmes, rightly takes centre stage in the exhibition which has just opened at the Point in Doncaster. She’s wearing a party hat and the photograph it was based on was taken at Christmas a couple of years ago.
“She’s got dementia now and doesn’t know who I am, but I guess this is my way of saying ‘thank you’ and of remembering how she once was. You see that inscription there, it says ‘worse things happen at sea’. It was one of her favourite phrases. It didn’t mean too much to me growing up in Staffordshire which is about as far from the coast as you can get, but I did at one point quite fancy joining the Navy and I always wondered whether it had anything to do with it.”
Standing in the middle of the gallery with 31 faces staring back makes Michelle a little uncomfortable and she’s her own harshest critic.
“I think I’ve looked at them for too long. There are some that I think I will always love, but I guess part of being an artist is that you’re never satisfied. Like I tell my husband, it’s an illness.”
While Michelle may continually doubt her talents, those who took part in the project, who also included Barnsley-born Michael Parkinson and author Milly Johnson, have been much more fulsome in their praise of the finished pieces.
“Vera Brittain is one of my heroines,” Jo Brand wrote in a letter. “Sheer determination and an instinctive sense of the ‘rightness’ of freedom of thought and action guided her despite her terrible heartbreak and prejudice shaping her early life. Always a rebel, but always a pure voice of reason. I am so glad Michelle has embraced the heart of Vera in her beautiful painting.”
Likewise, Joanna Lumley said she was sure that Muir would like the painting just as much as she did.
Michelle admits Brilliant Women did become something of a monster and while she had originally set out to create 40 portraits, as the weeks ticked on, she realised that she would have to scale it back and inevitably some of the women who had been suggested remain captured just in a photograph.
“I did feel really guilty that I hadn’t been able to paint all the images I was sent. Some the quality was too poor to paint from, but others were just stunning photographs which I felt needed to stay that way. But I did make a promise that all would somehow become part of the project. I’ve kept them all in a book and I want to make sure that people can access them online. It means they will have a life long after the exhibition has closed.
Brilliant Women marks something of a fresh start for Michelle. During the two years she was working on it, she was also juggling a teaching job at Barnsley College. However, recently she decided to concentrate on her art full time and, having moved house with her husband and young son, she now has her own large studio.
“Teaching was hard, I did it for 10 years and that was probably a little too long. It is really exciting thinking that for the first time in a very long time I can concentrate exclusively on my art. Having the studio will make a massive difference or at least it will once the central heating goes in.
“I’m already pretty disciplined, I start work as soon as I’ve dropped my son off at school and work straight through until it’s time to pick him up again. I very much doubt if he’ll follow in his mum’s footsteps. If I’m honest he’s shown absolutely no interest in picking up a paintbrush.”
While Brilliant Women runs at the Point until March, Michelle has already moved onto her next project. There’s no title as yet, but there is the bare bones of an idea and Jo Brand has again agreed to take part.
“I’m interested in the idea of how people judge others and what I really want to do is a series of staged portraits which look at the gap between someone’s private and public face. I want to include costumes and props and just play around with the idea of the image which people project.”
It’s something Michelle is also struggling to come to terms with. As an artist she spends most of her time alone, quietly creating work. However, the reaction to Brilliant Women has taught she needs to start selling herself.
“I’m not very good being the focus of attention. I have made big efforts to put myself out there on Facebook on Twitter, but I reckon if you have to leave yourself a post-it-note reminding yourself to tweet then you’re probably not doing it right.”
Brilliant Women, The Point, Doncaster, to March 8. Monday and Friday, 10am -4pm; Tuesday to Thursday, 10am-8pm; Saturday, 9am-2pm. 01302 341662, www.thepoint.org.uk