This artist's work captures the Miners' Strike and the people and history of Wakefield

In March, which let’s face it seems like a lifetime ago, artist and illustrator Seanna Doonan was preparing for the opening of an exhibition of her work at the Hepworth Wakefield Café. The show has now been postponed until such time as it is safe for the gallery to reopen.

The work of artist and illustrator Seanna Doonan captures the spirit of the former mining communities she grew up in the heritage, the locations and the experience of people going about their lives.

Doonan, who was born and brought up in Wakefield, is philosophical about it and is looking to the future positively. “In the grand scheme of things, given what is happening, it doesn’t matter,” she says.

“I am going to keep making more work and things will hopefully pick up where they left off. I’m lucky that I can do most of my work from home but I also do mural painting and, of course, that has all come to a halt. As far as I know it’s just on hold, as everything is at the moment. Everyone is in the same boat.”

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The Hepworth Café show had been timed to coincide with the major Bill Brandt/Henry Moore exhibition that had just opened at the gallery partly because much of Doonan’s work, like many of those on display by Brandt and Moore, explores the mining heritage and communities of the North.

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"Mining is such a big part of Wakefield’s heritage and when I was doing my Masters at Falmouth School of Art, I created a whole body of work about the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85. It was always something I wanted to look at again.”

Doonan completed her first degree in Illustration at the University of Huddersfield in 2013. “After university, like a lot of people I guess, I sort of floated around a bit and then I heard about the ArtWalk in Wakefield and I thought I would see if I could get together a series of works for an exhibition,” she says.

“I had always done quite intense subjects such as the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the Miners’ Strike, so I wanted to try something a bit lighter. I started to do local scenes of Wakefield and particularly images of places that weren’t there anymore.

"I realised when talking to people how sad they were that certain places had disappeared. I started drawing pictures from old photographs and from memory and it seemed to really resonate with people. As an illustrator I finally found my style and niche – and it was about drawing what I know.”

Raised in a large, musical family of Irish descent, Doonan was interested in art and drawing from an early age. “I was lucky enough to grow up in a creative household,” she says. “Both my parents were folk musicians and me and my sisters and brother all grew up playing Irish music. There were musicians around the house constantly and always rehearsals going on which was great, but quite lively! So drawing was a bit of quiet time for me.

“There was a period when I was a teenager when I forgot about it for a while. Then I started working with kids in schools and I remembered how much I liked it and I started drawing again.”

That prompted her to apply to university and she has been developing her craft ever since. There is an appealing nostalgic quality to her work which is evocative and comforting, especially at the moment, but it also contains strong socio-political and historical elements. Her creative process, she explains, often begins with a song or a conversation.

“I was actually born in 1984, the year the miners’ strike started, and I was really aware of it through the folk songs that my parents sang,” she says. “My family were politically engaged and did a lot of benefit gigs during the strike.

“Many people in Wakefield still remember the strike as though it were yesterday, you can’t get away from that. I speak to a lot of ex-miners – they really like telling their stories and I enjoy listening to them. They like to go back to that time and reminisce and I suppose my work is trying to capture that.”

As soon as she finishes a piece of work, she always sends it to the same place to be critiqued. “It goes straight on to the family WhatsApp,” she says, laughing. “I always show my work to them first, to get their feedback.”

Her images capture the lives of miners, their families and their communities with great empathy, featuring the challenging physicality of shift working and toiling at the coalface underground, as well as their domestic life and recreation.

They are certainly pictures which resonate with those who lived through the strike. “When the pictures first appeared and I started posting them on social media, people began to get in touch, they really seem to have struck a chord,” she says.

More generally her work provides snapshots of locations around Wakefield (some of them now no longer there) and of ordinary people going about their everyday routines and enjoying their social life.

“I feel like I know my community and my home town and the people in it – my work is very rooted in that,” says Doonan. “It is always lovely to hear people’s stories. That is the best thing about it – that my work evokes memories in people, that’s what I get a buzz out of.”

When it became clear that it would not be possible for the exhibition at the Hepworth Café to go ahead, the gallery’s communications team began posting some of Doonan’s images online; the response was extremely positive and came from far and wide.

“The exposure has been brilliant,” says Doonan. “I have had really lovely messages from lots of people about my work and some sales, too. I got a message from someone in Canada whose father was from Durham and who had links with the mining industry in the North East and he said he had connected with a lot of the images.”

Doonan is continuing to work on the mining project because she says, “there are so many directions in which it can go.” Beyond that she feels that she might like to create a body of work focusing solely on women working in industry. “I think whatever I do, it will be linked to working class history again.

"That is what I know best and what I find most interesting. You decide what sort of illustrator you are going to be and it happened very naturally for me to be illustrating that – it was something I felt very strongly about and had a connection with.”

Seanna Doonan’s work can be viewed and purchased via www.seannadoonanillustration.com

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