Driven to paint: A life of toil on canvas

Graeme Willson is inspired to  create art by everything from mythology to  music to dreams and daydreaming.
Graeme Willson is inspired to create art by everything from mythology to music to dreams and daydreaming.
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While most of us are looking forward to the new year, artist Graeme Willson tells Yvette Huddleston why for him this January is one of reflection.

Artist Graeme Willson is taking stock. Based in Ilkley for the past 25 years, he has collected together work he has created over the past quarter century for a retrospective at the town’s Manor House Museum and Art Gallery – and it has given him a chance not only to look back, but also consider what he might do next.

Work by Graeme Willson, which will be featured in a new retrospective which looks back on his 25 years as an artist.

Work by Graeme Willson, which will be featured in a new retrospective which looks back on his 25 years as an artist.

“It just suddenly occurred to me one day that I have had a lot of support from people in Ilkley and I thought it would be nice to have a retrospective as a thank-you to them,” he says. “But also it would give me a chance to see examples of my work over a 25-year period and think about where I am going from here.”

Willson is an artist who has not limited himself and remains curious about new ways in which he can express himself creatively. “I sometimes think I am very scattered but it suits me,” he says. “In the 1960s there was a pressure on you to be singular in your work but I think now people accept that an artist can have different facets.” Willson has worked in a variety of media – mainly oil and acrylic but also watercolour and stained glass – and a number of forms. He is well known as a portrait artist but is also hugely respected for his public artworks – his 1990 mural Cornucopia on the exterior wall of the Corn Exchange in Leeds has become a famous local landmark – and he has undertaken several ecclesiastical commissions including works at York Minster and St Margaret’s Church in Ilkley.

“People and the imagery of people is what fascinates me,” he says. “It is the human situation that interests me most and there will always be a bias in my work towards that. I think some of my work can be a little bit obscure – it is more personal, informed by scholarship and my interest in mythology and literature.”

Some of the paintings are inspired by literature, from the Dylan Thomas poem The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower to Lindsay Clarke’s novel The Chymical Wedding. “The chapters are set alternately in the present and in the Victorian past and each present day character has their Victorian counterpart,” says Willson. “My way of trying to equate with that approach is to have ancient classical figures surrounded by contemporary brush strokes.”

Although a lot of his work is inspired by books and literature, mythology and ideas, Willson also takes inspiration from other, less concrete, sources – Twilight Zone, for example, is he says about “the kind of dreams and daydreaming that we all sometimes experience between waking and sleeping. Sometimes we laugh at day-dreaming but we often have curious and creative thoughts when we daydream.”

Music is another inspiration for Willson – he refers to it as one of his “great loves” – and he was artist in residence with Ilkley Concert Club in 1997-98, with some of the paintings he created during that period also represented in the show. “I am an artist who likes working with and responding to the other arts,” he says. “One of the paintings is Quartet which features the four principal instruments in a quartet, in another you can see an individual person playing. The idea is that I was trying to find a visual equivalent for musical sound which is a very subjective thing but it is still interesting and worth doing.”

While there are pieces of work in the exhibition that are inspired by specific events – there is one that came out of Willson’s thoughts about the Greenham Common peace camp, for example – others have a much more personal significance. “It is a kind of catharsis,” he says. “Working through certain issues and things I find difficult to talk about. Any artist worth his or her salt will do that – there is a danger that it might remain obscure but you just hope that it’s still accessible enough for someone else to identify with.”

Having worked part-time for many years as a tutor at Bradford College, Willson took early retirement in 2011 so he could devote himself to his painting full-time – and he shows no sign of slowing down. From 8am to 6pm every day he is in his studio where he usually has several pieces on the go. “Like any other creative enterprise, it is hard work,” he says. “You have to keep on – I’m a believer in that famous quote ‘It is 99 per cent perspiration and one per cent inspiration.’ And there is a compulsion in me to do it – I just feel driven to paint.”

• An Ilkley Retrospective: 25 Years of Work in Ilkley by Graeme Willson is at the Manor House Museum, Ilkley, until February 8;