As part of our temporary weekly programme Under Construction, every Friday Bethlem Gallery present artists’ work through film & video screenings, conversations, resources and online projects.
This week we interviewed artist George Harding about his latest paintings and working as a carer under lockdown.
Light and time, what is sublime
Oil on canvas, 30x40cm
When and how did you get into art and painting?
Art’s been sort of fundamental to my life really, it’s always been there. I had an art teacher who was my next door neighbour when I was a kid and I had lessons with her from an early age and then when I was a teenager I got a scholarship to a school for my artwork. It’s always been something I loved, when I was younger as well I used to sort of look at loads of books but because I was dyslexic I wouldn’t read them just look at the pictures! I just love looking at visual things, I love looking at artworks. My mum bought me loads of art books. It’s just the way my mind works, I’m a visual person.
Did you make a conscious decision to pursue that, or did it just kind of happen?
I wouldn’t say it’s even my career now, I just do it. I don’t know what else to do! I know that sounds weird to say. Its where my strengths lie. I’ve tried so many other things and im just not good at them. But I have found that I’m caring – I’ve been fired from every job I’ve ever had, apart from this job that I have now which is a care role. And I can do that, but all the other jobs haven’t worked out.
Oil and spray paint on canvas, 30x40cm
So you’re working as a carer, what’s that been like recently?
It’s been the best thing I’ve ever done, for my mental health and sense of self worth. It’s put a lot of things into context and made me more grateful and made things more balanced as well. I’m not so reliant on my artwork’s success, and I’m also not totally immersed in the care work. It’s a really nice balance, and they feed each other.
Some of the adults that I work with would give anything to have one day in your shoes, but they never ever feel sorry for themselves, they never complain, they’re always doing the next right thing, I just find that so amazing to be around. They help me as much as i help them. In the past I haven’t been well enough to do that work. All the jobs I’ve had in the past haven’t worked out because I’ve been recovering from mental illness, I couldn’t communicate to these people who were employing me what i was going through, they wouldn’t understand. They just saw me as being really slow or clumsy. I’ve had to look at myself and slowly take little bite size chunks to get to a better state of self.
Oil on linen, 30x40cm
I usually work out in the community and in the last couple of months I’ve been working in a care home because we can’t take people out into the community at the moment. I’m now working in a supported living place. It was very nerve wracking starting in a new environment, initially I was quite scared, like starting a new job. But all the people there are really nice and there’s a garden which people can go out into. We help them with cooking and washing, making tea, we help them with any need that they might have. But they do have capacity so we try and let them do as much as they can by themselves. To begin with, the PPE thing was really troubling, it was worrying for the people there and worrying for me because the policy felt unclear and I felt I was putting them and myself at risk. But all of those have been cleared up now and we wear masks and gloves as needed and there seems more clarity on those aspects of the job which has made me feel better, and made the clients feel better as well. I’ve been amazed at how well the residents have been coping with seeing what’s going on, a lot of them are happy watching tv and because it’s been so sunny as well they’ve been loving going out in the garden. They get on really well as a group so that’s been really positive. But they are getting fed up and they want things to go back to normal, they want to go out in the community. At the moment we’ve been doing their shopping for them and doing things that would put them at risk we’ve been doing on their behalf. It is frustrating and I really feel for them and I guess what we’re trying to do is keep them as positive as they can be and make them realise the things they can control and that they do have power over but it’s hard for them to understand sometimes and a lot of the time we’re trying to help them in those circumstances.
It is quite a worrying time in a lot of ways and we’ll sort of know more as time passes, hopefully positives will come out of it and even if it’s not positive we can learn from the experience if it is a bad one – well it is a bad one but we can learn from the negatives.
I’m really glad I’ve been able to care for these people. They’re so sweet and they’re so kind natured.
Who Knows, Let’s Chase Rainbows
Oil on Board, 29x41cm
Where do you find the subjects for your paintings? Do you paint from life or from photos?
Just people I know really. It depends how much time they have, I take reference photos as I paint from life so I can maybe amend bits or have a reference after they’ve stopped sitting for me. People don’t have that much time, I could paint a really good portrait over several days but the majority of people don’t have that much time to invest in it. I’ve actually had people who don’t want to have a portrait painted and see it as a sort of thing of vanity, and then other people are really interested in the painting process. And then also some people have liked their portrait and other people don’t like their portrait and it sort of brings out things that people may or may not like.
Oil on linen, 40x50cm
How do you deal with that when that happens?
Well it’s not my responsibility how the other person reacts to the painting, I’m just trying to paint it, but also I do want it to be celebratory. I guess the more you do it the more you learn from it.
Rainbow signs and times
Oil on canvas, 29x41cm
Some of your work is quite figurative and some is quite abstract. Does this depend on your mood or is it more a conscious choice?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, it’s something that I find really problematic, I find it difficult because it’s not difficult for me, it’s really natural for me to paint in different styles, but it’s more of a problem for other people. They want to see something that’s consistent or that they can – not pigeonhole, but relate to. I find it’s actually sort of intrinsic that I use different styles. The styles in the last century had ideals and ways forward and they were trying to answer questions surrounding those ways of making art. Now you can use those elements but you don’t have to be tied into the philosophy of that style, you can kind of dip in and out of it. It’s something I’m trying to work out at the moment, I might feel a certain way on a certain day and I might wanna do something immediate and do an abstract piece. I might have a failed painting that I don’t like so I might just paint over it and try a different way of making. And then there are rigid ways of making like if someone’s sitting for you you have to paint their portrait that day. I don’t think it should be seen as a bad thing that you want to paint in different ways.
Laura, first day of the pandemic
Oil on linen, 40x50cm
What advice would you give to painters that are just starting out, or yourself as a younger painter?
Always learn more, try and broaden your horizons in as many areas as possible. Enjoy painting as much as possible and enjoy learning. Your practice is always evolving, you might think one thing a certain year and then it moves on to another thing. Listen to your inner self and try not to worry about what others think but stay true to what you think. Enjoy a painting just being a painting.
How have these paintings changed from your previous works at all, in influences or subject matter?
I don’t really know, I tried to just create them freely in my studio organically. I’ve been enjoying just squidging paint right from the tube, and there have been a lot of rainbows as well which is relevant at the moment. I’ve been looking at symbols a lot, using eyes in different colours and rainbows, and also doing portraits of people I know. I don’t really know exactly where it’s going, I’ve just been trying to have fun!
I hope there are positives to be taken from this time. For me personally I’ve really liked the quietness of it, I’ve engaged with the world in a different way and I want to take that into my life after lockdown. Like solitude and… keeping things simple. (This time) has showed you don’t need as much as you think you need.
Smiling and Shining, Neurons Firing! (Yes)
You can see more of George’s work and browse his works for sale at georgejharding.co.uk