An artistic relationship which has helped two artists to become newly-inspired and revitalized has led to a joint exhibition in a great setting.
Michala Gyetvai and George Wagstaffe opened their show Powerful Forces with a talk about their work. The exhibition is open to the public until February 13 – and well worth the journey.
It is on at the Michael Heseltine Gallery at the Chenderit School, a visual arts college in Middleton Cheney, near Banbury. The gallery is made from glass and galvanized steel with cedar panelling, and is built in lean-to style against the school wall, offering wall spaces and plenty of room to display Michala’s large textiles and George’s sculptures in a way that looks like it was designed around them.
George and Michala met seven years ago when she became an art and design technician at Stoke Park School and Community College in Coventry, where George was working part time. She said she took George’s life drawing class, learnt about art history for the first time and was inspired by working with A level students and with George: “It gave me a great opportunity of going back to school … it revitalised my art work.”
For George, with more than half a century of work behind him, it also turned out to be more than an opportunity to mentor. He said it was through helping Michala to see things in her work that he was re-enthused, and it has led to a resurgence in his own work.
Looking at the exhibition with George and Michala’s opening statements in mind, it’s easier to see how their work fits together well and how they can have helped inspire each other. Both work in materials they have to get physical with, and Michala’s works which she embroiders on large blankets often don’t hang flat on the wall, and she creates depth and a more sculptural appearance in them.
Michala studied art and embroidery then worked in interior design and furnishing for companies including Laura Ashley for many years, before having children meant she needed a different job, and she started at Stoke Park in 2006.
She told of a childhood playing with her mum’s threads, and pulling wool off barbed wire near her then home in Lilbourne, near Rugby, where her love of the countryside and nature began, and is now the subject of her work.
She told how she tries to create a narrative in her work, and becomes excited working with the fabrics and threads. She said: “I try to humanise nature. Working on a big piece of material I have to get on top of it and I feel part of the landscape, I become the landscape.”
George’s work has been on show in Coventry since 1960, when he was commissioned to make the Naiad for Priory Square in the city centre. At the Chenderit exhibition opening he also told the fascinating story of his commission for the Phoenix sculpture, in Bull Yard in Coventry city centre, which city architect Arthur Ling commissioned him to make.
George remembered walking around Coventry after the Second World War and seeing lots of destruction and decay, but finding the sight of the three spires pointing up to the heavens wonderful. Ling wanted the Phoenix to reflect the British victory in the war, but George saw it differently, wanting to reflect the suffering and revival people had gone through, and said at the opening: “Ling wanted it to be a heroic figure but it was that ambivalence I wanted to show.”
He also explained how he sculpts in clay or plaster, and then the finished pieces are cast in bronze. The bronze colours and becomes weathered with rain and wind, and part of the place it is in. Looking at the plaster model of his Mary Magdalen sculpture, the bronze of which is now in the St Mary Magdalen church in Chapelfields, Coventry, he explained how it ended up looking the way it did: “I wasn’t happy with it originally, I smashed it and then placed it back together again. It’s far more human and humane, I wanted to show that she’s suffered.”
Other works on show at the Michael Heseltine gallery include Crow, one of a series inspired by a Ted Hughes poem, with an egg seeming to emerge from rocks, and Gaia, a large blue sculpture which looks very different from all angles, and again represents world as a living force. Woman with Beast is a small work showing a woman in battle with a Minotaur, and there is Bather, which relates again to the Naiad.
Michala’s works include the powerful Tears in the Forest, a large landscape made up of tear shapes, and Homage à Matisse, inspired by her visit to Nice and the Matisse Museum and Art Gallery.
Sea Pictures is unusual in moving away from landscapes, and is made up of lots of blues, but was inspired by her sketchbook of sea studies, and by Elgar’s Sea Pictures and Debussy’s La Mer. Cornish Landscape also looks like a swirl of sea bays. Snow on Snow is made up of lots of pink, mauve and purple colours; it’s sometimes easy to forget that every element of colour is made from thread and fibre on a blanket, especially in some of the larger works. Acrylic and pastel work Wild Summer has lots of yellow sun lighting up the landscape, and Winter Walk features a landscape of lots of white, pink and blue, showing Michala’s skill in other materials too.
The exhibition is open 9am-5pm weekdays, and 10am-4pm Sundays, and the artists will be there on Sundays throughout the exhibition.