Looking inside ‘The House of Belonging’: remembering artist Sheilagh Jevons

House of Belonging detail i

The following is the account of a conversation I had with Sheilagh in 2014, a year before her death. She is sadly missed.

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I thought it was time I welcomed good friend and artist, Sheilagh Jevons, to this blog. She lives a few miles from me along Wenlock Edge, in the little village of Easthope. There, and in her studio not far away, she creates arresting work that explores the sense of belonging that people have with landscape. From time to time she and I have involving conversations about the creative process – the stumbling blocks, the sources of inspiration, the way we work (or in my case, don’t work).

A few weeks ago she came round for coffee. I wanted to ask her about a painting I had seen in her studio. I had thought it striking and mysterious, and wanted to know what she meant by it. Besides which, it is hard to resist the opportunity to grill an artist when you have one captured inside your house.

The header image is a small detail from a work called The House of Belonging. This figure has appeared in Sheilagh’s other works and represents women artists. Some of their names are written on the smock, artists perhaps not well known to the general public. Here she pays homage to their work, but also alludes to the fact that, overall, very little work by women artists is to be found in museums. The writing of names and of repeated key-words and equations is characteristic of many of Sheilagh’s pieces. It was one of the things I was going to ask her about. But first, the painting.

House of Belonging ii

It is a large canvas, some 4 feet (120cm) square. The next photo gives a better sense of scale. Here it is hanging in Sheilagh’s studio:

Shelagh 003

I asked Sheilagh how the work began. She told me that some years ago the idea of belonging had become very important to her. As she says on her website:

Our ‘sense of belonging’ ripples out from our homes to our village, street, town, county, region and country and help to shape our identity…

Key, then, to her work is a sense of connection to land and how that relationship defines us. This in turn has physical expression in community repositories, the places where we keep artefacts, our history, the knowledge of ancestors – all the familiar things we recognise and which tell us something of who we are. In other words, the museum, or as Sheilagh describes it: the house of belonging. The script running down the left-hand margin of the painting in fact repeats over and over the words ‘the museum’, the house of belonging’. The repetition reflects the strong political stance of Sheilagh’s work.

To me this is ‘the writing on the wall’, a statement of collective ownership; The House of Belonging staking a claim. Its contents are manifestations of how humans have interacted with their landscape and the place they call home. Sheilagh also says that adding text creates a certain texture; that the sense of a hand moving across the work creates a connection with her, its maker. The wheeled blue structure, then, is the House of Belonging. The words written inside say ‘everybody’s knowledge’. This is written twice so there can be no mistake. It feels like something to stand up for, a rallying call.

It is also important, Sheilagh says, that the House can move across the landscape to where the people are, rather than the other way round; this makes it more egalitarian. Inside the House are images and artefacts, symbols of creativity. Some of them are stereotypical of ‘heritage’ and therefore instantly recognisable. For instance, the chess pieces (centre left in the painting) are derived from the Scottish Isle of Lewis Chess Set in the British Museum. The set dates from AD 1150-1200 and suggests Norse influence or origins.

House of Belonging Detail ii

Sheilagh copied and simplified the images from a sales catalogue that specialises in heritage reproductions. The placing of the queen in the central position is also significant. She says she feels bound to redress an imbalance: the fact that in most of our media women only occupy centre stage when they are being commodified in some way. And then there is the mathematical equation painted in red beneath the red tree, centre right of the painting. 100_5291 The presence of equations in Sheilagh’s works adds a further layer meaning for her, and although she doesn’t think it necessary to explain them, she is always very pleased when people recognise them. This particular one refers to mathematical research by American academics in the 1920s called The Geometry of Paths. The appearance of equations in Sheilagh’s paintings also has more personal origins. She tells me she started to include them some years ago – after she had been helping her daughter revise for her Maths and Physics A’ level exams. It is another connection. There are many more signifiers in the work: motifs that have links and resonance with Sheilagh’s other works. The red tree above the equation is a symbol of timelessness, indicating ‘forever’ in human terms.  House of Belonging ii - Copy The red arrow in the top right creates a sense of energy and direction; a ‘look what’s here’ sign. There is the sense of a force field, drawing people to the House of Belonging. 100_5294

Finally, we talked about the overall composition. Sheilagh says that she began the work some years ago after she noticed that a small building denoting ‘museum’ often appeared in her landscapes. This time she wanted it to have it as the main subject, and to make it both an enticing and a mysterious place. At this point she also created the friezes at the top and bottom of the picture, these in order to suggest other layers of reality behind the surface painting. The top frieze is the wider, timeless landscape of which the museum is also symbol. The bottom frieze is deliberately ambiguous and suggestive; it invites the viewer to consider what might lie behind.

House of Belonging ii And having created the work’s essential structure, the painting was then abandoned. It was only some fifteen months later, when Sheilagh, looking for a large canvas to start another work, returned to it. She was fully intending to paint over it, but when she looked at it again she suddenly knew how to proceed and completed the work very swiftly. She says it probably is not quite finished, and suspects that something may still need to be added. In the meantime she has been occupied with a large body of work relating to Scotland.

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Notes and reference materials from Sheilagh Jevon’s studio

© 2014 Tish Farrell

36 thoughts on “Looking inside ‘The House of Belonging’: remembering artist Sheilagh Jevons

    1. Thank you, Sue. I did feel as if I’d been on a journey after exploring this picture with Sheilagh. We get so used to giving things cursory looks, and assessing with only quick-fix responses. I know I do this.

  1. I rather like the idea of a museum being a ‘house of belonging’. This work is extraordinary, so many levels and layers, I thank you for explaining the meaning behind it. I am so glad that Sheilagh didn’t paint over this piece. I am sure that there will be more meaningful additions as time goes by and it will evolve much as life does.

  2. What a fascinating journey into an artist’s mind and the work that comes forth from it. Your portrait of an artist is both stimulating and thought provoking. I really like the way you talk about how the artist’s creative ideas have evolved over time and through many paintings. I found this post really inspiring.

    1. It’s intriguing, isn’t it, looking at the thinking behind how people create things. That’s what is so good about your blog (besides the delicious food that is). You take people into your fridge, to market, into your family history.

  3. I’m not much of a deep thinker, Tish. I was very drawn to some of the individual pieces within the work but not especially the overall canvas. Glad she didn’t paint over it, though, and I enjoyed the explanation. I’ll have a look at her website out of interest. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  4. Thanks for introducing me both to Sheilagh’s work, and to this painting in particular. I love your explanation and analysis of a beautiful work. 🙂

  5. I always open your posts with some trepidation. I know they’re going to be substantial, personally challenging and thought provoking, and that they’ll require a considered and thoughtful response, if not to you at least in my own head. I also know that they’ll link to other posts of yours that I want to read (that’s how I reached this one), and I’ll be off on a trail that will take me hours to follow properly! That’s why they sit in my in-box, waiting for leisure to appreciate and respond. In this one I really enjoyed the revelation of the artist’s thinking: I need words to complete my understanding of the visual. I enjoyed the thought of you two discussing the creative process. The neglect of women artists is a theme I’ve come across in relation to Australian artists in “Stravinsky’s Lunch” and currently in a fiction I’m reading, based on the life of Clarice Beckett, another Australian artist, by Kristel Thornell (“Night Street”), although I haven’t tackled Germaine Greer (“The obstacle race”) yet! Thank you.

    1. I really am very touched that you follow my trail of posts. It is hugely satisfying to be read with such attention. As to this post, Sheilagh was so pleased that I pinned her down to talk about her work. Before she started she thought she did not have anything much to say about the House of Belonging. As it was, the conversation lasted about 2 hours.
      It concerned her very much, and me too, why it is that women artists, whatever their discipline, are not seen/felt to possess the same stature as male equivalents. More worrying is that I discover traces of this attitude in myself. How did that get there? I think I need to tackle Germaine too.

      1. There was absolute outrage here in the late 1890s when a woman, Ellis Rowan, won a prestigious art prize, and not only a woman but a flower painter. Judges obviously way before their time.

  6. I understand that the artist Shelagh Jevons may have passed away. I have a painting by her bought in 1996 and was wondering if you knew anything about her paintings with regard value. I believe it to be based on the Isle of Iona.

  7. Before becoming an artist Sheilagh was a practicing therapist and I was counselled by her. She was a great help to me. I remember when she began her Fine Art degree that she said that the stripping away of professional persona to reach creative ‘truths’ was daunting. But she had infinite courage and I am so pleased to see the flowering of her artistic practice.

  8. Tish,

    Thank you so much for directing me to this conversation with your friend and an explanation of some of the sources and elements of this painting. I have been in museums since I was young and I like to think that there are paintings I have seen which have given me strength, or ideas, or have kept me going of made me content on a given day for a length of time.

    Do you know where this painting is now?

    It must certainly have been very gratifying to her to explain this painting and to know that you have recorded it.

    Of course, I am very interested in layered paintings, in palimpsests of all kinds, in human efforts – women’s efforts – to place themselves in a place with a past and a future. But then I love Dionysos, images and stories from whose life the sage Sigmund Freud had painted on his own urn of ashes. Past, present, future and life ever continuing.

    I am, of course, most interested in the matter of where we belong.

    Born in one place and taken as a child on a diplomatic trajectory here and there, spending years in England and years more in the States, speaking dead and living European languages better than any of those of my home country, expected at all times to abide strictly by the mores of the country of my blood, I don’t have a home in the sense in which your friend Shelaigh Jevons – and perhaps you, too, in your lovely Wenlock Edge – mean it.

    And so I decided at the precocious age of 10 that my home would be the English language. (And pleased my teachers were, too, at my precocious mastery of it. But little did they know that it was my home and I was making a continent of it with mountain ranges, rivers, inland lakes and on and on!)

    I have, subsequently, treated all the English-speaking world as mine and how vast that world is today!

    But I do envy those with their patch of ground, their house of brick. All the tree stumps that they know like old friends and every grave in their local burial grounds!

    I know you know how steeped we are all in the discrepancy of the way women artists are treated here in the United States and everywhere. It seems not to have been remedied. In fact, the more money that sloshes about the art world ($73 million for one David Hockney!), the more it is clear that women will continue to be relegated to second rank. Overall. Because there are women who are focusing on the women who paint. But so few of these are prominent enough to flow their (our) ideas and lives and loves into the mainstream.

    And Shelaigh Jevons’ House of Belonging has its echo. Here is a poem by the British poet (born Yorkshire with an Irish mother, I think, and now living in the paradise around Seattle), David Whyte.

    It is called House of Belonging. I wish Shelaigh had known of it. Maybe she did. But, of course, she did not need to know of it because she knew all about it and it is here in her wonderful painting!

    I hope you enjoy it.

    Thank you for bringing me to her work……..(Any more posts on her?)………….Sarah
    ———————

    House of Belonging, 1968. David Whyte

    THE HOUSE OF BELONGING
    I awoke
    this morning
    in the gold light
    turning this way
    and that
    thinking for
    a moment
    it was one
    day
    like any other.
    But
    the veil had gone
    from my
    darkened heart
    and
    I thought
    it must have been the quiet
    candlelight
    that filled my room,
    it must have been
    the first
    easy rhythm
    with which I breathed
    myself to sleep,
    it must have been
    the prayer I said
    speaking to the otherness
    of the night.
    And
    I thought
    this is the good day
    you could
    meet your love,
    this is the black day
    someone close
    to you could die.
    This is the day
    you realize
    how easily the thread
    is broken
    between this world
    and the next
    and I found myself
    sitting up
    in the quiet pathway
    of light,
    the tawny
    close-grained cedar
    burning round
    me like fire
    and all the angels of this housely
    heaven ascending
    through the first
    roof of light
    the sun has made.
    This is the bright home
    in which I live,
    this is where
    I ask
    my friends
    to come,
    this is where I want
    to love all the things
    it has taken me so long
    to learn to love.
    This is the temple
    of my adult aloneness
    and I belong
    to that aloneness
    as I belong to my life.
    There is no house
    like the house of belonging.

    1. Thank you so much for telling me your story – a homeland in the English language is quite something to think about. And the poem is a real gift, and I know Sheilagh would have been thrilled with it in every way. You have also echoed my own query today as I shared the link: where is the painting now. I’m assuming Sheilagh’s daughter has all her works. I’ve been wondering how and when I might ask her. Sheilagh had a roving life – a military father – and so she had many homelands too. The one she was exploring in her work before she died was Scotland and the whole thorny issue of land and who had rights to it. I think I did a post on her studio open day, but for some strange reason can’t seem to find it.

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