Looking inside ‘The House of Belonging’ with artist Sheilagh Jevons

House of Belonging detail i

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 image above 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.

 

 

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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:

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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. Having strong Scottish roots herself she has been moved to explore that nation’s landscape against the backdrop of the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence. In the next photo, taken in her studio, Sheilagh explains the preparatory work she has done for a project inspired by a recent trip to St.Kilda in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides.

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For more about Sheilagh’s work and exhibitions please visit her website and blog:

Sheilagh Jevons Contemporary Artist website

Artist at the Mogg blog

 

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Artist’s makings in Sheilagh Jevon’s studio

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© 2014 Tish Farrell

29 thoughts on “Looking inside ‘The House of Belonging’ with artist Sheilagh Jevons

  1. Fascinating intro and thanks for the link, I like her work – particularly the image on her home page – Andy Warhol goes shepherding (I doubt that’s what Sheilagh had in mind 🙂 )

    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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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 🙂

  5. 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. 🙂

  6. 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.

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