For local resident Shelagh French, the pathway to a career as an artist was not straightforward. Now, as a member of the Woodford Arts Group – which will be unveiling its first art exhibition at the end of May – she is keen to see where the path will take her next
It wasn’t until going to university to study BA Fine Art at the age of 40 that I discovered I’m dyslexic. It was instantly obvious to my tutors that the written work and research elements of the course were proving to be extremely difficult for me, so they encouraged me to get assessed.
This understanding my tutors had towards learning difficulties was not around in my schooldays during the seventies and eighties. Dyslexia wasn’t a word in anyone’s vocabulary back then, especially not in schools. My struggle with homework, exams and general reading and writing was put down to laziness; my enthusiasm instead misdirected towards being the class fool. I did, however, excel in my art classes, and my art teachers were extremely positive about my abilities, encouraging me to continue the study of art after secondary school – a recommendation I pursued.
At college, the written side was still excruciatingly difficult, and before long I dropped out. The added attraction of starting work and having a few bob in my pocket had won me over. After taking on various jobs, I began work at an architectural practice in the mid-eighties. I was able to work purely with visual mediums, meaning I had a good chance to excel, and I enjoyed a good career during this time.
But as I entered the nineties, I realised something was missing. I had a deep longing for children, and by the time the noughties had arrived, I had three daughters. I then made the decision to become a full-time parent, a choice I felt extremely lucky to make.
By the time my youngest daughter started primary school, I had the opportunity to begin the BA Fine Art course I had always wanted to do. Upon its commencement, together with the awareness of my dyslexia, I was provided with the understanding and tools for learning. My struggles also allowed me to spot the symptoms in others, encouraging me to get my youngest daughter assessed outside of school – confirming my suspicions that she too was dyslexic.
I began to love all elements of university, not just painting. I achieved a first and returned to do an MA. It was a great time for me, surrounded by others who also shared this love and interest for art.
With the perhaps naive optimism of an ex- (albeit mature) student, I took up a studio in Hackney Wick with a fellow graduate, believing we would take the art world by storm. After seeing the immense amount of energy, talent and time it took for the younger artists to even get a foot in the gallery doors, coupled with the eternal increase in rent in London, that bubble soon burst. But I did exhibit and sold pieces to both private and corporate clients. The goal was not to be a world-famous artist, but to just keep up the passion and motivation to continue.
I now have a wonderful little studio at the end of my garden which encourages me to keep creating, although inevitably, this means my work now tends to be smaller in scale than the large paintings I produced in my hedonistic, indulgent uni days. Although favouring oil paint in the past, I now work mainly in acrylic, as well as enjoying the immediacy of printmaking. I have Epping Forest literally on my doorstep, and with trips to Devon as well as Ireland where my parents are from, the influence of nature on my work is strengthened. I also work in a fantastic art department of a local secondary school, allowing me a wonderful chance to be part of helping to inspire young creatives in achieving their goals; this was the belief instilled in me at their age.
But being an artist can be an isolated existence if you don’t have other creatives around you. I therefore jumped at the chance of being involved in the Woodford Arts Group when the opportunity arose. We are presently appealing to any other Woodford-based artists to join us, to become a part of what is hopefully going to be an exciting movement. We are also looking to commercial property landlords to avail us of any empty shops, offices or blank walls that could provide space for pop-up exhibitions – anything that would aid us getting our work out there and seen.
It’s interesting how life turns out and I feel very lucky with how it has. The question is what to do next. Further studying, maybe a PhD (with lots more painting)… we’ll see.