The First Spring

Shelagh Hourahane on the paintings of Catrin Williams

As soon as I walk through the door of the gallery I guess that the artist is young. The exuberant and singing colours of Catrin Williams’s recent paintings are complemented by the pale-toned wood and the cool, mellow light of David Thomas’s extension to the Tabernacl Gallery in Machynlleth. Another thing which strikes me is a great sense of femininity. I pause for thought immediately, as age and gender are contentious issues in the politics of culture and I haven’t even started to look at the paintings individually. Catrin Williams’s paintings strike the viewer as being abstract, without obvious images and therefore suggesting that they are the result of a very personal experience or view of the world. This does invite me to ask who is the artist, what kind of a person is it who is asking us to see through her eyes and with her imagination. Of course I am already primed as I’ve seen her work before; know of her as a lively woman in her late twenties; of her interest in music and her love of the actions involved in making her paintings, almost as a dance and certainly as a performance.

I ought to stop sitting in a corner of this lovely room and walk around, and maybe read the titles. That’s the first thing that many people ask: “What’s the title?” I like to read titles, except when they are pretentious. I find the word Untitled a real let down when primly printed on the label stuck next to a work of art. It always seems to put up barriers, as if to say “I’ve got a secret which I’m not going to let you into”, or “Well you’ve really got to work hard now to fathom this one out.” So, as I go around and read, Elis’s first spring, Ploughed field, Tall trees at Glynllifon, Welsh teas, I feel a bit easier. There is something to work on, a way of relating this celebration of colour, the textures of well-worked paint surfaces and the clever tricks of collage to particular experiences and places. I know now that the paintings are about nature, landscape, the domestic world and Elis. Elis must be, and of course is, the artist’s first child, born last year and therefore a party to her own fresh exploration of a world which is changed through the fact of being a mother.

I’m still lingering in my corner. It’s lucky that this gallery is just the kind of size that makes it possible to sit or stand in one place and take in the whole exhibition, so that there is a sense of being surrounded by the sensations that the paintings generate, by an almost musical ambience. It is also quiet, except for faint piano sounds lifting up through the building from a practice room nearby. So, I’ve let my mind and memory take over for a while and allow myself to share with Catrin her closeness to other artists. I can see a number of my old favourites quoted in these paintings. Henri Matisse is here, with his elegant shapes and sensuous outline and the risky use of big areas of flat colour which play space games with the eye. Paul Klee has wandered through as well, especially in the tiny lively drawings for Welsh teas. Picasso peers out of the collaged pieces and a whole team of artists, who have been called Expressionist for their free use of colour and broad gestural painting, lurk in the wings to applaud Catrin Williams’s spontaneity. But do I need to invite visitors from so far away? A crowd of faces, or rather images associated with our own modern painting tradition, rush to claim a part of Catrin’s history. Ernest Zobole offers his bright and exotic way of seeing the familiar world; Ceri Richards proffers his lyricism; Peter Prendergast donates the tangibility of paint and Shani Rhys James shares her vivid female vision.

By now I’m eagerly walking among the paintings and see that they take me through the gleaming, bustling year of 1994 in which a new brightness of the world is recalled. The sequence of Elis’s first spring is one clue to this energy. Here is a breathless, jumbled world of half-known things - birds, plants, flowers and landscapes - seen as few of us remember seeing and few would dare to imitate. These paintings are not the first, gauche attempt of a child to make sense of vision and the world, but are mature reflections, perhaps linked to a desire to understand and to re-discover the growing perception of the artist’s own child. The paintings of gardens and of paths through the parkland at Glynllifon are the nearest to landscape, but they are exotic when looked at with our Welsh eyes, usually so full of the preconception that our land is grey or muted. Maybe the colour and its bold application can be looked at in several ways, either as a metaphor for the artist’s feelings about these places or as an intriguingly intensified glimpse into the colour and vitality that is in our landscape if we let ourselves look. Welsh teas is a sequence in which I look down on a round table where a cheeky teapot perches dangerously amid cups and plates. The table adds to the sense of impending disaster by becoming more and more sprightly in the larger versions. The cacophony of noisy colour in the large collage versions surely recalls the rattle of tea-cups and chattering Welsh voices - no people, but they are there. I want to find out more about Catrin, where she comes from, why she is an artist, how she works.

Parc Glynllifon, owned by Gwynedd County Council, has a studio complex where about six artists and craftspeople work. Glynllifon has been especially important for the younger Welsh-speaking artists who live in the north, giving them a base where they have established a supportive atmosphere. This artists’ facility has developed around the Celebration of the Writers of Gwynedd landscape sculpture project, initiated in the late 1980s. Part of the vision, precariously adhered to so far, was for a live centre for the interaction of the visual arts and literature. The studios occupy the nineteenth-century workshops of the old Newborough estate and surround a courtyard, where Catrin Williams’s studio entrance stands out because of the colourful sign, a vertical hanging of the letters CATRIN. The space that she has to work in isn’t very big and it is quite cluttered with the paintings that she has made and is making. Because she has a young child, Catrin has probably worked here more in 1994 than in most years since she left art college in Cardiff in 1989.

Those were her years for travelling. There was the journey with the rock group Anhrefn, when she performed by painting on stage in venues around Czechoslovakia. There was the circuit around schools in Dyfed working with Arad Goch, the theatre company. There were trips to Tunisia, Brittany, Ireland, Scotland and the USA to make contact with artist in those countries, to expand her view of the world, gain inspiration and to run workshops. The most momentous trip was that to Amsterdam in 1992 to hear the music of the Wales-born musician, John Cale. Cale’s music, a mixture of jazz, rock and classical elements, became an obsession. Listening to the music in her studio gave her the impetus to dramatise her paintings and to make the forceful, abstract and nearly aggressive works that she showed in 1992 and 1993. The paintings usually started with large drawings, made freely in response to particular pieces of Cale’s music. The oil or pastel paintings frequently took titles, as well as themes, which related to this music. Style it takes celebrated the link between Cale, Lou Reed and Andy Warhol in the group Velvet Underground. Looking at these paintings and thinking about their relationship to music reminds me of the struggles that Wassily Kandinsky made in the early years of this century to create abstract paintings as equivalents to the music of the then avant-garde composers. Catrin took this integration of the arts a stage further with her bold events in a number of Welsh venues.

I was present at Catrin’s performance just before Christmas 1993, in the small space owned by Cywaith Cymru/Artwork Wales. As I pushed into the room, I found a cheerful crowd of people intent on celebration, talk, a glass of wine. There was another presence, that of white shrouded hangings, waiting as if covered against the passage of time, like furnishings in a close-up house. At a certain point in the evening Catrin Williams began her readings of poetry, and her singing, intertwined with John Cale’s music. The hanging paintings were gradually unveiled to reveal a writhing, dancing universe of colour. It was important to Catrin that these performances did not take place in art galleries. Another venue was Capel Tegid in Bala. Although the music was different and seemed a far cry from that of the chapel, the origin of a creativity which is integrated and shared in a public context goes back to the roots of Catrin Williams’s upbringing.

She tells how she was brought up on a hill farm called Llwyniolyn, at Cefnddwysarn, near Bala. She describes her involvement with the life of her community, the singing at eisteddfodau, the music and theatrical performances which were important to her family. It was drama that she first studied at Coleg Normal, Bangor, before deciding to go to art college. She explains that painting entered her life when her grandmother’s sister, a local artist, gave her oil paints and bought her art magazines. Catrin Williams has said of her earlier paintings: “My work is naive, colourful and Welsh ... it is full of amusing and childlike shapes, which reflect the simple beauty of the Penllyn area.”

In these paintings it is possible to see the shapes of houses, chapels, hills and trees. Talking about these works and of her recent landscape paintings, Catrin affirms that the almost exotic colour is derived from her observed experience of her home and reflects that an artist’s job may be to single out and intensify vivid moments in reality, which are, nonetheless, there for everyone to enjoy. In looking at these paintings, I find that they invite a comparison with those landscapes of Will Roberts, which had so wide a showing in Wales in 1994. The sombre and apparently unchanging view of rural Wales, which the older artist portrays, is at odds with the vital and cheerful presence in Catrin Williams’s work. This makes me ponder on what is the truth of the view of the land that artists present to us. Although it is usually considered that an artist will represent her/his private experience and vision, we do tend to take the images made by certain artists as presenting a truth about Wales, and their paintings come to represent a received view of ourselves and our landscape. Other than some photographers, such as John Davies, almost no landscape artist in Wales tackles the threats and changes which are the real issues of the countryside today. This leaves a critical gap which is yet to be filled. Catrin Williams, like some other artists of her generation, has begun to reassess the role that painters may play. She is aware of the tension that exists between the inheritance of a close rural community and of its haunting physical background and that of the experience of travel and life in very different environments. She may confront that only in relation to her personal experience, but in this she has a theme which will not go away and which may become a focus for many visual artists during the present decade.

Hawlfraint © Catrin Williams
Cynllun - Almon