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How our passion for painting has led to new friendships


Animal magic: Lesley Ann Sharp
Animal magic: Lesley Ann Sharp
Bright ideas: Sorrel Wills
Life’s ambition: Edith McClelland now works as a full-time artist
Impressive works: Edith uses watercolours to paint seascapes and flowers

By Linda Stewart

Vivid artworks by some of NI's finest female artists will be unveiled to the public tonight at the preview of the Ulster Society of Women Artists' 62nd annual exhibition. Linda Stewart talks to three exhibitors.

‘I love painting horses and I make a donation to the animal sanctuary with each sale’

Lesley Ann Sharp (66) lives on a farm near Antrim with her husband Richard (67), daughter Jessica, son-in-law Phil and granddaughters Evelyn (4) and Eleanor (1). She is a passionate horsewoman and painter of horses and other animals.

She says she always wanted to be either an artist or work with horses, and had planned to go to art college but couldn't bear to leave her pony behind.

"Instead I went to train as a riding instructor in Newmarket and I went on to have a career with horses - showjumping, eventing and showing," she says.

"I would draw and paint people's horses in the trailer park at the events and began getting commissions for pet portraits - dogs and horses.

"It's always just been a hobby, something that I absolutely loved and that I've been lucky enough to make money out of. It's never been a full-time job, just something that was fun and enjoyable to do. Every so often I got a commission and somebody wanted to buy something and it was just brilliant."

Lesley Ann lives close to Crosskennan Lane Animal Sanctuary which rescues horses, and now has 11 of the rescue horses living at her own farm. "I take photographs and pictures of them, they are wonderful to paint."

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Her paintings are on display in a permanent exhibition at Crosskennan's visitor cabin. "I make a donation for each sale back to the sanctuary, which is nice," she says.

Lesley Ann says joining local art groups and in particular the USWA (Ulster Society of Women Artists) has been a great way to meet like-minded people.

"It's quite a thing to be accepted by USWA as a member and I was absolutely thrilled to become a member," she says.

"I think if it hadn't been for the art clubs I wouldn't have got to know so many people. It's a really good way to find your way around and find people who like the same sort of things as you do.

"The other art groups have ladies and gentleman but this is a completely different feel. It's extremely friendly and the ladies are all really, really nice.

"There are a huge number of different types of painting there - ladies who do art in glassworks and sculpture, all sorts of things, mixed media and fabric design as well as the usual watercolours."

Lesley Ann also has a picture-framing business which she has brought over from England where she was born: "I paint more now, but I'm always really interested to see how other people frame their pictures and I have framed paintings for several of the artists."

Lesley's framing work can be seen at

'We encourage women artists to keep painting ... my vision is to bring on anyone with talent'

Ulster Society of Women Artists president and former interior designer Sorrel Wills (49), originally from England, lives in Antrim and has two children, Ben (19) and Arabella (15). A former ceramicist whose work was on sale at Harrods, she now paints.

Sorrel's parents were from Belfast but worked in England in the early part of their married life before returning 30 years ago. She says she had always wanted to be an artist since childhood.

"I wanted to be an artist first and foremost - I think people wanted me to be an architect, but I wanted to be an artist. But I've always been interested in interior design and I did that for 10 years," she says.

Sorrel studied art at Southdowns College of Further Education in Waterlooville, Hampshire, where she experienced a range of media including pottery, sculpture and still life.

"We had 10 hours of tuition a week and there were a lot of tutors who were artists themselves. It was fabulous," she says.

She then embarked on a foundation year at the Art College in Belfast's York Street ("I found it really expanding") and went on to do combined studies in art and design.

"I transitioned to ceramics, because I found I had a real affinity with the clay. But I stopped the ceramics business once I had my son, because I would have been working up until 2am - you wouldn't open the kiln at a normal time of day because it would have been too hot. I started to paint after that."

Sorrel admits she stopped painting for 10 years following a review in the Belfast Telegraph that she describes as "a bit hmmm", but she picked it up again six or seven years ago after completing a commission for a family get-together that went down well.

"I picked it up again in earnest and I got a solo exhibition within a year of starting again. I've done six exhibitions now," she says.

"I do landscapes and interiors, working with oils and a palette knife, and I'm influenced by the impressionists and post-impressionists. I really love to see the textures of the paint on the canvas so that you can see the workings of the painting, but when you stop you can see it's representational again.

"You can see the texture and the marks of the paint, so you know you are looking at a painting, not a photograph. For me, if you paint you have to take it away from being too real."

Sorrel focuses on local landmarks but says that because she grew up on the south coast of England, she gravitates towards painting sunlight, so all her local scenes are filled with sunshine.

"I paint sunlight because of my interior design background," she says.

Sorrel says her mother was into furniture restoration and used to drag her round antiques markets as a child - and that has inspired her latest set of paintings of the interiors of antique shops in Greyabbey.

"I hated it at the time, but now I find it so exciting to go in and explore the different objects in an interior," she says.

The society was founded by Gladys McCabe who was horrified that the Royal Ulster Academy at the time would not accept female artists.

"I wouldn't see such an acute need for it now as in Gladys McCabe's day, but there's still a relevance if you look around the world. For example, if you look at the Royal Academy list, there are female artists at the beginning of the list of members, but as you scroll down you find the women have been put at the top," she says.

"It's encouraging women artists to keep painting. I think there are still different life expectations which are changing, but we still have life commitments, so a bit of encouragement from other female artists wouldn't go amiss. My vision is to bring on younger members and anyone with talent to be part of the society."

See more of Sorrel's work at

'I got my first commission when I was 11 and no matter where I lived,  I always had a studio at home'

USWA secretary Edith McClelland (63), originally from the north coast, has recently moved to the north west of Scotland following the death of her husband Marvi Kashkoush. She has two sons, Michael and Christopher. Edith says she wanted to be an artist from the time she was a child and had been living in the Middle East with her parents when she was offered a place in Edinburgh School of Art.

"I got my first commission at the age of 11," she says.

"My mum worked at the Belfast Telegraph at that time and I don't know how it came about, but I was asked to reproduce some of the Punch cartoons in pen and ink, supposedly for the Belfast Telegraph. It was good fun. My mum was a very good artist as well.

"My first desire was to go to art college, but I also had a real thing about meteorology - I knew all the clouds and I always pretended to forecast the weather."

The family moved to Kuwait when Edith's dad got a job there.

"My mum wanted me to take up the place at art school. But I got married instead and I went on to have a career in IBM for many years and then Toys R Us, and it was a chance to travel a lot as well," she explains.

"Mum and I put on several exhibitions in the Middle East and I had a couple of solo shows as well, but I wasn't able to do it full-time because I had the two boys and a full-time job.

"I came back home to Ballycastle permanently in 1995 and I saw it as an ideal opportunity to really do what I wanted. I had kept up my art, but I wanted to do it professionally and that would become my full-time job."

Edith had been qualified as an interior designer, but was forced to give it up when she developed fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis.

"I concentrated on art and commissions and teaching art and it's been brilliant. No matter where I lived, I always had a studio at home," she says.

"For years I moaned about wanting to have a style and one day I realised 'this is my style'. Watercolour is such a beautiful medium and it's so unpredictable - you can't really control it but it does some magical things. It's perfect for seascapes.

"I like to do still-life with crystal and flowers. I like to paint the light - that's what draws me to any particular subject. Especially when the sea is rough, I like the light that comes through the waves. I use all sorts of different media, but I do prefer watercolour."

Edith has been secretary of USWA for five years and received diploma status last year.

"I think what I like is the teamwork and being able to work with like-minded people who are really passionate about art and all the different techniques you can use. It's wonderful being part of a group like this - it's not just the opportunity to show your work in an exhibition, it's the togetherness," she says.

See Edith's work at

Son of society's founder will be guest speaker at Crumlin Road Gaol this evening

Tonight is the preview evening for the Ulster Society of Women Artists (USWA) annual exhibition from 7pm at The Lanyon Suite, Crumlin Road Gaol, Belfast, with a presentation of awards taking place.

The guest speaker will be Chris McCabe, son of the late founder Gladys McCabe, and some of the members will be painting at the event.

There will be 142 two-dimensional and three-dimensional artworks on display, as well as hundreds of mounted/unframed originals, giclee prints and hand-crafted cards.

All are welcome to the preview and the exhibition will run until August 15. Anyone who is interested in applying for membership or to become a Friend of the Society, can email Edith McClelland at

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