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'I started painting Irish scenes as I just missed home so much'

It is homesickness that draws the artist Anne Marie McCaughey from Australia back to her native Tyrone and informs her imagination, writes Malachi O'Doherty

Her art is driven by homesickness. Anne Marie McCaughey now lives in Western Australia and copes with the sense of estrangement from Ireland by painting landscapes of the country from sketches she makes on her visits here.

And these don't cover the dramatic horizons of Donegal, or west Clare, but of the "ordinary" terrain of Tyrone and the Lagan Towpath. Her pictures have rain and mist in them, perhaps not the image of the country that tourism chiefs would like to promote, but achingly familiar.

I come from Tyrone, a very ordinary, bushy bit of the country," she says. "It's not spectacular. It's not the Cliffs of Moher, Co Down or the Glens. It's very ordinary and I love the ordinary. I don't respond to landscape per se; I only respond to the landscape of the home, the heartland."

She is not the kind of artist who gasps at the fall of sunlight on the edge of Errigal, or who wants drama in her pictures. The natural forces are not so much battling each other in storms as melding together.

Not only are the scenes she depicts "ordinary", but they are wintry, for it is only in winter that she gets to return to Ireland.

She pines for the place and walks out into the countryside that she loves on freezing days with her camera and sketch pad, usually in the early morning, or at sunset when the sun is low and the light is sharp.

And she takes these sketches and photographs back to Fremantle and paints her canvasses there.

Her new exhibition, Of Mist and Memories, opening in Gormley's, 471 Lisburn Road at 2pm today, features these wintry landscapes.

She says: "There are a fair few of the Lagan in winter actually, because it was that coming across always at winter time, so I don't see summer or autumn. Maybe a bit of spring."

She refutes any suggestion that the pictures are bleak. "That suggests unwelcoming, but I love those colours and am drawn to them. I found them warm."

There are few of us who feel the chill eased out of our bones by the sight of natural winter colours. "My whole experience for the last 10 years has been seeing these colours, coming back at this time of year."

And what she likes about the wintry light is how the colours seem to dissolve into each other. The pictures are often misty and the divide between land and sky is vague.

"My work has always been about merging colour, knitting it all together. My early influences would have been the Impressionists, but I would like to think I have moved on from that."

She adds: "The latest works are technically quite different from my older work, because they are all oils on canvass. It's a combined print-making, mark-making system alongside painting with glazes."

Anne Marie's fixation with Irish landscape is, she says, "spiritual". What does she mean by that? "An essence of us, of creativity, creator, creators. I'm a pantheist."

For her, spirit is expressed through nature and the creator is female, though she says that her Catholic upbringing informs her spirituality, too.

"That sense of being brought up an Irish Catholic has never left me alone. That, I still think, comes across in all the work. I still like the idea of the mother of creativity. The goddess, mother earth, Eiru."

Would she expect an objective person to see that in the work?

"I would expect an objective person to see that these are pale misty colours, probably communicative of a time and place. They are a little sad. Elegiac? There's a nice word."

But how are people to ascertain the nature of her spirituality from the pictures?

"They're not. Art has to be for people to make up their own minds and see what they want to see.

"If it is too prescriptive, then you are writing an essay for the people, not leaving gaps for them to fill in what they want it to be. And that's why I like titles that aren't awfully specific."

She studied art at Brighton in the early-1980s. That was when she had her first experience of homesickness prompting her to paint the Irish landscape.

"I'd gone to Brighton to study and that is where I started painting Irish landscape, because I missed home. And I studied Seamus Heaney and I did my dissertation on the relationship between his poetry and landscape imagery."

She doesn't paint Australian landscapes, though she lives there. She never feels really homesick in the same way for Fremantle.

She doesn't have the same hankering for Australian terrain and sky.

"I was too old when I left this country. I didn't settle. Australia is not a place where I intend to die," she says.

She has had a recent touring exhibition of paintings of a plastic laundry basket; not an obvious subject for an artist's interest.

One of the pictures in the basket series shows a towel, or sheet, hanging over the basket, like a piece of common laundry, something equally ordinary.

"That's the Shroud of Turin," she says, shockingly, whereas you might have thought it was a nightie.

The Shroud of Turin bears the imprint of a crucified man and is widely revered as the actual shroud in which Christ was buried.

She did that painting for a competition on religious art.

And she doesn't mind if people don't recognise the shroud at first, though she'd like them to look closer.

"If it hits you in the face, it is no good. You have to work a wee bit on this."

When she goes back to Australia she will also open a show of tiny portraits called Glimpses.

Friends have compared these to the massive portraits done by Colin Davidson, the Belfast artist who exhibited portraits of Troubles victims in the Ulster Museum recently, who has also done writers, including Sinead Morrissey, Michael Longley and Seamus Heaney. But Ann McCaughey's portraits are tiny and they focus closely on the face so that it fills the frame and loses part of itself, the top of the head or the back.

And she will paint more images of the Lagan towpath and County Tyrone to stave off her hankering for home when she gets back to Australia.

There, she makes her living partly from her art and partly from teaching.

Her husband, Dan Thomas, is an engineer.

And she looks like an artist, with her cascading waves of red hair and her bright eyes. The Aussies might wonder if she is Queen Medbh. She isn't.

She is just an ordinary Tyrone girl who misses the country and paints it to remind herself of home.

  • Anne McCaughey's exhibition, Of Mist and Memories, opens at the Gormley Gallery, 471 Lisburn Road, Belfast, today (2pm)

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