Winning waves: Jolomo art prize winner Dawnne McGeachy

Jolomo winner Dawnne McGeachy with her winning work, the diptych of waves. Picture: Jon Savage (jonsavagephotography.com)
Jolomo winner Dawnne McGeachy with her winning work, the diptych of waves. Picture: Jon Savage (jonsavagephotography.com)
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As the daughter of a fisherman, Dawnne McGeachy appreciated from an early age the beauty – and perils – of the sea. Now her dramatic paintings of breaking waves have won the former Glasgow School of Art student Scotland’s top art prize.

AS A CHILD, Dawnne McGeachy lay in bed on stormy nights in her Campbeltown home thinking about her father, a fisherman, out on the sea in a 45ft skiff. It instilled in her a mixture of fascination and fear for the ocean which has stayed with her all her life. Now her dramatic paintings of the sea have won her Scotland’s premier art prize. Last night at a Gala Dinner at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, McGeachy, 44, was announced as the winner of the £25,000 Jolomo Bank of Scotland Award for Scottish landscape painting. The founder of the awards, the painter John Lowrie Morrison, praised her “beautiful and stunningly expressed paintings of Kintyre waves”.

While she is delighted with the award, McGeachy is also keen to get back to work in her Glasgow studio. A star student at Glasgow School of Art in the early 1990s, she went through a decade where she found it hard to paint. Her inspiration returned after the birth of her daughter, Lily, now six, and she is again painting prolifically. She says: “I just want to keep painting, there’s so much I want to do.”

The Jolomo Bank of Scotland Awards were established in 2006 and are awarded every two years. John Lowrie Morrison – known as Jolomo – is one of Scotland’s most successful landscape painters and wanted to encourage emerging artists to paint the Scotland landscape. Many of the artists previously shortlisted for the awards are now forging ahead in their careers.

Morrison says: “Each year we judge the awards, it gets harder as the quality of work gets better. I think this proves that landscape painting is beginning to take hold again.”

This year’s shortlist of nine artists was one of the most interesting and diverse so far, including Korean-born Hyojun Hyun, 29, who paints forgotten corners of Glasgow parks and wastelands, and Philip MacEachan, 62, from Ross-shire, who is studying for an art degree at Moray College after taking early retirement from a job in banking, and makes work inspired by the Highland Clearances. The 2009 winner, Keith Salmon, overcomes a degenerative eye condition to climb – and paint – Scottish mountains, and the 2011 winner, Calum McClure, a recent graduate of Edinburgh College of Art, presented a striking body of work done at the ruined Cammo estate, near Edinburgh, where he played as a child.

McGeachy’s paintings also draw on her roots, in the Kintyre peninsula where her father, uncles and cousins were all fishermen. “I guess I was always fascinated with the anatomy of waves and how they were formed. I wanted to understand what my dad was going out in, and it became a lifelong obsession. “When I was little, my dad would go out to sea on a Sunday night. I was very aware of the weather, more than other children. I would think about how the wind impacts the sea, how it makes the waves grow big. The sea was a beautiful thing, but also a thing you had to respect and be careful of. As the child of a fisherman, I was aware of what the sea gave but also what it was capable of taking away.”

McGeachy was at Glasgow School of Art in the late 1980s when the family boats began to be decommissioned. “When I was younger, there were hundreds of skiffs fishing out of Campbeltown. By the time I finished art college in 1991, it was down to 12 boats. I made work about it. From the point of view of a small fishing town, livelihoods were totally decimated by it.”

At Glasgow School of Art, she was part of a strong cohort of painters. The artist Jenny Saville was in the year below. “I was really lucky, it was such a fertile environment. People were really passionate about paint as a medium and what it could do. In amongst other people who were really interested in that, you learn from your peers.”

When she graduated from GSA with a first-class degree, she was offered a prestigious postgraduate scholarship at Iowa State University. Although she excelled, and was awarded the Phi Kappa Phi for graduating in the top seven per cent of all USA masters students, she missed Scotland desperately. “It was very strange not to be near the sea, and I didn’t realise there would be so much difference in the light – the light is so different in Scotland from anywhere else. My studio was like a Scottish installation, I covered the walls with pictures of my mum and things in Scotland. My mum wrote to me every day and I put her letters on the wall. It was only being out of the Scottish landscape that I realised its importance to me.” Since her return from Iowa, she has not left Scotland, even to go on holiday. However, when she returned she found she needed to take time out from painting. “I think I had burned myself out. I was ridiculously prolific. I was waking up in the middle of the night and making notes in sketchbooks. I had lost my way a wee bit. .”

In the years which followed, she continued to draw, but found it hard to paint until a few years ago, when her the inspiration returned with gusto. “Now the painting is back in force and it’s lovely. It’s like having an old friend back. I’m having a ball and I’m so excited about the potential of all there is to do.” She says a major factor in this was the birth of her daughter, Lily, six years ago. “I had really severe post-natal depression after Lily was born, but as I got better I started painting again. It just seems to have reinvigorated something in my head. It’s also seeing her doing art, playing with materials. When I would walk her to nursery, she would stop and notice things that I would once have noticed but had stopped noticing. It’s like a reawakening, seeing the world through her eyes.”

Once again, she is drawing on the inspiration of the waves, and of her family’s background in the fishing industry. Within her the diptych of waves, which was her main submission for the awards, she has picked the constellation of the Altair – the name of the last fishing boat to remain in the family – in phosphorus, so the stars become illuminated in low light.

She is keen to do more research into the fishing industry in Scotland, and hopes to exhibit work later this year in Campbeltown and Aberdeen. “I would really like to continue what I’m doing with waves and the language of paint, make it both quite precise and quite visceral and emotional at the same time.”

First runner-up: Ruth Nicol, 46, from Edinburgh, wins £6,000

RUTH quit her job in the financial sector in 2006 to do a degree in Drawing & Painting at Edinburgh College of Art. “I started off doing evening classes, then I did summer school. The more I got into the art, the more disatisfied I was with the day job, so I quit. It was the first really crazy decision I ever took and the best thing that has ever happened to me.”

Ruth’s younger daughter, Charlotte, now three, was born in her final year at art college. “Charlotte was born two months before we handed in our degree work. I got a lot of help, but I was still lugging 9ft canvases around and bending over scaffolds with a very large bump. Charlotte is in the studio with me every day. She’s got her own paint, and understands which are Charlotte’s brushes and which are mummy’s brushes.” Ruth also has an older daughter, Hannah, 14.

For the Jolomo awards, Ruth entered a series of paintings inspired by the vistas around her home in Leith during the bad winter of 2010. “For me it’s all about landscape. We think we shape the landscape but it shapes us. I’m proud to call myself a landscape painter.”

Hot on the heels of her Jolomo award, Ruth’s first solo exhibition will open tomorrow night at the RGI Kelly Gallery in Glasgow. The paintings will explore Glasgow, where she grew up, and the Lanarkshire village of Leadhills, where her family spent their summer holidays, near the source of the River Clyde.

Second runner-up: Amy Dennis, 36, from Edinburgh, wins £4,000

AMY’S distinctive egg tempera paintings of Edinburgh have a touch of the surreal about them. She is a fan of British surrealist Paul Nash and the Scottish painter James Cowie, but her style is entirely her own.

Amy graduated from Edinburgh College of Art in 2000, and worked in the contemporary art gallery at Inverleith House, Edinburgh, until her son, Ossian, now three, was born. She says: “Analytical egg tempera painting is a big contrast to helping put on a show by Karla Black, but my big personal interest is in materials and craft of making. Taking time off when my son was born was an opportunity to reassess, and I decided I wanted to give the painting another go.” She had an exhibition at the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh last autumn.

Amy paints in the ancient, and difficult, medium of egg tempera – raw pigment bound with egg yolk and distilled water. “I started using it because I was working at home and wanted to use a water-based paint which wasn’t acrylic. I love reading about unfashionable, historical painting techniques. Egg tempera is difficult – you have to mix the paint up each time you use it. It’s very fragile and dries really quickly. You have to consider every mark you make, but it offers lots of possibilities too.”