Morag Muir is a remarkably prolific artist who has demonstrated over the past 30 years her dedication to art. She has managed the difficult feat of balancing a focused and contagious enthusiasm for painting with a supportive attitude to other artists’ creativity, and a careful tending of her family. For a time she also held a lecturing post; she now concentrates on “making pictures”.
Muir is a remarkably prolific artist who has demonstrated over the past 30 years her dedication to art. My awareness of Muir’s work began a few decades ago when I saw her pieces on the walls of the local Turkish art collector and restaurant owner Zeki Agacan. I was intrigued by the bold maturity of her early compositions and the allure of her more recent work, as well as her dedication to painting. I went to meet her in the cosy and colourful confines of her kitchen. I was very much looking forward to our meeting, curious to find out more about her attitude towards her craft and its evolution, and wondering where she situates herself in relation to contemporary Scottish painting.
During our conversation, Muir recalled fondly her year group at college, who were a supportive lot where the diverse personalities, age groups and talents mixed well. She remembered the sense of awe at the sight of Charlie Farrell’s life-drawings, as well as the legendary occasion of a Duncan of Jordanstone College’s year trip to Paris in the 1980s, immortalised by Calum Colvin and Davy Kane on their year’s Facebook page. The scholarships that she won early in her career led her to find inspiration in the architectural splendour of the churches of Sienna and Assisi, unexpectedly recaptured years later in the arched windows of the Forebank studios in Dundee where she worked.
I was keen to explore the development of her work over the past three decades. My intention was to discuss her beginnings and growth and to explore some of the stories behind her iconography. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview that took place at Muir’s flat, 17 December of 2012.
VW: So where would you like to start?
MM : Glasgow, we’ll start with Glasgow. I was born in Glasgow and that seems to make a difference to things. I decided about age 13 that I wanted to go to Art College, decided that that was what I wanted to do.
VW: What sparked that off?
MM: Me and my pal Maggie… just wanted to go to Art College; decided that that was the place to be…
VW: Had you met people that were at Art School?
MM: Well, we knew some people, we just thought, “that’s where we’ve got to be”. That’s kind of the road you needed to go along if you wanted to do art. Nobody from my home – my family- painted, so it was not the case that I was influenced by someone in the house who was doing art. I didn’t have art on the walls – so it was just starting afresh.
VW: What about fashion and things like that, was that important?
MM: Well, in my first year at Art College, I did want to do textiles … I decided quite early on that I’d really enjoy textiles. I had two great teachers, Willie Watt and Don Shannon. We had great design teachers. I really wanted to do textiles in first year, but the painting lecturers came down to see me and told me I was a painter.
MM: So I said, but I want to do textiles. They said – no -you can do textiles at any time really – you can go back to that at some point but you’ve got to paint.
MM: I didn’t know that they were going to say this but I remember the reason why. I did my still life, the still life that everyone did in the class, in first year with lots of brown jugs, and loaves of bread and onions… and this time, instead of deciding … it’s a brown jug, a mix of brown paint … I looked really closely; it was a really bright day with a really blue sky outside, and the blue sky came in and was hitting off the brown jug so the brown jug was blue – one side of it was really blue –one bit was really sparkly blue. So I actually noticed that, which was like a big revelation. I remember then mixing the colours which really was hard for me, mixing these different blues and putting them all on, but it just worked, it was right – that magical thing. That is the reason I decided that I am a painter: one highlight on a brown jug.
VW: Wonderful, blue sky on a brown jug!
VW: I remember seeing student paintings of yours and they looked complete and very definite statements. Did this happen really quickly?
MM: I was able to do them quicker then. I was also able to stop in time, which was quite good. Deadlines make you stop. But then I was also always interested in still lives. Alberto Morocco – as soon as he saw my work he pointed me in the direction of Scottish painters like Anne Redpath and William Gillies. And it’s funny though, I kind of wish I never knew [these artists’ works]. I know it’s important to know what’s been done before but I was doing these things without knowing, I was doing something very similar to their paintings but without having seen these paintings, without having studied them. When you start to study other people’s work, you start to copy things. When you’re quite young, it’s quite easy to think I’ll just copy that, just do it like they do. I was quite interested to keep doing my own things but it’s hard. You can’t not be influenced by things around you. Up until then I didn’t know their work and yet I was working in a similar vein.
VW: You had a strong sense of yourself.
MM: I remember the colours as well. It was about saving money I think too, I remember I used to mix huge batches of this wax to add to my paint. It was like a third bees wax and a third “turps”, and I think a third (it must have been) some kind of oil. Anyway it was like a great big witch’s brew and it solidified. I used to add it to my oil paint to make it go further. But although it went further, it went paler, obviously diluted the colour, the intensity of the colour, so while I could actually get quite a thick consistency that I wanted it got lighter and lighter so the palette got lighter and lighter which I quite enjoyed.[…] You use what you can afford. At that time, I used to go to Webster’s in Arbroath [Webster’s Flax Textile Mill] once or twice a year, hire a van, and go and buy maybe 3 rolls of jute that was dead cheap, £40 or something, that was you for the whole year: six foot of this beautiful textured [canvas]. I’ve still got some; I still use it now and again. I love the smell of jute.
VW: Did you prime it as well?
MM: I primed it… and then applied my thick waxy paint, put it on with a palette knife, and it got paler and paler, it’s like it had faded out in the sun, like an ancient fresco, crumbling slightly.
MM: Again, there are some photographs of that on our year’s Facebook page… It was great to see that again… I never knew that somebody had taken all these photographs in the studios.
VW: Did the views of the Tay influence you at that time? MM: No not really. [It was] more my space. I always used what was in my space, and by 4th year you start having a bigger space to yourself and then you can really kit it out with all your stuff. If I did any drawings, I’d just pin them on the wall and then usually what I would do then was just paint the wall! … [And]… it was all my things, maybe a table in front of it with a few objects, but really all my things that I had been working on recently;… [I’d] play about with them and move them about in the space, maybe… an easel with a painting on it, maybe someone coming in here and there, but mostly really about the immediate environment.
VW: And is this how you have kept working?
MM: I feel quite comfortable… I do travel and I do get a lot out of travelling when I work, but I am quite happy in my studio if I have enough things around about me to work from, to set things up. I bring things back from travelling, drawings or things – objects. I am quite happy then, if I have them I can live on them for years. People say, “do you ever run out of ideas”? But I feel I am just starting …. I have got loads to do, just can’t get around to doing it all yet…. You’ve got to feed the children …You’ve got to do other things as well.
VW: Would you like to speak about your imagery?
MM: …When I left college, I thought, what am I going to paint? … I wasn’t worried about it but I thought what am I going to paint? I thought I have to pull everything together rather than find a brand new subject. I wasn’t going to go and start doing landscapes or mountains or anything … and actually I had got little objects around me anyway. I’d got little toys. The first one I painted was this little horse, I’ve still got that painting. I thought “that was fun”, then I painted my little man on a horse: my little Russian man on a horse with little wheels, he was next. So that was a whole painting and then that was it. I did a whole exhibition of my toys, mainly at the Rep [Dundee RepTheatre].
In this 2006 exhibition at the Rep Theatre, Muir’s “toys” made their first solo appearance as the bright yet unconventional subject matter of her work, each figurine disrupting the quiet depth of its own space. Each individual object carries its own significance as a memento of a person or of a place, for example, her son’s model toy from star wars or an Indonesian puppet brought back from a trip to the Netherlands. In the 2006 exhibition, these “ little characters” – as Muir sees them – emerged for the first time as unconventional objects portrayed individually and beautifully in lonely abstraction.
Later, Muir created a narrative bringing these quirky individuals together in her first composition of this kind: a royal wedding scene with king and queen and all their royal guests. Such assemblage would provide the template for many compositions to come. From her early painting days, Muir had kept a sense of a narrative taking place within the confines of an inner space. From her travels, and from the many people she has met along the way, she has collected a motley crew of toys which have become the residents of sumptuously decorated interiors that have evolved within her frames. Whereas the early incarnations of these enigmatic protagonists were rendered with detail as precious objects in their own display frames, they have come to evolve out of their early solitude to integrate more complex storylines: they come to share spaces in a variety of permutations within Muir’s complex ornate and theatrical spaces.
If it is the case that the artist that holds the key of her objects’ primary meaning, weaving her concerns and personal story into her work, Muir’s paintings have come to charm young and adult viewers alike who will often confess to finding in them their very own meaningful stories. Some read their own versions of events in her compositions with remarkable certainty. Muir is happy for the viewer to “keep their own story”. No matter what our interpretation, Muir’s work proffers its own richly saturated textural contrasts which, to my mind, work first and foremost as their own strong generous and abstract statements. They act as windows onto highly decorated interiors that draw our eyes in to feast on light, space and colour; they also celebrate the fullness of life and the magical exuberance of mark making.