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Wandering off the Beaten Path

Wandering Off the Beaten Path - Emma Cownie

I have been suffering from writer’s block. I started this post in March this year. I keep writing, rewriting  it and then not publishing it. The problem isn’t that I don’t have any thing to say. It is more that I have too much to say and I didn’t know where to start or how to structure what I want to say. It’s not about paint but thread and wool. I have been on a bit of an artist’s journey. It’s been quite a meander; off my usual painting path. I am not sure if it’s a dead end, another fad.

Sewing materials - wool and floss
Sewing materials – wool and floss – such lovely colours!


I discovered that here In the north of ireland it doesn’t start to get light here until after 9 am in the deepest winter and painting light often “goes” by 1 or 2pm. There wasn’t going to be a lot of time for painting. So I decided I needed another creative outlet to persue along side the painting to do in the hours of gloomy light and nights, under artifical light. I thought about sewing.

A certain photo haunted me. I had taken it back in Swansea before we moved over to Ireland. I was going through the exhausting process of sorting through my stuff and deciding what I could keep and what should go. I came across this moth-eaten piece of fabric. It was a piece I made in junior school.  I took a photo of it.  It’s not well made at all but I liked its carefree style and slightly chaotic composition. The moths had made quite a meal of it. .Those elephants once all had eyes.  I enjoyed the bold colours It got me thinking. Embroidery/sewing was something creative I could do under artificlal light.

An Early Cownie TapestryAn Early Cownie Tapestry

So I  gave up trying to paint under artifical light in the mornings and evenings. Instead I took up sewing and embroidery. I have always liked the vibrant colours of embroidery floss. However, I found that it occupied my thoughts a lot of the time so much so that it was difficult to concentrate on my day time painting. I suppose the issue was that although I enoyed the action of sewing, I didn’t quite know in which direction to go with what I doing with it. It was slow and time-consuming and what I produced was small-scale. I was also torn between learning and practicing different stitches and what to do with them. Quite possibly this is an conundrum at the heart of all creative endeavours.

That delicate balance between skill and expression. If I make something without much skill it will just be crude and amateurish?  If I make something that it is skillful – it may well have less personality and expression. And for that matter, as an artist, how do I feel about possibly straying into the world of “craft”? A world that is largely populated by women and with less status than art?

But what’s the difference between Art and Craft anyway? Good question. Like all lazy writers I looked it up on Google: ” Art is described as an unstructured and open-ended form of work; that expresses emotions, feelings, and vision. Craft denotes a form of work, involving the creation of physical objects, by the use of hands and brain. Art relies on artistic merit whereas craft is based on learned skills and technique.” So I was onto something. If I get too skillful at embroidery I am in danger of verring off into the world of craft. That’s worth bearing in mind although there’s little danger of me becoming too skillful.

Intially I lacked confidence, I collected images in a scrap book and on Pinterest and my early pieces aped people whose work I liked. I spent the winter admiring the work of many textile artists – the ones that come to mind right now are Sue Stone, Mandy Pattullo, Ann Smith (Persimonstudioart) as well as Japanese applique artists Mika Harasa and the incredible Ayako Miyawaki.

Stitch Portrait of Seamas
Stitch Portrait of Seamas


I was like a child in a sweet shop, verring off in first one direction than another. First I tried to copy the style of Sue Stone for a stitch portrait. I discovered that stitching a face is very much like drawing or painting a face, tiny details matter.

Then a bird inspired by the work of Mandy Pattullo and Ann Smith.

Embroidery bird on Cushion
Embroidery bird on a cushion


I wasn’t particularly happying copying other people’s style but I had to start somewhere.  I couldn’t decide. The choice was bewildering. Was it line, colour, texture that I liked? Yes, yes, yes. I liked it all! I then tried freestyle style stitching in the hope that it would express my personal style. well, no. It got too chaotic. I enjoyed the mechanical action of sewing by hand. I tried dry felting and although my husband liked the chaos, I didn’t.

Freetyle Stitching

Freetyle Stitching


Needle Felting
Dry Felting – House on Arranmore, Donegal


I wan’t sure if all this was coming from me or was just a mish mash of other people’s work. I needed a greater sense of control over what I was doing. I had to pause. I decided to rein it all in and try simple stitches again although I often prefered the messy underside of the work. Why is that?

Sparrow - on denim

The "wrong side" of the sparrow embroidery
The “wrong side” of the sparrow embroidery


I tried to explore the texture of birds feathers a little more.

Embroidery Robin

Embroidery Robin – unfinished

Finally, I came around to a way of working that seemed to be a decent expression of my work in paint. I started getting where I wanted to go. The ancient and humble chain stitch. Turns out that the chain stitch is one the oldest and most widely known stitches in existence. Examples have been found in Egypt on textiles from Tutankhamun’s tomb, dated to the 14th century BC; on embroideries found in Pazyryk tombs dating from 4th-3rd century BC (excavated in southern Siberia but probably originating in China). I enjoyed it’s texture and it’s ability to fill space with colour.

I started with a semiabstract flower design based on a painting I had done many years ago.

Chain stitch embroidery

Then I decided to try some Irish scenes. that I had painted. These satisfied me the most.

House on Inishbofin - Emma Cownie
House on Inishbofin – Emma Cownie
House on Inishbofin - Emma Cownie
Painting and Embroidery “House on Inishbofin” – Emma Cownie
Chain Stitch Embroidery - House on Gola
Chain Stitch Embroidery – House on Gola


Me stitching - observed by my loyal helper cat, Tiffany
Me stitching – observed by my loyal helper cat, Tiffany. Embroidery travels well but pointy scissors and planes dont mix. I had my snippers conviscated!.

The work is maddenly slow but strangely therapeutic. There is something very compulsive about filling the space with colourful stitches. I enjoy running my fingers over the stitches. It also mad me think about what could be simplified into an embroidery an what sort of details could and could not be rendered in chain stitches.  Getting the right colour thread was difficult at times. I made mistakes – a brown shadow rather than a bluish one. I tried to be accurate but somes I was forced to compromise, sometimes I just got it wong.

So now I have a small collection of tapestries  very fond of  in an in formal display in my living room.  it’s been an interesting journey but I am not sure if its a cul-de-sac or “Grist-to-the-mill” part of a creative process. Maybe the reall problem is that I discovered that it was difficult to sew by hand under artifical light and the embroidery was competing with painting for useable daylight.  It was a joy to return to speedy paint when the light improved. So, embroidery has drifted off into a bit of a back-water for the time being although I still have a couple of projects on the go.

Work in Progress - flowers
Work in Progress – flowers




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100K views of

This week I passed an important blogging milestone. On Tuesday moring I was greeted with the message that my wordpress site had passed 100,000 all-times views!

100,000 views - wow!

My husband, Séamas, set up this wordpress site for me over seven years ago. When I took it over full-time in 2015, I had 91 followers, now I have just over 800! Views for my site have steadily been growing but 2020-21 was a bumper year. Stats for my wordpress blog

Breaking my leg last year provoked the most comments by far!


I would like to say a great big thank you to every one who visited my website, bought my work, read my blogs and left comments!

It seems that I like animals almost as much as I like Art. Turns out that Wayne  (Barnes) of Tofino Photography is my chattiest follower.  He certainly makes me laugh! He takes wonderful photographs of the incredible wildlife of Western Canada – eagles, bears, wolves, orcas and humming birds! Take a look here.

A Candian bear catching his lunch
A Candian bear catching his lunch: Image  by Wayne Barnes

Thank you to everyone who has visited my website and blog. Whether you have just stopped by to look at my paintings, read my blogs but especially those who “like”, comment and buy my work.  Without you I could not continue to make art.

Painting of view Overlooking Magheroarty
Overlooking Magheroarty
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The Art of the Mailing List

Mailing List Tips

I had been a professional artist for four years before I realized that I had been missing a really big trick. I wasn’t cultivating my mailing list. I had a small collection of email addresses that my website provided kindly collected for me, but I didn’t really do much with them. I didn’t do anything at all, in fact.


This was a serious mistake. I was avoiding working out how to use an automated mailing list provider because I had hadn’t had the time or energy to immerse myself into finding out about aspects of social media, which was to me “new” technology. Don’t laugh. I wasn’t until quite recently that I “got” Pinterest or Instagram.


Now, younger people are probably shaking their heads at this. My niece famously said that the mini ipad I had on loan from the school I was working for at the time was wasted on me. She was probably right. I didn’t have the time. I was either preparing lessons, marking or painting. In 2016 I left teaching and I dedicated a lot of time to finding out how online stuff worked (not just facebook and twitter). It took a lot of effort but it was worth it.

Multi-tasking 60s-style

This was vital for taking control of my own marketing and developing long-term and (importantly) direct relationship with collectors. Online galleries may bring you one-off sales, but they don’t seem to be terribly good growing repeat customers. Yet, I knew from experience that relationships & friendships, I had developed via Facebook and Twiter, and increasingly on Instagram, encouraged art collectors to support my work on a regular basis.

imagesHow many times have you had someone tell you that they “love your work but can’t buy it right now?” The mailing list is a way in which you can keep those potential collectors in touch with what you are doing. Some collectors start off with small paintings and come back and buy larger ones. It’s also about trust. If fans get to know you through your work and your stories they will become emotionally invested in your continuing success. People buy from those they trust. Most importantly, for you, it is your list. It doesn’t belong to the online gallery, Facebook or Instagram.

Where to start? Collect names and email addresses – at craft-fairs, exhibitions, from people who have bought your work in the past. You do need their explicit permission to email them or else you are breaking EU GDPR  anti-spam laws.


Sign up for online marketing platform – I use (it’s free for mailing list under 2,000 names). I find not find it easy to work out how to use it but I watch a lot of Youtube videos and read articles on Pinterest and I got there in the end. There are also others to choose from such as and These sites also provide pop up/sign up forms that you can link to your website or blog.

You can offer free downloads of a catalog, book, or print to encourage sign-ups (not a colouring-in page).

It’s not about the hard sell.  Subscribers want to hear your latest news, the inside story on life as an artist. I have to remind myself that not everyone uses facebook, twitter and instagram or follow my blog and my newsletters are often a summary of the sort of content that is published on those platforms. A fair bit of content is similar to what I blog about, but not exactly the same.

As with social media – be consistent. Send out your newsletter regularly, whether that means twice a year or twice a month.


Ideas for content

New Paintings

Recent Sales

Discount codes

Exhibitions (setting up, behind the scenes, opening night)

Photos of paintings in collectors’ homes


Customer testimonials


Work-in-Progress photographs (the “sneak peek”)

Remind people of your story “about me”, how I came to be an artist

New products – e.g. prints, greeting cards, tea-towels, online courses, ebooks

Encourage subscribers to follow you on other platforms

Inspirations – such as other artists or locations that inspire you

Revisit old work

Encourage subscribers to follow you on other platforms (as the content is not identical on Instagram or facebook).

Failures and challenges (hard though it can be to admit these, people like to see you overcome minor difficulties, you are human after all).

Review of Art products

Business tips for artists (quite a few artists sign up to artist’s newsletters)

Finally, remember not to put in too much. It’s not a newspaper. You want collectors to visit your website. It also needs to be visually appealing ( is useful for this), have a consistent brand feel to you. You also need to proof-read it carefully!



Sign up for my mailing list here  


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Pet Loves in the modern age

This part two of photo-essay on great artists who have either painted their pets, or other people’s pets as a way of proving that pets are a proper subject for serious artists.

Mexican artist Frida Kahlo had many pets and they frequently appeared in her biographical portraits. In the case of her deer she identified so closely with the creature she painted herself as a hunted deer.

Salvatore Dali had some strange pets and he used them for publicity (hence the anteater in Paris) as much as anything else. I don’t think he cared much for cats (see the amazing photo below) however, some dogs did feature in his surrealist paintings.


I was going to say that fellow Spaniard, Pablo Picasso, clearly did not like cats, either.

However, I suspect, Like many cat owners, he was ambivalent about cats’ hunting skill and their drive to kill, even when they are well fed. Perhaps that was why he was fascinated by a cat’s encounter with a lobster, which he painted several times. However, a number of much less vicious cats, kittens in fact, also appear in his paintings.

If we look at the photographic evidence it seems clear that Picasso clearly liked both cats and dogs. His absolute favourite dog was a Dachshund called, Lump.  “Lump had an absolutely pampered life there. Picasso once said, ‘Lump, he’s not a dog, he’s not a little man, he’s somebody else.’ Picasso had many dogs, but Lump was the only one he took in his arms.”

And pampered Lump clearly was. He died ten days before Picasso, on 29 March 1973.

Talking of dachshunds. I love the Italian futurist Giacomo Ball’s Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, painted in 1912. Look at that tail go!


Ammerican pop artist, Andy Warhol was also a fan of dachshunds.

British painter David Hockney is also a massive fan of the short-legged pooches.

British painter, Lucien Freud was famously fond of dogs especially his pair of whippets whom he often painted.

American artist Andrew Wyeth painted a number of beautifully atmospheric paintings of his Labrador-type dog.

Time for some cat lovers, I think. Less well known, is the British artist Ruskin Spear who painted many wonderful pictures of his cats.

Another, lesser known British artist, Beryl Cook, painted some fabulously plump cats to go with her full-of-life people.

More cats and a lobster, only this time the lobster is outnumbered.c1977-beryl-cook-signed-lithograph-print-four-hungry-cats-01_01 (1).jpg

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is another cat lover. He lives with about 40 of them in his Beijing home.

Swedish artist Benjamin Björklund paints very beautiful and atmospheric portraits of both humans and animals. He is interested in the emotional states of his subjects, whether they are his members or (his Great Dane), his pet rabbits, mice, rats, and guinea pigs, as well as the wild animals outside.

I’ll end with Jeff Koons. The American artist is known for working with popular culture subjects, and he has also used as dogs as subject matter in his work. “Balloon Dog (Orange)” sold for $58.4 million at Christie’s. ” Possibly, his reproductions of banal objects such as balloon dogs should prove that animals are an uncool subject matter?

Balloon Dog

And yet “Puppy” his installation of  flower-filled a giant West Highland Terrier is pretty awesome. I think that it honestly doesn’t matter what you paint, cats, dogs, cows or people but how you approach your subject that matters.



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Time to Call it a Night?

I woke up a bit earlier than I usually do this morning. It was just before dawn. The night was no longer inky black but had a bluish tinge to it. The light has been changing ever since. Now it is mauve. It will lighten until the light is pinkish, then finally white. Throughout the course of the winter I have been used to waking in the dark and waiting for the sun to rise. No so much recently. The days are lengthening noticeably. Instead  of night arriving unexpected at 4 o’clock it now holds off about tea time. This gradual lengthening of the day has a natural rhythm and logic.

The sudden arrival of British Summer Time (BST) or Daylight Saving Time (DST) when the clocks are turned forward an hour in late March does not. It feels like we are catapulted into the summer with more light than we know what to do with. I find it odd that I am sad at the arrival of BST because all that extra daylight means I can paint for longer. I should be happy. I am happy but the abrupt lengthening of the day feels  wrong. The “loss” of an hour is also tiring. It’s much worse in the autumn. Instead of easing into winter we are hurled into the darkness. Others feel this way too.

The EU is debating this right now. There have been calls for the European Commission to launch a “full evaluation” of the current system and come up with new plans, if necessary. In Europe, currently, EU law sets a common date in spring and autumn on which clocks must be put forward and back by one hour in all 28 member states. Supporters of the DST say it saves energy and reduces traffic accidents but critics argue it can cause long-term health problems and studies have generally failed to show significant energy savings associated with the shift.

Blue Hour on Uplands
Blue Hour on Uplands

They hate it in Finland. More than 70,000 Fins (out of 5.5 million) signed a petition asking the state to give up the practice. French MEP Karima Delli argued that moving clocks forward to summer time left people tired and led to increased accidents”Studies that show an increase in road accidents or sleep trouble during the time change must be taken seriously”, the French MEP said, adding that estimated energy savings were “not conclusive”. Belgian lawmaker Hilde Vautmans, however, said that changing daylight saving could mean either losing an hour of daylight every day for seven months in summer or sending children to school in the dark for five months over winter.

Night Walks
Night Walks

I was surprised that the USA also uses DST. I assumed that with so many time zones, nine, that they would not have wanted the added complication of DST.  It was introduced during the Second World War and most mainland states areas still have DST except Arizona (although the Navajo have DST on tribal lands). Many studies have been done in the US that show the negative effects of the biannual shift to DST. Losing that hour’s sleep in spring affects health; strokes and heart attacks are more likely, there are more traffic accidents and it affects relationships, tiredness causes more arguments.

Night on Oakwood Road
Night on Oakwood Road

Interestingly, one big country has tried life without DST. In 2011 Russia   (who have on less than 11 time zones in their massive country) first tried clocks on year-round summer time but that proved unpopular then in 2014 switched to permanent winter time or “standard time”. Russian MPs said permanent summer time had created stress and health problems, especially in northern Russia where mornings would remain darker for longer during the harsh winter months. However, I have yet to discover whether the return to permanent “winter time” is popular with the Russian people.

So if I want to avoid this biannual lurch forward and back in the day, I can move to Russia, Arizona or one of the other 70 countries that don’t bother with it including Japan, India, and China.

Night Falls on Uplands
Night Falls on Uplands
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Our favourite female artists (deceased) – part 4

This eclectic group of female artists were pretty much unknown to me before I wrote this post and were all suggested by fellow bloggers and facebook followers. They are an interesting mix of rebels and non-conformists, many (but not all) of whom have become icons of modern feminism. Many of these artists were extremely versatile and often worked outside the main-stream. They were all revolutionary. Some simply because they were independent women with artistic careers, others because of the nature of the art they produced. They were inventive and inspired.

Artemisia Gentileschi, is the spiritual grandmother of all female artists. She was an Italian Baroque painter, today considered one of the most accomplished painters in the generation following that of Caravaggio.  She was the eldest child of the Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi. Artemisia was introduced to painting in her father’s workshop, showing much more talent than her brothers, who worked alongside her.  She painted many pictures of strong and suffering women from myths and the Bible – victims, suicides, warriors. In an era when women painters were not easily accepted by the artistic community or patrons, she was the first woman to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence. In the 1970s there was renewed interest in her when feminist art historian Linda Nochlin published an article titled “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Today she is regarded as one of the most progressive and expressive painters of her generation.




Moving forward a couple of centuries, we have an artist who gave up painting on her marriage. Edma Morisot, was the elder sister of Berthe, whom was in my first list of female artists (deceased). Edma and Berthe were both encouraged by their mother, arranged for them to study with the neoclassical painter Geoffroy Alphonse Chocane in 1857. Chocane tried to warm their mother against such training  “With natures like those of your daughters my teaching will not confer the meagre talent of genteel accomplishment, they will become painters. Do you have any

Edma’s portrait of Berthe Morisot

idea what that means? In your milieu of the grande bourgeoisie it would be a revolution.” The sisters also studied with the painter Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, who taught them to paint en plein air. Edma had some success as an artists as her works were accepted to the annual Salon, in 1864, 1865, 1866, 1867, and 1868. Sadly, for Art, Edma married a naval officer, moved to Cherbourg and gave up all artistic activity. This inspired her sister Berthe to stay single to pursue her artistic career. However, she did eventually marry, but continued her career after marriage.


Margaret W. Tarrant,  was an English illustrator, and children’s author, specializing in depictions of fairy-like children and religious subjects. She was the daughter of an artist, Percy Tarrant,  and she began her career at the age of 20, and painted and published into the early 1950s. She was known for her very popular children’s books, postcards, calendars, and print reproductions. On first impression, her sweet pictures may not seem revolutionary but she was a career woman who traveled to Palestine in 1936, a politically volatile region, in the days before package holidays.

Kaethe Kollwitz, was a German artist, who worked with painting, printmaking (including etching, lithography and woodcuts) and sculpture. Her most famous art cycles, including The Weavers and The Peasant War, depict the effects of poverty, hunger, and war on the working class. Despite the realism of her early works, her art is now more closely associated with Expressionism. Kollwitz was the first woman elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts.

Louise Nevelson, was Born in Ukraine and emigrated with her family to the United States in the early 20th century. She learned English at school but she spoke Yiddish at home.  She experimented with early conceptual art using found objects, and dabbled in painting and printing before dedicating her lifework to sculpture. Usually created out of wood, her sculptures appear puzzle-like, with multiple intricately cut pieces placed into wall sculptures or independently standing pieces, often 3-D. Her work is seen in major collections in museums and corporations. Nevelson remains one of the most important figures in 20th-century American sculpture.

Barbara Hepworth,  was a British sculptor, who was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire in 1903. She was a leading figure in the international art scene throughout a career spanning five decades. Her work exemplifies Modernism and in particular modern sculpture. She was one of the few female artists of her generation to achieve international prominence. From 1939 onwards she was based in St Ives in Cornwall.

Leonora Carrington, was an English-born Mexican artist, surrealist painter, and novelist. She lived most of her adult life in Mexico City, and was one of the last surviving participants in the Surrealist movement of the 1930s. She came from a wealthy family but did not take well to rules, being expelled twice from two different schools. Although her father opposed her career as an artist, her mother encouraged her. Leonora Carrington was also a founding member of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Mexico during the 1970s.

Helen Frankenthaler, was an American abstract expressionist painter. She was a major contributor to the history of postwar American painting. Frankenthaler began exhibiting her large-scale abstract expressionist paintings in contemporary museums and galleries in the early 1950s. She was included in the 1964 Post-Painterly Abstraction exhibition curated by Clement Greenberg that introduced a newer generation of abstract painting that came to be known as Color Field. Born in Manhattan, she was influenced by Greenberg, Hans Hofmann, and Jackson Pollock’s paintings.

Niki de Saint Phalle – was a French-American sculptor, painter, and filmmaker. She was one of the few women artists widely known for monumental sculpture.  Her idiosyncratic style has been called “outsider art”; she had no formal training in art, but associated freely with many other contemporary artists, writers, and composers. (taken from Tate website)

Alice Neel – I kept coming across the paintings of Alice Neel when I was looking at my lists of living artists. Her works seemed so fresh I found it hard to believe that she had died almost 40 years ago. She was an American visual artist, who was known for her portraits depicting friends, family, lovers, poets, artists and strangers. Her paintings have an expressionistic use of line and colour, psychological acumen, and emotional intensity. Neel was called “one of the greatest portrait artists of the 20th century” by Barry Walker, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which organized a retrospective of her work in 2010. (taken from Tate website)

Finally, I will finish with a very revolutionary artist, Louise Bourgeois. She was a French-American artist. Best known for her large-scale sculpture and installation art, Bourgeois was also a prolific painter and printmaker. Louise Bourgeois’s work, which spanned most of the twentieth century, was heavily influenced by traumatic psychological events from her childhood, particularly her father’s infidelity. Bourgeois’s often brooding and sexually explicit subject matter and her focus on three-dimensional form were rare for women artists at the time. Her influence on other artists since the 1970s looms large, but is manifested most strongly in feminist-inspired body art and in the development of installation art.




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Looking for Affordable Art?

Here’s 10 still life works for under £200.

The world of online galleries is full of brilliant work by talented artists so I have put together 10 affordable gems that I have spotted recently. This selection is from Artfinder but many of these artists are also on Saatchi Art and many also have their own websites. They are all worth checking out.


Still life with mango (pastel) Pastel drawing by Dima Braga  £35  Now £26


Apricots  Acrylic painting by Peter Orrock £30


Still Life with bay view Acrylic painting by Tim Treagust £35

image009.jpgJug and glasses Oil painting by Laura Stamps £50


Still life 28 / 16 x 11 cm  Oil painting by Maja Đokić Mihajlović £59


image006.jpgBoxed Still Life Oil painting by Emma Cownie £125



Still Life, Acrylic painting by Haelyn Y £141


Orchids in vase and pomegranate Acrylic painting by Irina Moroz £132

image001.jpgJohn Mulberry “The Plant by the Window” £180


DX T.U. Oil painting by Gaetano Vella £202

OK this last one is over budget by £2 but its still a gem!

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What a wonderful surprise!

Great Art Pic.jpg

Know how to make an artist happy? Give them art supplies. Stuff to play with. Great Art (whom I buy the majority of my wonderful linen canvases and paints from) sent me a lovely surprise this morning. They sent me an “art box” and a Seasons Greetings card. I am absolutely delighted. The two artists in this house will be fighting over the contents, however, those chocolates are mine! Thank you Great Art!

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Art of Protest (Chinese Style)

I am an arm-chair revolutionary. I shout at the TV and radio and lot and disagree with a lot that is going on in UK politics at the moment. However, in the UK, that’s no big deal. Its quite normal, in fact. However, in most countries around the world, free speech is a luxury and political comment or protest can be extremely dangerous for artists and their families. Badiucao (巴丢草) is a Chinese political cartoonist, who lives in self-imposed exile in Australia. The young artist, like Banksy, hides his identity with a pseudonym. Badiucao is an alias and he also hides his face by wearing a mask at public exhibitions of his work in Australia and the West. The reason for this secrecy is that his work is very provocative and much of it champions human rights causes. In China having strong opinions can land you in prison or at best under house arrest. I was ignorant of his existence until I heard him being interviewed on the radio (BBC World Service)  last week.

He built his reputation on ­social media, though he pulled out of Weibo, the Chinese Twitter, when it began to be heavily censored, and now ranges energetically across platforms, including performance art space and galleries. This year he painted, in Melbourne, in Hosier Lane, a double full-length portrait of Nobel peace prize winner Liu Xiaobo, with his wife Liu Xia, just ­before the human rights activist died in prison on July 13. Liu Xia is currently under house arrest

_96913201_liuxiao-liuxiasmall-3 (1)
Melbourne Mural

Badiucao uses satire and pop culture references to get his point across. He often manipulates archetypal images from Communist Party propaganda to make subversive political statements. His work has been used by Amnesty InternationalFreedom HouseBBCCNN and China Digital Times; and has been exhibited around the world. Although he lives most of his life outside of China, he says that means he has a better understanding of events inside China because he has full access to uncensored media and the internet.

His cartooning technique also borrows from printmaking, he says, and from an older generation of Chinese propaganda. He favours black and red: “China’s complexion … iron and blood”.

Dictators and autocrats famously have no sense of humour and can’t stand being laughed at. President Xi Jinping is no different and cartoon images of Chinese leaders are banned in mainland China. One popular image Badiucao uses is that of Winnie the Pooh, whom apparently has more than a passing resemblance to the Chinese President.

Badiucao cartoon: ‘Winnie the Trophy’

He says “It’s not hard to become a political cartoonist from China because there are only five or six others” — the best-known being 44-year-old Wang Liming, who draws under the name Rebel Pepper and also had to leave China. Wang now lives in the US.

His political work has come at great personal cost. Badiucao has recently given up his Chinese citizenship after he gained Australian citizenship as China does not allow its people to hold dual citizenship. Although he’s out of reach of the Chinese authorities he is still very protective of his identity in case the authorities turn their attention to his friends or family in mainland China.

“Dream” is made from the bed Badiucao first slept on when he moved to Australia, and 4,000 individually-sharpened pencils Credit: Badiucao


“Cancelled” features Badiucao’s Chinese passport, which was invalidated after he gained Australian citizenship. China does not allow its people to hold dual citizenship Credit: Badiucao


2018 Update:

Its hasn’t gotten any easier being a dissident artist. Badiucao was due to have an exhibition in Hong Kong, but it has been called off after threats made by Chinese authorities.  His show was part of events examining free speech in Hong Kong since the 2014 pro-democracy “umbrella” protests.  Badiucao had also been due to take part in a question and answer session at the opening alongside pro-democracy leader Joshua Wong and members of Russia’s feminist protest band Pussy Riot.

Badiucao was going to use this restraining chair of the type reportedly used by Chinese police in his show
Badiucao was going to use this restraining chair of the type reportedly used by Chinese police in his show

The Hong Kong is a “special administrative region”, and although Hong Kong’s system of government is separate from that of mainland China, it is clearly not immune to threats from Beijing. The cancellation comes as a timely illustration of the claims by pro-democracy activists that Hong Kong’s freedoms are being eroded by mainland China.