I am very excited to have an article in today’s Irish Independent on Sunday about me and work by Niall McMonagle. Below is my expanded Q & A interview that was much edited to feature in Niall McMonagle’s What Lies Beneath feature . It’s interesting to see that the online version had a different headline from the printed version (Below)
This expanded interview will be in two parts, published as two blogs, today and next Sunday.
Q: Take me back to your earliest memory of your awakening interest and awareness of art. How old were you and where were you? I realise that you became a full-time artist much later but as a child did you draw and paint?
A: I enjoyed drawing and making things from an early age. One of my earliest art-related memories was drawing a picture of my mother in the kitchen at home with our cats and dog. I knew I wasn’t very good at faces so I decided to avoid this issue by adopting a bird’s view of the kitchen!
Q: As a teenager you did embroidery, sewing and used oil pastels. Can you say something about that please. And when it came to pastels what was your subject matter?
I took up embroidery when I inherited some embroidered table clothes, threads, a hoop and some iron-on embroidery pattern books from my great aunts. I really was taken by the beautiful designs and the intensity of the colours of the threads. The dark winter, in the North of Ireland, has prompted me to take it up again as it’s something I can do under artificial light. I am like a child in a sweet shop, trying appliqué, embroidery and felting. I am still exploring.
I enjoyed the physically of oil pastel sticks and the vibrancy of their colour. I used to paint interiors – my bed room a lot. I got real pleasure from observing the changes the bedroom lamp made to the form of the bed under the bedspread. It was the start of my obsession with light and shadow.
Q: You were you born in Hereford. What was your life there like – urban? rural? and was your family background artistic?
A: My childhood was characterized by moving, thanks to my father’s career in Insurance. I was born in Hereford and lived in the town and then in a village called Morton-on-Lugg. My earliest memories are of village life; the sound of cows, visiting the river and our neighbour’s pigs. We then moved hundreds of miles up north to Whitley Bay on the North East coast. After a few years we then moved back down south to Gloucester. I found this move the hardest of all as I had felt really settled in Whitley Bay. I have also lived in Cardiff, London and Swansea. So I am a “townie” with a love of the rural which is why I ended up a Derry city and rural West Donegal. I have never felt that I am “from” anywhere in particular.
My strongest connection is to my family and to art. My paternal grandmother’s family are from Cork City. My mother is Welsh and her family is from Cardiff. I have a lot of Celt in my genes, Scottish too, hence my name Cownie. I came from a family of four children and we are very all quite competitive, creative but also eccentric and geeky. My parents painted, my great aunts were talented painters and my sister went to the Royal College of Art so there is creativity in the family genes.
Q: You studied medieval history in Cardiff and London and taught for 20 years in a secondary school. During that time did you paint and did you ever consider becoming an artist.
A: I painted, on and off throughout those years. I thought about doing Art at college but I wanted to do something different from my sister who had studied fashion at college. She did an MA at the Royal College of Art and worked for Paul Costello, partially in Dungannon, Co Tyrone, for a few years, before she gave it all up for motherhood. After my History degree I flirted with the idea of being an artist and even got some funding but it wasn’t enough to live on so I got a job with the council.
Soon after I won a fellowship to do a PhD in History so I decided to pursue that. I really enjoyed academic research and my years at Cardiff University were some of my happiest. I also spent three years doing a Post Doctoral fellowship in Kings College, London where I continued to paint. Opportunities for Medievalists were limited so I trained as a secondary school teacher in Swansea. I enjoyed working with children enormously but I was always doing something else in the holidays – writing a novel, crocheting and, of course, painting.
It was only after my car accident in 2012 when I started to paint in any spare moments (not just the holidays) and I started to make progress. I had been inspired by seeing the works of a painter called Robert Bevan in the Welsh Museum to start painting again. My husband set up a website for me and put my work on a website called http://www.artfinder.com and to my surprise I started selling. He then formed the company Emma Cownie Art and we have been fairly successful selling art since then. He paints too, portraits mainly, under the name James Henry Johnston.
Q: I read that you’ve lived in many places in the UK. Have you painted those places. Is your work a diary of your movements?
A: Yes but in terms of landscapes I only painted the areas I have lived, or my parents have, after 2012 – so South Wales, the Cotswolds where my parents now live and Donegal and the North of Ireland, particularly Derry, Tyrone and Antrim . The light is different here to South Wales and requires a different colour palette. East Donegal, easily accessible for Derry, is also subtly different form west Donegal in light and colour.
Derry Panorama – Emma Cownie
Derry and rural Donegal. How did that come about?
A: It was my husband, he was home sick and wanted to have a foot in Ireland. He was born and reared in Co. Derry. We bought a house in West Donegal in 2018, as he went to the Gaeltacht there as a teenager and had lovely memories of the area. His great grandmother came from there too. I just thought the landscape was stunning. Like nothing else I had seen. Brexit also pushed us into the decision to move over here permanently. My husband felt increasingly unwelcome there. We both hated they way politics lurched to the far right. It was very unsettling.
The people Derry won me over. It’s a lively and intense city. People are funny, interesting and kind. The women in particular are stylish, articulate and self–confident. I love the fact that women of all ages, from babies to grannies wear Doc Marten boots. The city takes the time to consider all communities – there’s an LBTQT+ rainbow crossing by the Peace Bridge.
Q: How aware were you of Irish history before you came to live here. Is Derry now a place beyond the Troubles? Is it often said that the Irish know so much more about England and the English than the they do about Ireland.
A: It would be impossible living with my husband for twenty five years, who grew up in Co. Derry during the Troubles, not to have learnt a fair bit about reality of growing up in the Troubles. I have also read a lot about it too. I taught some Medieval Irish History when I lectured at Cardiff University. I also taught A Level C19th British (and Irish) Political History for 16 years at Secondary school in Wales. You cannot understand the History of Britain without understanding it’s relationship with Ireland. I have also been a dedicated listener to Irish Times “Inside Politics” podcast ever since the Brexit Referendum. There is always more to learn. I have enjoyed finding out about the places I paint. I often like to write a short blog about the places in my paintings, as well as on aspect of my process.
There is a lot of British politics reported here on the radio and TV news, often with more insightful commentary and in depth discussion than I would have heard in Britain. I love that the Irish love to discuss a topic thoroughly and without acrimony. I would say Irish people are more informed about this interconnected history. I find Irish people are very articulate in expressing their views which is to be admired.
I cannot really comment on whether “Derry is now a place beyond the Troubles” as I have not lived here that long. My husband, who knows it from his youth, tells me it is a city utterly transformed from when he lived here. Back then many parts of the city were a war zone or had access controlled by the British Army.
The Peace Bridge, linking two communities across the River Foyle, seems to have connected areas that were separate before. All I can say is that Derry is a very picturesque and lively city with the friendliest population I have ever met.
Derry doesn’t hide the past either and embraces aspects of its History through various museums and excellent guided tours. Lots of tourists come to Derry throughout the year. It is a great place to live. The close proximity to Donegal, the glorious Antrim coast and Sperrin mountains in Tyrone make it ideal for a landscape painter! Plus, as an intact walled city, Derry is unique in Ireland.
Q: A terrible car accident on 29 February 2012 was life-changing for you. You suffered PTSD. Did that influence your becoming a full-time artist?
A: Absolutely. The accident itself was pretty minor – my car was a write-off but I expected to be back at work with a bit of whiplash the following week. The accident, however, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It uncorked layers of stress and anxiety that had built up over many years and it completely overwhelmed me. I also had many stresses in my life, including that of being a head of department in a busy secondary school.
I found it hard to get through the day and function as a normal person. Only by eventually getting therapeutic help and EMDR counseling was I able to work through my emotions regarding an earlier trauma in my life that underpinned it all. Once I started therapy I took up painting all the time. I found it soothing and therapeutic. I don’t think that people don’t talk enough about breakdowns and mental health issues. It’s a very lonely place to be. Unless people have experienced depression or breakdown themselves, people are frightened of it and don’t know what to say to you. Breakdowns are surprisingly common. People have the idea that breakdown happen because you are weak – the opposite is true. I had been strong and carried an intolerable burden of stress and responsibility for far too long. You don’t have to have been in a war zone to develop PTSD. Everyone has their breaking point, if they are pushed hard enough for long enough. My husband says breakdowns can act as “a breakthrough” – your unconscious is telling you that your way of life is intolerable and you have to change it.
Q: Your paintings are beautifully calm, peaceful. Does that reflect your own life now or do you still live with pain and trauma as a result of the accident?
A: My painting used to be more colourful than they are now and I think that was an unconscious effort to cheer myself up. I think was depressed without realizing it. I just soldiered on. I am much happier now I have left teaching and paint full time. I make a great effort to make my colours more natural and realistic. It’s quite a challenge to capture the awe and wonder I feel looking at Irish landscapes. I am always looking for clarity in my colours and composition. I keep my palette clean in order to achieve those simplified colours and shapes.
I think the breakdown has left its mark on me. Feelings can get stuck. I can get a upset about a relatively minor incident if I don’t talk it through with my husband or a family member. But I think it made me a kinder more empathetic person. I have always been a sensitive person. I hate cruelty and suffering in people and animals. I also hate heights and I can find the beautiful Peace Bridge a bit challenging (at night especially). I broke my leg in 2020 and had three plates put in my leg so I have to a series of daily yoga exercises to ensure I don’t experience pain when walking.
Q: Though you paint people [‘Living it Up’] and animals your work is mainly of beautiful empty, light-filled landscapes. You mention Hopper. Paul Henry. [Your work also reminds me of Maureen Gallace.] What other art forms – literature, music for example – are important to you?
Living it up (Brynmill Park, Swansea)- Emma Cownie
A: I love to read fiction and non-fiction. I am an avid reader, usually having several books on the go at any one time. I have recently read Donegal and Derry authors such as Peadar O’Donnell and Tony Doherty to get a sense of the past, in relation to the areas I now live.
To be continued…