Brushing up for a bright future

Review from Scotland on Sunday October 29, 2006
CHITRA RAMASWAMY
ARTS WRITER

CATRIONA Millar’s artist’s studio started out as a small summer house at the bottom of her rural Aberdeenshire garden which she would wander down to now and then. Then, while she was studying at Gray’s School of Art, she upgraded to a medium-sized outhouse. A few weeks ago, Millar had to expand once again, this time to a vast log cabin that looks out over the fields surrounding her cottage near Ellon.

It’s been one heck of a year for the mature student, who only graduated from Gray’s in 2005. “It’s terrific, just what I’ve always wanted,” says the 50-year-old. “About five months ago Charles Saatchi himself sent me a really chatty e-mail saying: ‘We’ve been very interested in your work and have been keeping an eye on you since you left art school.’ It was really nice. I’ve never had any contact with him before.”

Millar, whose work is currently selling for upwards of £1500, was then invited to pick eight paintings to be exhibited on the Saatchi website and in a matter of weeks six of them sold. “Now I’m just going to replenish them as they sell,” she says, adding that she hopes to show a wider selection of work when the gallery opens next year.

Although Millar’s decorative and mischievous oil paintings of baby sailors and ruddy-cheeked children with birds perched on them may not have the controversial oomph of a shark in formaldehyde, they do combine an irresistible eccentricity with an ever-so-slightly distorted sweetness that sets them apart. Her figures, often children, may have rosebud lips but often a single eye is misplaced or a nose squashed into a rectangular smudge.

“I sometimes wonder whether I’m painting the face I would like to have,” she laughs wickedly. “It’s like a form of magic, or witchcraft. But I do like to distort them. I had a doll called Josephine when I was wee and I remember pushing through her eye, just to make her more interesting.”

As Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Jake and Dinos Chapman and scores of other YBAs will testify, a nod from Saatchi – recently voted the seventh most important figure in the art world – is the golden ticket.

Saatchi has recently turned his attentions from the sensational to more traditional painting, creating ripples of excitement last year with his show The Triumph of Painting, which featured fellow Scottish artists Lucy McKenzie and Lucy Skaer
Denis Leiper, co-owner of the Riverside Gallery in Stonehaven, which represents Millar, says she is without a doubt the most successful artist in the gallery’s 25-year history.

“No one we’ve looked after has created this kind of stir before,” he says, explaining that in the last few months the gallery has had a waiting list of around 30 people wanting to buy Millar’s work. “Her work doesn’t seem to follow trends and no one really believes an artist of 50 is producing it because it’s so youthful and lively. Catriona just seems to gain more, not less, energy.”

Today Millar is taking a “wee breather”, having just finished a series of paintings for an exhibition at Edinburgh’s Dundas Street Gallery. Soon she will start painting canvases for Christmas exhibitions and art fairs next spring in Glasgow and Newcastle. Last year at the Glasgow Art Fair she sold all 14 of her paintings on show, including one to a French vineyard. Then there are all the private and corporate commissions from North Sea oil companies and universities as well as the e-mails she has been getting from galleries in Barcelona, Montreal, and Japan interested in exhibiting her work thanks to a massively successful showcase at the Battersea Arts Fair earlier this month. During the fair, where she sold another four large-scale works, the hits on Millar’s website tripled from 200 to 600 per week.

“My workload has already gone up massively,” she says. “I’ve had to hit the ground running. Although I’d painted before, I’d never done so on such a large scale and I’ve really had to knuckle down and look at it from a business point of view, not as a leisure activity.”

It was last year that the buzz began. The success story began at the Gray’s School of Art degree show when dozens queued to get their hands on one of Millar’s paintings and she sold out in four days. “I only had a week to show my work to the public for the first time so when I sold out in four days, I thought: ‘Will I go home and paint some more?'” she recalls.

What started out as a hobby in between bringing up two boys turned into a full-time profession as soon as Millar graduated from Gray’s, where she became a fan of American outsider art, German expressionism, the decorative artists Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard, and, in particular, the South African artist Marlene Dumas. In some ways Millar’s more distorted paintings of babies with gaping mouths recall Dumas. Millar, who was born in Glasgow and whose mother was also a painter, first went to art school as a teenager when she was growing up in Yorkshire. A sudden move to Aberdeen meant she had to leave and in the end it took her another couple of decades before she went back.

“I GOT MARRIED and had children and, although I always intended to go back, it got swept away by circumstance. So when the boys left home, I decided to do it.”

These days when she’s not working in her log cabin, Millar is rummaging around in second-hand clothes shops looking for 1940s patterns to inspire her decorative backgrounds or in antique shops on the hunt for old toy sailors. Defining herself as a “people watcher trying to capture a moment in time on canvas”, she seems more excited than daunted at the prospect of what lies ahead.
“Unfortunately, I’m only one person,” she says, “so I can only focus on one thing at a time. I wish I could clone myself and be a few Catriona Millars but I am wary that the danger of compromising quality is you start to be too much of a machine. At first when I left art school I was trying to fulfil every commission and exhibition but now I realise it drained me and I know I have to pace myself.” And with that, Millar is off to her log cabin to sort out a leak in the windows so that she can get painting again.

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