She is multilingual, has travelled and lived all over the world and works with such strength and stamina which is shown in her work. This South African painter comes from a generation with a strong work ethic and a creative life vision.
Virginia Moreno Molina
Paintings hung on the walls, some on the floor and others in packaging, ready to be shipped to new owners.
This is the studio in Fulham belonging to the multitalented painter born in Johannesburg, South Africa. She speaks six languages and from a young age has always shown an interest in art.
In one way or another, she has always remained in contact with the artistic world. However, during her lifetime she has had a variety jobs: property consultant, event organiser, caterer, founded her own cooking school for children and radio journalist. In addition, Donnelly has lived in Paris, the United States and Vienna, before finally settling in London.
Travelling to different countries has influenced this artist’s work which is expressed through painting, sculpture and ceramics.
She has painted and sculpted in different schools and has had numerous exhibitions. Her art shows a passion for the form and freedom of the movement of water and fish, which are important for her.
And even though she is inspired by colour and the world around her, she has chosen London as the place to develop her interests.
Georgie Donnelly spoke with The Prisma about her life, her recent exhibition and her profession as an artist.
What was it like coming from South Africa?
In the 1970s and 80s, I quickly realised that countries wanted black Africans, which is great, but it meant that white Africans didn’t really have a chance to do anything.
I was lucky because I spoke French, English, German, Italian, Afrikan and I learned Spanish, so I was able to move around more easily than the average student.
The US had always been a difficult country to live and work, but when I married my partner, who was American, I eventually got a green card which made it easier. Then, four years later in 1996, I moved to London and I’ve been here ever since. I like London, but it has changed a lot over the last 30 years. The people have changed; they’ve become lazy and would rather push a button to make something work.
I grew up in a culture where we played sports every day so I have a lot of stamina and energy. I think that also comes from my family life, from my culture and surroundings where we used to have to entertain ourselves. I come from a generation that has a strong work ethic and knows how to spend its time well.
I now find that sometimes people nowadays have lost that ability because they are constantly looking at social media which stops them from talking. People are lonelier now and distanced from each other. That’s why there are, I think, a lot of mental health problems now, especially among the young who are too concerned about what their peers think on social media and are not using their time creatively.
When did painting become a serious part of your life?
I’ve been painting since I was a child, but I didn’t really have time to paint later on because I was working on other things. And then my husband decided that he wanted to paint, so that’s why I became interested in ceramics, and the more I did, the better I became. However, I still had to work full-time so it was hard to create as much as I wanted to.
Around the time my husband Peter started to get ill,, I went back to doing sculpture; I wanted to create and sculpt people. Sadly, once he was diagnosed with rare Leukaemia, I didn´t have much time to go to my studio.
At that time, I also discovered that I had cancer as well, so going to the studio was really difficult. The chemotherapy makes you feel so ill, but I just tried to carry on.
When my husband died, I felt that I needed to focus on my Fine Art degree. I thought I was going to go back to sculpture, but I actually signed up for painting. So that’s when I really started again seriously with my paint brushes and canvases and began working towards various exhibitions.
Though I always wanted to have a huge ceramics exhibition, I thought that in June, 2018, I would exhibit more paintings and just a few ceramics to see how they would be received. And everyone loved them. I have to do more, but it’s very hard because you need a lot of energy. Also, I need to get my hands in a better condition after chemo which has caused a few problems.
How has your painting evolved?
I used to love painting with water colours, but then I found that they didn´t give me the depth of colours that I like. Really good acrylics are okay, but I still find that I don’t get the translucent layers that I like in my paintings which I can only achieve with oil paints.
You use a lot blue and paint water and fish, where does this passion come from?
I have always been fascinated by the energy and movement of fish going through the water. I lived close to the sea for 20 years on the Isle of Wight which was very interesting; the people, the fish, the colour of the water at different times of day and seasons in the year, the sunlight or the moon reflecting on the water. It was so beautiful and inspiring.
I was surrounded by water and I love blue. It is an incredibly uplifting colour and there is something about fish, their wonderful form and their organic shapes which I like to paint and also make in clay.
I eventually asked myself, “why don’t I do a fish and water theme for my exhibition?” And that’s how I started and named the last exhibition “Carpe Diem” – both the play on words in English of Carp and the idea that I must always seize the day.
What inspires you?
Colour. Mostly I start a painting with large areas of colour on the canvas and I don’t know what it’s going to be.
It then slowly starts to become something and I find my subject.
Now that I am painting land and cityscapes, when I travel around, I find that I look at things very differently; colour changes in the light, shining hills, trees, people – I translate that in my head into shapes of colour. So, actually, I’m translating what I see into geometric shapes which I then use in my paintings.
How did this exhibition come about?
I was asked by a Portuguese bank that was celebrating its twentieth anniversary in London as Finantia UK to do the exhibition. This was my first real solo exhibition and it was very big – I did everything myself and it was absolutely exhausting.
I had this huge and wonderful space in Pall Mall, but it was a scary space to fill and it took a long time; 12 hours putting up paintings and then another six to eight hours to check everything was correct.
The theme, “Carpe Diem”, means “seize the day” in English. Every morning when I wake up I have to seize the day because who knows what will happen. I’ve had cancer three times and I lost both my husband and father to leukaemia – so, you just have to seize every day and waste no time. I like to be optimistic because no one else will be for me.
You have so many skills, which one do you feel you identify with the most?
I like to think, like my father did, that we are sort of renaissance people; we don´t just focus on one thing. Maybe that’s a bad thing, but I prefer to be multi-dimensional because all of my skills link to each other. I think that’s a good recipe for a happy life.
(Translated intro and revised Q&R by Corrine Harris) – Photos provided by Georgie Donnelly