By Judith Cook
Extract from, 'Gill Watkiss Painting 1974 - 2002'
For many years Gill Watkiss lived on the north coast of the Penwith peninsula, where it reaches out into the Atlantic, the nearest landfall after the Scilly Isles being America and where prevailing winds blow from the west. It is a world away from the picture postcards, the surfing beaches and the theme parks. This is the Cornwall of the "tin coast", of the mining villages with their terraces of granite cottages, of a people whose real memorial are ruined "castles", the engine houses of dead industry. A coast where miners work a mile out under the bed of the Atlantic and where they could hear the granite boulders grinding above thier heads; an industry which buried their young men two-deep in the churchyard at St. Just.
It is also a place where the light is such that it has drawn artists to it now for well over a hundred years and where it is impossible to be unaware of either the landscape or the weather. The weather is rarely still in this place of granite and moorland beneath what the poet A.E. Housman describes as yon "twelve- minded sky".
The weather is an ever-constant pervading presence in the paintings of Gill Watkiss. The figures shopping in the square in the market town of St Just, or walking up the lane from Cape Cornwall, strain against the sea wind. The same wind whips a bride's veil above her head or causes a headscarf to fly like a flag. Head down, a woman battles into the rain behind her umbrella, two small girls clutch each other to avoid being blown away.
Although men also figure in her paintings, the overall impression is of a celebration of women and of women as survivors. They are not idealised figures , these women of the towns and villages of Cornwall, they are the real thing. Sturdy, independent, often strong featured, they face life as they face the elements. In them colour blazes against the stormy skies, the windswept landscapes and the small grey cottages: colour in a scarlet scarf or red lips, a brightly coloured dress, a deep blue coat, in the flower in the hair of a young girl in a white blouse. The eyes of the strong-faced women, as they carry their shopping or meet their children from school, look out on the world with knowledge, sometimes with resignation, sometimes with humour and always with experience."I've been there" says the artist, pointing to a woman standing waiting at a school gate, "and there", at a woman shepherding a clutch of children along a lane.
The face of the young girls might look ready for adventure, but older women know what life is about. While they may struggle to make ends meet, have known that their marriages bear precious little resemblance to the romantic novels they carry back from the library, and find that even at the beginning of this twenty-first century the bearing and bringing up of children is exhausting, they remain undefeated. They are foursquare and solid, not the creatures of the magazine fantasy, but always their bodies move both with, and against, the weather, full of movement, light on their feet.
Gill Watkiss also loves painting snow, something of a rarity in the far west. When it falls, she makes the most of it. A house built of strange black slate found in the north of the county stands out stark against a snow-filled landscape where a small boy pulls another on a sledge. The house haunts, almost obsesses her in this rare white landscape.
She paints it again and again. Snow acts as a seachange to townscapes, public parks, transforms the ordinary into a frozen world from which the women and children escape back to their warm houses, where colour of a coat, a scarf, a hat stand out jewel-like against the white.She paints the small festivals, the weddings, the family celebrations, the feast days, the ordinary stuff of life, going to school, sports day, blackberry picking, but always that life is outdoors, of people living, working and having their being in the landscape which made them. You cannot escape from a sence of place.
Lost as we now seem to be in sterile desert of minimalism, Gill Watkiss' paintings sing out from the walls with energy in a marvellous affirmation of the strenght of the human spirt. To return again to Housman, in them "the gale of life blows high",
"From far, from eve and morning
And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me,
Blew hither: here am I.