Preview: Graham Willson Retrospective, Ilkley

Graeme Willson. PIC: Bruce Rollinson
Graeme Willson. PIC: Bruce Rollinson
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Artist Graeme Willson is taking stock. Based in Ilkley for the past 25 years, he has collected together work he has made over the past quarter century for a retrospective at the town’s Manor House Museum and Art Gallery – and it has given him a chance not only to look back, but also consider what he might do next.

“It occurred to me one day that I have had a lot of support from people in Ikley and I thought it would be nice to have a retrospective as a thank you to them,” he says. “But also it would give me a chance to see examples of my work over a 25-year period and think about where I am going from here.”

Willson is an artist who has not limited himself and remains curious about new ways in which he can express himself creatively. “I sometimes think I am very scattered but it suits me,” he says. “In the 1960s there was a pressure on you to be singular in your work but I think now people accept that an artist can have different facets.”

He has worked in a variety of media – mainly oil and acrylic but also watercolour and stained glass – and a number of forms. He is well known as a portrait artist but is also hugely respected for his public artworks – his 1990 mural Cornucopia on the exterior wall of the Corn Exchange in Leeds has become a famous local landmark – and he has undertaken several ecclesiastical commissions including works at York Minster and St Margaret’s Church in Ilkley.

“People and the imagery of people is what fascinates me,” he says. “It is the human presence and the human situation that interests me most and there will always be a bias in my work towards that. I think some of my work can be a little bit obscure – it is more personal, informed by scholarship and my interest in mythology and literature.”

One of the paintings in the exhibition is inspired by the Dylan Thomas poem The Force that through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower and, like much of Willson’s work, combines the figurative with the abstract in subtle and interesting ways. In the foreground is a curling leaf while around it there are suggestions of sunlight, water and clouds.

“In his poem, Dylan Thomas sees the life force as being recycled through nature, through ourselves and through the weather,” explains Willson. “It’s about the inter-connectedness of things.” Although a lot of his work is inspired by books and literature, mythology and ideas, Willson also takes inspiration from other, less concrete, sources – Twilight Zone, for example, is he says about “the kind of dreams we all sometimes experience between waking and sleeping. Sometimes we laugh at ‘day-dreaming’ but we often have curious and creative thoughts when we day dream.”

And fragments of classical figures frequently feature in his work. “We tend to forget that the fragment has only been part of our culture for the past 150 years – since Rodin,” he says. “I think the fact that we have been through a century of unprecedented violence and displacement so that the fragment speaks to us on a very profound level.”

While there are pieces of work in the exhibition which are inspired by specific events – there is one that came out of his thoughts about the women’s peace camp at Greenham Common, for example – others have a much more personal significance.

“It is a kind of catharsis,” he says. “Working through certain issues and things I find difficult to talk about. There is a danger that it might remain obscure but you just hope that it’s still accessible enough for someone else to identify with.”

Having worked part-time for many years as a tutor at Bradford College, Willson took early retirement in 2011 so he can now devote himself to his painting full-time – and he shows no sign of slowing down. He is in his studio from 8am to 6pm every day where he usually has several pieces on the go. “Like any other creative enterprise, it is hard work,” he says. “And there is a compulsion in me to do it – I just feel driven to paint.”

* An Ilkley Retrospective: 25 Years of Work in Ilkley is at the Manor House Museum, Ilkley until February 8.