The best fairytales enchant and dismay in equal measure – just as childhood can be a time of joy and fear, often switching as swiftly as the wind. Think of childhood games where one chases the other, and raucous laughter turns to panicked shrieks as the imagination takes control. Heather Nevay’s rich oil paintings capture this duality, where the wild and the tame rest within her subjects, dictating whether the doll they hold will be cradled or beheaded.
“I have ‘collections’ of paintings – like Playroom and Flesch and Blood – which I work out totally in my sketchbook before I start painting,” Heather says, bringing the working methods of filmmakers to mind. “The subject, composition and colour palette are all clear in my head before I begin.”
The collections examine different themes or ideas Heather is intrigued by, mulling them over before starting work, sometimes for a couple of years. “The title can sometimes come first,” she says.
Each of the figures is based on real children that Heather knows. “I photograph their faces and make up the rest, which is why the faces have continuity.”
Scattered through the scenes are toy animals, building blocks, dolls houses and boats, all of which help to flesh out the symbolism Heather is exploring in her work. “The toys help build an iconography I can draw on,” she says. “The dolls’ house is pivotal. In a child’s mind it can be a palace, a refuge, a prison or the chance to have power over the inhabitants – it allows them to create their own world.”
Heather insists that her own upbringing was happy. “I had a lovely childhood, very ordinary, with a mum, dad and a sister 18 months older than me,” she says. “I had a very close, loving family life and enjoyed a great school life too. People often think I must have been very troubled but I think my security allows me space to dig deep!”
Heather exploits the savagery of childhood, where myth, nightmares and daydreams all overlap with squabbles over hierarchy, jealously and misunderstandings. The misheard becomes real, and event the sweetest imaginings can have teeth that snap and snarl when no one else is looking.
In this context, Heather says, not having children helps with her creations. “I have no children and have never wanted any, and so have a very practical, unromantic overview of all the kids I come into contact with.”
Inspiration comes from some unexpected sources too. “ I listen to Radio 4 a lot, so I hear a vast amount of diverse programmes with information seeping in by osmosis. Articles in the newspapers, images and just random words can trigger something.”
Despite their grotesqueness, Heather’s works exude elegance too, perhaps because she reference the Renaissance painters and Flemish artists as “a constant reminder of quality in draughtsmanship and beauty.”
Heather’s latest collection, Flesch and Blood, was based on the Salem Witch Trials, “though most folks wouldn’t know it. I heard a programme about collective hysteria and it kind of clicked.”
Find Heather at www.heathernevay.net.
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