Interview: Ghislaine Howard discusses 365 at Imperial War Museum North

Interview by Adam Bambury | 27 February 2009
A woman sitting surrounded by small rectangular paintings

Ghislaine Howard laying out images in preparation for the 365 display at Imperial War Museum North © Stephen Yates

Every day since October 6 2006 Ghislaine Howard has produced an 8 x 6 inch painting in response to a single news image in her daily newspaper.

Her latest exhibition, 365 (running from March 7 to June 21 2009 at Imperial War Museum North) takes a notional year’s worth of these images and displays them all in one place. The result is powerful and unflinching and reveals the initimacy of the figurative painting tradition colliding head-on with the instant and often brutal realities of photojournalism, creating something altogether new.

Honoured as a 2008 Woman of the Year for her achievements as an artist and her contribution to society, Howard has been exploring the beauty and tragedy of the human condition for the majority of her artistic career.

Perhaps best known for her ground-breaking work as an artist in residence at the maternity unit of St Mary's Hospital, Manchester, she has exhibited in Cathedrals and worked with Womans Refuge and Amnesty International.

The artist took time out from working at her Derbyshire studio to discuss the hows and whys of this intriguing, and very personally involving, project.

A man pushing some children in a wheelbarrow

Evacuees, Lebanon © Ghislaine Howard

What made you start doing these paintings?

My work has always been about human beings. What we all share, how we express emotions, and the journey through life. I’ve worked in maternity units, prisons, and hospitals, and I’ve always been very attuned to people as individuals.

I was in London on 7/7 2005, not directly involved with the bombing but caught up in the anxiety and chaos of that day. Coming back home I really wanted to work through something of the experience. I made some small paintings then, based on images that were in the paper.

After that I found myself drawn to these newspaper images – what they included, and what they left out. The transience of them, how we just glance at them and turn the page. I felt a growing desperation and sense of helplessness about what’s going on out there, what we’re bombarded with every day.

Making the paintings just grew from there. I found it was becoming a daily practice – taking time, giving something back to those images and making me stop and think and look. It became a sort of contemplation or a vigil.

A man carrying a young child

After a bombing © Ghislaine Howard

How does it affect you to be working with these images every day?

To make an image, to give time and to look, it does make you feel like you’re doing something. As an artist, a painter, this is something that I can do using paint - a traditional means of representation.

What I have found is that by dint of that repetition these little paintings have become more than just little paintings. As they went up on the studio wall they began to relate to one another and take on a new resonance and sense of poignancy.

Putting them all together says something about how this is all going on at the same time, and it’s only a tiny fraction of what any of us have seen over a year. I’ve found when people have come to look at the work they’ve stayed looking at one piece, then honed in on another, and found themselves making different journeys. The repetition, obviously using the same format, does allow that openness of engagement.

A hooded figure with a dog

Boy with dog © Ghislaine Howard

You’ve described the pieces as daily meditations: perhaps the viewer engaging with the pieces in this way enters a similar state?

Yes, there’s something about paint! I have to say, I’m very indebted to the bravery and professionalism of the people who originated the images that inspired the small paintings. But there’s something about a painting that is quite visceral – it’s tactile, it’s pigment smeared on a wooden panel. I think maybe there’s something in us that engages with that and gives it more time.

How did you choose the images from the paper day by day? Did it depend on how you were feeling or did you have some kind of criteria?

I think they almost chose themselves. It seemed to me that each day something would strike a chord for whatever reason. Not always a big, beautifully composed image, sometimes a tiny little picture of a child or somebody holding somebody, or even something from the sports section showing sheer physical movement. Because of the sort of work I do it was often to do with a gesture, or some sort of human… event.

A single pink sandal

Pink Shoe © Ghislaine Howard

How are the images being displayed for the 365 exhibition? Have you put them in any kind of order?

They’ve been arranged in 12 groups to represent a notional year. They’re assembled on 12 panels and there will be 365 of them, but not in order of date. The point is not to be documenting so much as humanly engaging – I didn’t want to put them in date order and it be like a diary with people going “Oh yes, and that happened then,” I wanted to be more ambiguous and suggestive than that.

Are there any images you are particularly drawn to or that particularly stand out for you?

One image that stays with me is of the two little boys against the fire. It’s the sense of a young child having to be responsible for an even younger sibling. This was in Haiti, but everywhere there are children in these terrible situations, growing up with violence.

A child clings to another child's back in front of smoke and flames

Two boys, Haiti © Ghislaine Howard

Is there anything in particular you would like the visitor to take away from seeing this exhibition?

What people take away is very much their own affair. It sounds arrogant to say but what I want to do is to remember that in these newspaper images everybody is an individual. Even if sometimes they seem distant and unreal, because they’re over the other side of the world or even just down the street.

It’s very hard to wrap things up in a sound bite! [laughs] But if the work does strike something in people and make them think about these issues then I’d be very happy.

365 runs from March 7 to June 21 2009 at Imperial War Museum North.

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