GALLERIES: Pop goes the easel as Net hosts a class act…

Wednesday May 20 2020

'Red Pepper' by Mary Collis. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY


Life under lockdown continues apace and artists are filling in their enforced bonus time in many wonderful ways.

A few are trying to drown out the whole miserable experience with sleeping draughts of vodka and Night Nurse; others are thinking about getting down to a bit of work, eventually; some are actually painting, drawing and sculpting in their studios.

But Mary Collis, an artist for more than 50 years, has seized the opportunity to document her past output and show it as an evolving exhibition on Facebook.

And that means moving from easel to laptop to catalogue more than 2,500 paintings, drawings and prints, many now in collections worldwide.

So far, Collis is up to 50 — one for each day of the lockdown at the time of writing.

With each posted painting comes its title, media and an explanation of what prompted the work, where and how it was made and anything else she thinks a reader might find useful.


Collis plans to extend the series into a book that will both catalogue her major works and a become a helpful manual, with examples, for young and emerging artists.

It is a bold idea and would be a useful adjunct to the region’s art history as well as a handy teaching aid.

Looking into the artist’s Facebook page, I was struck by the variety of her practice; a loose Realism, Abstracts, essays into Post-Impressionism (always the strongest sellers, she told me ruefully) Pop Art and throughout, her enthusiastic use of colour — one of the hallmarks of her work. Interesting too is the variety of her subjects… gardens, land and seascapes, portraits, flower pieces, still life, paintings of wildlife, children and even telling drawings and prints of the vegetables from her garden; all are grist to her mill.

"I paint my life and all that surrounds me," she explained.

What is perhaps unusual is the facility she brings to each subject.

Her original garden has now gone although the memories remain.

For many years based in Nairobi’s Loresho suburb, the artist, a Kenyan citizen, moved a few years ago to a large apartment in the Westlands area of the city and set up her studio in a friend’s garden, surrounded by the plants and flowers she loves.

Appropriately, if Collis had to choose just one subject from the myriad it would be flowers, "because of the colour", she said.

Probably running a close second would be the stream of minimalist seascapes she paints of the view from her second home, an apartment overlooking False Bay, near Cape Town.

Each just 25cm by 25cm, these are made on her balcony that looks across the bay, facing east into the rising sun.

Each takes her about 20 minutes to complete and so far, she has painted around 450 of them, plus taken 150 or so photographs of the same scene; sea, horizon, and sky with differing emphasis on each and sometimes with a glimpse of mountains. Collis argues they are in fact one painting, albeit one with so far some 600 facets, and she is hoping a museum will one day show this series, hung floor to ceiling only inches apart, providing an immersive experience.

(The Post-Impressionist Paul Cezanne, known as the Father of Modern Art, managed "only" 60 paintings of the many moods of Mont Sainte-Victoire, and that was considered obsessive.)

The many drawings by Collis are particularly interesting in that while recognisably by the same hand as the pared down seascapes they are even more spare, often a single confident line doing double duty in describing the form as well as the depth of the subject.

A great fan of the American abstract expressionist Ellsworth Kelly, Collis is often content to define her subject — plant, vegetable, a single leaf — with an incisive sweep of line that suggests volume and weight with the minimum of fuss.

The artist applies the same skill to her Pop monoprints (paintings on glass that are then pressed to paper, reversing the image) and sees the same value in, say, the reductive Red Pepper reproduced here as she would in a gorgeously painted garden view.

For her, composition is the key and she has destroyed many works in which the subjects are not either balanced or harmonious.

In a busy painting you can correct any imbalance with a flurry of strokes elsewhere, whereas her more austere practice demands a skill acquired over a lifetime of effort.

It is those works of hers that I admire the most.