Colourful window into the world of artist Mary Collis

Thursday January 20 2022
Lifting the Day

Lifting the Day cover jacket. PHOTO COURTESY


Title: Lifting the Day

Author:  Mary Collis

Publisher: Unicorn Publishing

No. of words: 750 words

Panel or cut-out

Price: Ksh4,200


Like the English House of Peers in the comic opera Iolanthe, I have been doing nothing in particular and doing it very well.

Ill health forced me to seize the benefits of enforced idleness and how delightful it was, with Netflix and U-Tube providing an ideal background to lounging on the sofa, drugged and drowsy.

But being blissfully lazy — physically by circumstance; intellectually by choice — is not for everyone.

While Covid meant that many continued to be stuck at home with nothing to do, others wisely used the downtime to advantage, getting to grips with a foreign language or a musical instrument, studying through distance learning, making art or writing a book.

And in the case of the Kenyan artist Mary Collis, both making art and writing a book titled Lifting the Day. In it Collis, renowned for her bright garden scenes and wildly colourful abstracts, reveals her command of a far greater range of subjects, styles and media.

The book format is a painting on each page, occasionally spreading to the facing sheet with the commentary alongside. One day, one drawing, painting or print; overwhelmingly paintings, with a little side step into glass moulding, Perspex and dark painted strips of plywood, representing deep musical chords.

Each day of the lockdown, Collis posted on Facebook one of her artworks spanning some 50 years of creativity.

They range from notes on the formal qualities of each work, including materials and methods — to memories of places that inspired the works, friends whose houses and gardens she painted, people who bought the pieces and the collections, worldwide where they hang.

The gentle persuader

Thus the late Erica Boswell, the fashion icon who owned a dress shop in Nairobi in the 1960s and 1970s and whose garden in Karen triggered a five-year series of lyrical canvases.

And so too a host of others; the Collis family, friends and collectors in a book that is an open window on her life.

Even I do not escape. I feel fortunate to own seven of Collis’s paintings, three of which are illustrated in this book.

I like her work when it is pared down, lean and tough; but her more florid paintings sometimes strike me on an empty stomach as like a bunch of overblown roses. These are, however, bold, bright and cheering… and as the French Symbolist painter Odilon Redon put it, “a flower is most beautiful the moment before it dies,” so who am I to talk?

There are plenty of those in this book and Collis included a couple of her drawings. The assertive web of lines in Lamu (Day 30) is a delight, her invaluable aside is that “the messy palm tree gives some relief from the line”, as is the searching charcoal of Life Drawing (Day 81).

Her heroes, are, among others, Ellsworth Kelly, Mark Rothko and Cy Twombly – three Abstract Expressionists, minimalists who changed our ways of seeing.

That struck me as a fascinating and revealing aside by an artist known best as the colourist on record as saying, “I paint my life and all that surrounds me.” Everything grows from its base, in this case an overarching respect for the importance of composition learnt from American minimalists’ work she loves.

What Collis rarely does is to shock — the sort of jolt that Kelly, Rothko and Twombly gave the art world, helping to change its direction. But Collis is a gentle persuader as is seen clearly in this book in her selection from the hundreds of traditionally Expressionist oil paintings of False Bay, near Cape Town, where she has a second home. So many moods, colours, textures of one scene.

So surprise, yes; but shock, no.

There are 244 days in all and sunshine on nearly every one of them.

Lifting the Day is a small book (18.5cm by 13cm) but a hefty 3.5cm thick. Like a brick, as Collis had said. But what it might lack in dimension it more than makes up for in variety and quality of its content.

More for the bedside than the coffee table but none the worse for that.

A little art to send us sweetly to sleep.

That is probably why they are her heroes.