A few weeks ago I went to meet the prolific artist and illustrator Sylvia Woodcock-Clarke
whose work will be on show at Dunbeath Heritage Museum in April. The sun streamed into the colourful little house looking over Helmsdale harbour and out onto twinkling chips of light that danced over the North Sea.
“ Would you like some crab on toast? ” was the first thing that Sylvia asked “ I get it from the marvelous fish van that comes here every week, I do love crab” she broadly smiles. It’s easy to feel uplifted and joyful, with Sylvia’s infectiously warm demeanor and gravelly laugh.
‘ I feel like a child when I draw” she tells us, “ a child loves the feeling of drawing” . We walk through the rooms of her tiny house where tubes of paint and abandoned boxes of pastels, chalks and stacks of paper and drawings fill every inch of the floor. Even her bedroom is a painting studio, with a large easel propped next to the bed.
“ Since I moved here I prefer working in oil pastels” she says “ they mix with anything and smudge beautifully and I like mixing things up. I realised that I could use any colour I liked and I didn’t have to use realistic colours - I got much freer then”.
Sylvia brings a natural joy to her colourful artwork, that make you smile and feel contented simultaneously, and like a child, see everything afresh. Faces are yellow or red and babies swim underwater with rainbow coloured fishes. Vases of tulips spill out into blue rooms and mothers cradle babies in tender charcoal drawings. The mixed media drawings span the fantastical world of ancient Egyptian and Veda mythology, like the electric red sphinx , to modern fairytales of Sylvia’s own invention, like the sheep angel, which depicts a girl turning up a sheep that has fallen over in the snow. Views from the bedroom window of Helmsdale, are as much about mood and colour, as they are about the subject. Later work has also included drawing of the visitors to Helmsdale’s community centre - The Hub, and tackle uncomfortable topics of loneliness and introspection.
Born in 1934 in Hackney, London, Sylvia was adopted by her foster parents, at the age of seven. Her father, a prominent engineer, took the unusual step of moving his young family to New Zealand in 1951, where he designed the Auckland Harbour Bridge. “ I thought the country was, it is, so beautiful, I remember the colourful gardens with tree tomatoes and Chinese gooseberries” Sylvia says, “but you are so far away from everything” she goes on. However, in these years she developed her life long love of fishing, and as a school girl ,at the prestigious St Cuthbert’s girls school, with its black watch tartan uniforms, she often got into trouble for leaving stinking live fishing bait in her pockets or gym kit.
As a young woman, she returned to London alone and found her way to Chelsea, the then hangout of artists and bohemians. She started to make a portfolio of drawings and was accepted into Camberwell School of Art to study lithography. These early years were exciting and bursting with life and colour for Sylvia, many of the images around her finding their way into her vibrant sketchbooks, that she prolifically draws in, to this day. Sadly, because of nervous exhaustion, she was not able to accept her place at Royal College of Art as planned, but left for Leeds to teach, “ which I hated” Sylvia adds. She does remember keeping an old stone and a hamster in her boarding room, much to the landlady’s disgust and horror who accused her of keeping rats in her room. Returning to London, as a nanny, which gave her somewhere to live, Sylvia was once again in search of what she describes as a “certain freedom”. These were happy years and “ I am sill in touch with some of my children” she smiles. Meeting her husband and giving birth to their son, followed and all the time Sylvia drew and painted the life around her.
By 1973, Sylvia was divorced and she and her son moved to Scotland, where she began work as a children’s social worker in Pebbles, living in a tiny cottage, down a remote glen in Traquair estate, that belonged to an art school friend . Later she bought a small studio flat in Innerleithen. She learnt to tie flies there and started fly fishing. “ I love fishing more than anything… except painting” she says.
In 1988, with her son was grown up, Sylvia moved to Cypress and was able to concentrate full time in her painting. Exhibitions followed in Dubai, at first as “just for fun” contributions to group shows, but then solo exhibitions of her own.
“ I loved painting the Arabs on their mobile phones, the expats who meet in the coffee shops, the colour and the life that was in everything” she explains. And then with characteristic humour, she adds “ Cypress have the most lovely funerals. And at the weddings everyone in the village is invited because they give money! Oh and the christenings are wonderful… the godmothers buy new silk clothes to dress the baby, its all so lovely!” Her local village life inevitably made its way into the canvases in Sylvia’s studio, where she painted in oils.
In more recent years, Sylvia moved first to her son in Brora, and then in 2016, to assisted housing in Helmsdale where she continues to paint in mixed media, often lying on the floor. Despite the physical limitations of her reduced mobility, the life force in Sylvia and her artwork has the power of her painted fish, leaping up the life stream.
We leave her leaning over the little railing to her house, contentedly smoking and waving us off. She looks out over the bobbing boats and circling gulls in the harbour “ Scotland is such happiness” she says “ There is such life by the sea. I like the light on it bright, all greys and greens , and the continuity of the hills and Strath. I came to the Highlands late in life and I hope I will always be here”.
Dunbeath Heritage Museum will be exhibiting Sylvia’s work all through April this year, where originals and prints will be on sale. The artist will be with us on 2nd April, so please pop in to meet her and have a coffee.