Mary Austin. A novel form of character development
When I saw Mary Austin’s pictures depicting Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, they resonated immediately with me, taking me back to my grandmother’s house; where I used to listen to the recording of Under Milk Wood, narrated by Richard Burton, on a series of large vinyl records, while the smells of her baking drifted into the sitting room. Everyone has a different visualisation of the characters but, for me, Mary had really captured the essence of everyone one of the strange and larger-than-life citizens of the fictitious village.
You’ve painted pictures of several books.
Yes it’s not all that I do, I’ve done quite a few portraits. I also enjoy life painting.
Why the interest in creating illustrations for the books you’ve enjoyed reading?
I think books are a bit like paintings. Once you’ve finished painting it doesn’t belong to you anymore. That’s because people can put different interpretations on your work. Somehow their version of a painting or a book is their version, whereas you have a different view of what you’ve painted or written. The same applies to me and the characters in books. Some books really lend themselves to interpretation.
A lot of people might not like my version of Under Milk Wood, which I think is quite valid, because they may have another mental interpretation of the play.
This is really interesting point to make, because there is the view that once something is being written it belongs to whoever is reading it, known popularly as the ‘death of the author’.
That’s correct. I do like to take the characters in books and think ‘Well, they’ve got more life than the authors given them.’ So I think about the life they have outside of the writing in the book. I like looking round the backs of things.
So really you’re extending the story with your paintings?
I’m trying to make another story, but I suppose I am extending the story with some of them. What I’m really trying to do is give the characters a more rounded life. For example, if the person is a minor character they might not have a rounded life in the book. So this is something I like to explore. They may have relatives and a life outside the book. That’s what I try to give a glimpse of with my paintings.
In other words you’re creating a back story for some of the characters?
Yes. In Under Milk Wood, the dreams are a wonderful moment in the play to mess around with. The dreams might not be other people’s idea of how these people should be dreaming, because my interpretation is to make them humorous. But that’s how I see them.
Someone who’d seen my exhibition said ‘My friend would hate your paintings, because she doesn’t see it like this. She sees it as a story about humble folks and not in the way you’ve painted characters.’
My response to that was that humble folk were entitled to a bit of fun.
There is a great deal of humour in your characters. Why do think this is?
I kept a pub for quite a bit of my adult life. When the brewery sold the pub, I was a steward of a working men’s club with my husband. You often see people not at their best in places like that. But you also see the lighter side of life, and the funny things that happen, which are sometimes hilarious.
Pubs have changed since the time I used to keep one. At that time we used have an orchard and we kept pigs and chickens, so was certainly a great deal of fun for my children.
In those days pub was a place where people went after work. We didn’t have to prepare lots of food all the time, in the way that pubs are expected to do now.
Most of our trade in the morning were retired gentleman. We shut in the afternoon then reopened in the early evening, which is when most of our customers turned up.
So I suppose some of my painting comes from those experiences. I suppose everybody stitches themselves into their work one way or another.
Where did you learn to paint?
I always painted as a small child. When I was older, I studied at Loughborough College of Art, then afterwards at Brighton College of Art.
Each of your paintings in the exhibition is effectively a scene from Under Milk Wood, but also with a bit of back story. So what’s the process for creating the whole painting?
I have a sketchbook were I make drawings, so I can work at my composition. Then when I start painting I go straight in.
In what way are your drawings illustrations?
I think illustration is regarded in the art world as a lesser art form. Yet early paintings, the ones in the National Gallery, for example, and big museums are all illustrations.
They might be illustrations of group mythology, the Bible, the Apocrypha. So they’re really big stories and also illustrations. But whether they are considered as this is down to the interpretation of the person looking at them.
Do you keep a notebook?
Yes. I work out my compositions in it but everything goes in including shopping lists and Scrabble scores. It does a lot of work. I get through loads of books with my sketching.
I don’t work from photographs, nearly all my drawings come straight out of my head, although sometimes I do create one from a life drawing.
You have a great interest in life drawing. It is one of the most difficult areas to draw in.
It’s the most unforgiving. A building won’t mind if you get it a little wrong, but if you draw a portrait of someone it’s a very different thing. My illustrations can be a love or hate affair for people because you’ve got so many people to please. You have to please the sitter and very often you also have to please the person who commissioned it, who may not be the sitter. Most of all you have to please yourself. It is quite a tightrope and I do quite a few portraits.
When you’re doing a portrait, do you talk to you sitters to get their backstory in the same way you would characters in illustrations?
It varies because when a person is sitting in front of you it’s a bit different, because you’re not creating a story, you’re exploring this form, this person.
The most vibrant portrait painters always seem to get a little of themselves in a portrait, for example I’m a great fan of Oskar Kokoschka. His portraits are really like the people he paints, but they’re also really like him as well.
How do you get so much life into the people in your paintings?
I just have a feeling that I want the painting to move about, to have some rhythm in it. If you have people rigidly standing around in a painting it’s not very interesting and it’s not very beautiful. Because what you ultimately want to is to create something that’s beautiful. That can be very difficult sometimes.
When you do your illustrations, you listen to the story. How useful do you find it to listen to the story?
It’s funny, at times I won’t be listening fully to it, but it creates an ambiance. I’ve listened to Under Milk Wood and Moby Dick so many times I could virtually to write a transcript out of my head.
If I’m going to do paintings from a book, it has to have something that resonates with me, because I’m not illustrating the words or the action, I’m illustrating the people.
Characterisation is very important for you. When you read a book is characterisation the primary thing that you’re looking for?
Probably, although I read books, because I like reading books, but some books really lend themselves to multiple interpretations of the characters.
What do you do where you have a book with multiple interpretations?
In as much as I do life painting with a lot of other people and all the paintings are different, even though we’re painting the same person. So the way you interpret what you’re seeing is different. When you take a photograph it can’t be anything else. In the same way, the famous illustrations of Alice in Wonderland done by John Tenniel, Arthur Rackham, Quentin Blake are all different, but at the same time they’re all valid.