A COUPLE of years ago Lesley Banks was beginning to wonder if she was at the end of her painting life. She had arrived in her 50s, was worried about money and, after three decades of work having exhibited in the UK, the US and Singapore, wasn’t sure what to paint any more.
“I’m not saying I was depressed but I was anxious,” she admits over tea and Tunnock’s teacakes. “I felt I was at a real crossroads in my life. Some people I know are taking early retirement. I’ve got no pension.”
She still loved painting and yet Banks couldn’t help feeling a little jaded with the art world. “It’s a real treadmill. You’re accepted and then you’re not accepted.” At one point, she says, “I did think: ‘Should I get a job in Marks and Spencer? This is too difficult.’ I looked at their online form and as I hadn’t had a job in so long I thought: ‘I can’t even get a job in M&S.’”
What she needed was a fresh challenge. It came when the Banks family got a new dog, a spoodle called Bella. Working from home, Banks was the one who’d take Bella walks, and the most obvious place near her home in Bishopbriggs was along the Forth and Clyde Canal. The routine of it and the location began to work a peculiar magic on the artist.
“I just began to feel really calm and it stopped me worrying about what to do. You could hear the birds and you were hyper-aware of looking at everything. The dog’s in the water, the ducks are splashing and the birds are singing and it felt really safe.
“Somebody said: ‘Canals? Are they not really boring?’ No, it’s amazing. You turn the corner and suddenly you’re in a town or an industrial area.”
She began to explore the canal system further afield. “We thought: ‘We’ll go and see the Kelpies’ because I was brought up in Denny and I’d never been to the Kelpies.”
She was bowled over when they did. She always liked exploring themes in art and suddenly she had found one. She approached the Falkirk Community Trust with the idea and they were interested. And then Andy Scott, the Kelpies sculptor, suggested she get in touch with Scottish Canals. Next thing she knew she was asked to be the organisation’s first artist in residence.
And so today here we are in an outhouse-turned-studio in Callendar Park, just a few miles from where she grew up, surrounded by new paintings and the low murmur of Radio 4. In one corner there’s a large canvas of the Kelpies. In the opposite corner there’s a painting of the Falkirk Wheel, and in between there are canvases of foggy mornings in Glasgow, overgrown canal bridges near Ratho and semi-abstract visions of dappled light and weedy water.
The Union Canal, the Forth and Clyde, the Caledonian, the Crinan and the Monklands are represented on these walls. Some 40 paintings will go on display in the Park Gallery in Callendar House next month, under the title Gongoozler – bargee slang for people who are interested in canals, but don’t work on them. “You’re observing, which is right up my street,” Banks explains. More paintings will be added when the exhibition moves to the Lillie Gallery in Milngavie.
Banks, the 2017 model, seems far from the anxious, slightly lost woman she says she was a couple of years ago. She is energised and engaged with her canal paintings and the whole experience of their creation. She has visited all five canals, stayed in lock-keepers’ cottages, walked all the way from Edinburgh to Glasgow along the towpath (not all in the one day, admittedly).
The experience has clearly galvanised her. It’s also stretched her beyond the canvases. To help fund the project she even applied to Creative Scotland for financial support. “It was deemed fundable but they wanted a bit more about critical thinking, which for an artist of my age … We used to apply for grants and say: ‘I want to do nice paintings of canals. Here’s my work.’
“At first I was daunted by that. But it was brilliant for me. I had to plan what I was doing.
“The art world has changed so much. That was part of the crisis actually. Everybody’s an artist nowadays, whether they’re a retired teacher or were a wee bit good at art at school. It’s a popular thing to be and I did begin to think maybe I should have gone into teaching after all.
“I’ve been very lucky, I love what I’m doing, but there’s not much security and then there’s all the young ones coming up, conceptual artists who can talk the talk and get the grants. So it’s been a big learning curve.”
Good to know that at 54 you can still learn.
Banks grew up in a working-class family in Denny determined to be an artist. She had the good luck of attending Denny High School where the art department was then run by Jimmy Dunn. “That man was completely fundamental in where I am now.”
When her parents weren’t convinced about her plans to go to art school Dunn even said he’d finance her.
That wasn’t needed in the end and she started at Glasgow School of Art in 1980, “a wee, shy lassie from Denny. I was very intimidated. I travelled in for the first year and really struggled”.
It was only the fact she had been at Denny High and her own quiet determination to paint that convinced the GSA to give Banks a place in the drawing and painting department.
“I got a fright nearly not getting in and so I got my act together,” she says.
After graduating she won the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation Award that let her travel around Europe. She ended up living in Amsterdam for six months. Back in Glasgow she worked in pubs before getting a job in 1988 as a gallery assistant in the Compass Gallery under Cyril and Jill Gerber.
“That turned my life around, meeting other artists and seeing what opportunities there were. The male artists were so confident and cocky. They’d come in and I’d say: ‘Oh, is that your painting for the Christmas show?’ And they’d say: “Yeah, it’s a great painting.’ The women would come in and I’d go: ‘Is that your painting?’ ‘Yeah, it’s a bit rubbish. Do you think it’s OK?’ And I tried to learn from that. Not to be cocky, but not to be apologetic about my work.”
She became an artist full time at the turn of the 1990s, juggling motherhood and painting over the years (she is mother to three boys, now 24, 18 and 13). Her own mother died eight years ago, just three weeks before Banks’s last show at the Park Gallery. “Obviously, she is very much on my mind at the moment.”
Banks finally married her partner Mark three years ago. “We’d been together for ages. It was unromantically to do with pensions. We also got some PPI money. We’d meant to get married for ages but I’m not remotely religious. I would have just run away and done it. But Mark always said he wouldn’t feel married if it wasn’t in a church with his enormous family. ‘Do you want the white dress too?’”
When the PPI money came through she suggested they go to their favourite place in Italy, San Gimignano, and get married there. “Mark said: ‘I should really invite my mum and dad.’ ‘Fine,’ I said. ‘I’ll say to my dad.’ Seventy-one people later …”
In her time as a painter how has the status of painting changed? Did it lose its lustre with the rise of conceptual art in the 1990s? Is it less cool? “Oh, absolutely. I feel like an old dinosaur. I think painting has really moved down. There is so much mediocre art out there now.”
And art now is all business. She remembers Cyril Gerber mounting exhibitions in the Compass Gallery he knew wouldn’t sell because he thought Scotland deserved to see it. “You wouldn’t get that now. It’s all about what sells – Hielan coos.”
But here’s the thing. She’s still painting. And it doesn’t sound like she’s going to give up any time soon. “If I’m not painting I’m hell to live with,” she laughs.
Lesley Banks is over her crisis. Ahead of her there is smooth water.
Gongoozler opens at the Park Gallery, Callendar House, Falkirk on May 6.
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