Love & Landscape with Phyllis Mahon

Love & Landscape with Phyllis Mahon

May 11, 2022

Phyllis Mahon is a professional artist and illustrator who studied Painting and Printmaking at Belfast College of Art in the 1970's and after living in London until 1993, has based her studio in the Lincolnshire Wolds. Throughout the nineties, illustrating large Tarot and Astrology projects for a local Colour Therapy Company immediately brought her art to a worldwide audience. Over the past forty years she has exhibited extensively in the UK and Ireland and was one of seven Northern Irish artists representing Ulster in a group exhibition in Hong Kong, as well as having a solo exhibition in Georgia USA.

"L'Amour Fou - Crazy Love", Phyllis Mahon, Linoprint, 1994

Women and lovers have always been her fascination, but more recently the Lincolnshire landscape with its dark skies and layers receding for miles has made a strong impression on her. It initially provided a pastoral backdrop for her subjects, but she now depicts rolling skies and light-filled trees as landscape pieces in their own right - a perfect metaphor to convey emotion and spirituality. Phyllis favours the mediums of watercolour, acrylic and pastels. Ten years ago she received an Arts Council East Midlands Award to learn stone-carving and now loves carving in the local limestone.

Since her last exhibition at Gallery at St. Martins one year ago, she was commissioned to create nine illustrations by a Danish author, and has continued to add to her comprehensive list of artworks available online. Phyllis Mahon's works are in collectors in Asia, Australia, Europe, Mexico and the USA.

"Hope - Awaiting a New Day", Phyllis Mahon, Chalk Pastel2020


What initially drew you towards becoming an artist?

It wasn't something that I'd consciously planned but I had been encouraged to draw and paint since I was a small child. It was only when I was approaching my A levels that my Art teacher at school pointed me in the direction of Art College.

How would you describe your own personal style?

Romantic sometimes Spiritual.

What pushed you in that direction and how can you see your work evolving in the future?

I am mid-way through my sixties now so I am not sure how to answer that! I just want to create.

It was a huge affirmation and confidence booster being a successful recipient of a small Arts Council Northern Ireland Award just after I left college and then when i was fifty, an Arts Council East Midlands Award. I'd just come through a long period of illness so it was a lovely boost to what I was determined to believe was half-way through my career. (I'm assuming I'm going to live to 100!)

"Three Graces on the River of  Time", Phyllis Mahon, Pastels, 1988


What inspires you in your work; is there a driving factor that draws you to the easel?

These days my work is a little more objective - literature and landscape. In my early career I'm afraid it was like a visual diary - looking back as I went along I could see how happy or unhappy I was in my love life! It was always about love and romance for me.

Are there particular individuals who have encouraged / inspired you along the way, friends, family, teachers, maybe even other artists?

First: the wonderful, dramatic, totally unusual nun who taught me at my Convent Grammar School in Strabane, Northern Ireland. Back then we had to attend on a Saturday morning to take the Art Class, so everyone including her was dedicated to being there. She was the one who pointed me towards Art College in Belfast. 

Second: when I was little I spent a lot of time at my grandmother's house in Tyrone; she had it filled with not the usual Irish Catholic 'Holy pictures' but large reproduction prints of Italian Renaissance artworks like Bellini and Leonardo's Last Supper. In the 'best room' that no one ever used were large black and white Pre-Raphaelite engravings. To a small child these were amazing.

Third: when I was a young exhibiting artist, my siblings occasionally bought my works through the galleries I exhibited in - now I appreciate that this was a lovely gesture. 

Four: my ex-husband gave me a lot of support by beautifully framing my works - back in the eighties they were mostly very large pastels, so he really presented them wonderfully - and made a successful career change for himself too. Now my son also frames for me on occasion.

Five: last but not least, shortly after we got together in the nineties, my second husband, a furniture maker, made three-dimensional pieces for me to decorate. I think working in three dimensions sparked off the idea to try stonecarving in my fifties.

"Brightness Will Follow Darkness I", Phyllis Mahon, Watercolour, 2016


When it comes to creating your work, do you have a preferred medium, certain types of brushes or tools you love to use?

In my early career when I was in my thirties, I drew with pastels all spring, autumn and winter and in the hot summers I would tend to cut the huge lino pieces that I created at that time (heat made them easy to cut) and I would print them in the autumn when it was cooler!

Since 2010 I've started to paint in acrylic, especially liking to work on unbleached linen. I still love using chalk pastels too. But since 2016 my obsession has been with handmade grey and blue paper made in India; it is simply wonderful. 

Brushes always have to be good quality. I like using a rigger occasionally to achieve long sweeping lines.

When it comes to the subject matter of your work, what draws you to those themes?

As I mentioned before - my emotional state of mind. Now that I paint landscapes as well as figures, and the figures have become not quite so 'centre-stage,' there is still that element of my works illustrating my life - but to a much lesser extent. 

Could you describe the process behind your art? How do you get from concept to execution?

In my personal work I just never know what the image is going to be; I am happiest when it is a pleasant surprise.

When it comes to illustration, that's a completely different approach as I put ideas into 4 or 5 rough sketches that inevitably progress and evolve fairly quickly between myself and the commissioner.

Could you describe your normal day as an artist? Have you set routines and rituals or is it more a case of when the moment is right you work?

I work hard and I love working whatever it is - and I certainly don't wait for inspiration; I'm sure this is made easier because I have always basically 'lived' in my studio -  I've always worked from my own home; I've never "gone out to work." So I usually start mid morning and maybe work until very late if it's bright enough. I rarely work by artificial light so I suppose I do different things at different times of year. My little painting room is cold and bright, with a massive window, east facing so not direct sunlight; it's just off my kitchen which is great too. I'm in there more in Spring and Autumn (in the Summer I'm in the garden with a table - or in the yard stone-carving, because I adore being in the sun). In the Winter I do watercolours more than anything else, on a little folding table in a warmer room by a window. 

I've  lately realised that I've always been lucky to have had a reasonable amount of space. In my early years in London, I worked in my home that was actually short-life housing/studio space provided by ACME an arts organisation. This put me in the mind-set of my home-life revolving around my studio not fitting my studio into my home! It wasn't unusual because the whole street was such, with many other artists all my age in the other houses. It was quite a unique set up and very habit-forming but I couldn't see that at the time until I came away from it. Also, it had been a very fluid situation with me, a young mother of three in my early thirties, trying out the various rooms until I had the best space. After my divorce, when I moved to the country, in essence to someone else's house, my working spaces suddenly became smaller and more dotted around the house - (I have four small rooms much to my husband's amusement) but as I strongly feel that it is imperative to have an adequate space to work in, I'm obviously still a bit selfish when it comes to grabbing rooms! I was probably inspired by Virginia Woolf's 'A Room of One's Own! 

"Out in the Night", Phyllis Mahon, Acrylic & Oil on Canvas Board, 2017


When you work, do you focus on one piece at a time until completion or are you working on multiple pieces at the same time?

Almost always one piece at a time; I get very absorbed and to do otherwise would seem odd to me. When I sometimes illustrate, my favourite projects are ones that involve a series of images and when I am in that zone, none of my personal work gets done or even thought about. That doesn't happen a lot though, only every couple of years.

"Homage to the Serpent", 1991                     "In the Pursuit of Passion", 1991

 The above are examples of Phyllis Mahon's large monochrome linoprints. 

How has your art evolved to be where it is today?

Looking back I can see certain things happened that were so important and such good fortune: 

  1. the dedicated teacher at school
  2. getting a few pieces in an exhibition just before I graduated which made it easy to approach a gallery after I left college in that I knew the procedure
  3. getting into short-life studio space in London which meant we could live on a minimal rent and so I could devote myself to my career
  4. approaching a small publishing house because I fancied trying illustration and being commissioned - and the very occasional commissions further freed me financially
  5. never experiencing, or probably more accurately, not noticing discrimination
  6. moving in blind faith to the country, away from what was my beloved city environment and almost immediately acquiring a five year illustration placement that brought my work to a worldwide audience - albeit it a certain limited audience - and learning computer skills as a spin off from this job
  7. eventually accepting the countryside’s peace and tranquility and its inevitable influence on my imagery; realising that that where I am is where I should be. That was a defining moment for my outlook on life.

Which of your artworks are you most proud?

I really cannot say. Periodically I think I'll never part with this one - or that one - but I do and  a favoured one always replaces it for a while. So it would be impossible to say for sure.

"Brightness will follow Darkness II", Phyllis Mahon, Watercolour, 2016


Is there a fellow artist alive today that you admire? If so, why?

Artists whose works I admire most right now are: Fabienne Monestier’s semi abstract watercolours of trees, John O’Grady’s emotive landscapes, Catalin Ilinca’s strong figurative works and Richard Cartwright’s lyrical figurative/landscape works.

If you could travel back in time, is there a particular artistic period / era that you would like to have been involved in?

Paris at the turn of the 20th Century

What challenges do you feel the 21st century artist has to overcome?

Unless you're wealthy and have someone to do it for you, I think it's hugely important to be able to work digitally even if it's just photographing one's work to enable uploading to an online gallery or building one's own website. I love computer work and luckily can work in Photoshop and InDesign - this is a result of the five year Illustration job that I was involved in shortly after I came to live in the countryside in the nineties, and it was the last thing that I expected to happen. If I hadn't been fascinated by seeing the workers in the company's graphics office enhancing my imagery, and I felt that I could do that too, I wouldn't have experienced this huge interesting online world!

What advice would you give to a young aspiring artist currently studying art?

Believe in yourself  - each person's story is as valid as the next's.

Despite having developed your own distinctive style, is there another style of art that you are immediately drawn towards and admire? Why?

Abstract art - it is fascinating. Some days I think I would love to do an abstract painting but somehow I just don't and I've got no idea why I don't try.

"Earth Angel Magenta Glow", Phyllis Mahon, Chalk Pastel, 1990


We have all heard of the unfinished masterpiece, even Da Vinci laboured away at the Mona Lisa for years and years, have you works that are in a continual process of evolution? When working on an artwork do you find it hard to let go? Knowing when enough is enough?

As I mentioned before, my works are not planned - usually a huge surprise! They appear on my canvas or paper and I work intensely and that's that. In pastels or acrylic pieces, I would change something only very, very occasionally at a later date. However in digital imagery, Photoshop gives endless permutations in its layers and I can drive myself mad with too much choice. Working in stone - or linoprints - one doesn't have the choices - and maybe that's for the best for someone like me?

Many people see artists as storytellers or advocates for a cause, do you believe that it is an artist’s responsibility to shine a light on a particular subject / theme, or do you create purely for the sake of expressing your creative nature?

It's definitely the latter for me but I appreciate that works created for the former reason are as wonderful and valid as any. There is no responsibility to have to be a storyteller.

What are you working on at the moment?

Recent illustration: In 2018 a Danish author commissioned me to illustrate 10 images for her book “Hellige Hjerte Essensen” (Sacred Heart Essences) which was published in late 2019. It was a lovely link back in time to the spiritual illustrations I used to so enjoy doing for Aura Soma between 1996 -2001: The AuraSoma New Aeon Tarot, the Goddesses Astrology series, personifying the Numbers 0 -9 for a Numerology book (that was particularly adorable to do!), Butterfly imagery, Angel imagery etc

Recent personal work: Through 2019 it’s been watercolours, some large pastels of landscape, women, lovers.

My son bought me a pack of beautiful heavyweight A4 handmade paper for my birthday last November and that sparked off a little personal project of 20 Tree images, some loosely painted, some very finely painted, some with figures..

"The Bright Field", Phyllis Mahon, Acrylic on Linen, 2017


Have you ever been part of an artistic group / movement? How did your work benefit from that experience?

In 1986-7 I was part of a printmaking group for a year or so; it was called Rouge Press and had been organised by another ACME artist Elaine Kowalsky. There were eight of us and that was the first and only time I'd worked in a group. We produced a limited edition linoprint portfolio which was launched by the Curwen gallery in London and toured UK and Ireland - it was an interesting experience and set me off on years of intaglio printing and wood-engraving which were mediums that I had not worked in since college days ten years before that.

When is your next exhibition? Is it a solo or group exhibition? Could you tell us a little about the exhibition, when and where it is?

Right now I'm very content with just having my artwork online and I put a lot of time and effort into it, hugely enjoying reaching a worldwide audience.

So I don’t have any plans for exhibitions in the near future - I guess if I make it to be 80 or 90, it’d be very nice to have a retrospective in Ireland, particularly in County Tyrone.

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