Monday, 12 December 2016

JUDY'S CALLING: Painter Judy Ann MacMillan stays anchored in family values and her abiding love of the art world

ENDLESS LOVE: "Art chose me," shares the 71-year-old MacMillan, who recently mounted a retrospective show.

Inside the French Embassy's exquisite drawing rooms and adjoining walkways, on Hillcrest Avenue in St. Andrew, a series of vivid landscapes and still life paintings stare back at you from the wall. A few viewers are here (middle-aged couples, singles) moving from room to room, clearly enthralled by the remarkable simplicity and haunting power of the works.

The pieces on view, 50 in total, make up the solo exhibition, "Still Painting... After All These Years," a career retrospective by enduring fine artist Judy-Ann MacMillan who, at age 71, continues to redefine what it means to be a creative soul advancing from stregth to strength.

Graceful and charming and bearing a slight resemblance to Ellen Burstyn, MacMillan greets each of the visitors, most of whom are familiar faces who've been following her illustrious career for years. They seem thrilled to be sharing in this half-a-century flashback on a creative life that has come full circle but continues to flourish. "For this exhibition I wanted to use 50 works to represent my 50 years as a painter," MacMillan tells TALLAWAH, finally resting her feet on a nearby couch.

The exhibition's oeuvre, she notes, is a mix of works she finished and kept for herself, borrowed pieces from the personal collections of clients and close friends and some 2016 creations, including her latest self-portrait accented by a crown of thorns. [Read TALLAWAH's review of the exhibition HERE].

By MacMillan's own admission, this 50-year milestone offers the perfect opportunity to pause and reflect on her creative journey and decide where she wants to go next. "It's really the story of my painting life 'til now. As an artist, I love looking at the world," she shares. "I started out doing landscapes, and after a while I became so absorbed in it. Now the landscapes can be hard, but they're a little easier to sell."

To get a good grasp of where Judy Ann MacMillan's genius springs from is to go back to the very beginning, when at age four she got her hands on her first set of tools. "Art chose me. I sort of fell into it, and I've become trapped. I haven't done anything else," she emphasizes. "You know how some parents get worried that their child is getting too caught up with drawing and those things? Mine were very encouraging, and so I never stopped. From childhood to the present day."

By age 16, after her parents took her on a trip to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, she was off to art school in Scotland, enrolling at Dundee (the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design), which "became the centre of my strage world."

"The town looked to me like one of those pen-and-ink illustrations from a Victorian children's book. I found those cobbled streets - with their dark stone buildings, their gloomy maze of tiny alleyways and the bent-over people grimly smiling in spite of the cold - strange and enchanting," MacMillan writes in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition. "The cold was very exciting too. I think for that entire first year I didn't really feel it. It was all fun. But most of all I loved the work."

Those early years of getting her feet wet flew by quickly. By the time she soaked herself in the influence of such geniuses as teacher James McIntosh Patrick, mentor Edward Lucie Smith and the late great Barrington Watson, under whom she briefly studied, MacMillan had become a rising star in the art world. The 1940s brought her first solo exhibition in Kingston, inside the bar of her father Dudley MacMillan's nightclub. Of that debut, MacMillan writes, "Like the nucleus of a cell, this meaningful room in our family's history was reincarnated as a gallery for me." Exhibitions would follow at Kingston's State Gallery in 1968 and again in 1982.
To develop her landscape painting, she bought a country house in St. Ann named Rockfield, in 1981. Those were the good ole days. "I was in a sort of rapture. I would rush out of the car at Rockfield, which was more of a studio at the time than a home," she recalls. If there was no water, she'd scoop up a bucketful from the rainwater tank; without an oven, she cooked on a coal stove outside. "There was no telephone, no television and no one to stop me. I would paint all day and take the wet painting to the foot of the bed, so that I would see it when I opened my eyes in the morning," she says. "This was one of my ways to trick the painting into revealing its flaws. I managed, with great difficulty, to sell enough to keep going."

And she couldn't have asked for greater family support. "Family support for me has always been 100 percent," she adds. "Especially my parents. They've always been supportive." When it comes to the immediate clan, she's painted them all: mother Vida, dad Dudley, her sister, her grandkids, the nieces and nephews. Married in 1969 to David Julian Russell (they would divorce two years later), MacMillan says giving birth to their son David Alexander (affectionately called Alexei) in February 1970 is her most memorable achievement to date.

Among MacMillan's other notable achievements: a bronze medal from the Jamaica Festival exhibition in 1969 and a Caribbean Hall of Fame honour in 2007. Her iconic painting "Ras Dizzy" is a permanent piece in the collection of the National Gallery of Jamaica. In 2004, she published My Jamaica: The Paintings of Judy Ann MacMillan, published by McMillan Caribbean Press and launched in London at the Jonathan Clarke Gallery.

As more visitors trickle in to see the exhibition, I ask MacMillan to share her thoughts on the state of art appreciation in Jamaica. She says while today's younger generation of artists command the spotlight, the masters from her heyday are largely supported nowadays by devoted collectors. In the same breath, she says she wants to see Jamaican school-children being more exposed to the work of our fine artists, especially those from her generation.

These days, MacMillan divides her time and creative energy between her home in upper St. Andrew and Rockfield in St. Ann, which continues to profoundly inspire her decades after she first moved in. At 71, she is the first to admit that she's not as prolific as in years past. "I want to paint less and sell more. I have decreasing energy to do the landscapes. They take so much out of you physically, sitting out in the sun," she says.

On this warm afternoon, she's simply content to savour the success of this latest exhibition in the company of friends and well-wishers, and take us down memory lane. "Fifty years ago, I was so full of hope. The art scene was vibrant and there was enormous interest in local art," she reflects. "It was all about a commitment to artistic expression and a sense of nation-building, and I felt like a part of it."

>> JUDY'S PICKS: Some faves from the wonder woman
Favourite Book: Love in the Time of Cholera. "I love Marquez."
Favourite Movies: The Shawshank Redemption, Out of Africa. "I've seen them several times."

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