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Nursery Rhymes Come to Life in Dreamy Oil Paintings

Mary Jane Ansell’s paintings feature ethereal scenes inspired by dreams and classical portraiture.

by Nathaniel Ainley
07 July 2017, 12:38am

‘Shadow of The Seventh’ oil on aluminum panel, 32 x 32 inches. Images courtesy the Corey Helford Gallery

Looking over the work of Brighton, UK-based artist Mary Jane Ansell, one can't help but notice a strong appreciation for the technical values of painting exemplified in classical portraiture. In her seventh solo exhibition entitled Of Dreams, Birds and Bones, Ansell employs a similar set of aesthetics in terms of color, form, and balance, while at the same time expressing her own exclusively contemporary perspective. Ansell tells Creators, "I believe that the appreciation of the same technical values is present in the great works that I aspire to throughout history but mine and my sitters attitude is totally different. It's a product of, and a reaction to, those times."

In describing her new collection at the Corey Helford Gallery, Ansell recalls a long-forgotten refrain from a nursery rhyme her mother, whom she lost last year, used to recite to her whenever they saw a group of magpies. Ansell and her mother would count the school of birds and recite the corresponding line from the poem: "One for sorrow, two for joy..."

'Legacy' oil on aluminum panel, 50 x 36 inches

Since she started painting, Ansell has been inspired by the projections she experiences in her dreams, or what she describes as "half-waking moments." Regarding her new exhibition, the artist writes, "The genesis of ideas often takes place in the shadowy in-between of sleep and wakefulness," so she's become increasingly interested in the hypnogogic state that artists have spoken about for hundreds of years. It was in this state of the subconscious that the repeated refrain of, "One for sorrow, two for joy" kept playing in Ansell's head.

'Liberty Sleeping' (oil on aluminum Panel - 48 x 32 inches

Two different types of birds make cameos in Of Dreams, Birds and Bones: the dove and, of course, the magpie. Ansell tells Creators, "Birds are often thought to be heralds of our unconscious, messengers from our own psyche, from the fates, the past and the future. I'm a great believer in letting these moments guide me creatively."

In Shadows of the Seventh, Ansell pictures two models lounging on the floor, dressed in white with six magpies around them. The title of the painting refers to the seventh, unseen, magpie, which according to the rhyme represents "a secret never to be told." The artist writes, "on one level, it's referring here to the relationship between the two protagonists, but for me it's also about personal memories that are mine to enjoy alone."

'Treasury of Souls' oil on aluminum panel - 26 x 26 inches

Another work in the series, entitled Treasury of Souls, is a portrait of a woman in similar dress being swarmed by doves. The title of the piece is a beautiful phrase that refers to a place where doves are kept, which Ansell uses as a metaphor for the subconscious voices in our head. Other paintings in the show, like Winged Consort II and Occeli, use feathers to reference the insight these voices can bring us.

'Return of The White Hart II' oil on aluminum panel, 24 x 17 inches

The artist feels as though the personality of her sitter plays an important role in her work. She's known for painting the same small group of models and friends, whom she says become more than just sitters but muses that, over time, evolve into archetypes in her work. Through this exclusive group of characters, Ansell can tell a personal narrative that sometimes traces elements of the subject's own lives in parallel. She may set out with a particular look in mind, however she feels the models influence informs her own personal narratives. The work ultimately becomes a combination of the two. "We need to gel over time," the artist tells Creators.

Check out more works from the show below:

'Aurelia's Relic' oil on aluminum Panel - 27 x 18 inches
Artist Mary Jane Ansell
Mary Jane Ansell 'The White Harts Return' (oil on aluminium panel - 27 x 18 inches)
'Ocelli' oil on aluminum panel, 12 x 12 inches
Artist Mary Jane Ansell. Photo by Bryan 'Birdman' Mier.

Of Dreams, Birds and Bones is on at the Corey Helford Gallery until July 8. Learn more about the show here, and check out more works by Mary Jane Ansell on her website.

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