In the latest in a series of interviews with Fierce Nice's partner artists, Wexford-based fine art painter Martina Furlong joins Ruan Shiels for a discussion about her art, exhibiting at the Electric Picnic festival, juggling the creative and commercial sides of being a working artist, and lots more besides.
Thanks so much for joining me for this interview, Martina. Can I start by asking you to introduce yourself and talk a bit about your background?
You are very welcome and thank you for inviting me. I am a fine art painter based in county Wexford where I grew up. After secondary school, I completed a portfolio course in Scoil Stiofáin Naofa in Cork and then went to Limerick School of Art and Design. In 1996 I graduated from LSAD with a degree in Fine Art Painting.
Then I moved to London where I continued to paint and exhibit. During that time I also worked for a printing company and Hallmark Cards before returning to live in Wexford in 2015.
How would you describe your art and the intent behind it in your own words?
My work is intuitive and emotive, using a whole range of colours and textures depending on my mood. I paint for myself firstly. It is my way to explore and express my inner voice. If other people see that and connect with the work then that makes me very happy. If my work brings others joy or encourages them to look to their own inner world then that is great.
Which artists do you most admire? And have they or others influenced your work?
There are so many artists I admire, both dead and alive, but four artists who have influenced my work are Victor Willing, Francis Bacon, Peter Lanyon and Pascal Magis. Each of these artists came to my attention at times when I was either looking for meaning in my work or my work was changing direction. Looking at their paintings encouraged me to experiment and move on with my work.
What does your workspace or studio look like?
I am very lucky to have a studio beside my home so I can work away at any time of the day or night. Ideally, I would love a studio up the field at the back of my house away from everything but I am very happy with the space I have for now. One wall has a large shelving system where I store all my dry, completed work and packaging materials. A long bench stretches along another wall and all my painting materials sit there. Then I have a wall with a three-row hanging system and my works in progress and wet paintings hang there.
I paint on two easels in the middle of the room as the light is good there and I have space to stand back and look at my work.
Can you describe your process and how you go about planning and executing a painting? Are your works on canvas generally preceded by sketches?
I like to use sketches as a starting point for a painting. Sometimes the finished piece will resemble the sketch and other times it will be completely different. My sketchbooks are full of studies and I will often look through them to see if a sketch I haven’t used in a previous painting grabs my attention.
That’s not to say that I never start a painting with no idea in mind just to see what happens. I tend to do this if I still have paint on my pallet when I have hung all the pieces I am working on up to dry.
Your work feels deeply personal and has a sense of spontaneity and raw emotion to it that I adore. Did it take you long to find your unique voice/vision and master the art of, as you call it, painting 'from the inside out'?
Yes, it took me a long time. While I always knew I was meant to paint I didn’t always know why I painted what I did or where it came from. This is where looking at the work of other artists is invaluable. Seeing the work of artists who were influenced by metaphysics, existentialism, dreams, mental health issues and connecting to nature helped me understand my own work and where it was coming from. I also started practising meditation daily and found that combined with the meditative power of painting, the perfect way to encourage that inner voice to make itself heard.
You use hyperbolic colour, texture and layering to striking effect in your work. Have you always had a similar aesthetic or has your signature style grown and developed over time?
While I love nothing more than experimenting with colour and texture I am very wary of both as they can result in paintings that are too busy…paintings where your eye has nowhere to rest. I have always used a lot of layering and texture and that hasn’t changed but I haven’t always used as many colours in one piece as I do now. My older pieces were very often different shades of the same colour, complementary colours or just one or two colours with touches of black and white. Using several colours in the same painting was a conscious decision and didn’t (still doesn’t) always work. Sometimes I have to leave a painting hanging in my studio and look at it every so often until the decision is made that it works or changes have to be made.
Fierce Nice's readers and customers will probably know you best for your paintings, but you also create wonderfully intricate wearable art pieces and experimental mixed-media constructions. Which medium or materials do you like working with the most and why?
Paint is always the main thing for me so whatever else I introduce will be combined with painting or I will work on alongside my paintings. The thing is that I often see shapes, colours or textures in other materials that get me thinking and then I have to experiment. I have loved working with wood and sewing since I was young but I didn’t make a conscious decision to use these in my work. Bits of canvas, wood and material lying around caught my eye and I wondered what would happen if I put this here and that there and that is how my mixed media constructions came about. I definitely want to develop them and I find the hammering, carving and sewing very therapeutic.
Last summer, you were one of five artists selected to create an 8x12 foot piece for the Electric Picnic festival's 'Place of Picnic Art' wall. What a huge accomplishment, in more ways than one! Can you tell me a bit about your painting and what the reaction to it was like from festival-goers?
It was such a brilliant experience and one of the most enjoyable things I have done in my career. The theme was the environment and my brief was Landscape. I worked on a few preliminary studies and selected one to bring with me to work from. The finished piece was a landscape in pink, green, yellow and white with lots of trees, celebrating the beauty, history and mystery of the landscape. The idea behind it was connecting to the landscape and the inspiration, magic and stillness it can bring to our lives.
Festival-goers loved all the work on the PoPA wall and I saw lots of people getting their photo taken standing beside the paintings or sitting underneath them. It became a kind of chillout area and people were delighted to have an outdoor exhibition to enjoy while they relaxed.
Your studio/gallery, The Paintbox, is (or was, pre-COVID-19) open by appointment to the public and you're a regular fixture at various art expos, shows and markets around the country throughout the year. Is meeting in person with fans and prospective customers of your work something that you enjoy and find valuable?
I do find it valuable to meet people interested in my work as I learn a lot from them. It is always lovely to meet people who have a genuine appreciation of my work and to hear what draws them to it. I have found that I don’t like the pace or feel of the bigger shows but I love smaller events like the Wexford Fringe Festival where there is a more relaxed atmosphere. Some of the most interesting conversations I have ever had have been in pop up galleries and I met customers and made friends there that keep in touch with me to this day.
Speaking of COVID-19, what sort of impact has the pandemic and resultant lockdown had on you professionally and personally?
Professionally, things were good at the start of lockdown with online sales increasing. I also live near my local post office so I was able to continue to ship work to customers. The online sales did slow down after a while though so I was very pleased to see shops and galleries that stock my work, such as The Heritage Park, Wexford and The Gaslamp Gallery, Gorey open up to the public again.
Personally, I enjoyed lockdown after the panic of the first two weeks died down. I was at home with my partner and daughter and was happy to not have the pressure to go anywhere or be anywhere at a certain time. We live in the countryside so we had plenty of space to get out and about. If my studio wasn’t beside my house and I hadn’t been able to paint every day then my lockdown experience would have been very different.
You're very active on social media, particularly on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. How useful do you find these online platforms in terms of promoting yourself and your work, floating new ideas, networking with other artists/galleries, etc?
They are all useful in different ways but I have found that you have to be constantly active to get the most out of them. They are great for finding other artists, galleries or organisations to connect with and I have been invited to join galleries or exhibit with other artists who have seen my work on these platforms.
Juggling the creative and business/commercial sides of being a working artist isn't easy, yet you do it with aplomb. Is there any advice you'd offer to up-and-coming artists who may be looking to jumpstart or successfully manage their careers? Perhaps something you wish you knew back when you were first starting out?
This is something that often comes into my mind as I think about all the time and money I spent over the years trying to find good quality materials, reliable suppliers and places to show my work. The business side of things doesn’t come easy to most of us creatives and a lot of us learn the hard way. I think an apprentice type programme for the business side of things would be a great idea. Artists starting out or getting back into it after some time away could work with an experienced artist to learn about the best places to buy materials, buy frames, get prints done, sell your work, etc. This would allow them to experience the day to day life of a professional artist and to ask any questions they may have.
Another bit of advice I would give is don’t change your style or subject matter to suit others. Stick with what you actually want to paint rather than what you think will sell.
What's been your overall proudest moment or achievement as an artist to date?
Well, I don’t think I can name just one but the things that stand out for me are getting my degree in Fine Art Painting as I was so happy to get the opportunity to go to art college in the first place. Having my first solo exhibition in London and in my home county of Wexford were also proud moments. Being a finalist in The Screaming Pope Prize at K-Fest and seeing my work hanging on the PoPA wall at Electric Picnic also stand out.
What's next for Martina Furlong? Are you working on any exciting projects or pieces at the moment that you'd like to talk about?
I am in the very early stages of working on a project about Irish goddesses. A local historian saw some of the goddess paintings I did recently and contacted me about doing a painting of the goddess Bóann. I want to give it my full attention so have some other pieces to finish up before I can really dive into it.
How do you envision your work and career evolving over the next 5 years or so?
I want to keep experimenting, finding things that interest me, bringing them into my work and see where that takes me. I am not tied to any set ideas for my work or career and I am excited to see what happens. My mixed media constructions are a collection I want to spend more time on and I would love to exhibit them at some stage in the future.
I have been in touch with a gallery in London I used to exhibit with so I am looking forward to showing my work with them again and reconnecting with some of the contacts I made when I lived there.
Wow, what an interview! Thank you very much for your time, Martina, it was a genuine pleasure chatting with you.
An exclusive range of Martina Furlong's work is available from Fierce Nice at the following link: The Martina Furlong Collection.