Featured Artist: Gerry Wilmer
‘I would say I am a Colourist as a way of summing up the work I love to do. I delight in the colours of nature and want to make paintings that are bright and uplifting as there is enough darkness in the world’ said the St Albans artist Gerry Wilmer during our interview this month. I felt honoured to receive such a warm-hearted greeting from Gerry as she showed me into her home and studio.
I have great admiration for the talented Gerry as her skills allow her to express the beauty she sees in diverse styles. Gerry loves to paint on a large scale, as the canvas she is currently working on attests. The painting is about 6’ x 5’ and is of a community garden in Brooklyn, called the Summit Garden. In this instance Gerry is working from memory and sketches made on the spot whilst visiting family in New York. ‘I absolutely love painting outdoors and my sketchbook is always in my bag for when inspiration strikes, along with a small tin of watercolours and a water soluble ink pen. My whole life is in the many little sketchbooks I have carried with me all over the world.’ I noticed that alongside the canvas there is a lengthy piece of paper stuck to the wall and Gerry explains; ‘I have a habit of using big rolls of paper to work loosely on in acrylics. I call it my piano practice!’.
One of the very first works I saw was a painting hanging in her studio called ‘The Red Tree’. It is an acrylic on paper inspired by her memory of the Summit Garden, it is full of energy and movement with a splendid use of colour. ‘That little garden in Brooklyn was a precious little oasis, so beautiful. With everything so bleak and battered after the Sandy Hurricane. It was November and the last of the autumn leaves were flourishing brightly before they fell’.
Whilst chatting I noticed a black and white monoprint entitled ‘Sorry’. Although not for sale, it is such a delightful illustration that I persuaded Gerry to let me include it here. This, along with a little drawing in her latest sketchbook entitled ‘Midnight Mousies’, impresses on me her flair for the genre. Gerry is writing and developing stories centred on these little creatures with wonderful accompanying monochrome illustrations. It’s a really engaging story book and full of life. Gerry said, ‘Growing up I was influenced by the wonderful illustrations of Arthur Rackham. I really wanted to do book illustration but didn’t find a course to suit me.’
Gerry, one of five children, was born in Weybridge, Surrey. The family moved to Pyrford in Surrey near Guildford where she lived until 17. Her Brighton born father was an aeronautical engineer who trained at DeHavilland in Hatfield, and worked for BAC in Weybridge. Gerry’s maternal grandfather was employed to construct telegraph communication lines across the Andes and so her mother was born in Peru. When her grandparents returned to England they bought a little corner shop in St Albans, near Oaklands College.
Her first job was working in a bookshop called The Book Case in West Byfleet. Gerry remembers, ‘I have always had a great love of poetry and books and recall saving up to buy Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ when I was working there.’ She has built up an impressive collection of artists’ biographies and Van Gogh is one of her heroes. ‘I visited his grave at Auvers-sur-Oise and left a postcard of my own painting of three sunflowers saying “Thank you, thank you, thank you”; he is inspirational to me. I sat on the floor sketching the interior of his room at the Auberge Ravoux, that was amazing! When back in London I visited the National Gallery to see the Sunflowers paintings and I could hear him say to me “Stop being a tourist and go and get on with your painting! “
In 1971 Gerry took an Art Foundation Course at Twickenham College of Technology. ‘Our classes were in an old building in Hampton. We had to draw the skeleton and learn the muscles of the human body before being allowed to tackle the life model. I remember my first life drawing class, as young students we were a bit embarrassed but soon got used to it!’ After completing that course Gerry then took a degree in Textiles at Loughborough College of Art and Design.
She created embroidery for many years to earn a living and designed a series of cards, a diary and address book published by Elgin Court in 1985. ‘I decided to take royalties instead of a straight fee and this turned out to be great for me as they remained on the stock list in WH Smiths book shops for three years, funding my dream of travelling and sketching’.
In 2010 she completed a Masters Degree in Fine Art/Painting at the University of Hertfordshire. Gerry’s final work, entitled ‘There Is More’ was a supremely colourful and ambitious project. Seven large canvases were joined together to make a walk-in, impressionistic installation. It was achieved by painting in acrylics and oils on the canvases combined with hundreds of torn fragments of painted canvas to cover the floor giving the illusion that the colours were flowing from the canvas.
For the millennium The British Council and European City of Culture program asked Gerry to create two murals for ‘Le Petit Chateaux’, in Brussels, Belgium. The austere building was originally a Napoleonic barracks; in its time it has been used as a pow camp and is now an asylum seekers transit centre. Gerry worked there a few weeks at a time creating both an outside and two indoor murals. The piece for the outer courtyard was a 16’ by 14’ work depicting the four elements, fire, earth, air and water. ‘The sun represents hope. I worked with children and adults of all ages, refugees from places like Bosnia and Rwanda. They were absolutely wonderful and it helped them to have something creative to focus on. I wanted to design a work that was hopeful and full of colour to lift the starkness of the surroundings’. One of the indoor murals we painted on MDF, the other was made with fabrics and I got the kids to write messages on paper about their secret wishes and dreams. These were wound around sticks, covered in silks and incorporated into the design. There were approximately 280 secret messages in that work.’
I love these three sketches that Gerry made during the 30 Day Challenges she has taken part in during the last couple of years. The works are called ‘Winnie’s Hill’, ‘The Poppies at the Tower of London’ and ‘The Yellow Field’; the last two have been reproduced as giclée prints and greeting cards. ‘I was very cold at the Tower of London holding the paint box and the sketchbook in one hand for over an hour. The incredible sea of poppies stretching out was such an amazing and moving sight! I stood there drawing and people started talking to me and asking if they could look at what I was doing. Normally I like to work in private, but there was such a good atmosphere in the crowd and people were making lovely comments. It was so encouraging!’
It was Gerry’s father, who passed away 4 years ago, who encouraged her to have her sketchbook work reproduced. ‘He had often told me that my sketches were my best work and I should “do something with them”. He found it really frustrating that I worked on both sides of the paper and across the binding, so I couldn’t take the sketches out. I have now found a way to reproduce the drawings as giclee prints and cards. I think he would be pleased!’
In one of the old travel sketchbooks I admired drawings entitled: ‘Would you believe it - Madras Street’ in Singapore and ‘Kuta Beach’ in Bali. During the 80’s Gerry decided to take her equivalent of a gap year to see the world. She explored Singapore, Malaysia, Bali, Australia and Fiji [her favourite!] cycling everywhere to sketch what she saw.
Gerry has been an art teacher and lecturer and there have been many exhibitions and commissions over the years. She was also artist in residence at arts centres in Darlington and Bracknell and Brentwood School, where she taught A level.
When not working on her paintings and commercial ventures with her prints and cards, Gerry is kept busy with community projects and volunteering. She had a successful 2014 Open studios and is currently preparing new work and looking forward to taking part again this year.
She has an etsy shop online at etsy.com and you can also visit her sketchblog.
If you would like to visit Gerry in her studio, please contact her on:
Tel: 01727 832027
Mobile: 07909 552390
By CLARE KENDAL BATE