Interview: Shelia Foley
Here we are five years later – when was the last time you visited the mural? Does it still look sharp or has time taken some toll on it?
I don’t get to Haverhill very often. The last time I saw the mural was about a year ago. It looked surprisingly fresh. I was pleased.
Tell us a bit about your artistry background. When did you first discover your talent?
In second grade the teacher used to display my work and about that time I was asked to give a watercolor demo at Parent’s Night. It was a disaster. I ended up with a big puddle painting. I avoided watercolor after that until I was forced to use the medium when illustrating a children’s book in the early 90’s. I’ve loved watercolor since then. The subtlety and spontaneity one can achieve with watercolor is what attracts me. That being said, I also love acrylic and pastel. I just don’t work in oils. They’re messy and take forever to dry. I don’t want pieces lingering in the studio. It’s too small a space for that.
Who or what inspires you?
I’ve actually thought about this for a number of years. No matter the person, place, or thing that inspires me it always comes from an extreme depth of emotion: love, beauty, hate, and frustration. That kind of thing. My heroes are those with the courage of their convictions. Wit, humor, and creativity are also very important traits. My art hero is James McNeill Whistler. He sued a critic and won. He also collected letters from his detractors and included them in a book with his own comments and rebuttals. The title is The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. My fictional hero is Hawkeye form the TV show M*A*S*H. The two have a lot in common.
For those unfamiliar with the term "live event painter" is that pretty much what it sounds like? Do you have to be in a different frame of mind – that is, concentrating quicker on details – to undertake such a project compared to a still life?
I first heard of “live event” art four years ago. A woman was seeking someone to work at her wedding reception. At the time I was cutting silhouettes at local Colonial events (I was a fifer with a minuteman group). I thought that qualified as a “live event” and that I could go to a wedding reception, circulate, and cut silhouettes as I went. The bride-to-be told me that wasn’t what “live event” art meant at all. She explained that a painter actually paints what’s happening live on-site. Amazed guests watch a painting develop and the bridal couple gets a work of fine art. Cool but challenging idea. I didn’t take the job thinking I might blow it on their big day. Instead I practiced on the wedding of somebody I already knew, not a paying client. It was difficult but I could do it and just kept on doing it (for pay, of course). When I started there were very few live painters on the East Coast. I was one of two in Massachusetts. The field had grown considerably although it’s still considered unique. My style is impressionistic but some others are more cartoony or primitive (like Grandma Moses). To succeed as a live event painter, an artist has to stop being a perfectionist – that’s the toughest part. You can’t think of the people in these paintings as individual portraits. No one is modeling. It’s not a still life. They’re all moving. Deal with it.
When you’re not painting or creating how else do you spend your time?
I’m a member of the Lexington Historical Society’s Colonial Singers, playing instruments – fiddle, tin whistle, fife. When I had more time, I used to write. I started the Stoneham Writers Group over 20 years ago and we still meet once a month for critique and camaraderie. I teach art too – at a Catholic School. Sound like anyone we know?
I read that they were looking for artists to do murals in Haverhill. Thought I’d put my name out there. They had a list of potential subjects and I chose John. I submitted some sketches. The more I read about him, the more I liked him. I confess to not having read many of his books. I did meet with Priscilla Bellairs a couple of times and she loaned me some of his things: photos, doodles, Latin quotes, even his very own copy of Saint Fidgeta. Wow! After reading that, I knew he had to be in a Gothic Stained Glass format. I came up with a design that I thought John would appreciate based on what Priscilla had told me as well as some independent research. I am used to immersing myself in a subject and trying to get inside his or her head. I’ve done a living history portrayal as Whistler’s Mother and worked with Cobblestone magazine (children’s history publication). I illustrated a book about Leonard Bernstein (he was from Lawrence, MA). I simply love research.
There were a few murals unveiled the same day and they were all well-received. It was hard to tell if one particular mural garnered more attention than others. I was happy with my effort. It’s still the biggest work of art I’ve done and the only one hanging outside. Every so often I receive an email from out of the blue. Some Bellairs fan will thank me for honoring John or ask to interview me for a paper they are writing on him. I tell them I am certainly no expert on the life and times of John Bellairs.
How you were introduced to John’s work.
Totally through this mural project.
Do you have a favorite book?
As I have taught at three – count ‘em: three – Catholic schools, I can’t get enough of Saint Fidgeta. I actually know people who throw Latin words around for fun. John’s irreverent humor is priceless.
In all of his books you’re familiar with what’s your favorite illustration and why?
Anything by Edward Gorey is tops in my book – or in should I say in John’s books.
Compleat this sentence: you know you’ve read too much John Bellairs when –
...you go on a pilgrimage to Haverhill.