Behind the portrait

WORDS Debbie Loots

Last month, Heather Gourlay-Conyngham’s oil painting, A Young Man, made her the first artist to win SA’s coveted National Portrait Award, presented by Sanlam Private Investments. Debbie Loots caught up with her one rainy Cape Town morning for coffee and a chat.

Painters are often private, introspective and reluctant socialisers… Unless, for some reason, their work pushes them into the spotlight, as is the case of Heather Gourlay-Conyngham, the winner of SA’s inaugural National Portrait Award, presented by Sanlam Private Investments. While trying to squeeze in a word with her at the prize-giving gala, one could see it was her special moment; one, she confessed later, she never imagined while painting alone in her studio for eight hours a day.  

How did this 50-something, ex-St Anne’s College art teacher manage to nab this prestigious R100 000 prize? There aren’t any clear-cut answers, but her consistent dedication to her craft is perhaps a good start.

At the end of 2011, Heather resigned after 30 years of teaching, 19 of which were at St Anne’s, to paint full-time in preparation of a retrospective exhibition at Pietermaritzburg’s Tatham Art Gallery, titled Unfoldings. Instead of the scraps of time for painting stolen after work or over weekends, she now had a full day, every day, to work on her portraits.

Her studio was a small storage room in the house, a darkish space, on her and her husband John’s smallholding in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. She often moved her easel to the house’s thoroughfare to paint there because of its natural light but it wasn’t a place she could settle in.

“I don’t like people looking at my paintings while I work,” she says. “So I had to constantly pack up and move everything back to the store room.” Although she also confesses to often leaving the mess and simply turning the painting to the wall.

A lot of Heather’s work entailed nude female studies and she became concerned about what the gallery community may think of it all when the exhibition opened. A visit to her son Richard in London put her fears into perspective. “Do what’s good for you,” he said. “Trust yourself, don’t worry about other people.”

Inspired by his show of support, on her return she decided to paint a male nude for the exhibition. “While it was up, I compared the portrait to my other work, and I realised that something had shifted in my method. It was a sensitivity I wanted to explore further.”  

In the meantime the SPI National Portrait Award entry deadline was looming and for this, she decided to enter something completely different – a portrait of a car guard she met in town. The result was not what she imagined though. “It simply missed something,” she shrugs.

She then remembered the words of her high school art teacher, Lynn Gilbert: “Always paint for yourself.”  With this in mind she started working on a second portrait of the male nude from her exhibition.

“I wanted to go beyond realism with this one,” she continues, “and get to the essence of it. I tried to capture the strain I saw in the sitter. The shadow falling across his face, the way he seems to be retracting, withdrawing in a way, into the shadows. It looks as if he is resisting while sitting down.”

Heather changed her method of working in this portrait, she started removing rather than building-up layers, a method she feels succeeded and contributed to her confidence in entering it. She also sent the car guard work and a small portrait of her mother sleeping to the competition. “There was still space in the box!” she explains.

Although the car guard didn’t make it to the final 40, the one of her mother did, while A Young Man won her the big prize along with a lot of public lauding and pictures in the press. How does she feel about this instant fame?

She laughs: “I certainly don’t see myself as suddenly famous. What it did do though is highlight portraiture as a relevant art form today.”

And, the money? What’s she going to do with the R100 000?

“I’m going to finish building my new studio,” she says.

With enough light?

She smiles. “Well, there’s always the thoroughfare.” 

View our online exhibition of all 40 National Portrait Award finalists here.

The national touring exhibition can be seen at the at the Rust-en-Vrede Art Gallery in Durbanville until Sunday 8 October; the University of Johannesburg Art Gallery from 24 October to 13 November; Stephan Welz & Co at the Alphen Estate in Constantia, Cape Town, from 26 November to 10 January 2014; and the KwaZulu-Natal Society of Arts during April 2014. For more information: