Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Artist Uncovered: Alan McGowan

"All good and genuine draftsmen draw according to the picture inscribed in their minds, and not according to nature." Charles Baudelaire

We meet in Edinburgh’s City Art Centre cafe across the road from Waverley station, a couple of hours before Alan McGowan catches a train due south for a week-long teaching residency. 
This artist who will be leading two painting workshops for Art in Healthcare at the Edinburgh Art Fair next month, has no work in the collection yet but this is about to change. 

McGowan has a busy peripatetic practice that takes him all over the UK and Ireland teaching drawing, anatomy and painting. A freelance career was not always the norm for this educator who was once based in the University of Northumbria until the gradual exclusion of drawing from art schools, an upshot of last century’s Modernist thrust, prompted him to take the life-changing decision of jumping ship. 

Seated 1 
mixed media, 57x40 cms
image courtesy of the artist

That is how passionately McGowan feels about drawing and more particularly life-drawing. He refutes eloquently the argument dealt against his discipline of choice that it is only a skill that requires no intellectual discourse:
“The way one draws is connected to how one thinks and interacts with the world. We reveal our vision of the world through our own process of drawing.” 
Anybody who has attended a life-drawing class will know that everybody draws the same model differently. We each alter and distort what is in front of us in our own distinctive way into a representation of reality rather than a faithful reproduction. 

Dissolve 2
mixed media, 67x84cms
image courtesy of the artist

His commitment to life-drawing did not signal in McGowan a return to classicist principles. On the contrary he wanted to be regarded as a contemporary artist, a radical move at the time when conceptual art and installations were the avant-garde. 
And so he went back to basics, re-learning to draw and see without the pseudo narrative that his training in illustration had taught him. All the time he was experimenting with techniques and materials, questioning his purpose and reading from thinkers as diverse as Montaigne, Proust and Camus to name a few. 
Untitled Figure
mixed media, 56x66cms
image courtesy of the artist

McGowan describes his relationship with portraiture as “strange”. He explains that it is more about connecting with humanity than about the individual. His models’ facial features are often only hinted at or hidden, his brush strokes probing deep below the naked skin for the elusive essential being and shared consciousness within.
Then he realised that all the drawings he had accumulated over the years amounted to a coherent body of work that backed up his argument that “there is an intellectual basis in drawing” and as such they needed to be shown.
An exhibition followed together with the publication in 2012 of a catalogue entitled The Language of the Body: Figure Drawings in Four Chapters with each of the 64 coloured plates displaying his expressionist style and fauvist palette. The book is divided into four categories ‘Between’, ‘Dissolve’, ‘Language’ and ‘See’. The only text is in the quotations that accompany each heading. This self-imposed restraint allows the readers to make their own connections.
mixed media, 57x84cms
image courtesy of the artist

Alan McGowan’s relationship with portraiture is not only his and the model’s but also ours, the viewers, as we bring our own thoughts and circumstances into the reading of the work. When hung in a healthcare setting, it is guaranteed to stop people in their track. It will take on new meanings and provoke a variety of interpretations and emotions in patients, medical staff and visitors. This is the measure of the artist’s success in his endeavour. 

Martine Foltier Pugh is a freelance writer and visual artist based in Edinburgh.

With thanks to Alan McGowan.

Alan McGowan is one of six artists involved with Art in Healthcare at the Edinburgh Art Fair in Edinburgh Corn Exchange (15-17 November). He will be giving two demonstrations on 'Painting from preparatory sketches' on Friday 15. For more details and the full programme go to

Alan McGowan The Language of the Body- Figure Drawings in Four Chapters
published in 2012 by SATURATION, Edinburgh ISBN 978-0-9572428-0-7

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Pondering Evaluation

Do you work at a charity and have some involvement with evaluations, impact measurement or report-writing for funders? What works for you and what are the challenges?

In my role as Outreach Manager at Art in Healthcare (AiH) I constantly find myself thinking about our mission, aims and objectives, ensuring that our outreach programme stays focused and relevant to the organisation as a whole. Furthermore, I am very aware that evaluating our services and gathering feedback are key processes that we must incorporate into our daily activities as both educational and a check that our services are proving worthwhile and effective. Unsurprisingly, each round of feedback we gain comes with at least one suggestion or comment that has implications for a slight re-shape of how we do, what we do. To me this is natural development – services are only as worthwhile as they are appreciated by service-users thus organisations are responsible for regular monitoring of their service provision by means of informing this natural development.
Workshop at 'Art from Art' Exhibition, February 2013
I recently attended an event run by Evaluation Support Scotland, an organisation whose aim is ‘to make evaluation valuable, relevant and proportionate’ by supporting voluntary organisations and funders with measurement and reporting of their impact. (See for further details). I quickly became aware that we are not alone at AiH in questioning the effectiveness of feedback forms, of wondering how best to maximise participation in feedback provision and maximising the utility of feedback, largely qualitative, once gained.

I was also especially interested to have some discussion time at the event with funders since, as a project-related fundraiser myself, I often wonder how best to ‘please’ funders with feedback reports at the end of projects, as well as ways to best sell project proposals based on feedback from previous pilot projects.

I should not have been surprised that funders are actually as conscious about their own evaluation processes almost as much as those they fund and part of the reason they often request thorough reports at the end of projects is by means of having their own source of evaluation for their own service provision. It seems everyone is therefore thinking about evaluation and about how best to capture the services they provide for passing on to others.

Art Workshop at Sunnyside Court, July 2013

Being a very visual person, I recently decided to put together a photo book including quotations and story-telling relating to our recent outreach programme at the sheltered housing block, Sunnyside Court in Morningside, run by Hanover Housing Association. To me this neatly gets across the success of our art workshops – pages of happy faces working together on a variety of creative projects, paired with inspiring quotes taken directly from participants’ feedback forms at the end of the project. For me this is evaluation, and a positive one at that, in a nutshell and is something I would gladly show funders, prospective participants and clients alike going forward. (See for a PDF version of the photobook).

Meanwhile, we shall no doubt continue to develop our evaluation methods as we continue to develop our outreach programme and ensure that our services are both valued and evaluated.

Do get in touch with your thoughts on evaluations – what works for you as an organisation? How do you monitor your services and do you feel ‘in touch’ with your service users? What about funders?

Written by Amelia Calvert, Outreach Manager for Art in Healthcare