ARTIST INTERVIEW- Heather McAteer
Heather McAteer is a visual artist who uses drawing to investigate themes of identity, memory and history. Working predominantly in graphite, Heather produces evocative drawings which harness the visual power of light and shadow.
Your work has a very ethereal quality, how do you go about creating this
(2021) Graphite on gesso coated paper 29 x 42 cm
I don’t consciously try to imbue a work with ’atmosphere’ it seems to be a sensibility
I hold and it naturally comes to the fore when I put pencil to paper. I am drawn to a
certain dark, melancholic outlook which is definitely related to my upbringing in
Belfast at the height of ‘The Troubles’ during the 1970s and 1980s. They were dark
times filled with danger and threat when venturing out at any time, but especially
night, was perilous. My work explores the physiological darkness of this period. The
narrator of Anna Burns’ novel ‘Milkman’ explains this beautifully:
"…I lived where the whole place seemed to be in the dark…I knew as a child that
this wasn’t really physical; knew that the impression of a pall, of some distorted
quality of light had to do with the political problems, with the hurts that had come,
the troubles that had built, with the loss of hope and absence of trust and with a mental incapacitation over which nobody seemed wiling or able to prevail.”
What are your favourite materials to work with?
(2021) Graphite and acrylic on paper 30 x 42 cm
First and foremost graphite. I have worked in charcoal, but feel that graphite offers
more control in terms of both definition, when sharp lines are required, but also
when blending. It’s incredibly versatile, and I enjoy seeing how it works on different
surfaces. My favourite paper is a batch of blotting paper I have had since the early
90’s which I am slowly working my way through. It’s very soft and works beautifully
with a layer of gesso on top making it a very receptive surface for graphite work,
particularly blending and shading. I recently developed RSI and started painting to
take a break from intensive drawing. I like the versatility of acrylic and enjoy using it
like watercolour. Sometimes I will combine several mediums together: acrylic or
gesso as a base, then overlaying with coloured pencils, graphite and occasionally
pen and ink.
How do you decide the scale of your pieces, do you prefer to work larger or
I like my work to have an intimacy and therefore prefer to work on a small
scale. This is usually no larger than A3 size. I have made larger works, but
I’m always happier with the intensity a small work can communicate and the idea of
drawing the viewer into my world.
Could you share a bit about your piece ‘What does the night hold?’, what led to the creation of this work?
What does the night hold?
(2021) Acrylic and graphite on blotting paper 21 x 30 cm
At the end of the summer I read Rebecca Solnit’s memoir ‘Recollections of My
Non-Existence’. Her account of her formative years, combating violence and
misogyny to find her voice as a writer and make herself visible, resonated deeply
with me. The chapter ‘Freely at Night’ particularly stood out. The title was inspired
by a quote from Sylvia Plath: “ …I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel
west, to walk freely at night.” It made me think of my own experiences growing up in
Belfast with an undercurrent of threat. I lived on a housing estate which was
formerly a large area of parkland. My bedroom window overlooked a wooded area
which had been untouched by the development. The work recalls my feelings of
allure and fear evoked by this mysterious territory and are tied to my desire for
freedom and autonomy during my teenage years. Around the time of finishing this
work, the unbearable details of the death of Sarah Everard were revealed. At that
point the work seemed to open out, taking on meaning beyond my own personal
experience to that of every woman out walking in the world.
How important is colour to you?
I really admire artists who can use colour in a very emotive way in their work, but
it’s not something which comes naturally to me. I have occasionally added small
touches, almost like highlights to a picture but I feel that my subject matter and
ideas are best expressed in monochrome. This is linked to the nostalgia of black
and white photographs, captured moments and memories and a feel of a time past.
The Cropped Hedge
(2021) Mixed media on gesso coated paper 29 x 42 cm
Who are some of your favourite contemporary artists at the moment?
For my current body of work I have been spending a lot of time looking at Anslem
Kiefer’s paintings. Beyond the incredible physicality of the work, I am drawn to his
muted colour palette and the stark, haunting quality of the images. I am interested
in how he processes his culture’s dark history through his portrayal of a landscape
which holds the scars of the past. I feel a deep connection with the work of Irish
artists Willie Doherty and Elizabeth Magill and their very different approaches to the
landscape in terms of issues of identity, memory and history. I also have an
enduring love of Mona Hatoum’s work and how she deals with themes of home,
family and displacement. Her pieces are a beautiful, poetic fusion of the personal