In conversation with abstract painter Trudy Montgomery
Abstract painter Trudy Montgomery is the first brave volunteer to chat to me in the Art Speak studio. In this interview, Trudy talks about how she made the unlikely transition from studying economics and political development to working as a professional artist living in Cornwall … via Silicon Valley.
See more of Trudy’s work:
Trudy’s beautiful and colourful intuitive paintings can be seen here:
So, how did you go from studying politics to being an artist?
‘My mother’s a painter and very accomplished. I remember feeling at 12 or 13 that I would compare myself to her, and ridiculously, to all her experience and practice. I decided I wasn’t going to be good enough, so I gave up art and didn’t even do O’ Level. My father’s in business and so I was pushed towards economics. I had some brilliant teachers so I ended up doing that at Exeter University and studying politics in France – way off track!’
Trudy then moved to San José – to Silicon Valley – and spent 10 years in San Francisco working in marketing and PR and analyst relations. ‘I was having a ball. It was the dot com era, everything was exploding and it was very exciting. But I would talk to gallerists and artists, and have this very uncomfortable feeling in my stomach; I almost couldn’t talk to them – it was just too painful because it was really what I wanted to do.’
However, an interest in the personal development movement ‘shone a lightbulb’ into the fact that Trudy had not found her calling in life yet! ‘A lot of what I was, was made up, and not truly who I was’. Through the Landmark Forum Trudy put on an art show and became an art consultant. ‘You’re a personal shopper for art – and I was like, this is the most fun I’ve ever had. I would go into galleries and talk to the owners and get to know what was in their backroom – what artists they had, what their styles were. I moonlighted for a while from my corporate job doing this.’
Were you painting during this time?
‘I loved talking to the artists about what mediums they used, how they achieved various effects, what they did with different brushstrokes and so on, but it wasn’t until later that I realised I was looking for a certain type of painting, and that I was going to have to create it myself. It was a very rich background in terms of being an art consultant – also the going to the art fairs and the galleries, dealers – the commercial side, as well as exposing to me from all over the world.’
When did you go from art consultant to doing your own work?
‘It did take an epiphany. I was reading a book by Carolyn Myss called Sacred Contracts where she talks about archetypes. It said: “If you are promoting the arts, you are the artist archetype”. So I thought that’s it, and literally that sentence gave me permission to pick up a paint brush. I went straight to my mother and asked her to teach me to paint. I also did classes with her teacher, Robin Child, who’s an extraordinary gifted and passionate teacher of art, and met his students and started to immerse myself in that world.’
What are your influences, artistically?
‘I had a sense of the last 200 years of art history, but the modern artists excited me most – Franz Kline and the New York school from the 50s and 60s, as well as abstract expressionism and the colourists such as Howard Hodgson, Sandra Blow. Now that I’m in Cornwall, obviously there’s a huge emphasis on Patrick Heron and Terry Frost, but also Peter Lanyon’s very loose, expressive gestures.’
How has your process developed?
‘I start with some sketches, and shapes that I might play with, but it’s a jumping off spot because you can’t make a painting in a sketchbook. I have to let go of those sketches because otherwise I’m forcing a painting, rather than discovering it. You have to go through a process of responding and letting go, balancing in the lights and darks – at the same time as being in it. It takes several sessions and a struggle, frustration. Then you get tight and you can’t stand it and go back in with vigour and that’s often when a breakthrough happens – when you let go, and accidents happen – that’s when it gets exciting. A tentative brushstroke just looks unconvincing. You have to be bold, and you have to be assertive.’
Do you then wonder if you can do it again?
‘You can never do it again! You can stop too early – and then it’s a nice painting; it may even be saleable, but it’s not satisfying. It didn’t challenge you, and so what’s the point, really? Comfortable is death!
‘Art is a spiritual practice, because you’re discovering yourself through an unspoken communication with a creative piece of work. It’s like nothing else I’ve experienced. It’s endlessly fascinating.’
How do you feel when you know a painting has said what you want it to say?
‘There’s a bodily reaction – your body relaxes and says, “Ah,” or all my hairs stand up on my arm – like anchoring a new frequency. It’s a measurable scientific wave, a vibration, colour. The colours, composition, the aspect that was me, it’s all encoded in a painting, which is why a print is not the same; a real live painting’s got my DNA in it. That’s why when I was standing in front of a Rothko I thought, “Oh my God, I’m in the Tate and I think I’m going to cry!”. I’m not a scientist, I live too much on the intuitive side, but I know there’s something going on!’
You’ve done the Newlyn School of Art ‘Mentoring course’ & CVP – can you talk a bit about those?
‘I did the Newlyn course when we moved to Cornwall in 2016. Having that structure was really helpful for integrating into Cornwall, meeting artists and showing work. They have excellent tutors there, some of whom are involved with Falmouth University too and it was wonderful to have access to them. They encouraged me to think about my work in different ways – working on aluminium, and exhibiting with the connections they have. It was a fantastic year, like doing a university course.
‘CVP was very different. I did that last year when I realised I couldn’t get out with a small child to do courses, or take a whole week off or immerse myself in the same way. It’s an online course with different modules you can do at your own pace. Working in acrylic on small panels, and having fresh input – it works in a very encouraging way, and there’s a great deal of permission.’
Is doing courses like CVP an important part of your practice?
‘When you start to think you know it all, it’s death! The community is important – to bounce off each other and share ideas and resources. Also I enjoyed the international aspect (of CVP), because I’d lived in San Francisco – near Sausalito (where CVP’s Nick Wilton is based). It have me permission to work on a very large piece which I sold to a collector via email in the States. That’s something I wouldn’t have done, playing it small, head down in my studio.’
How did you get into a gallery? Any advice?
‘You need to know the gallery’s style and what kind of artists are showing there. If you like those artists, I suggest reaching out to them – it’s easy with the internet – find them, and they will answer! Make connections. All the galleries I’ve worked with was because I knew an artist who was already there. When you show up in person you can say that you know so and so, and they suggested I contacted you; and that might mean they give you a few more moments. Don’t take it personally if they don’t take you on. They may already have someone who’s filling that aesthetic space.
‘You need to have good images, and be easy to work with. You have to create a relationship – showing up in person, dropping a few artists’ names, asking intelligent questions about what’s on the wall. They will look at your website – you do need a website. Invite them to your studio – take a risk.’
We’ll end with a few quickfire arty questions …
What’s your favourite colour?
‘Coral pink! Magenta pink, or a quite hard-to-find coral, set against oranges and pinks. That’s the influence of India.
Did your palette change in Lockdown?
‘In Lockdown it got quite heavy with blues, blacks and burgundy, but then I was able to go to brighter colours again – yellows, oranges and lime green. I’ve just finished a series that was really bright. It was expressing a need to find the positive – there are positive things happening, despite the headlines, and the insistence that we are in this fear-based place, which I hate. Fear is a virus and it is contagious. It’s not who I am. I’m free, vibrant, and life runs through me and this is my true expression.’
‘End of a palette knife.’
Canvas or wood panels
‘Canvas is easier to manage.’
Which marks do you especially like making?
‘There’s a loop, hoop and a circle; an up-turned V. There are symbols – an unconscious expression – which may go in to a painting, and may be covered up later.’
What do you want the viewer to feel when they look at your work?
‘I hope they (my paintings) give access to a wider realm of being, beyond our logical and rational mind. A bodily response to colour, composition and the frequencies we talked about – a gateway into the other aspects of who we are as human beings.’