There is a horse farm about a mile and a half outside Motala, a small town located between Stockholm and Gothenburg in southern Sweden. There it is surrounded by vast woodlands, a huge lake, hunters cabins, and amid the rural isolation, an old mental asylum.
This was the landscape in which Galway based Swedish artist Cecilia Danell grew up, and this landscape, though she has not lived there for a decade, continues to shape and inspire her, becoming in the process, a means of exploring her ideas about herself and how she relates to the world around her.
“I was very lucky to live in such an interesting place,” she tells me as we sit for the interview in the TULCA Festival Gallery on Market Street, where three large canvases by the artist are among the works on display - All The Changes In Me, Playground Of The Giants, and Suddenly Exposed.
Portrait of the artist
Cecilia’s artistic talents were encouraged from a young age by her mother and grandmother, both of whom paint as a hobby. Eventually Cecilia started to nurture ambitions to make art her career in some shape or form.
“In my teens I wanted to become a book illustrator,” she says. “I loved Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Långstrump, or Pippi Longstocking books, so I tried to come up with my own stories and illustrate them, or do illustrations based on stories I heard. As I grew up though I began to enjoy painting and then I moved to Ireland.”
In 2004 Cecilia enrolled in the GMIT’s art and design course, but why Ireland? “We came here on holidays in my teens and I always really liked it,” she says. “In my teens I also became interested in Irish music, both traditional and rock. I think Tom Dunne’s Greatest Hits taught me everything I know!”
Moving to a foreign country at only 19 was a daunting prospect, but Cecilia quickly found her feet in Galway. “Galway is a small city,” she says. “I was used to small cities. I would have felt scared in somewhere much bigger like Dublin. I made a lot of friends here as well, it began to feel like home, and it felt natural to stay after college.”
While in first year in the GMIT, during the ‘taster modules’, where students have the option to explore working in a variety of media, Cecilia discovered a passion for painting. “The mixing and applying of paint appealed to me, I enjoyed the process,” she says. “Painting became my specialisation.”
Cecilia’s rising reputation, both in Ireland and Sweden is as a painter, yet the multi-talented Swede, has never completely abandoned an interest in graphic art and illustration, designing the memorable cover of Swoon, the debut album by Galway garage rock/indie-pop band Dott. Speaking of music, Cecilia is also a fine songwriter, who has recorded with Galway indie-folk/avant garde collective Cubs - her songs stealing the show on the band’s 2013 EP Perpetual Light. “There are plans to record a Cubs’ album,” she reveals, “and I have written a few songs.”
Self-portrait through landscapes
The combination of the rural Swedish landscape and a love of the texture and method of applying paint to canvas combine impressively in the work of Cecilia Danell.
“When I go back home to visit my parents I like to wander around the forests and landscapes around the farm,” she says. “I take a lot of photographs and I use these to base paintings on. The landscapes for the TULCA works are all from around my home. I’m not interested though in just reproducing the photos or in pin-pointing the exact location of the scene, through a title for a work, I’m more interested in using the landscape as a metaphor for the self.”
Cecilia’s landscapes are infused with a strong sense of atmosphere and mystery, like a still from a film where the action has not yet happened, but is about to do so, of where it has just taken place, leaving an afterglow of itself, and a question for the viewer: ‘What has just gone on?’
One of the most arresting works in the TULCA Festival Gallery is Cecilia’s Suddenly Exposed, depicting a yellow ochre coloured two storey house in a remote, rural, wilderness, dwarfed by five enormously tall, spindly, trees.
“It’s a neighbour’s house, although I’m not sure if he lives there anymore,” says Cecilia, before laughing, “but our other neighbours know the house. They often check my Facebook page and said they had never seen the house from that angle before.”
Suddenly Exposed is also a fine example of Cecilia’s working methods. The house is depicted in some detail with the trees rendered in a more Impressionist manner. The foreground though dissolves into abstraction.
“I like to put on several layers of washes and paints, often rusty reds and whites, before I begin the actual painting itself,” she says. “This makes the surface of the canvas much smoother, it becomes like painting on wood, you don’t get the grain of the canvass material showing through the paints. It also makes the finished image much more translucent. I always like to leave some evidence of that process in the finished work.”
As well as providing the viewers with room to project their imagination on to the abstract sections of the work, there are also sound compositional reasons for this approach.
“There was a lot of detail in the bottom of that painting,” says Cecilia, “but then I got this oil bar, it’s like a crayon and oil paint. I just scrubbed and scrubbed with it and this effect was produced. It worked really well as it made the house, which is small and in the distance, the focus of the work, instead of the foreground being the focus.”
Norwegian artist Edvard Munch said: “Nature is not only all that is visible to the eye, it also includes the inner pictures of the soul,” and this quote is very applicable to Cecilia’s All The Changes In Me (shown above ). A depiction of a forest near her parents’ home, the work has both solidity and looseness in its brushstrokes, the hardness of the tree trunks and the softness of the ground is almost tangible and the viewer feels as if s/he can put a hand into the canvas to reach between the trees themselves. Yet this illusion is shattered by the drips which run down in vertical lines from the tree trunks, reminding the viewer that this is a flat, 2, surface image.
Cecilia enjoys the ability to create a image that is both abstract and representational. “I don’t have to be bound by the rules of photography,” she says. “I can depart from the image in the photograph I’m using to inspire a work. I like to play around with and manipulate the paints. Also, it’s not painting landscape by numbers. I want to challenge myself and imbue the picture with something of myself.”
Neither do picture postcard images of Sweden interest her, hence the brooding, sometimes mysterious atmosphere of her landscapes.
“The Swedish landscape is vast and varied and sparsely populated, and here and there there are these odd little houses!” she says. “When I go back home I see that the forest has not changed, but I have. The way I saw it when I walked around it originally is not the same way I see it now, and that’s what I’m interested in capturing. I’m almost an outsider looking into the landscape that was my home.”
While the status of outsider can be enough to plunge any artist into a permanent state of angst, being a outsider is something Cecilia, and her art, revel in.
“It intrigues me!” she says. “I’m 10 years living away from Sweden so I’m kind of an outsider there. I live in Ireland, but I’m not Irish, so I’m an outsider here as well. It doesn’t bother me. It gives me a different view on things other people might be so used to they take for granted. It helps me find ideas in things others may be overexposed to, and that can take on different forms in my art.”
Cecilia’s work is on show at the TULCA Festival Gallery, Market Street, which is open up to and including Sunday November 23. For more on Cecilia’s art see www.ceciliadanell.com