Meet the artistic couples drawn together
PUBLISHED: 17:42 15 February 2016 | UPDATED: 17:42 15 February 2016
Two creative egos in a relationship? Surely a recipe for disaster. Not so. Here we meet four creative duos who are both artists and muses to each other. Words: Lucy and Jan Etherington
Vincent Van Gough once remarked: “What is done in love is done well”. Of course he was single and thought giving a girl his ear instead of a teddy clutching a heart that says ‘I Wuv Woo’ was a smart move.
Yet history is full of famous art couples, from the de Koonings and Christos, to Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock. Some, such as Frieda Kahlo and Diega Rivera, were infamously torrid, many such as Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning enduring.
Performance artists Marina Abramovic and Ulay spent 10 years exploring the trials of an artistic relationship in their work, mostly in the nude, and famously split up on The Great Wall of China. Sculptor Anthony Gormley often credits his painter wife Vicken Parsons as being key to his own creative process – it was she who smothered him in clay for his first self-sculpture. Now that’s love. Since it is the month when we traditionally celebrate love, we talked to couples drawn together through a shared passion for art.
Bill & Kay Ungless
Bill & Kay Ungless have a marriage of true minds. They’ve been together for 56 years and exude calm companionship, born of mutual respect, shared humour and obvious affection.
The secret, Kay says with a laugh, is “we have studios at opposite ends of the house and only meet up at mealtimes!” How they originally met is not only romantic but ingenious. As Bill tells it: “We were both at a 21st birthday party. I’d noticed Kay, but she was surrounded by admirers. I knew that she had brought the tape recorder, with music, so I decided to record a message on it. I said ‘Meet me at Euston Square, 7 o’clock next Monday and we’ll go to the Jazz Club.’ Before I left, I alerted her with a quick ‘Listen to the Whistling Rufus ‘track’, and the next Monday, there she was.”
It was then the late 50s and Bill was studying Architecture at University College London, with lectures and life drawing at the adjoining Slade School of Fine Art, where he was awarded the Sir Bannister Fletcher Medal for the best student. He had begun as a pupil architect at Johns, Slater and Haward in Ipswich, while also enrolled as a student at the Ipswich School of Art, attending the studios of Colin Moss and Bernard Reynolds. Once he’d completed his studies in 1959, he and Kay were married. He was offered work in Milan and later, Berlin. Kay worked as a translator while they lived in Europe.
Back in the UK, Bill set up an architectural practice in London with Michael Neylan, which became a rallying point for those who could see that it was possible to build local authority housing which was both radical and of its time, while being sensitive to family needs. All through his long and distinguished career as an architect he was never without a sketchbook. “Always out drawing,” he admits. Kay adds: “The children used to say ‘Dad’s gone out to get his fix’.” Now he’s retired, he can indulge his passion for portraying the coastal landscape around Walberswick. He has exhibited with the Artists of Walberswick, The Suffolk Coastal Group and the Southwold Art Circle, and had a one-man exhibition of his work at The Cut in Halesworth in 2012.
“I don’t really like talking about my art. It can sound so pretentious,” he says. But his strong, dramatic work is extremely popular.Kay, a former maths teacher, is now a textile artist. She inherited a rare combination of skills from each of her parents. Her mother taught her to knit and sew and her father – a scientist and astronomer, “always inventing things that didn’t work” – gave her the science genes. She also credits an inspirational craft mistress at her Quaker Boarding School in Somerset, with nurturing her talent.
Kay is convinced that learning to touch type can build a breakthrough for dyslexia sufferers, because the hand-eye co-ordination required for hitting keys, is far less complicated than the decoding and orientation needed to write by hand. Indeed, she worked with one dyslexic child every day until she got confident on the keyboard. “Now she has gained her PhD and was fast-tracked into Whitehall!” Kay beams. “I’m so proud of her.”
Kay’s lifelong interest in technology has enabled her to work with software linked to her knitting machine and create intricate patterns and designs, as well as portraits of her three children, their partners, her grandchildren and her son’s family dog. All the family have artistic talent.
“Our elder son makes all the family’s clothes – including his wife’s jeans,” says Bill, proudly. When I first asked Kay if she thought Bill would be interviewed for this article, she doubted that he would agree but then she called back. “Bill said that’s fine. After 56 years, he still surprises me!” They will celebrate Valentine’s Day with an exchange of cards – hand-made, naturally.
See some of Bill’s work on www.billungless.com
Helen And David Riches
Helen and David Riches insist they’re ‘very much starting out’ as artists, even though they had a successful joint exhibition in The Aldeburgh Gallery last year and art has been a joint passion since they met at Norwich School of Art, in 1980, where they each came out with a degree in graphic design.
Far from becoming instantly entwined, however, Helen went travelling, working as a designer in Australia, then backpacking across Asia, sketchbook in hand. Meanwhile, David formed a design practice, Visible Edge, (from which he is ‘almost’ retired), and in 1988, Helen slowed down just long enough for them to marry.
While David diversified into property conversion and carpentry, Helen started a 10-year project to restore a neglected garden. She found she was good at it and could communicate her ideas with both drawings and talks. One day, she was asked by a gardening magazine ‘Can you interpret this garden plan?’ With no formal training in the subject, she decided to retrain as a garden designer at Writtle College and the College of West Anglia. Her love of gardening is inherited from her grandfather.
“He wouldn’t go away on holiday because it meant leaving his garden,” she says. She hasn’t gone quite that far, but she found that when the children were young, gardening was something she could do as it fitted in perfectly with the demands of a young family.
Her own Suffolk coastal garden is “a work in progress,” she says. We walk around, followed by Scout, the terrier (named after a character in To Kill A Mocking Bird ) and it’s plain to see she already has a definite idea of how she wants it to reflect the walkways through the marshes, the grasses and the native plants. Helen’s career as a garden writer and creator of horticultural projects for magazines, which are grown and photographed in her garden, has blossomed. She is now a regular contributor to Gardeners’ World, where her twin skills of gardening knowledge and illustrative horticultural paintings combine.
Illustration and drawing have been a fundamental part of both their work, but recently Helen and David have devoted more time to painting in oils. For David, it’s very different from the world of corporate design. Seven years ago, they began oil painting under the expert guidance of artists Tony Rothon and Sarah Nutley, and still join them on their painting courses in Portugal. They often set off, together, on painting expeditions, in all weathers, never working from photographs and always painting ‘en pleine air’.
“I think that’s the way we were taught,” says Helen.
“Also, it’s wonderful not to be stuck in front of a computer, as I was for so many years, in my design studio,” David adds. They both love the Suffolk light.
“It’s amazing. Constantly changing,” David says. “We stop and just look – engaging with the view. If you asked me to stand in the cold, stock still, in the middle of February, for two hours or more, I’d think it was impossible, but with painting, we become totally absorbed.”
Their combined artistic talents have obviously been handed down to their children, Robert, an interior designer and Victoria, a fashion designer in San Francisco. And what does one artist give to another on Valentine’s Day?
“Oh, yes, we make Valentine’s cards,” says Helen. “But we don’t sign them.”
“We like to keep a little mystery,” adds David.
Mita and Steve Higton
In this cynical world, it’s heartening to meet people who still celebrate Valentine’s Day. For painters Steve and Mita Higton, the date has extra special significance. It’s Steve’s birthday.
“I think being a Valentine’s baby has made him more romantic,” says, Mita, who is the Yin to Steve’s Yang (or is it the other way around?). Anyway, she’s the bubbly one, he’s more circumspect.
“He seems like a cynic, but there’s a hidden side to Steve that not many people see. He writes gorgeous, angst ridden poetry and every Valentine’s Day I get a poem!” Surely that’s how Valentine’s Day should be celebrated, serenading one’s lady wife with lines of hand-penned verse rather than a Hallmark card and a bunch of wilting roses from the garage. And this after 13 years together.
The couple met online when they were 52, both divorced with children from their former marriages, wary of the online dating world, which was a relatively new and scary terrain back then, and not expecting anything to come of their internet dalliance.
“He was the sixth person I met,” says Mita. “The others were OK, but all of them had put up photos of themselves when they were younger and they all wanted one thing.” Then she met Steve – and was impressed. Instead of trying to get her into bed, he was quoting New Age guru Deepak Chopra and she thought, ‘Hello. This one’s different.’ Apparently, he thought she was posh.
“He’s a Nottingham lad,” Mita explains. “He lived in Ross-on-Wye and I lived in Islington. I keep thinking that if I knew how to narrow my perimeter on the site I wouldn’t have met him.”
For their first date, they met halfway in Oxford. By the second date four days later, they knew they were in love. They wanted to get married on Valentine’s Day, but Mita’s daughter was away on her honeymoon, so they had to put it back a week. I’m surprised to learn that Mita and Steve only became full-time painters just after they met. Before that it was what Steve describes as “a very expensive hobby”. Shortly after they married, he ditched his stressful job as a salesman and they moved to Utah in America to start life afresh.
“I hated Utah,” says Mita. “Steve loved it, but I’m half Indian and experienced a lot of racist remarks. Utah is half Mormons, half arty Californians. We hung out with the latter and made some great friends. Art was something we did as a pastime. We joined an art club and after a while we started to take it seriously.” They decided to move back to England after three years and chose East Anglia because the big skies and light reminded Steve of America. Steve’s paintings started to sell, and while Mita says her watercolours and portraits are less lucrative, she runs art clubs and workshops.
Now they are totally smitten – with each other and painting – and have built an extension to accommodate a bright, spacious studio at the back of their charming Victorian house, which is full of their delightful landscape paintings.
They work very differently. Steve, clearly a man of hidden passions, spends two hours utterly immersed in each piece of work and finds the process addictive and tortuous, as one would expect from a true romantic. Mita is slow, methodical and precise, taking several days over each watercolour. Total opposites, who have found a great balance, in life and in art.
Susi Hines and Doug Selway
When working as art tutors in London, Susi Hines and Doug Selway had a dream – to make art the centre of their lives. They drew their ideal live-work space and kept it on their bedroom wall.
“We were looking at houses around London and moving further and further out,” remembers Susi. “Then finally we found it.”
The 18th Century town house in a pretty Suffolk village needed some alteration. The front room, where most people would stick a sofa and a telly, has become Susi’s workshop. She makes exquisite unusual jewellery, inspired by early scientific instruments and the elements. Her Mutabilis rings, originally made for a ballerina, slot together and come apart and are extremely popular as wedding and engagement rings.
Doug converted the garage space for his studio, which is full of extraordinary surreal sculptures, and words and sketches scrawled on the walls and ceilings. Every space has been used. He’s a man bursting with philosophical and playful ideas. The pair love people and hold various soirees and workshops for friends. When I meet them, Doug cooks us a lovely spicy soup, chopping the ingredients as he chats away about art, philosophy and the trials of trying to make a living as artists.
“If you want to be an accountant, there’s a process you follow,” he says. “But there is no map for a creative life. You have to be extremely pragmatic, but free enough to create.” When Susi and he met in the 1990s at Kingsway College in London (Sid Vicious is an alumni), Doug had two children from a previous marriage.
“We sat down and worked out how we could carry on working with the same intensity, but not take anything away from our relationships,” says Doug. “It’s a really hard thing to achieve.”
He was brought up, he says, to think of work as something you did to put food on the table and that never leaves him. Susi is equally industrious. And yet, if there is such a thing as a work-life-love balance, they seem to have done it. They make time for people and each other. They are delightful hosts, fun and warm, and it’s only from their studios that you can see how obsessive they must be when working.
“We can read each other so well,” says Susi. “We regulate each other. If I’m stuck in my work, Doug can tell. He gently takes me away from the house. We’ll often go for a drive somewhere in the Suffolk countryside and go for a walk or lunch. When I come back, my head is clear.” Rather than two egos clashing, it’s two people looking out for each other, offering support as well as inspiration.
“Susi has changed me,” Doug says. “Our relationship is crucial to our work and vice versa. We inspire and challenge each other.”
“I think we’re producing more exciting work than ever right now,” Susi adds. “Even though we’re getting older, the energy and ideas are even stronger. I don’t ever want to stop!” w