Sheila Dodd’s landscape paintings are not what you would call serene but people viewing them this weekend can have little inkling of the trials and tribulations the Morpeth artist has endured.
Fire, flooding and life-threatening illness are the Old Testament-style malign forces that have seemed to conspire against her but she has emerged unscathed and triumphant.
That much is clear from the summer show with which Northumberland gallery Westside Contemporary reopens tomorrow.
Sheila’s lively and bracing depictions of the landscape share wall space with pictures by Keith Murdoch, an artist who moved to the North East recently and lives in Wallsend.
As you would expect of the gallery owned and run by Sue Moffitt, the work on the walls is both serious and commercial.
These are paintings that are easy on the eye but which also convey emotion. It’s serious stuff but you really wouldn’t mind having it on the wall at home.
Sheila has painted all her life but used to work as a medical secretary for a team of surgeons at the University Hospital of North Durham. She was bringing up two children at the same time so life was full.
It was in 2000 that that she decided to take her hobby more seriously and bolster a natural painting gift with some academic study. She signed up for a fine art course in the evenings at Durham University and then embarked on a degree course at Sunderland University – where Sue Moffitt also studied.
“I was enjoying university life with a studio of my own, happily working towards my finals, when routine mammography diagnosed breast cancer,” she recalls.
She was given the option of deferring her studies but decided to soldier on through treatment. For a time after surgery she could only paint with her left hand but that didn’t stop her from working on some very large canvases in the run-up to her degree show.
“Although daunting at first, I became interested in the effect it had on my work, opening up new ways of communicating through drawing with oil paint,” she says.
“Working towards my degree gave me a focus,” she adds.
Sheila graduated with first class honours and embarked on an MA.
The vicious fates, however, were not about to let her enjoy her success. With the BA degree under her belt and radiotherapy behind her, she was bitten by a nasty species of fly while on a painting course in the south of France.
She suffered a life-threatening reaction and found herself in hospital with weeks of medication ahead of her.
Looking back, she says: “I couldn’t believe I could have had such a dramatic reaction to insect bites but I was told it was very serious indeed.”
After the brush with the fly, it was the local River Wansbeck that rose up to bite her. Having finished her MA in 2007, Sheila fell victim to the severe flooding that put her home town of Morpeth in the headlines for weeks.
“My studio was downstairs and we had 5ft of floodwater in the house. Everything was destroyed. I lost my entire portfolio of work and had to start from the beginning again.”
Adding to the drama of the situation, Sheila wasn’t at home at the time. She had embarked on one of her frequent trips to the south of France to study the famous prehistoric cave paintings at Pech Merle – and particularly the painting known as the Black Frieze which features bison, mammoths and aurochs, an extinct species of wild cattle.
Sheila, who brings her own pigments home from France, was interested in the material used by the artists of some 25,000 years BC to create the pictures that have entranced modern visitors since the 1920s. But her studies were rudely interrupted.
“We had been in the holiday cottage we were renting for just an hour when we started getting messages from our friends to say our home in Morpeth, which we’d only had for a year, was flooded and everything on the ground floor was decimated. And there we were in the Dordogne!
“What to do next? We decided to stay just for two days because it was clearly quite frantic back home and we were starting to talk to loss adjustors.
“But in that two days I did manage to see the Black Frieze and it was an absolutely inspiring moment. I loved the cave paintings and I thought that if prehistoric man could create these wonderful drawings out of very primitive materials then we could go home to Morpeth and restore our home.
“Unfortunately it wasn’t quite as simple as that. We’d gone over on the ferry but when we arrived at the ferry port to return home, the port was blocked. There was a fire in the Channel Tunnel which meant people were heading for the ferry. Our booking wasn’t for another couple of weeks so we were stuck in Normandy for days.”
It was a sorry sight that greeted Sheila and her husband John on their eventual return home. But some good things came out of this latest misfortune, this exhibition being one of them.
Sheila says their insurers paid for them to relocate for eight months to the nearby village of Longhirst. That might sound stressful but Sheila says: “I thoroughly enjoyed our evacuation time so I suppose you could say I had a really good flood experience.
“Although we were told it never really snowed in Longhirst we got a lot of snow and I started painting landscapes around there. All the work you will see in the exhibition really comes from the last three years when, I suppose, I rediscovered myself.”
The Westside Contemporary exhibition features 35 paintings which are the result of a period of incredible creativity and daunting setbacks. They are distillations of academic study and personal experience filtered through Sheila’s fascination for colour and form.
Sheila says she doesn’t make her paintings with the tourist market in mind but neither are they intended to be overly academic.
“What I’m really wanting to do is find a balance between representation and abstraction and create something with a language all of its own.”
Inspiration comes from sources spanning the broadest spectrum, from those prehistoric cave painters to the American Cy Twombly who specialised in large canvases bearing calligraphic or graffiti-like marks.
Yesterday the Tate was celebrating a gift of artworks by Twombly, who died in 2011. They have been valued at around £50m. You can pick up a Sheila Dodd canvas for a little less than that in the coming weeks but every one is an original.
Life seems to be looking up now for the artist who has just returned from another trip to France in time for tomorrow’s exhibition.
And despite a repeat flooding scare last September, when water lapped around three sides of her studio and stopped a millimetre short of engulfing the place, Sheila has nothing but praise for those who have helped victims, including the Environment Agency, the county council, Morpeth Lions, the Red Cross and the Morpeth Flood Action Group, of which she is a member.
She is optimistic that a £23m flood defence system will be completed by the end of the year and prevent further catastrophic flooding. “Over the past five years we’ve had constant disruption as they’ve put in a new pumping station and a multi-million-pound dam at Mitford but we also feel extremely lucky and quite blessed to have benefited from all these resources.”
The summer exhibition runs from tomorrow until July 26 at Westside Contemporary, Westside Farm, Newton Hall, NE43 7TW. Tel. 01661 843778 or visit www.westsidecontemporary.com