A Belper Staycation

PUBLISHED: 11:09 18 June 2013 | UPDATED: 11:13 18 June 2013

Long Row, Belper

Long Row, Belper

as submitted

Catherine Roth meets artist Ruth Gray

Having just returned to England after six years in Australia, and with a broken down car that was going nowhere, artist Ruth Gray and her family decided to forgo their annual holiday. However, she was determined to have a holiday of sorts so embarked on a ‘staycation’ in her home town of Belper. Ruth says, ‘I began to think how I could have a holiday in my own town so I looked round Belper to see what there was. If you’re on holiday you might go to the coast so we went to the River Gardens, had an ice cream and took some photos. Everything I do is done with the children and the photos are from around the school run. If you stand somewhere long enough you can see its beauty.’

For six months Ruth captured the landscapes and built environment of Belper with her camera. On school runs and trips to the supermarket she would look at everyday places with new eyes or eschew direct routes to seek out the back streets and surrounding areas. Ruth says, ‘Although we normally go away for our holidays I was quite happy to stay in Belper as it has given me the opportunity to stop and paint local scenes. I wanted to look at Belper as a tourist, which meant not going in the supermarket but looking beyond to the hills. I would drive up to Blackbrook and the Chevin or be waiting in the car park for my son when the sun was setting. My photographs are probably not what everyone sees when on the school run, but not everyone daydreams like me!’

Ruth’s staycation led to a break from her usual style of abstract painting, ‘I challenged myself to paint not just landscapes but to put in buildings and work out perspectives. When I started each painting I didn’t know if it would work or not.’ Back home, Ruth spent time going through each photograph, selecting the best, then cropping and digitally manipulating them. She says: ‘Two Decembers ago I was walking across the railway bridge looking down towards the station. All the photographs I had taken were quite dull so I used my abstract knowledge to change them into something more, for example, a green field becomes an orange field. I don’t want to paint obvious pictures.’ When Ruth finally put brush to canvas she further altered the images allowing herself plenty of artistic license.

The Belper collection includes nine semi-abstract paintings, one of which, ‘December at Belper Train Station’, featured in Artists and Illustrators magazine as part of its ‘Artist of the Year’ competition. The paintings are not only a collection of Belper scenes but represent a marrying of old and new. Ruth was keen to celebrate the contrast between Belper’s rich heritage with its iconic East Mill and Long Row and the changes that modern society brings with it. Ruth says, ‘Long Row is just such a gorgeous street when you look down from Bridge Street. I imagined Long Row when it was a cobbled street and I think that’s how tourists look at places. You don’t look at history so much when you live there.’ Leaving the town centre, historic buildings are replaced by more modern developments, such as the residential housing on Sandbed Lane. Other places have a timeless quality to them such as Blackbrook, one of Ruth’s favourites: ‘It was a beautiful misty morning and there was a Derbyshire stillness to the place. It has not changed.’

Growing up in Long Eaton, Ruth’s love of painting began at the age of nine. ‘My aunty who lives in the New Forest is an artist and she always bought me the finest quality papers and art books. She is a fantastic woman.’ However, it was Ruth’s move to Australia in 2006 with her husband that had a profound impact on her work. Albury in Wodonga was some six hours east of Sydney and three hours north of Melbourne. Ruth says, ‘We were living in the middle of nowhere – or so I thought – but there was a massive artistic community there which was brilliant. The colours I use in my paintings come directly from my experiences over there: bright sunlight and sharp shadows, no wishy-washy greens or dainty watercolours. Living over there changed my art completely and gave me a lot of confidence.’

This influence is evident in much of Ruth’s work including her depiction of the tennis club in Belper. ‘I was walking back to my car in the beautiful evening sunlight. I remember thinking, ‘no one can see this’. My children wanted to go home but the reflections in the puddles were really nice and there was an atmospheric mist so I had to stop and take some photos! When I was painting my scenes of Belper it rained all the time and I loved it. There were no clouds in Australia and I didn’t have any weather for six years.’

Ruth is keen to share her work with others and has exhibited her paintings at Belper Library for the benefit of local residents. She concludes, ‘Belper has so much natural beauty hidden behind the buildings and car parks as well as interesting streets and parklands. I hope these paintings will encourage people to look at the town in a different way as it’s so easy to miss things in daily life.’ n

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