Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Hello. I'm Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to, or watching, Radio Maine. Today, I have with me artist, Christina Thwaites, who is joining us from her home in Orono, Maine. Great to have you here today. 

 

Christina Thwaites:

Thank you. Thank you for having me. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So I'm interested in going back into this remote world of recording our radio show. You get to be the first one back in the remote world. And today it happens to be because we're experiencing a little bit of a weather issue. So up in the Bangor/Orono  area, I understand you have snow. We have heavy rain that's falling on our roof, but you have snow.

 

Christina Thwaites:

Yes, we have a lot of the white stuff coming down. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I understand that doesn't bother you because you're going to be able to go out skiing once this is all over. 

Christina Thwaites:

If the children will let me. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, tell me about your children. They’re outside playing right now and you've already warned me that it's potential that they could come in the middle and join our podcast. Maybe. 

 

Christina Thwaites:

They've been promised ice cream if they're very quiet when they come in. They are five and seven years old. I have a girl and a boy and they are all of five and seven years old which is very nice and messy and takes up a lot of time and energy. 

 

Cristina Thwaites:

But you know, when they're at school, I'm in the studio 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And because of the weather, they're not in school today, 

 

Christina Thwaites:

That is correct. Another school day canceled for the snow in Maine. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So how has it been for you in Maine dealing with weather, COVID, and a five and a seven year old, and trying to continue to be an artist during all of these interesting times. Tell me about that. 

 

Christina Thwaites:

I find the weather here quite hard. There’s quite a lot in that question.  I'm English so I'm used to mild drizzly gray days. That's my kind and I'm okay in that. But this is quite extreme for me.  I don't mind some extreme weather. It's just that when you get three weeks, or a month, of really cold, well, it's easier now that the kids are older and they can put their own snow gear on. But when they were babies, when they were smaller, I’d spend 40 minutes getting them ready and then you go outside and 10 minutes later you have to come in. Because everyone's cold, you know, it's a challenging climate, And I don't have anyone to dump my kids on. I mean, I have a husband but he also works. But we don't have parents or sisters or anybody around to come by to babysit. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So on a day like today, where you want to try to get back to your painting, how do you navigate that? 

 

Christina Thwaites:

Oh, there's no navigation. I have to look after my children.  This morning it was negotiated with my husband. He's moved all of his meetings for a bit later so that I could do this podcast.  He works at the University of Maine. So we're lucky enough that he has a fairly flexible schedule. He can be flexible but he also is flat out with work. So it's juggling. I do a lot of putting the kids to bed and then going back to work until I get to bed.  But I guess lots of people have that. Whether it's their kid they're looking after or another job during the day that they have. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yes. I'm sure it's very relatable to a lot of people, but it doesn't make things any easier for you right now. You're kind of right in the middle of just a very busy time in life and compound that with COVID and bad weather.

 

Christina Thwaites:

COVID doesn't make that much difference to me. It's the kids, let's be honest. I mean, I'm alone in my studio. And so I don't wear a mask to work and I don't have to social distance and it doesn't really make that much difference. That's the truth. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, good. 

 

Christina Thwaites:

Because I think for most people that's been a big impact.  I mean it did influence some of my work. I definitely made some work which is related, I would say, to the COVID world.  But I don't think it's affected me on a day to day basis in the way it's affected a lot of people. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, let's talk about your work and  let's start with the piece that you have behind you. Describe that piece for people who are listening to the podcast.

 

Christina Thwaites:

So this is obviously a landscape painting. It's oil on canvas. I'm just checking the dimensions on my piece of paper so I get it right. It's 26 by 42 inches and it's called No Point Counting the Waves. And I guess the title is just to do with, you know, when you get to the coast, you have that feeling of timelessness. You can just enjoy being there. I've done a lot of landscape painting since I've been here in Maine and that's really just because that's where I feel most happy when I'm here in Maine. That's where I go to breathe properly.  I also just think the coast is stunning here. It's got the shapes and the textures and the colors and the light. And it's helped me get back to a much more playful way of painting where you are just having more of a conversation about texture and shape and color and layering than specifically trying to communicate any profound message or anything else. You're just enjoying the process of painting. 

 

Christina Thwaites:

 And it's quite relaxing to paint landscape seascapes. It feels a bit like being there. So I guess it's definitely been a way to feel connected to the landscape and connected to Maine in a positive way. And I guess that's what I do wherever I can. I have to sort of latch onto something to focus on with my painting so that I can feel more at home in that context. And definitely here in Maine, that's been the coast, the coastline. We don't live on the coast, but Bar Harbor is not far, it's like an hour away. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, that brings me …

 

Christina Thwaites:

Quite often, I get down for the weekends, you know, camping when we can, walking on the beach in our snow pants  if we have to.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You're very flexible that way. That's great that you're able to just kind of roll with it. Tell me about this piece that's behind me. 

 

Christina Thwaites:

So the piece behind you is called This is my Happy Place and it's what I was saying earlier. I mean, going to the coast is my happy place but actually it's not a specific place.  I'm not terribly interested in painting specific places. I paint the coast of Maine but I'm not painting specific places in Maine. I work from old black and white photographs. I quite often go to the library, or online, and I look at the historical archives of photographs in Maine and I pick out images and shapes that I like.  Then I'll do sketches and sometimes I'll merge two pictures. I guess it's a way of me looking through old pictures to get a sense of the history. It's like a visual essay of the past, which I enjoy. And it's also helps me to keep away from trying to be too realistic and trying to represent a particular place or space but more of a general feeling of shapes and colors and a response that I guess is more open to interpretation so that I can enjoy that game and that play of interpretation, for the viewer as well, so that when you see it, you're like, oh, that reminds me of here. 

 

Christina Thwaites:

Or I see this and somebody else will say, oh, that doesn't do that for me, that I think about this when I see it. So that there's opening and dialogue, as opposed to answering the questions of this place and that's the end. I want it to be a bit more ambiguous and sometimes things are more tight and, you know, more defined and other times the work just sort of finishes and you’re left with a kind of, I'm not quite sure if this is finished or not. I don't know. And that's what's nice about the black and white photos, because they're a bit like that. Some of them are quite clear and some of them are crackled and old and by the time you've photocopied them from the book and then you've sketched from them. And then you work from your sketch. You're quite a long way from where it started already, which is what I'm interested in. Because I would like not just my conversation to be important with the work, but with the viewer as well. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

When did you decide to start using the old black and white photographs as a means for inspiring the work that you do? 

 

Christina Thwaites:

I've been doing that for maybe 15 years or maybe 20 years.  I wouldn't say since I started painting.  I did live in Amsterdam for a while in an artist squat house. And, before I left, my grandfather handed me a pile of old photos of the family and I was like, wow, these are really cool. And I worked from the old photographs and it was really interesting because through the generations you could see the family likeness. And so it was this really fun game of thinking, well, when was that photo taken? Hang on, that's the son of this person, but they looked the same at the same age, but, you know, there's 30 years between them.  So it was like a detective game for me, I guess. 

 

Christina Thwaites:

What I'm doing in Maine is I look through the photos and I piece bits together and I make connections which may or may not be there. And then I work from the photographs to get into the images and then they become something else on their own. And then, by the time they're finished, they're a completely new creation in the world and nothing to do with the first image I started working with and then I just carried on doing it. When we lived in Australia, I would spend quite a long time looking through, we lived in Canberra, which is the capital, and I spent quite a long time in the libraries, looking at the archives. They have amazing collections of quite disturbing photographs by the Brits when they got there. And they took photographs of people a bit like specimens, it's quite horrifying but part of the history. 

 

Christina Thwaites:

I guess just that I like the old, black and white photos as a starting point because you get some of the story, but you don't get all of it. And I also like, especially with the ones of the figures. The Portland Art Gallery has some of my figure work, and it's the same process. And when I'm working from the photographs for the figures, the photographs are sort of even more eerie. They're very eerie because they have to be.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You also also have magnetic pieces which are unique for the Portland Art Gallery. And, I would say, something that's probably unique in art generally. 

 

Christina Thwaites: 

 I've actually done here's one I made earlier. So I have one here just to sort of show how they work and  I think they are unique. I have not. I have seen people working with magnetic pieces before in a more abstract realm you know, sort of, and style and you can move the squares around, but I haven't seen anything like this. None that I know of where each piece is sort of figurative and you can change the narrative. I guess this comes back to that whole part of the viewer being able to be part of the work and have a conversation with the work, not explaining everything, but you know, the viewer is given the opportunity to play and they're quite complex works to make. Each piece, I'm just gonna hold it up to the screen so you can see, like a little thin piece of magnet. 

 

Christina Thwaites:

That's been printed and painted. They've got layers of protective material on them. They're not toys, you know, when the kids come near them I'm a bit protective.  I'm sort of very interested in this work. It's being, it's a little bit like I think being a conductor, but you're not there in the audience. You want the music, everything's got to be able to work without you. So you've got to select the right instruments and the right players and then you've gotta hope for the best, but the pieces have been very carefully selected. So the colors fit together, the size fits together. It will always be harmonious. There are lines to help you. And you know, it's a conversation in the family. If I have one of these on the wall and my husband walks by, he'll move it around and then I'll come back and then I'll move it. And when one of the kids will move it and you know, it becomes quite a part of our lives. I have a big one in my bedroom when the kids are like, good, will you have a go? 

 

Christina Thwaites:

The other thing for me, there are parts of all of my life that I've ended up in here. So I mean, this goose, when we were in Italy, this was one of my geese. This is actually a screen print of one the lady geese. And she's become a sort of representative part in my work of, you know, she's the symbol of sensible level headed in this world of chaos. Cause basically we had three geese and two of them were men and they were always fighting and they were very noisy and aggressive and she was just this chilled out, come on, boys, calm down. 

 

Christina Thwaites:

And then living in Maine, you know, we have geese and they're sort of this symbol of the nature and changing seasons. And then this little lady here with her, with her scuba diving stuff on she's, that's sort of my COVID take on things. So she's in her bubble and she's listening to herself and she's walking around seeing the world through her mask and I've done quite a few with you know, the mask on like we're, it's obvious, like we've all been underwater, isn't it. And when are we gonna come out? I feel like now we are coming up for breath, but then we keep home to go down again into our world of fish and bubbles.  So there's sort of, there's lots of things that are coming together in this work. And then the backgrounds, obviously more abstract, which is interesting, because actually I sort of play with them in the same way that I do with the landscapes. It's just that the final part of the landscape is more, it's creating a stronger bridge to the figurative world than this work, but it's actually the same process without pulling and pulling, pulling and pushing, pulling paint on taking it off the physicality of the paint and the process

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Christina, you're originally from England. But even in this brief conversation, you mentioned several places that you've lived.  This idea of home kind of being what you take with you is pretty central to your work. 

 

Christina Thwaites:

I think it's taken me a long time to work out. Why do I paint? And the reason really is I think it's my way of finding home and  finding a way to be connected to where I am because I have moved a lot. I moved, you know, I left home in England at 18 and I lived in Edinburgh and Scotland and then I lived in Paris and then I lived in New York and Spain and then I lived in Italy. Then I lived in Indonesia in Amsterdam, Australia, and then we came here and I feel like my life is sort of full of chapters. And the only, I mean, obviously there are, there are continuums, but my painting really helps me to feel part of where I am. And I think that's where the whole thing of, you know, enjoying the black and white photographs and so of delving a bit more into what's around me. 

 

Christina Thwaites: 

 I mean there was a time when I was pregnant. I didn't do anything exterior. It was all interior cuz I was obsessed with myself as opposed to where I was. So I worked on pregnancy.  and so that was a whole world in itself and my body and there's another whole sort of. Road in my work is all about that.  But I guess it's all about just trying to feel grounded and peaceful about where I am and the painting part is part of that. So sometimes I feel a bit schizophrenic in my studio and I realize my work sometimes looks a bit to some people like, oh, she's doing this and then she's doing this and what, what's the connection here? But to me it's all the same. It's just different, same, but different. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

I understand that, I guess 

 

Christina Thwaites: 

With the magnetic work, that's, what's sort of a interesting for me too, because I'm able to weave all the different pieces of these different worlds together which is sort of interesting because you lay out all your pieces of magnetic stuff you've made and then some put them together in an unexpected way which is quite quite fun. I mean I started making the magnetic work because like, you know, when I was pregnant or not when I was pregnant, but when I had my kids, I didn't have any time. So I couldn't concentrate on large scale compositions and I didn't have any time for painting. So I would just make one tiny fish or like a head and then I didn't know where it was all going, but then I slowly, so everything in the end feeds into something, doesn't it in our lives. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

That's right. And I understand that in the not too distant future, there are plans for you and your family to head out on the road when your husband's on sabbatical. And he's a professor of wildlife ecology. Is that what he does?

 

Christina Thwaites: 

He does, he's a wildlife ecologist. So that's right. We are gonna pull our kids out of school and do homeschooling and my husband is gonna work from our little camping trailer and we're going to go and have a look at the states because we haven't been anywhere yet. We've been in Maine, which is very nice.  But it's such a big country. It's hard to do weekends. You know, you can't nip to the grand canyon for a weekend.  So that's what we're gonna do. We might come back very quickly because it might be a disaster.  I mean I really value my time in the studio. So for me not to be able to be in my studio alone might be hard for me. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

How, how long will you be gone for?

 

Christina Thwaites: 

That's a good question. I mean we are not quite sure we are going to go a lot. Depends on my husband's work and how he manages and how I manage and how the children manage. And if it doesn't, if it's not fun and we don't manage, we will come back and if we do manage and it's fun will stay for, I don't know until maybe June, I don’t know. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

How long is his—


 

Christina Thwaites: 

We'll have to see how it goes. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

How long is his sabbatical for? 

 

Christina Thwaites: 

Well, he has this semester off. So I mean he's already, it started at the end of the last semester I guess. So I guess it's only part of his time, but he has quite a lot of students and a lot of commitments. So I, I dunno how he's going to do it.

 

Christina Thwaites: 

It's most, so that means I have to step up, you know, on the, on the parenting side. So I don't think they'll definitely be, I'm not even sure if I'm gonna do sketching or something, which is fine.  I try not to mix my work and my kids. It doesn't work. I end up being frustrated that I'm doing bad drawings and paintings and frustrated that I'm not being a very good mom. So I try to keep them separate so that I'm a hundred percent focused in my studio or I'm a hundred percent focused on being a good parent. And sometimes everything goes, you know, in the air. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

So it sounds like it's sabbatical from teaching. It's not a sabbatical from all of the responsibilities that he has at the university. 

 

Christina Thwaites: 

I mean, sabbaticals are really, I think depends how you define what it's for, but I think it's for focusing on something like writing a paper, writing a paper or papers, collaborative writing, or writing a book or — so he has a number of things in his, on his agenda that he would like to achieve workwise. So I don’t know how we're gonna manage combining that. But, if you don't try, you don't know, so, 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

And when you were in Rome while you were working for NATO and doing work that had nothing to do with art. 

 

Christina Thwaites:

Yes.  I mean, my degree is in French literature and history of art. I thought with my French, and I was living in Rome at the time, I applied for an internship and I worked at NATO for a year and I wore a suit and had a security badge and sat at my desk and had my name on the door. And then I decided that I couldn't possibly sit in front of a computer for the rest of my life. I mean I've, I've always been painting even all the other things I've done. I mean, I've always been painting forever in my bedroom, it doesn't matter where it's not that that's ever gone away. It's just, I sort of thought that I would not have it as so much my career. I thought it would be there, but actually it's the only thing I want to do all day, every day. Everything else seems well, I don't know. Once you decide you don't want to be in front of a computer, that's a lot of jobs. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yes. I would say that's true. And it's certainly a lot of what I do. And I'm a doctor. You wouldn't think that's a lot of what I do, but you're absolutely right. 

 

Christina Thwaites: 

Nearly all jobs are in front of the computer. I don't want to be in front of the computer.  I just think it's bad for your health and it makes me feel weird. I can do a day through my accounts and website, but I can't do loads of it. It's bad for you. Well, It's bad for me. I don’t know about everybody else.  

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I completely agree. 

 

Christina Thwaites:

It helps me to be connected with the world. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yes, I agree. So when you and I were talking earlier you were mentioning that your kids are actually outside playing in the snow.

 

Christina Thwaites:

They came in, did you hear it? They came in and they're upstairs.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

A little bit. I only heard a little bit, they did a great job. They deserve that ice cream. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I love the fact that you're encouraging them to interact with the outdoors and also interesting that their father is a wildlife ecologist. So it sounds like this interface interior, exterior for everyone in your family is very important. 

 

Christina Thwaites: 

I mean, my husband and I, when the kids were small, we would argue about who got to go and shovel the driveway. Because we need, I guess we need to be connected to the outside. And I think that's why winter here is really tough and mean and we count the winters we've done. Being, I mean I grew up in a Hamlet with 10 houses and a lot of cows and sheep and I spent my whole life outside. And I think in my work that, you know, you can see that there's the outside and then there's the domestic, which is this kind of, and the domestic is to do with our culture. I mean, I just did one that the gallery has for Thanksgiving, there's this amazing photo in the Maine archives of this, you know, these kids in this big pumpkin, I was just like, oh my gosh, I have to paint that. Because people are obsessed with pumpkins here. I mean, it's hilarious. It's that sort of domestic cultural side of things. And I guess those two worlds are just important for me. I think they're important for everybody.  But I think for me, it's my, I'm a small world person. It's what's happening in my little bit of the world outside and my little bit of the world inside. And because probably it's the small things that make us happy or not. 

 

Christina Thwaites: 

It's the notes on the fridge, isn't it that make the difference to your day? 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I agree. And I think what you're also describing is this interesting path that most of us take in our lives trajectory where sometimes you're more outward focused, sometimes you're more inward focused. Sometimes the creativity is broader and looking at the seascapes and sometimes it's being the children and you know, looking at the pumpkins. So I do think there's a kind of an ebb and flow and a and, as I say, trajectory that many lives take that are similar to the one that you're just describing, 

 

Christina Thwaites: 

I guess it is just walking around, trying to be mindful of what is around you and if you have some understanding of what you're looking at and why it is the way it is. Then, hopefully, we will have a more enjoyable experience here. For me, painting is like yoga. You know, some people need to go for a run. I need to get in my studio and slap some paint around. I'm terribly messy. I can get it all over my hair. And you know, I arrived to pick the kids up from school and I’ve got paint skewed across my face. Play is the playful side of things as well. So I want to work on small paintings some days and some days I want to work big and some days I want to work in wax and some days I want to work in ink and sometimes I need to draw.  I think having a sort of varied toolbox and varied materials so that when I get down there, my body can feel as free as it needs to be, to do what it wants to do. How, I guess it doesn't mean there isn't discipline, but it's a very physical involvement with the materials. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

How did you come to work with the Portland Art Gallery? 

 

Christina Thwaites:

I contacted them and they said would you like to come and see us? So, before Christmas,  I took some work and they very kindly agreed to meet me and I showed them my work. I usually don't have work stretched up straight away. I work by rolls of canvas and then I sort of pin them to a board. So I took the work all rolled up, which makes it a lot easier for transporting, rolled it all out on the floor and they said, yes, looks interesting.  So they've now got a small selection of my work and I hope things will go forward. But it's a fabulous space and I'm very excited to be working with them. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, I know they're excited to be working with you. I encourage people to go to the Portland Art Gallery and to see Christina Thwaites work in person but also to take some time on the Portland Art Gallery website.  It's really been a pleasure to be speaking with Christina Thwaites today. And I hope I get a chance to meet you in person perhaps one of these days. 

 

Christina Thwaites:

Yes. Well, thank you so much.