Monday 17 December 2018

Portrait of an artist

When the judges of Sky's Portrait Artist of the Year saw the captivating self-portrait by teenager Hetty Lawlor, they were literally lost for words. Here, the Leaving Certificate student tells Sharon Diviney how she went from drawing on the walls of her creative family's Co Mayo home to painting celebrities in the television competition.

Artist at work: Hetty Lawlor in her home in Kilmeena, Co Mayo.Photo: Michael Mc Laughlin
Artist at work: Hetty Lawlor in her home in Kilmeena, Co Mayo.Photo: Michael Mc Laughlin
Hetty Lawler's portrait of her younger self that won her a place in the Sky competition. Photo: Michael Mc Laughlin
A painting by Hetty Lawlor. Photo: Michael Mc Laughlin
Portrait Artist of the Year host Frank Skinner congratulates Hetty on her winning likeness of David Tennant. © Sky UK Limited.
A painting by Hetty Lawlor. Pic: Michael Mc Laughlin

We have Mona Lisa, the Arnolfinis and their clever mirror, Klimt's golden Adele - and now Mayo's Hetty Lawlor, her radiant paintings and her own beautiful smile.

At home in Kilmeena on the outskirts of Westport, the teenager is impressively cool about reaching the semi-final of Sky's Portrait Artist Of The Year (PAOTY). The 18-year-old Leaving Cert student is in the kitchen with her sister Anna (20), and her best friend since junior infants, Justine. The trio are laughing and enjoying an attempt to make chocolate brownies - they're amazed that the brownies can both burn and remain uncooked in the centre at the same time.

"You know your strengths, that's what works for you," remarks mum Phyl. Hetty challenges her mother, protesting that she can bake and reminding her that she does home economics in school. Then they look at each other and smile.

The family bond in the Lawlor household is strong - as we witnessed when Phyl and husband Jimmy were reduced to tears of joy on-screen when their daughter was declared the winner of the first round heats on the TV contest.

Hetty Lawler's portrait of her younger self that won her a place in the Sky competition. Photo: Michael Mc Laughlin
Hetty Lawler's portrait of her younger self that won her a place in the Sky competition. Photo: Michael Mc Laughlin

Art is in the water and in the blood down in Kilmeena. Phyl makes rugs and carpets, Anna studies animation, and full-time artist Jimmy has been exhibiting his work for over 15 years. But it wasn't a certainty that Hetty would take the artistic route. "Because she was so into animals we never thought she was going to go that direction," says Jimmy. "The girls always had access to it, painting brushes and stuff were here, but we never pushed them. They just did their own thing.

"But it's gotten to the stage now that when I'm working on a painting I ask her for an input, her fresh eyes. Both herself and Anna, it's great. Like with a face, she'd spot where the ear was too big straight away. It's good to have their input."

The inspiration flows in both directions. All the Lawlors' various artwork is on display around the house. Hetty's bedroom, where she worked on the stunning self-portrait that earned her a place in the Sky Arts competition, features a wall of art and photos - including a black and white picture of her dad, aged 16, at the Texaco Children's Art Competition final.

"He was a huge inspiration to me and to Anna. He never really pushed us to do art. But we saw what he was doing, and we really wanted to impress him and live up to that," says Hetty. "We'd always run into his studio and show him our little doodles and stuff. We were like, 'Dad, look at this!'"

The name Hetty comes from Heather. There's a close bond and only 21 months between her and Anna. But as Anna was learning to talk, she found it too difficult to say baby Heather's name so she went with 'Hetty' instead, and it has stuck ever since. "Yeah, I was named by a toddler," Hetty laughs.

Growing up in Kilmeena sounds idyllic. The Lawlors and their neighbours walked to Myna National School most days - "except for Wednesdays when everyone was on bikes for the cycling day," recalls Hetty. "I had a mad interest in animals, we had chickens and dogs and cats and birds and at one stage we had guinea pigs. There were just animals everywhere that I used to draw."

A painting by Hetty Lawlor. Photo: Michael Mc Laughlin
A painting by Hetty Lawlor. Photo: Michael Mc Laughlin

Mum Phyl says the family were very lucky to have the rare privilege of both parents being at home with the children. Phyl studied sports management and worked for Galway Corporation. She left the job after the children were born. The Lawlors moved from Oughterard to Phyl's hometown of Westport when Hetty was six months and Jimmy set up his studio in their back garden.

"The two of us have been with them all through everything," says Phyl. "As far as art is concerned, they were always dabbling. The reason why my walls were always painted white is that they used to just draw on the walls and I never thought that was a bad thing. And it would happen then that when it got to a certain stage I'd just paint over it again, it was like a chalkboard, so then they'd start all over again. It never bothered me.

"I was just lazy," she jokes. "There was never anything precious in the house. They were more important than everything else."

Hetty says her dad's workspace - where he created art that sells for thousands of euro - was never off-limits. "He was always at home so we'd just run in and see what he was doing. We weren't allowed just take stuff, but he'd plonk us around a table and give us paints and stuff and we'd just go mad."

Did the girls ever get restless and abandon the artwork? "I suppose if my sister Anna stayed I'd stay, or if I stayed she'd stay. We'd kinda worked off each other." How about arguments? "I don't think so really. Anna used to boss me around a bit and make me go get stuff for her. That was it really."

Hetty's enjoyment of animals developed into a passion for drawing animals. She was good at drawing them from memory. "I think I liked drawing most because whenever I was painting I'd always have to clean up the mess and I didn't like doing that, so with pencils it was just easier."

Portrait Artist of the Year host Frank Skinner congratulates Hetty on her winning likeness of David Tennant. © Sky UK Limited.
Portrait Artist of the Year host Frank Skinner congratulates Hetty on her winning likeness of David Tennant. © Sky UK Limited.

She doesn't remember much about art classes in primary school. "But we had this thing where the teachers would ask any parents who had skills to come in and teach a few classes, which was really nice, cool. I felt all important, telling friends, 'My dad's coming in to teach us!', like he was a celebrity."

Her taste for art competitions began with the long-running Texaco Children's Art competition. One of her art prizes was the small easel we see during the Sky series. Look closely and you'll spot I Love Gaeilge stickers from her days in Spideal's Coláiste Chamuis. Did they do any píosa ealaín in the college? "I did a couples poster - any couples that happen in the coláiste you write them up on the board," she smiles. "I used to hate Irish before the Gaeltacht, but now I don't mind it. I've friends all over after it. So, yes, it's worth the money!"

Hetty has entered the Texaco competition three times and earned a merit. "I loved doing that competition," she says. "Dad kinda subtly suggested it and then when I heard he won it [when he was 16], I was like, 'Wow, I really want to do this now'." Her winning Texaco entry was a portrait of her dad's friend's young son, CJ. Like all her work, it's a beautiful, atmospheric piece with amazing detail.

She's never gone to formal drawing classes. "My dad's friend Tom O'Flynn in Westport was doing art classes so I popped in there a few times. Just fun classes, nothing for learning really, it was nice."

The absence of any training makes her recent success all the more remarkable - she's the youngest contestant to reach the semi-finals. When her self-portrait competition entry was put before the PAOTY judges - art historian Kate Bryan, Kathleen Soriano of the Fine Art Society and artist Tai-Shan Schierenberg - they were stunned into silence by the detail and atmosphere of the work. "Absolutely stunning," said Tai-Shan. "When it came on the screen all three of us were lost for words."

"Yeah, that surprised me too, I didn't think it had that much of an impact," says Hetty, who was just 17 when the show was filmed. "I was happy with how it turned out, yes, but I didn't think it would have that impact."

PAOTY host Jane Bakewell tells viewers that according to London's Tate Gallery, "which knows about these things, a portrait should represent the likeness, the personality and possibly the mood of the sitter". Semi-finalist Hetty adds her insight: "I love lighting. Good lighting makes a good picture. I think it's probably the most important part for me. You do to some degree need likeness, but likeness works better when there's a good expression there as well."

Commenting on Hetty's self-portrait, judge and art historian Kate Bryan said, "It's almost the size of a photograph but it does way more than a photograph does. I'm surprised it can be that effective in this scale." Painted from a photograph of her in childhood, the young Hetty's magically innocent expression is part of what swayed the judges to put her forward for the competition heats.

To reach the semi-final, contestants also had to paint a celebrity sitter. The patient subjects include the likes of model Lily Cole and actor Fiona Shaw. Two other Irish entrants who have successfully made it through to the semi-final are Dundalk's Leanne Mullen, who painted 89-year-old model Daphne Selfe, and Dublin-based Bríd Higgins Ní Chinnéide, for her portrait of actress Vicky McClure.

For her heat, Hetty was tasked with painting Doctor Who star David Tennant. "When the host [comedian Frank Skinner] said the name David Tennant, I couldn't actually recognise it," she admits. "So I was going, 'Crap! I'm not going to know who this is.' But then as soon as I saw him I was like, 'Thank God', because I didn't have to pretend that I knew who he was.

"That would be awkward, I'd just be in the corner looking it up on my phone, going 'Oh, who is this?'" she laughs. "And if the interviewers came along asking questions I wouldn't be just like, 'Yeah, yeah'."

Life drawing hadn't been a major focus for Hetty before the competition. Her art teacher Olivia McHale in Sacred Heart School in Westport would occasionally get a transition year student to sit for Hetty's gang, known as 'the art friends', but that was the extent of her practice.

The Lawlors were long-time fans of the Sky show, which is in its fourth series, but Hetty didn't tell her parents she was entering. "I knew who the judges were from past shows but it's different in real life," she says. "I felt nervous, slightly awkward, I'd say. It's way different in real life because you see cameras everywhere and there's a big crane with cameras on it and every 20 minutes the interviewer is coming and sitting beside you for a scene."

David Tennant was positioned against a striking red background in London's Wallace Collection gallery. Host Frank Skinner joked that it made the actor look like Lucifer's representative on Earth. Judge Tai-Shan agreed that the colour was over-powering, but Hetty said the brightness worked in her favour.

"I usually work with this orangey-yellow background, it just makes it look more lively. And if you leave gaps it's not going to look like empty space. When you work with white boards the other colours don't come through as much. Dad does that too, and I just steal his boards and they already had orange on them, so I learned that that's actually quite a good idea."

While the judges were delighted with Hetty's technique, they were less enamoured with the red drips that featured in the David Tennant portrait, and her concentration on a photo she took on camera phone rather than looking up at the actor before her.

"I didn't really mind that they made a comment about using the phone but apparently a lot of people did. I thought it was fairly constructive. I had mostly gone with a photograph because I saw in their earlier shows that the light tended to change a lot during the filming and I wasn't used to painting people sitting right in front of me," she explains. "I thought, 'What if they move?', and I was just very unsure of myself, so I decided to play it safe and take a picture of him. The top was all glass in the place so I didn't want to have a change of light.

"They said it was copying or something. I can see where they're coming from completely, but I was honestly just playing it safe while I had six hours there, I wasn't taking any risk of confidence. I just wanted to make my work good."

Judge Tai-Shan wondered aloud if Hetty would be able to recapture the lyricism on display in her self-portrait. Hetty said the competition was like "being in a zoo" as members of the public queued up to watch the artists as they worked. She was also intrigued by the unique atmosphere created by so many artists gathered together in one place. "Usually you find us all alone somewhere," she jokes.

Tai-Shan needn't have worried. After the six-hour sitting, David Tennant picked Hetty's work to bring home with him and the judges put her through to the semi-final. "She's not only technically proficient, but there's also a real feeling underpinning it all," they enthused. "She's already this good and still so young," exclaimed a Wallace gallery visitor.

Sworn to contract secrecy, Hetty can't tell us much about the filming of the semi-finals and beyond. But she's in with a real chance of taking the top prize - a £10,000 commission to paint actor Kim Cattrall. The finished portrait will hang in the permanent collection at The Walker Art Gallery in Kim's birth city of Liverpool.

And how about after the competition - and all the projects she has to finish for her upcoming Leaving Cert art exam? "The show is a bit of a distraction, alright," Hetty grins. "But it's a good distraction! I'm thinking about doing an art course in the same college my sister is in, in Dún Laoghaire. I like seeing my progress, and having something in common with Dad and with Anna is lovely as well.

"Future-wise, I'm kind of just playing it by ear. I'd love to do what Dad is doing now - I can see that he's happy with it. I haven't really planned it out. I'm kind of just going with the flow. It's working so far," she adds with a broad smile.

Watch Hetty in the semi-final of 'Portrait Artist of the Year' on Tuesday, March 13, at 8pm on Sky Arts and streaming service NOW TV

Photography by Michael McLaughlin

Irish Independent

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