there was truth about their lives
HONESTY AND STRENGTH
Anne McKay grew up in the shadow of the sugar refineries in Greenock. “From age 10 I had a paper round and I remember droves of men in boiler-suits and cloth caps, coming to and from refineries and ship yards.”
Thinking about their lives and work sparked a curiosity in Anne. For her, Absent Voices, would be about the people living in communities; their families, their situations – it would be their story.
Water played a large role within the sugar industry – waterways or 'burns' ran from the hills amongst them were Cartsburn, Crawfordsburn and Westburn. For Anne, this was a key element in her paintings. “There's no industry without water.” she noted. “It's a cycle that kept people in jobs for generations.” Looking deeper at how life would have been, Anne interviewed 100 year old sugar industry veteran Bertie Hutchison. Stories of the heat and the manual labour reinforced the belief that real people worked together, understood each other – entire generations of family, sometimes working together. “There was a real impression of hard work for an honest wage and a sense of belonging.”
The first piece for Absent Voices was a charcoal drawing of a beast which is neither a bull nor a cow with its udders and horns. The beast of burden is both male and female, depicting great strength and power. Anne says of this piece; “I read about the inclusion of bull's blood in the sugar refining process and I made the connection with honesty and strength.” Sticky bull's blood was added to the raw liquid and skimmed off to remove impurities. It was left to cool in large earthenware cones before being drained off as molasses and the white sugar remaining was drilled out. She portrays Titan in a very sculptural style. He is capacious but is devoid of detail.
The symbolism appears again in her pastel drawing 'Saving the Golden Calf'. The beast is the centrepiece representing the wealth and materialism that only the few experienced within the sugar industry. Elementals, or nature's angels, are in a struggle with the creature. Paradoxically, they want to give it freedom, not to tame it. “I wanted to bring it back to it's natural self. I feel that the symbolism had lost it's value and only in its liberty would it regain its strength and power.”
Anne's theme of strength continues into her next Absent Voices piece – a pastel with charcoal and pencil depicting a horse toiling and floundering with exertion. The winged elementals, on first glance, look as if they are bearing down on the beast but all is not what is seems. They are, in fact, protecting and attempting to support the animal in it's endeavour.
THOSE WHO TOILED
From angels and beasts Anne moves to the human form for her subsequent paintings. She created two pieces of work influenced by the Sugar Shed's cathedral-like structure. The charcoal drawing reflects the cavernous interior using stark contrast in light and shade. In the foreground are wooden carts with tiny babies in a blanket of sugar. The carts appear to be moving towards the iconic double doors of the sheds. The eye is drawn to the closed doors and shining out from underneath there is a bright light representing hope and promise. Lining the corridor are sugar workers from both continents; both and African and Scots, silently waiting. Some of the figures are clothed and some are naked but all represent those who toiled within the industry and whose voices are no longer absent.
The second artwork has the same theme of the Sugar Sheds as a cathedral with ghostly figures lining the walls waiting. The double doors are slightly ajar, revealing the bright light with figures passing into the unknown. “I used very dark and light contrast and I wanted to give the impression that whilst some of them were still waiting, many of them had reached the light and that there was always hope.” Anne's vision is of tired spirits, waiting patiently for redemption or perhaps peace. She leaves interpretation open to the individual to determine their understanding of the story that this piece tells.
The Glebe Sugar House was built in 1840 – a splendid triangular building reminiscent of the flat iron building in New York. Using artistic licence Anne's Glebe watercolour mixes both current and bygone years with cobblestone streets and the container terminal in the background. Its all about shape and composition with the dinosaur-like cranes in the background and the geometric containers balancing the triangular building in the foreground. “It took a lot of planning. I started with washes and worked the detail with a fine pen. The lamp post had to be there to balance out the work. It's truly the architectural piece of the collection.”
THERE WAS TRUTH ABOUT THEIR LIVES
As Anne moved towards her final piece for Absent Voices she looked for inspiration from a number of artists she greatly admired, among them were Stanley Spencer, Joan Eardley, William Sinclair and Jimmy Watt. Of this final piece she said “I wanted to tell the story of Inverclyde and the sugar industry. It had to have depth and detail and I needed to have height and distance.” From a vantage point perched on the hills the painting sweeps down following the flow of the river. The Belville Street high flats are clearly visible in the landscape and feature as a nod to Alec Galloway as he lived there a boy. Figures on the banks of the river are slaves and workers with the bright colours representing Africa. “This completely changed to a new painting several times.” said Anne “Different pieces might have sketches but this started as a figure painting and became a landscape. Sometimes things just evolve and this evolved.” The right side of the bank has lost its colour and represents the past as the river swirls by towards the light at the core of the painting. The recurrent theme of moving from dark to light with a promise of redemption is present in this final Absent Voices painting.
The exploration of heritage that linked together different people from many lands was both an adventure and a catalyst for Anne's artwork. The paintings portray a shared theme of a journey that leads to hope no matter how hard life was and still is. “In my work there is always a narrative but you have to make up your own story. For me, personally, it was about community. I tried to honour the people that worked in every area of the industry. There was truth about their lives.”