Between the Woods and the Water

Danielle Hicks-Gallagher’s first solo exhibition of paintings and textile art is a deeply personal one, says Jenny Cathcart

Given its literary references and inspirations it is fitting that Danielle Hicks-Gallagher’s exhibition, Between the Woods and the Water should be showing at the public library in Enniskillen. The title refers to Patrick Leigh Fermor’s travelogue and many of the works have been inspired by CS Lewis, Arthur Ransome, JRR Tolkein, Elinor Brent-Dyer and Seamus Heaney.

An imaginative child, Hicks-Gallagher read the Narnia books, Swallows and Amazons, and The Chalet School series. She studied Heaney for her A level exam, then enrolled for theatre studies at Lancaster university. 'I hated the course and began to regret that I had not continued with my art,' she admits. 'In 2006, when my grandfather died, I came back to Greenhill, the Queen Anne country house near Brookeborough in County Fermanagh where I was brought up.'

Home to mahogany wardrobes, dolls houses, original craft work and an attic full of books, Greenhill has always been a hive of creative activity. 'I set up a studio and began painting,' Hicks-Gallagher recalls. 'This is my first solo exhibition and the works on show tell personal stories about my life and relationships.'

In many of the pieces the artist has been working through the link with her grandfather, Michael Hicks, whom she called Ganda (a close relation of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings?). Having built his own 16ft sailing boat, Hicks evidently passed on his love of sailing to his granddaughter.

At the centre of the exhibition are five stunning 'boatscapes'. Each sailing yacht is perfectly drawn then illuminated by the passion and poetry of the artist. 'I find it distressing when I see a painting of a boat where the rig is obviously wrong or the wind on the waves is completely at odds with the sails,' she says.

The yacht in a pink tinged sunset is ‘Star of the West’ at the Kinvara Hooker Festival in Galway. The wind was set fair for the Saturday race during the 2010 Carrickfergus Classic Regatta and ‘Macaria’, a speedy boat owned by Brian Law, completed four rounds of the course to everyone else’s two. 'We call him a tweaker. Brian is constantly watching the sails to make sure they are perfectly set.'

Granddad Hicks is also remembered in a trio of miniature landscapes from Fermanagh, Down and Monaghan where his ashes are scattered on a hilltop near Clones and where Hicks loved to hunt with the local hounds. ‘A Dark Light’ depicts the tree between the driveway and the front meadow at Greenhill where granddad hung a hammock. Hicks-Gallagher is adamant that the magenta pink and purple dawn sky really did exist. 'If you look closely you will find other messages - "We made hay here" - "You let me ride on the tractor" - "Now I must mend the fences".'

Granny Hicks, formerly Jenny Barton, once ran the Troubadour Club in London’s Earls Court which explains why Hicks-Gallagher also loves folk music. Five of the pieces in her exhibition make reference to folk songs. The textiles pieces ‘To be Loved’ and ‘The Wanting of You' were inspired by Melissa Ethridge songs.

EmbroideryInscribed in ‘Within Sound’ are the words of a traditional wassailing song:

We know by the sky that we are not too high
And we know by the moon that we are not too soon
We know by the stars that we are not too far
And we know by the ground that we are within sound

The textile pictures are created on linen sprinkled with dyes so that the colours merge like magic. Hicks-Gallagher embroiders the words by machine and the motifs by hand using pure silk threads. 'My granny gave me a Pandora’s box, a treasure trove of proper silk floss which she bought in the late 1950s from a woman who had just inherited her great aunt’s haberdashery.'

For Hicks-Gallagher, the demesne wall in Seamus Heaney’s ‘Bog Queen’ could be the wall at nearby Tempo Manor. 'I used the words from the entire poem to build my bog, layer upon layer. If you look closely you might even discern the shape of a dead queen.'

The title piece, ‘Between the Woods and the Water’ depicts the landscape in Austria where the Chalet School books are set. Hicks-Gallagher read the books as a child and so did her partner and this year they travelled to the Alps following in the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Since there are clearly so many personal stories involved in all of these art works, I cannot help but ask the artist how she could ever bear to part them. She replies simply, 'I’ll always paint more.'

Between the Woods and the Water continues until September 4 at Enniskillen Library.