Arthur Mactaggart

Artist of the Month May 2017

Our Artist of the Month for May 2017 is Arthur Mactaggart. Selected from over 300 submissions, Arthur is one of twenty artists featured in Alternative Visions: Undiscovered Art in the South West. The exhibition is presented by Outside In, Arts & Health South West and Bristol Culture. It will tour to four venues across the region.

When and how did your interest in art develop?

After a series of mistakes and getting involved in drugs, I spent some time in prison. It was during my incarceration that I started to take art seriously. At first, it was simply a way of recording moments and faces, and filling the time. Then I took part in a basic art class where I read up on different artists, and drawing and painting became much more than documentary - it became an outlet for my confused feelings of anger and guilt, impotence and isolation.  

What influences your art?

Now I’m out, clean, and back on the straight and narrow, I still feel an urge to paint and a sense of duty to speak out on the issues I saw in the prison system. This experience, together with losing a close family member in a traumatic way, had left me with an anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress, and so painting has become a critical part of my recovery and rehabilitation. It’s a way of stabilising aggressive thoughts and externalising them to a place where they are less harmful. I continue to work on a series of paintings that I call the ‘Imprisoned’ series which are all intended to represent those who are marginalised or facing isolation of some kind. 

What process do you go through when you are creating a piece?

The image that starts in my head is sometimes part of a memory, or sometimes an idea that just occurs to me. I have never yet sat down and tried to think of what to paint – if I didn’t already know, then I wouldn’t start. I generally tend to work from photographs - I will take several shots of a willing model (or myself), and work from those. I don’t sketch, or practise, but I draw directly onto the canvas then block in the main tones, and finally add the more subtle colours over the top. Acrylic is a forgiving medium in that when I go wrong, as I often do, I can just paint over it.

Which artists, if any, have you drawn inspiration from?

I’m a huge (and recent) fan of Caravaggio and other artists from the chiaroscuro movement – I am mesmerised by the use of light – and I admire Rembrandt for similar reasons. I also like the dinginess of Daumier, and the facial expressions of Rockwell. As for more modern artists, I love Jenny Saville’s style, and follow Banksy and other street artists like Connor Harrington.

Do you have a favourite piece? If so, which one and why?

I think it would have to be ‘Air’. It was one of my earliest paintings, and although my technical ability has hopefully improved since then, for me it has a clarity of thought and it was one of the most cathartic to paint. I also like the fact that different viewers seem to interpret it in different ways.

What do you hope the viewer gets from your work?

I realise my paintings aren’t pretty or polite, and people are unlikely to want one hanging in their living room, but ultimately I suppose I would like them to be moved in some way. With my more topical paintings, such as ‘On the Act’, I hope people are interested in the issues behind them too: Mental health is now at a crisis point within the prison system, with self-harm incidents rising 40% in one year, and feeble healthcare provision. I feel it’s important that we realise what goes on behind locked doors, and if someone’s interest or awareness is piqued by a painting, that has got to be a good thing.

What has been the highlight of your artistic career?

In terms of my paintings, it’s always a buzz to be included in an open exhibition, but being a part of the upcoming ‘Alternative Visions’ exhibition, set to tour 4 different galleries, is a real highlight. I was also deeply honoured to speak at an All Party Parliamentary Group in the House of Lords investigating the impact of arts within secure settings - having the chance to promote arts in this way was an incredible opportunity.

Has being a part of Outside In been beneficial for you? If so, how?

Definitely – I have never really felt part of the ‘art world’ (whatever that means), so being involved with a charity that works to remove those barriers is fantastic. It seems to be about art for everybody – it’s not an elitist pursuit. Being included in their ‘Alternative Visions’ exhibition is a great boost to my artistic confidence – the fact they chose one of my darkest paintings is a reassurance to me that my art doesn’t have to be pleasant in order to have value. I’m really looking forward to see the other art on show.

What is next for you as an artist?

I will continue to paint as and when I feel the need. I would like to think that eventually I might have my own exhibition, as I think there is a narrative throughout much of my work. One day, I might even sell something! More broadly, I intend to keep on promoting the use of art to help mental health in any way I can.


View Arthur's Outside In online gallery

Find out more about Alternative Visions: Undiscovered Art in the South West