Tenerife artist Monica Biggs talks about fulfilling her dream
Fulfilling a Dream
I asked Tenerife-based artist Monica Biggs to tell me about her life and artwork. This is her reply:
When a Mum receives a message to meet a teacher after school, feelings of anxiety and defensiveness are sure to hover until the actual encounter. I was just five years old, and three weeks into my first term at primary school. An only child with little experience of other children, I cried every morning as the school days began. No wonder Mum was worried. You can imagine how surprised she was when my teacher showed her a picture I had coloured of Ariel flying through the blue, starry sky and praised my use of colours and drawing ability. Mum loved music and rather than sing nursery rhymes she sang me classic songs she had learnt at school; the phrase “On a bat’s back I do fly….” from Shakespeare’s Ariel Song must have resonated and given rise to the picture.
Monarch Butterfly by Monica Biggs
Dragon Tree in Icod
A Christmas sock
It sounds like a call for sympathy but we really were quite poor. I had very few toys and the Christmas sock with the orange, nut and pack of three handkerchiefs was a reality. My Dad was a painter and decorator at the time and used to give me leftover white lining paper and crayons so my first experience of play was drawing. Apart from an old spinning top that clunked, I remember little else and certainly no toy box. Dad would take me out to parks and the sea and we would draw together sometimes. It really was my favourite occupation and my gratitude to my parents for their encouragement is very strong.
At grammar school, the art studio was full of rocks and plants. The teacher - ‘Mrs. G’ - used to set up the easels and papers with some big clips and make a still-life arrangement in the centre of the room. Every week we did the same sort of thing in either paint or charcoal while Mrs. G knitted, overseeing our behaviour from her high desk. I was much commended for my very representational work but hadn’t a clue about how to place a picture on a page and perspective was merely an instinct. We never studied artists. I remember one day showing her a splodgy picture of paint pots which I had done at home. I knew there was something more to painting but had no idea what it was! I passed my A-level a year early and was allowed to paint in break times but with no more tuition.
My interviews for art colleges were a miserable failure. My work was praised but no-one had tutored me in what to say and I had no knowledge of art or artists, except for Constable’s Haywain which hung on our living room wall, so I blustered badly until one esteemed college saw my work prior to the interview. Unfortunately fees beyond my parents’ ability to pay were required.
I went to a teacher’s training college because as well as education, RE and drama courses I discovered that I could take a painting course. I had received a lot of praise until that time but the tutor ‘broke me down and built me up’ over the three year period. Upsetting at first but it was the best thing that could have happened and suddenly my world and understanding was open for different media and types of art such as sculpture and printing. But oil and canvas were always my first love.
The time for work arrived, real day by day work as a teacher and no time for painting which by now was all I wanted to do. But I found that inspiring art in young children could be very rewarding and hope that I helped some to achieve their future ambitions.
Marriage, family and life went on; I iced cakes, made play costumes, painted scenery for school productions, created arty décors and used my love of art in different ways - but not on canvas.
In my mid-fifties I took early retirement and began to sort out my home. We redecorated and I couldn’t find an appropriate picture for the bedroom wall. Looking at shop furnishing interiors it occurred to me that the ‘new style’ was for pictures in threes. I had three old canvases, a long ago unused birthday gift with oil paints etc.
Inspiration? Eventually I decided upon three distinctive trees in the garden and painted the weeping pussy willow tree under which our pet rabbit used to hide, the tall, diseased willow with no greenery left and the bushy, organised fir tree. I used the colours of the wallpaper and paint in that room and achieved my goal. They are designs rather than paintings.
Shortly after, my husband and I decided to buy a property on the beautiful island of Tenerife. We had travelled to many places over the years but kept returning to Tenerife so it seemed logical to buy there. The apartment was a new-build and the walls were pure white and so bare. I was ambitious and wanted Canarian things around so started with my oils to paint a familiar tree. Of course it had to be The Dragon Tree at Icod.
We had some postcards and photos and I used these to work in my UK living room then carried the finished painting over to Tenerife. Looking now, I can see many errors of colour strengths and unnecessary detail and it is quite a lesson to realise that you don’t have to paint all you see; you can ‘own’ your painting and be creative. I moved on to paint the mountain cone and the tajinaste flowers. Balcony views of houses, weather systems and a harbour followed and these were fairly representational but slowly a patterned and more abstract quality emerged. The terraces and later the layers of Tenerife came from trying to fit all my knowledge of the terrain and colours together on single canvases.
I became really bold with my picture of the brilliant orange sunset that we saw when flying from Tenerife to the UK last July. Organised into rectangles of colour I later added the clouds to give depth but that has had issues with perspective. It doesn’t matter too much as I enjoyed doing it and it brightens a wall!
Joining an artist’s forum on the Internet has given me the impetus to submit my work for criticism; sometimes daunting but a good way to learn! I also have the opportunity to enter many monthly challenges where artists show photos on a theme and we have to interpret them using a particular medium, such as this little girl who was sitting on an American green lawn that I painted in acrylics; Tenerife inspired the scenery and I tried to harmonise the colours of background and dress patterns.
I’ll never be a great painter but if people particularly like a painting I am happy to give it to them and now I have created my own mission for the rest of my life…to improve, make people smile through my creations and to highlight the beauty of the world. I was delighted to be asked by Steve Andrews to paint the milkweed, the subject of one of his sincere campaigns to save the Monarch butterfly. Maybe small gestures could make a difference.
I love learning and I am lucky not to have to paint for a living. Now in retirement there is so much to do and my brushes will be whooshing on canvas for as long as I can wield them. So it is possible that eventually our very earliest dreams will be fulfilled.