‘Reading it was like a stab in the heart’

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An Open Studios Weekend will let the public meet artists and hear all about their work. RACHEL JONES reports.

Paint-splattered artists and inspiring works in progress await visitors to Art Space studios in Portsmouth next week.

A collective of top city talents, who are based in the converted church in Southsea, are inviting the public to see them hard at work at their annual Open Studios event.

Visitors will have the chance to view and possibly buy finished pieces, chat to the artists and see them working on current projects.

Those taking part include painter Andrew McConnach, right, and multi-media artist Patti Gaal-Holmes, above, who has a fascinating story to tell.

The walls of artist Patti Gaal-Holmes’ studio have been turned into a nostalgic photo album of happy childhood snaps and views of the family home.

The collection of 1960s photos show a tiny Patti playing contentedly in a sun-drenched farmhouse garden.

But interspersed with her family pictures are aerial police photographs clearly showing the layout of the farm and buildings.

The home where Patti lived in 1967 and innocently took her first steps in life was Liliesleaf Farm, a name which has become synonymous with the struggle against the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Several years earlier this farm just outside Johannesburg was the meeting place for Nelson Mandela and the other leaders of the African National Congress (ANC). Here they sought shelter and made plans to overthrow the regime that sanctioned racial discrimination, killed demonstrators and sentenced activists to life imprisonment.

And it was here that in a notorious police raid in 1963, several of the resistance leaders were arrested (although Mandela was already in custody). Mandela and the other activists were eventually jailed in the Rivonia trial which grabbed the attention of a shocked world.

‘I’d known for a long time about the place where I lived,’ says South African-born Patti.

‘But it was when I read Long Walk To Freedom (Mandela’s autobiography), probably about 15 years ago, that I found out a lot more about it. Reading that book was a stab in the heart, I felt so ignorant about my own history.

‘I left South Africa for certain reasons and never supported the regime, but at school we weren’t taught things like that.’

Patti is examining her feelings about her personal history and the political history of her childhood home in a multi-media art project.

This consists of photographs, drawings, writings and a home film shot by her father when they lived at Liliesleaf Farm. Patti has re-filmed the footage and experimented with chemical processes to add an artistic effect.

Her studio at Art Space in Brougham Road, Southsea will be open to the public as part of the organisation’s Open Studios event. Visitors will be able to meet artists and see their work. She also using the film as a basis for a family histories project with Portsmouth Film Society.

In her workspace that has also become an archive of family history, Patti explains how she came to be living at Liliesleaf Farm.

Her Hungarian father and German mother had moved to South Africa from the Congo where they met.

Patti’s engineer father had designed a swimming pool for the then owner of Liliesleaf Farm and the family were given the chance to move on to the land.

For her project, the Portsmouth artist has extensively researched the history of the farm and has sought help from the Legacy Team at Liliesleaf, which is now a museum. A few years ago she visited the museum with her mum.

She says: ‘It’s a bizarre thing, that I lived in this place which had such a traumatic history, and how unimportant I am to it really. This was where people were living and dying for their cause.’

And she also looks at what it meant to live under apartheid.

‘My family didn’t support the regime, although we weren’t activists. But I’m troubled about growing up under a regime where racism and that way of life was normal. I feel guilty and like I was quite naive. ‘

Patti left South Africa when she was 18. She is now a married mum-of-three living in Portsmouth.

She is one of dozens of artists who will be sharing the stories behind their work with Open Studios visitors (see far right for some of the others).

Open Studios is a great opportunity for people to find out more about the work of Art Space and its members, says the organisation’ s vice-chairperson Jeannie Driver.

Art Space offers affordable studio space to trained professional artists and supports selected graduates with a free studio programme and exhibition.

The artists who, apart from donations, fund the Art Space charity entirely by themselves, work on educational projects, exhibit in galleries all over the country and take part in local exhibitions and events.

Open Studios is important for the public and artists, says Patti.

‘It opens a lot of discussion which is helpful to me and, I hope, interesting for visitors.

‘This is often a solitary process, so I really look forward to people coming in.’

Art Space will be opening its doors to visitors on Saturday and Sunday, May 26 and 27.

Among the artists taking part are Andrew McConnach (pictured on the front of Weekend), Gillian Hawkins and Robert Knox.

Andrew’s magnificent paintings are extensive works that can take him up to two years to complete. The artist, who became a Buddhist a few years ago, has created designs of hundreds of circles depicting different scenes surrounding a Buddha image. The last piece took 11 months.

‘There were about 256 circles so I’d say that’s nearly a painting a day, not bad going really’ says Andrew.

In the studio next door is Robert Knox, who has produces a series of designs in emulsion and ink on cardboard. He says his ‘Party Animals’ series has allowed him to work in a less restrictive way.

Gillian Hawkins has created abstract paintings inspired by plants on her allotment.

The studios in a converted church at 27 Brougham Road, Southsea are open between 1.30 and 4.30pm and admission is free. Visit artspace.co.uk.