Anna Poulton makes order out of chaos, destroying her work only to piece it all together again. Ruth Campbell discovers how winning a major award could be a turning point for this North Yorkshire artist

FOR artist Anna Poulton, it seems as if success has been a long time coming. But this is probably because success, in the commercial sense at least, is something the winner of the latest New Light award for emerging artists has never chased.

For years, she has worked in schools and run adult art classes, while spending her free time on her creative collages and paintings. It’s something that has always been a passion. And, although she has taken part in some local exhibitions and sold paintings in the past, she has worked simply for the love of it.

Her art, which she approaches in a slow, methodical manner, has evolved over time, and it is all the better for it. For Anna’s creations, inspired by the structures and shapes in Nature, are not a flash in the pan. She comes back to her work, which includes layer upon layer of paper, paint and texture, again and again, adding more paint or etching into the surface. And so, each piece emerges slowly from the canvas.

It was only when New Light, a charity which provides a springboard for young, Northern artists, removed its upper age limit last year that 44-year-old Anna decided to enter one of her small, mixed media drawings, entitled Figs. Winning the prestigious New Light’s Swinton Foundation Prize has resulted in this modest and unassuming artist’s work being exhibited at Bowes Museum and the Mercer Gallery in Harrogate. She will also be showing in the Panter and Hall Fine Art Gallery in London in June and is about to have an exhibition at Swinton Park Castle Hotel in North Yorkshire.

As part of the biennial prize, judged by a distinguished panel, including artist Norman Ackroyd, organiser of the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, winners are also offered guidance and professional advice from a mentor. Anna, who has a three-year-old son, Barney, chose art historian, curator and author Lynne Green, whom she has always admired, to help her promote her work in the modern art market.

She went through a difficult time last year, after discovering a cancerous tumour on her scalp, which has since been removed, and losing her father Ray following a stroke. Following successful treatment, Anna has been given the all clear, but the whole experience has given her a new perspective on life. "My experience has taught me to make the most of things," she says. "And no matter what else happens, my art will always be with me.”

She lives with Barney and partner Stuart Whitehead, who is also an artist, in the converted Clock Tower of the stable block at Old Sleningford Hall, near Ripon in North Yorkshire, where she runs adult life drawing and mixed media workshops.

Their two-bedroom home, which used to house chickens, is filled with the couple’s bold and uplifting art – including one large canvas which the whole family, including Barney, contributed to. The building resounds with the cheerful chimes of the huge clock in the tower, with its fascinating internal workings upstairs.

When she is not outside, Anna works in the light filled entrance area, which looks out on the courtyard. It’s an idyllic setting, where, as well as having a stunning ten-acre garden complete with Victorian fernery, walled kitchen garden, herbaceous borders and yew and beech hedges on the doorstep, Anna has access to woods and a small lake, with an orchard and forest garden nearby.

“I am spoiled for choice here,” says Anna, who points to pictures of apples, pears and gooseberries. “I did some drawings as they were collecting the fruit,” she says.

For Anna, whose work often begins with a plant, twig or seed head she chances upon while out walking, this part of North Yorkshire is the perfect location. With the River Ure on her doorstep, she also regularly ventures out to nearby Hackfall Woods, Fountains Abbey or Newby Hall gardens for inspiration. “It starts when I pick up a stem or plant. I draw it from different angles and in different scales, at different times of day, in different light,” she says.

Anna draws on prepared, textured paper and newspaper print. She is also using some of her father’s old school notebooks to create collage surfaces. “I love the handwriting, the detailed diagrams and the colour of the ink and paper.” Matt house paints, acrylics and layers of gesso primer glue create the perfect texture to draw into.

Although Anna incorporates traditional linocuts into her work, she also cuts into polystyrene pizza bases to make prints, a technique she uses with children in school. She rips up her drawings to piece them back together, gluing them down, drawing onto them in ink and pencil, building up layers and shapes. She may scrape and mark the surface with knives and forks, also rags, sponges and stencils, then sand it back before adding yet more layers: “I keep coming back to it. There is a lot of standing back rather than doing,” she says. “I use the destructive action of ripping to reshape and find harmony. A bit like finding the end of a tangled thread, so I can untangle it.”

The end result, pale, distressed and fading, has the look of peeled back layers of old wallpaper, each with a story to tell. “I like that idea of old wallpapers, going under the surface and revealing things,” she says. “It’s called palimpsest, where something has been reused or altered, but still bears visible traces of what was there before.”

One of four children, Anna grew up near Wetherby. She excelled at art when she attended St Aidan’s High School in Harrogate and went on to study art at Breton Hall College of Education, where she specialised in sculpture. After her degree, she decided she wanted to hone her technical skills and took up an apprenticeship in furniture restoration. Although she set up her own furniture restoration business in 2001, she continued to draw and attend art classes.

Her partner Stuart eventually took over the furniture restoration business while Anna concentrated on her art, running her art classes and working with art students at Cundall Manor school as well as developing her own work. Her canvases used to be huge, but have become smaller, she says, probably as a reaction to having a young son and having to work around him. “Working smaller has been a good discipline, it’s forced me to select the most important bits.”

She started to exhibit her work through North Yorkshire Open Studios last year, having previously shown at open exhibitions in Leeds and Harrogate. “The idea of the New Light prize is that it’s for up-and-coming artists and one of the best things about it is getting a mentor. That will be a big thing for me. I chose Lynne, who has worked with lots of famous artists, because she will be good at helping me with my professional identity and marketing. I am hoping that is something I can work on this year.”

The prize and upcoming exhibitions could be a turning point for Anna. “It’s like just being discovered,” she says. “You don’t know how other people will see you, it’s all a bit unknown.”

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