Artist Julie Held builds a life for her departed mother in Ivy House exhibition

Julie Held's The Window

Julie Held's The Window - Credit: Archant

The painter tells Sanya Ali how art has helped her come to terms with loss.

Julie Held believes there is life in art - as she brings her absent mother back to the present in her work.

Gisela died almost 40 years ago of leukaemia when Held was 18. But with her brush she imagines her as if she had lived on and aged, even painting her holding hands with her father Peter who is still alive.

“Somehow it’s more emotional when I’m painting my mother or my father, or a sister, but particularly my mother. You dig up all these feelings that have been buried for years,” says the Crouch End resident, whose latest work is on display at Ivy House, Golders Green.

An early piece is one of many imagined portraits of Gisela painted when Held was 30.

“I realized, in bringing her back to an imagined, healthy life, it helped me come to terms with the loss. It was then that I decided on significant birthdays, I would paint her and celebrate the life that she lived rather than have an enduring memory of loss and sadness,” says Held, who cites three formative moments during her childhood that fostered her interest in art.

The first was the gift of an A3 Sketchbook and five fat wax crayons when she was three. The second was a family trip to Florence during which she visited the Uffizi and saw Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.

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“I was so awestruck by its sheer beauty and magic that I thought, ‘I want to do that.’”

Held’s visit to an Edvard Munch exhibition aged 14 confirmed her artistic inclination because his subject matter, family members dying of tuberculosis, helped her cope with her mother’s illness, a hushed topic in her family.

“I realized it was a way that illness could be articulated through another medium that wasn’t verbal. I thought, ‘I want to be able to convey powerful feelings that one can’t verbalize, through the medium of paint,’” says Held, who grew up in Hampstead Garden Suburb

Gisela, a sculptor herself, tried to discourage her from attending art school because, in her experience, life as an artist was difficult. She died before Held received the news that she’d been accepted to Camberwell College of Art, which proved a fruitful environment for Held

“It was one of the few art schools that was still both encouraging figurative art and, at the same time, there was a lot of abstract art going on.

“It was a very stimulating time to study art, even though figuration was on the decline. It wasn’t really fashionable, but it was still endorsed at Camberwell.”

The show combines Held’s earlier works with more recent paintings, spanning almost 30 years. A new piece depicts Gisela on what would be her 90th birthday next to Peter now 92.

“I wasn’t sure if I’d be transgressing on his feelings or what he’d feel about putting him in the same portrait as my mother, even though it was an imagined space but he said, ‘Of course it’s alright to do that.’”

The late art dealer Godfrey Pilkington once told Held he enjoyed her portraits because they were “full of life, death and sex.”

Years later, she finally understands the compliment.

“What he meant is: full of fleshy vibrancy, what it is to be human. We’re certain of those three things in life sex – and love, aliveness and death.”

Julie Held’s exhibition runs at Ivy House, Golders Green until June 26.