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A Little Bird Told Me: Cathy Smale

PUBLISHED: 15:43 27 January 2016

Birds (04).

Birds (04). "As I'm painting these I'm often imagining the conversations or attitudes the birds might have."

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With a focus on woodlands, wildlife and town scenes, the town and countryscapes of Hertfordshire are a key inspiration for Cathy Smale’s bold and immediate paintings

Golfinches. An example of Cathy Smale's smaller 'little bird' paintings which are usually to be found at The Art Nest gallery in HitchinGolfinches. An example of Cathy Smale's smaller 'little bird' paintings which are usually to be found at The Art Nest gallery in Hitchin

Best known for her Little Birds series, which she has exhibited throughout the county, painter Cathy Smale is a popular figure in the county’s art community. Her home town of Hitchin and its surrounding woodland wildlife are frequent subjects of her vivid, multi-layered paintings. ‘I’m inspired every day by the life that surrounds me,’ she says. ‘Hitchin town centre is lovely and ever-changing. And I love driving to Hitch Wood on the outskirts, particularly when the bluebells are out, and seeing the colours change every day.’

Her love of the North Herts market town is particularly fitting as she first studied her craft here, taking an art foundation course at the North Herts College campus. But it was when she went to study for a joint honours degree in the unusual combination of art and maths at the University of Aberystwyth that she developed her distinctive painting style.

‘I did a lot of printmaking at university, which I think shows in the way I approach a painting – almost back to front, building up layers of paint over an initial outline,’ she explains.

Hitchin Market Square. Hitchin Market Square. "I love Hitchin, the market and the main square, and the people of Hitchin who seem so keen to support local artists and the independent shops."

Her painting technique has evolved into a bold, textured style using oils on canvas. ‘I use a palette knife to add texture and depth, which is particularly evident in the Little Birds – creating an almost 3D appearance. In my larger works, I like to move things around and include references and text so that there is more to the painting than a simple view.’

After she graduated and returned to Hertfordshire, Smale’s career in the arts really took off and she is keen to attribute much of her success to the artistic opportunities the county affords. She has spent the past seven years as an active member of Herts Visual Arts, a voluntary group of artists that provides networking opportunities and campaigns for the arts in the county. The organisation’s major annual Open Studio exhibition, when people can visit artists at work in their studios, has been a key motivational driver. ‘Open Studio acts as a focus for finishing work, and a chance to reflect on my career progression,’ Smales explains. ‘It’s also been a great way to meet other local artists, talk to them about their work and see their skills in practice. I love that as a visitor I can be nosey and ask lots of questions and get a fuller picture of how somebody is creating.’

She has also co-ordinated the Art Park at the annual Rhythms of the World music and arts festival in Hitchin. ‘In 2010, I was one of the first artists-in-residence at the festival; an opportunity I was desperate for because at the time I was painting a lot of memories from other festivals, particularly Glastonbury, so the chance to be involved locally was really well timed,’ she says. ‘For the past couple of years, I’ve been more involved with the organising of the artists, and trying to create an exciting area for festival-goers, with the addition of collaborative pieces that people can leave their own mark on.’

Woodland and Bluebells. Woodland and Bluebells. "The latest in a series of paintings based on the colours and patterns of the bluebell woodland."

While still being planned for this summer, the popular festival will not be on the same scale this year due to financial issues. ‘It’s a shame the festival can’t survive on volunteer enthusiasm alone,’ Smales reflects. ‘There are so many people giving their time each year to make the festival a success, but there are so many other contributing factors like money, weather and ticket sales to consider.’

Smales has just completed a first year as a fellow of the Digswell Arts Trust, a charity that supports artists in Hertfordshire with career skills and affordable studio spaces in Letchworth, Stevenage and Welwyn. ‘I’m at the Letchworth site, Fenners. It’s been great to have a professional space away from home – I love it, and spend so much time there. I really appreciate having a place to work on larger pieces and larger aspirations. And it’s lovely to have a variety of other artists using the building too.’

Like Rhythms of the World, however, the trust is encountering problems. ‘Sadly the Stevenage site is under threat,’ Smales says. ‘The Farmhouse (a 10-studio space in Fairlands Valley Park leased by Stevenage Borough Council since 1993) is on the market, so a new location is needed for those artists, which is a lot of work for the trustees – again, volunteers.’

Hitchin MarketHitchin Market

Back in her Letchworth studio (one of 17 in the former light industrial building), Smales plans to focus on bird paintings – ‘I enjoy painting their characters,’ she explains. She’s also working on larger pieces, and hopes to create and exhibit a cohesive body of work later in the year.

But after that, the biggest challenge she faces is deciding which of her inspirations to pursue next. ‘I’m inspired by so many things, from day-to-day life to adventurous travels – I have sketchbooks bursting with ideas. I’m so happy when I’m painting – I plan to enjoy my work and see what opportunities arise.’

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