Exhibition proves lifeline in isolation for Arundel artist

Chichester’s Pallant House Gallery and Outside In are excited to be able to open at last the All Souls exhibition first planned to open back in January.

Artist Julia Oak
Artist Julia Oak

Now, four months and one lockdown later, it is open to the public, exploring creative connections and the intuitive way of working that unites the work of Julia Oak with that of Madge Gill, a widely celebrated self-taught artist.

For Julia, who lives in Arundel, the exhibition couldn’t possibly be more significant.

“It has been quite obsessive! I live on my own. I was in lockdown and I was shielding, and this is what has got me through this last year and three months. The whole thing has been my bedfellow and my daily companion. It has been my everything.”

The idea behind each commission is to offer a fresh perspective into the Pallant House Gallery’s collections through the lens of an Outside In artist; in this case, Julia provides an insight into the work of the English mediumistic artist Madge Gill.

Julia was awarded the commission as her ‘beautiful and distinctive drawings’ and her deep personal engagement with the work of Madge Gill made her proposal stand out to the selectors.

Julia’s contribution comprises her three-metre long drawing Enter These Enchanted Woods, her numerous sketchbooks and an art film of her creative process, which sit alongside works by Madge Gill from the Pallant House Gallery collection and private collections.

“The exhibition was supposed to open on January 13,” Julia says, “but there was obviously no chance of that. But the deadline for finishing it was the end of December. All the way through November and December I was working on it. I had seven weeks to make the drawing, and I really built up the adrenalin. It was my mission! And then all through January, February, March and April, I was thinking ‘I should be doing this! I should be doing this!’ I had to try to slow myself down… and now I am building myself up again.”

Art is everything to Julia: “I have lost my mobility. I can’t really get to the end of my garden. But I also had cervical cancer and it came back and they couldn’t even predict if I would live more than five years. That was after they had done all the surgery. Week by week, month by month, I was clawing back, and now, 16 years later, against all the odds I am still here.

“I was preparing for shutdown and planning for not being there… and that was when I turned to art. I didn’t really know how to deal with it all. But I was always artistic. I came from an artistic family. My mother was an artist. My father was a draughtsman. Art materials were always in the house. Art materials were always available.”

And so art came to her rescue: “Art just takes me to a different place. When I am creating, I am in my own little world. It is my freedom. There is nobody to tell me that I am the worst person in the world or that I don’t walk properly. It is just me. There are no rules. It is my freedom and it is my spontaneity.

“They saved me but they took out half my insides and I have developed diabetes. My life is not spontaneous. My mealtimes are part of my medical regime. But art is my spontaneity, a world where I can do what I want how I want. So this is a totally massive exhibition for me. I am 63. This is my third attempt at being 21. I have tried it a couple of times and it didn’t work. But now I have come of age.”

Though not quite believing it: “My self-esteem is so low that I almost don’t dare to believe that this is going to happen. It is just unbelievable. I always feel that everything is going to be taken away from me at the last minute. But drawing is so much my freedom.”

All Souls: The Outside In Co-Commission 2020 will run from May 18-July 18 at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester.