Drawing is in the DNA for Sheffield artist Penny

Penny McCarthy at  the Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize ceremony with her two works DNA in Nature  and Photo 51Penny McCarthy at  the Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize ceremony with her two works DNA in Nature  and Photo 51
Penny McCarthy at the Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize ceremony with her two works DNA in Nature and Photo 51 | Other 3rd Party
Sheffield artist Penny McCarthy has won the prestigious Evelyn Williams Drawing Award which carries a prize of £10,000.

She is also rewarded with a solo exhibition in 2020 at the impressive new Hastings Contemporary for which she will explore events and archives specific to the coastal townf.

McCarthy was selected from a longlist of 45 artists chosen to exhibit and invited to submit proposals for a period of research and studio work towards the exhibition

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“When I first saw the Hastings Contemporary which is right on the seafront I worried that I would be competing with this amazing view,” she says. “But actually it’s got perfect light and it will be amazing to see all my work in the one space.”

Penny McCarthy with the previous winner of the Evelyn Williams Drawing Aeaard, Barbara WalkerPenny McCarthy with the previous winner of the Evelyn Williams Drawing Aeaard, Barbara Walker
Penny McCarthy with the previous winner of the Evelyn Williams Drawing Aeaard, Barbara Walker | Other 3rd Party

She has chosen to explore its fantastical and mysterious side. “I read about a phenomenon called the Fata Morgana Mirage which happened out to sea in 2016 where there are flipped images in the sky I want to try and find anyone who saw it and took pictures, “ she says.

“I have discovered Hastings has a history of fakery and Aleister Crowley (the occultist writer dubbed The Wickedest Man in the World) lived there.”

Hastings was not somewhere with which McCarthy was familiar. McCarthy spent the first 14 years of her life in the USA and then moved to Britain with her English mother

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She studied and made her career in the UK forming a strong association with Sheffield where she both trained as an artist and is now Reader in Fine Art and Course Leader, Postgraduate Fine Art at Sheffield Hallam University.

McCarthy works primarily with drawing and text. Her graphite drawings typically evolve through a time-heavy and painstaking process of transcription, using archival material and images

She has two drawings included in the Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize exhibition, DNA in Nature and Photo 51. The first of them was seen in Sheffield in 2018 in the Liquid Crystal group show st the Site Gallery.

“It’s been a very lucky piece of work made originally 15 years ago,” she reflects. “I was awarded a commission to work on a Wellcome Trust cross-disciplinary research project responding to the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA that gave me unique access to the Francis Crick Archive.

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“When he was a student in the States my dad knew Crick (who co-authored with James Watson the academic paper proposing the double helix structure of the DNA molecule).

“I couldn’t make light of one of the 20th century’s greatest discoveries but I was interested in the human side of the story. I found the original article they wrote for Nature magazine with its handwritten corrections and crossings out. In that moment when Crick is typing up his theory he is still working things out and doodling on the back of the paper, showing something of the humanity.”

She produced six pencil drawings from Crick’s annotated notes called First Draft, showing how the raw data – the human aspect of discovery – becomes history. She also reproduced the printed article in Nature using the same method of drawing.

This work was exhibited at The Wellcome Institute in London and the project was shortlisted for the Prospects Drawing Prize.

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“I sold the original piece of work of the Nature pages and when it came to be included in the Liquid Crystal display at the Site Gallery no once could trace it so I had to remake it.

“It was a second version and hard work. I was re-visiting myself from many years before but it was interesting to make something I felt was following someone out of history. I was able to re-contextualise it and acknowledge Ros Franklin’s crystal x-rays.

“I am always interested in the moment of discovery. Watson and Crick wrote it out without knowing the impact it would have.

“And to be able to handle the paper itself. You get a clue to the human being.”

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In an age where paper archives are dying out.she was pleased that the judges of the Evelyn Williams Drawing Award still insist on viewing the original drawings rather than looking at Jpegs even though it requires the hiring of a warehouse to house all the submissions.

As it happens McCarthy found herself competing with an ex-student. She herself has fond memories of her student days.

Coming to an art college in Sheffield wasn’t her first choice and it was something of a culture shock at first.

“When I arrived it was the middle of the miner’s strike which was something people didn’t talk about down south. But I liked the music scene. I was one of the dancers for Pulp and designed sets and made posters and flyers.

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“We would paste posters up on West Street and the Hole in the Road but their fans would follow us and prise them off the wall and keep them because of course they were hand-drawn. It was a fantastic era for creativity even though it was the height of the recession.

“Now and again a student will find film of me on YouTube.”

After completing her degree she moved down to London but returned to Sheffield do an MA and that’s when she began to specialise in drawing..

“My first degree had been in sculpture and my tutor pointed out that the work in my sketchbook was richer and more interesting and encouraged me to apply for a drawing fellowship at the Henry Moore Foundation in Leeds.

“I won it which for the first time gave me time and a studio,” she says..

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“Drawing has been the thing since I was a kid. I was the kid in the corner sitting quietly and drawing all the time.”

She has also been involved in a stage adaptation of William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat, written in 1553 and possibly the first English novel, which was performed at the Festival of the Mind. In 2018. Created by Rachel Stenner, University of Sussex and Frances Babbage, University of Sheffield with Terry O'Connor (of Forced Entertainment) with illustrations by Penny McCarthy it has gone on to tour the country.

“That’s the nice thing about drawing, it is cross-disciplinary.”