How bubble baths and hot tea won a Sheffield artist a place in The Art Society's national Isolation Artwork competition

Three things have kept Abigail McGourlay sane during lockdown - painting, bubble baths, and countless cups of tea.
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So it makes sense that the Sheffield artist would find a way to combine all three, creating a striking self-portrait in recent weeks of herself in the bath with a cup of tea in hand, which she has appropriately entitled, ‘Brewing.’

And this week the 20-year-old reveals she was delighted to learn that the painting has now been shortlisted for The Arts Society’s prestigious national Isolation Artwork Competition.

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“I honestly didn’t expect it at all,” says Abigail, who also had another one of her paintings, entitled Thalia Dorme, shortlisted for the competition.

How bubble baths and hot tea won Sheffield artist Abigail a place in The Art Society's national Isolation Artwork competitionHow bubble baths and hot tea won Sheffield artist Abigail a place in The Art Society's national Isolation Artwork competition
How bubble baths and hot tea won Sheffield artist Abigail a place in The Art Society's national Isolation Artwork competition

“Having something to work on gave me a real focus in lockdown, and I was putting in 12 hour days painting to get ‘Brewing’ ready to submit for the competition deadline, so I’m absolutely thrilled.

“I’m also blown away by the standard of the other shortlisted artists, it’s wonderful to be in that group.”

Abigail was in the middle of finishing the second year of studying Fine Art at The University of Leeds when lockdown hit.

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She was furloughed from her job as a swimming instructor and has been continuing her studies from home, though she admits she initially found herself lacking motivation.

Brewing, by Abigail McGourlayBrewing, by Abigail McGourlay
Brewing, by Abigail McGourlay

“When lockdown struck, I struggled, both mentally and physically with the uncertainty,” says Abigail, who was born and raised in Norton, and now lives with her partner in Woodseats..

“I was furloughed from work and all of my uni deadlines were still months away. I was underwhelmed and didn’t see an end point.

“Luckily, as part of my role as a wellbeing rep for my faculty at university, I’ve been sending out motivational posts and messages to other students, and in doing that, something clicked, and I took my own advice.

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“I started doing a series of little projects - baking, making videos, learning French, exercising - and setting myself little goals, and I quickly felt my motivation returning.

Thalia Dorme, by Abigail McGourlayThalia Dorme, by Abigail McGourlay
Thalia Dorme, by Abigail McGourlay

“When I heard about The Art’s Society competition, I knew I was ready to throw myself back into my painting.”

The Art Society asked young artists and students to respond to the theme of isolation for the competition, and received many pieces of work exploring feelings of uncertainty, isolation, and loneliness, as well as nature, connection, and love.

With over 90,000 members, the Arts Society is a leading arts education charity with a global network of over 380 local societies, which bring people together through a shared curiosity for the arts, supporting young artists in the early stages of their career.

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Abigail’s paintings are two of eight final pieces of work that are now being exhibited as part of a virtual exhibition on The Arts Society Connected website, to give members of the public a chance to vote for their favourite, before June 30.

Speaking about Brewing, the painting Abigail finished just in time for the competition, she said: “I started sketching out this self-portrait at the beginning on my first year of university, but as I started to develop and focus on my sculptural practice, many of my painting projects were put on the back burner.

“It is through this piece, and the time I’ve been given in lockdown, that I have rediscovered my love of the painting medium.

“The sense of utter consumption in a piece of work, like an almost hypnotic state, is how my dad used to describe me when I painted, and it is in this piece that I feel I have once again experienced that relationship with painting.

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“This piece captures a real moment of comfort, in both my two favourite things, a warm bubble bath and a hot cup of tea.

“I am never usually the subject of my own work and this piece has allowed me to explore my own features in ways I have never felt comfortable to do before.”

Florian Schweizer, chief executive of The Arts Society, said: “The Arts Society is delighted to be able to offer a virtual exhibition and competition to support young artists during lockdown.

“We want to recreate and promote a sense of community, belonging and connection during a time of isolation and distancing.

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“We believe the arts have the power to bring people together, and we will not let this virus stop communities from enjoying the arts with each other.”

Abigail is also one of many artists across the UK currently volunteering for the #PortraitsForNHSHeroes project, which pairs deserving NHS workers up with artists who paint their portrait for free.

“I felt quite useless at the beginning of lockdown,” Abigail explains.

“I felt I didn’t have much to contribute, and I saw all these amazing people going out working while I was safe in my own home.

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“When I heard about the project, I jumped at the chance to get involved, and have already painted the portrait of an NHS worker in Leeds, which I’m looking forward to presenting to her as soon as it’s safe to do so.”

Visit The Art Society’s digital exhibition HERE to view all the shortlisted artwork, and to vote for Abigail.