Zillah Harford: ‘Why Art?’

‘Why Art?’ running from Saturday, June 13 to Friday, June 19

The story behind the uplifting, colour-celebrating art of Zillah Harford is a fascinating one. Below, she reveals the thoughts behind the canvases.
How did art come into your life?
I discovered my inner artist in my 40s. I signed up for an adult education class called ‘Drawing for Beginners’, where I learnt to use pencils, charcoal, pen, ink and pastels, all over three terms. I found I had an innate ability to sketch. I took another adult education class for a year, exploring still life and landscapes using pastels, as well as a life-drawing class. I then learnt to do botanical illustrations using watercolours, pen and ink on a one-to-one intensive, and then did a third class for a year, experimenting with acrylic and oil paints. I eventually returned to my original teacher, and developed my passion for mixed media and collage.
There was not an exact moment of realisation about being an artist. However, when I reached my 50s, I was diagnosed with clinical depression, and art became a necessity for my health and well-being. I enrolled on a course with Magic Carpet, a local charity who run arts-based workshops for vulnerable people. I studied 20th Century artists through the medium of collage as part of my recovery. I had teetered on the edge during my illness, but through collage, I unearthed the wonderful treasure of creativity.

Zillah Harford

Your exhibition was named ‘Exeter Why Art?’ – why did you pick this title?
The inspiration behind the exhibition was to explore whether art can enhance the quality of life for those who suffer from depression. It was about my testament to the healing power of art. It was also about saying thank you to Magic Carpet, and was a fund raising event for them.
How did you pick which pieces to include in the exhibition?
I wanted to represent my healing journey. I picked pieces about my childhood and notions of family, produced after personal therapy sessions. I included pieces I did as a play therapy student, about light and dark, joy and pain. Another piece, called ‘Chaos and Order’, was produced on the Magic Carpet course. It explored the notion that happiness and unhappiness are related – they are held in the same container. I picked three pieces about the passage of time from girl to mother to crazy wise woman. They helped me understand the grief and loss I found so hard to talk about. Ironically, they also enabled me to know joy, peace and beauty, and offered me comfort. I picked three pieces depicting spirals. They follow a path, give a sense of movement or growth, and may be about connecting the unconscious to the conscious.
You incorporate mixed media into your work. Has this always been your style, or something you evolved into?
I evolved into mixed media while doing my first landscape in oils. I made a sketch in pastels, then another piece incorporating cut-ups of photographs of the scene, and a photocopy of a David Hockney painting. It completely freed me up, and helped me look at the landscape with my creative eyes and my right brain. It was a thrilling process. I began to incorporate napkins, greetings cards, wrapping paper, carrier bags, fake flowers. . . I would cut up other pieces and reuse them. I would collect stuff and wait for a new piece to emerge.
Zillah Harford
Who are your artistic influences?
Matisse and Kandinsky, known as the Wild Ones, and their movement called ‘Fauvism’. I also love Hockney, especially his landscapes, and the way Damien Hurst marries art and science. Recently I have learnt about Frida Kahlo and how her self-portraits include symbolic portrayals of physical and psychological wounds.
Is there a piece in the exhibition that particularly stood out to you, and if so, what was the story behind it?
Yes – it’s the final piece in the exhibition about lighting a candle to my wounds. It was part of a bigger piece called ‘Days of Sunshine’ that I produced after a dance therapy intensive in Charmouth. It was about forgiving what hurt me, and celebrating my aliveness. There was an image, like a shard of glass, and I transformed into the candle. This made me cry and laugh at the same time. It was incredibly healing.
That’s beautiful. And what’s your creative process like?
It is a source of joy. Each piece emerges with no set plan. It grows up and out. I accept uncertainty and randomness. It is about connection, joining up, linking images, ideas and inspirations. I trust my senses and my still, quiet voice. It’s an exciting process, like unearthing a treasure out of a single thought. It’s like pulling back time and space and re-moulding it into a new form – playing with fragments, without fear, without judgement or perfectionist thinking. I experience my creative energy and use my creative talents. It’s about my person side and my soul side becoming one. I feel what is right with me – a deep sense of comfort fills me, and I know that all is well. I evolve, free flow into my Self.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
I draw my inspiration from nature, from the notion of the butterfly emerging from a cocoon, from the mystery of life, from a sense of something Other . . . order out of chaos .  I love the microscopic world, the unseen beauty in design, pattern and function.
What’s next for you?
I have started some sketches based on diatoms – single-called algae which have cell walls of silica. I have done the images in minute dots, using coloured pens. It is my meditation, and I have no idea where it will take me.

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