Carolyn Blake artist

This week, I took the train to Malvern to see a mesmerising new exhibition of paintings by Birmingham-based artist, Carolyn Blake. ‘Preserving the Memory’ at the beautiful Malvern Library reflected my journey back at me, taking me down railway tracks and past abandoned buildings, before carrying me into contemporary dance sequences with the Greek muse Terpsichore and finally into gardens where the past meets the present day.

Carolyn Blake, ‘The Mysterious Estate’, Oil on panel, 2023

In the first series of paintings on show, I found myself travelling on routes through empty landscapes and past graffiti-covered buildings, beneath dusty pink skies. ‘The Mysterious Estate’ (2023) is among images which act as painterly postcards sent not from destinations but intriguing places along the way. While seated on trains and staring out of the window, Blake takes photographs of “everyday spaces which have poetic elements”, working from them back in her Edgbaston studio, and giving them titles from books she’s reading, including Gaston Bachelard’s philosophical text, ‘The Poetics of Space’.

While stripping away unnecessary details from images, the artist adds a ground of apricot orange, using this “memory colour” to cast hues of nostalgia on paintings which act as reflections of a fleeting moment or past event. This was a technique she developed during her MA in Fine Art from City & Guilds School of Art, London, 2009, following a career devoted to art education in Birmingham and Bedfordshire, where she was Head of Department in three schools.

Carolyn Blake artist
Carolyn Blake in her Birmingham studio

From 2007 Blake left teaching to pursue her own studies; then began the creative journey, focusing on aspects of the everyday and its poetic elements. An unreliable narrator, she also twists fictions into the frame: the graffiti-decorated, contemporary ruins of ‘An Oriental Palace in a fairy tale’ (2023) hold onto collective histories which seem both real and imagined. Through faded imagery, Blake also points to the fact that memories, once vivid, inevitably pale.

Carolyn Blake artist
The Greek muse Terpsichore has been reimagined in Carolyn Blake’s ‘The Poetics of Dance’

Music, however, has the power to play back memories at full volume, as presented in a series of paintings, ‘The Poetics of Dance’, which are destined for a group exhibition, ‘Reframing the Muse’ at Kendrew Barn, St John’s College, Oxford as part of Oxford Festival of the Arts this summer. 

By collaborating with her partner Annette for these works, Blake has reframed the ancient muse Terpsichore for the modern world; bringing the goddess of dance down from her pedestal, she performs for herself, waving white cloths playfully at the ancient graces in ‘Dance 5′ (2024).

In other paintings from the series, a Greek vase is positioned behind her, while rich blue fabric hangs from the wall, holding memories in its folds. This house stands silent yet full of its own stories. Within its monochrome space, Blake’s muse moves freely to a soundtrack which is streamed through her ears alone – it’s as if Annette is keeping her personal memories safe, and the artist deliberately separates her subject from viewers.

In Blake’s frame, memories also grow in gardens. Annette was again the model for ‘How we take root’ (2024), in which she connects to the earth, digging for something we can’t see, in the verdant space she has cultivated with her own hands. This is the garden in which Blake’s studio stands, too – filled with books, brushes and photographs stuck onto the walls, this is the place where the artist gives new life to remembered or snapped scenes with her brush.

A ghostly Arthur Chamberlain takes seat in ‘The House Protects the Dreamer 1’, 2024

More recently, Blake has brought to life forgotten figures from history in ambient paintings based on archival material at Winterbourne House and Garden, where she is undertaking a residency, ahead of her solo show, ’The House Protects the Dreamer’ which will be staged there in early 2025.

Seated on a bench is Arthur Chamberlain in ‘The House Protects the Dreamer 1’ (2024), imagined in ghostly terms, while three anonymous workers gather beneath a tree, sharing an otherworldly aura in ‘The House Protects the Dreamer’ (2024),

With glowing tones and fluid brushstrokes, Blake inflects people with their own recollections, which reverberate across the poetic spaces in which they are positioned. Standing by an old iron gate, which acts as a portal into the past, Arthur Beesley seems to beckon viewers to join him in this painted archive which preserves memories, personal and collective, minor and momentous, real and imagined by Carolyn Blake who, in her own words, paints images as they “allow the moment to live longer.”

Carolyn Blake artist
‘Preserving the Memory’ installed at Malvern Library

I found time suspended while looking at Blake’s contemplative paintings, through which she frames everyday moments as memories worth not only keeping but looking at, again and again. I’m excited to see what she will go on to paint next, now that she has left teaching behind, and is committed to her practice full-time. In the meantime, ‘Preserving the Memory’ is a must-see exhibition in Malvern.

Carolyn Blake’s exhibition ‘Preserving the Memory’ runs from 3-26 June at Malvern Library. It’s free to visit and open Monday to Saturday. You can check opening times here: ‘Preserving the Memory’: An Art Exhibition by Carolyn Blake – Visit The Malverns

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