When artist Angela Charles was first registered blind she thought she may have to give up painting. ‘How am I going to do this?’ she wondered. Relating her story to Seth Dellow in an audio interview available on the Marshwood Vale website, she explained that she hadn’t been able to see what she was painting properly for so long that it was something she just had to do. ‘It’s like something I have to get out, and I just thought well, whatever happens, happens. And I was still selling at galleries, so I didn’t tell anyone about my sight loss for quite a time.’ As her sight deteriorated, she would simply leave her guide dog in the car and her husband would deliver the work. ‘And I would just stand holding onto a plinth or something while he brought the paintings in, trying not to show that I couldn’t see properly. And I think it was quite hard to, sort of, actually tell people because you feel they’re going to look at your work in a very different way.’
Looking back now she thinks her concerns were ridiculous but she had been worried people would not want her work anymore, or they would pity her.
‘I’d always had problems with my night vision but I just thought it was me’ she explains. ‘I thought some people were like that and some people weren’t.’ Her husband’s parents lived in the countryside with no street lights and she would often find it difficult to see. ‘I’d walk into parked cars, things like that.’ It became a ‘bit of a joke’ and despite sharing her concerns when having eyesight checks she was told not to worry. It got to a point where she thought ‘hang on a minute, this is quite bad.’
Eventually, about twelve years ago her vision problems were diagnosed but it wasn’t until recent years that she was registered blind. ‘It was probably about three years ago that I was registered blind and it took a real nosedive’ Angela tells Seth. ‘That’s when I lost the central vision, so I can’t read anything anymore. I watch TV but only with audio description because I can’t see what’s on the screen, it’s just sometimes it’s a swirl of colour.’ She describes her world as ‘quite black and white and punctuated with bits of bright colour’ while reds are brilliant. ‘I can see reds like shining out or really bright blue or something like that will show, shine through, and I think my paintings have started to reflect that as well.’ However, at the same time as she was registered blind she also got a recurrence of breast cancer. ‘It was quite a tough time having to sort of juggle it all.’
Brought up just outside Brighton at Portslade, Angela describes her younger self as ‘tall and skinny and quite shy’. She loved cycling and visiting Brighton but most of all she loved art. ‘I was the first person in my family to go to university and that was purely because I wanted to do art. It wasn’t that I particularly wanted to go, had a craving to go to university, a longing to go to university, it was all about doing art’. She left school with just an art O-level because she ‘really didn’t care about anything else.’
Art college was a revelation. ‘I’d been drawing most of the time anyway in and out of school and I really loved it, but when I got to art college I couldn’t believe I could just be creative all day, every day. So I’d do that at art college all day and then I’d go home and make more things, and I was just obsessed, absolutely obsessed and everything was covered in paint. I’d repaint my bike and stick things on it and just would be covered in paint or collage.’ A trip to Amsterdam gave her the opportunity to see Rauschenberg’s massive collage, “Charlene”. ‘It blew me away’ she recalls. She successfully applied to Goldsmiths in London and completed her degree.
Afterwards she worked at Our Price where she met her husband. They traveled in Europe, Thailand, and Malaysia together and after a spell in Brighton eventually moved to the west country in 2001. The move inspired a new style to Angela’s work. ‘When I was in Brighton I was more influenced by the urban landscape’ she recalls. She says that while at Goldsmith’s she would never have expected that one day she would be painting abstracted landscapes. But she says that here you ‘can’t fail to be influenced by the landscape.’ Greens, blues, skies, all came into her work as she became really influenced by landscape. ‘I was just sort of in awe of the landscape and especially of the coastline as well, and on Chesil Beach’ she says.
Angela explains that recently with her sight loss, the landscape has become more abstract in that it’s more influenced by mark and feelings than it probably was before. ‘It was always influenced by a memory of place rather than a direct representation of somewhere’. Describing her technique she says, ‘there’s an area of calm then an area of sort of frantic mark making and they’re quite messy when I do them. They look quite calm when you look at them afterwards but at the time I’m standing down there, there’s the paint, I’m scratching into them, I’m painting over or I’m getting a damp cloth and wiping away.’ She knows what colours she wants but needs help to choose them. ‘I like everything that goes on there to be exactly what I want to put on there,’ she says. ‘But sometimes now I use my phone to work out what colours I’m using, because I can’t read the colours on the tubes anymore. So I’ve got an app on the phone that will read the barcodes and tell me what colour, and because I’ve been painting for so long, mixing the colours together comes sort of naturally.’
Her sight loss in lockdown brought both challenges and benefits. When she broke her arm and had to visit the hospital she was unable to bring her guide dog, Flynn, and her husband was not allowed to come in with her. ‘I got to A&E in Yeovil, stood outside and the doors just opened, so I went straight in and someone in a hazmat suit came out like, “Didn’t you read the signs? Go outside,” and it was just like, “No, I can’t read the sign.” So, and it’s become quite a world of signs now in all shops and things like that. Signage is everywhere and that’s been probably the most frustrating thing for me.’
There have been benefits. ‘The social distancing is great because it means that me and Flynn, people get out of our way anyway, so that works well for us having social distancing, and especially now in cafés and things like that because usually you’re quite close to people. And Flynn is guided by his nose and would like to eat everything. So in a café, if someone drops something on the next table, although he shouldn’t, he’s the first one to sniff that out.’
Talking about some of the challenges she has faced she recalls a footballer who on one occasion after scoring a goal pulled up his shirt to show another underneath with the slogan “Why always me?” She laughs about wanting that shirt but is bravely philosophical. ‘I’ve been really lucky’ she says, ‘both lots of cancer I’ve had treatment for, and I’m absolutely fine and come through those. My eyesight isn’t going to kill me, it will probably make me stronger but it doesn’t hurt.’ She believes there are so many people worse off saying ‘I know that’s quite a cliché to say, but I do feel like that.’
Seth Dellow’s interview with Angela Charles covers many aspects of her life, from her initial love of art through to how she has coped with illness and disability, as well as lockdown experiences. Her resilience is extraordinary. Angela will be exhibiting at OSR Projects in West Coker in October, watch out for details in the October issue.
Seth Dellow’s full interview with Angela Charles is available to listen to on the Marshwood Vale Magazine website.