The persistence of structures | Janet Grech

Painter Janet Grech speaks to us about ‘Bulwarks of Fortitude’, her current exhibition of paintings on display at Wignacourt Tower, St Paul’s Bay. Organised by heritage NGO Din L-Art Helwa, the exhibition commemorates Malta’s fortresses, and seeks to highlight the importance of preserving them.

Painting by Janet Grech
Painting by Janet Grech

When did your interest in historical sites as an artistic subject start?

Since my early teens I had a special bond with nature and often collected odd-looking twigs, broken pottery, rocks and other unusual-looking natural objects. These were treasures to me. I was raised in a mill house and perhaps that is where my interest in solid structures came from.

My first collective exhibition, at 115, The Strand, Sliema, included a painting dealing with structures of Dwejra Bay… a sad contrast between the grand overlying rock and man-made structures.

Who would you say have been some of your most ‘significant’ tutors over the years, and in what way did they help you develop your ‘Expressionist’ style?

At the age of 16 I attended The School of Art in Valletta and Anton Calleja was my first tutor. Many years later I joined Anton’s student group. There, Anton allowed us to paint in his studio, be ourselves and was a constant inspiration. He was a generous and encouraging tutor. I also had some private tuition with Pawlu Grech who, just like myself, shared a love for nature. At his studio I was surrounded by some of the things I treasured and often worked on natural materials, including fossils. Using pencil and charcoal, I was taught various techniques. Pawlu is an unconventional teacher and thanks to him I achieved a certain freedom of expression. Jason Lu taught me mainly figure and portrait. He did not only teach me the figurative form, but also a form of discipline; very typical of his teaching method. 

Since you work in different media and genres (nudes as well as landscapes, for example) what were the most important things you felt you had to keep in mind while tackling your paintings of the fortifications in question? What are the key techniques and skills you employ when you tackle  these kinds of paintings in particular?

The knife as a tool and acrylic as a media suit me because I love texture and acrylic dries fast.  I find that I am at best capturing an impression of an object almost on impulse which this form of media permits. I dislike touching up my art later because the feeling of it would be lost as then I would rather neglect it. My aim was to focus mainly on the towers alone and ideally bring out their great structure. The sky, the sea and surrounding nature is an extension of the towers and the painting of St Mary’s Battery in Comino is a good example. I also wanted to play with perspective since the towers are quite alike and this was inspired by some of my photography.

What do you hope visitors will glean about the fortifications themselves through your paintings? Is there a particular kind of message you would like to impart about them and their cultural value with this exhibition?

I hope that the message oozes out from each and every stroke on my canvas: “Do not let us be neglected, we were and still are very powerful symbols to this island.”

The exhibition is very much in keeping with the exhibition organisers Din L-Art Helwa’s ideologies. Together we want to raise awareness so that as Maltese, we should treasure and safeguard our heritage.

Bulwarks of Fortitude will remain on display until June 14.

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