Galleries: Lesley Banks enjoys the sea of life on the canals of Scotland

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In art, the devil is in the details, as in life. Lesley Banks spent her entire life closely gazing at flickering scenes she sees during a daytime stroll, whether it’s a rainbow, dew on the web of a spider, or patterns created on the surface of water by leaves. As she says, a lot of people don’t notice these little things…. They’re too busy to reflect on the big picture.

“If you just stop, you notice more,” she says. “It’s a little bit like the whole slow cooking movement, there should be a slow cooking movement where you just take the time to look at things closely.”

Of course, during the lockdown, we all slowed down as a species earlier this year.

Many of us started looking slowly as we took our regular government-mandated walks, but with her Landscapes of Water series of paintings, Banks – as always – was way ahead of the curve. Banks continues her continuing obsession with capturing the ever evolving essence of water on a two-dimensional surface in this latest body of work, displayed at the Museum of Industrial Life in Coatbridge just before it closed in March.

Landscapes of Water is a continuation of Banks’ 15-month residency as the first artist to work on the Scottish Canals, completed in 2016/2017.

For the award-winning Glasgow School of Art-trained painter, the resulting piece, “Gongoozler” (meaning “a person idly observing canal life from the sidelines”), represented a significant change.

She walked along the towpaths of the canal, gazing and drawing, instead of looking closely at the interior life and domestic scenes as before.

She crossed the Forth and Clyde, Union, Monkland, Caledonian and Crinan canals, always accompanied by her husband Mark and dog Bella, making paintings that told the tales of the 250-year-old waterways of Scotland.

She started to expand her viewpoint to include coastlines, exchanging static waterways and towpaths for jagged rocks and crashing waves, as many canals begin and finish their journey at the gateway to the sea.

The Falkirk Community Trust loaned one of the paintings emerging from her Gongoozler collection, Sunday Afternoon at the Helix, back to Summerlee for this exhibition. It is a large painting which for the exhibition serves as a touchstone of sorts. It portrays a rainy Sunday outside of Falkirk at the home of Andy Scott’s giant Kelpies.

It’s a blend of landscape and figurative painting, and a prime example of the skill of Banks as an artist to break down a scene while conveying scale to a sense of location and atmosphere.

Alongside other works from her Gongoozler series and more recent works, the painting of Kelpies shows an increasing curiosity in the abstract effects of water. Dramatic, jagged cliffs reach out into the sea at Castle Lachlan in Argyll in the coastal paintings. It’s almost as if the roar of the waves can be heard and the salt in the air can be tasted as seagulls weep over you.

For this show, Summerlee, situated on the edge of the Monkland Canal, is an especially suitable venue. It’s a family-friendly attraction, filled with interesting exhibits that evoke a bygone age of heavy industry and steam power. I visited the show on a sunny Saturday afternoon, it was bustling both outside and inside with small groups. Opening hours are restricted and pre-registration online is necessary, but with locals and visitors from further afield, it’s obviously a popular location.

Workers constantly encourage children to engage with the paintings, and seeing examples of the working practices of banks is interesting. Easels, sketchbooks, and notes on her journeys that she wrote down help you see the paintings from multiple eyes. I especially enjoyed her studio’s tear-off sheets and the quotes on panels from Banks.

“I’m always looking for the perfect sky and sea blue. I’m always excited when I find a new brand of blue paint because even though they’re azure, they’re all different. I’m looking for that elusive transparent blue that feels like a cold sunny day, really rich in color. I’m obsessed with trying to recreate a bright blue sky!”I’m always looking for the perfect sky and sea blue. When I find a new blue paint brand, I’m always excited because they are all distinct even though they’re azure. I’m looking for that elusive transparent blue that feels like a cold sunny day, really rich in color. I’m obsessed with trying to recreate a bright blue sky!

In this exhibition, much of the work focuses on the Monkland Canal. Nothing more than a complete waterway is this canal.

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