Professor Elaine Shemilt

Professor Elaine Shemilt is the subject of this portrait made when we met in Dundee, Scotland where she was Professor of Printmaking at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art. I made contact with Elaine after many years since we studied together at the Royal College of Art. When I explained I was embarking on a practice based PHD she encouraged me to visit her to discuss my plans. Arriving a little early I took the opportunity to look round the Dundee Contemporary Art gallery where Elaine has established a public access print studio, when I heard a voice call “Jonnie?” I turned to where the voice came from: Elaine was sure it was me after all those years!  

She showed me round the Print Studio, and on to the wonderful extensive printmaking department she had developed as well as the research hub – inspiring. She also showed me the towering new Wellcome Trust life sciences building and her exterior prints adorning the tall gable. The extensive facilities put printmaking high on the University art agenda. Her research and print practice has driven her to create, exhibit and present beautiful and insightful work across continents.

Generously she welcomed me to her home and offered me tea over breakfast. What followed was an intense and enjoyable three hours sharing of what print has meant to artists through its applications over the centuries, and what considerations I might take as I begin my research. This insight and encouragement was a critical element in my decision to pursue the research. I also hoped I had made a start on a portrait that would celebrate Elaine and her generosity of spirit.

Elaine sharing print insights

Many months and experiments with mark resist drafting film, drawing with graphite sticks and silkscreen printing, I sent Elaine a digital file of her portrait.  It is always with trepidation I send a portrait via email/web: What will she think? Will she like it or not? Will she welcome it or not? A couple of days later she sent me a note:

Wow Jonnie. That’s amazing!
Thank you very much,

XX Elaine

Six months later Elaine was invited to give a signature lecture at Birmingham City University and I was asked to introduce her, which I accepted with great pleasure. Beforehand we enjoyed an evening meal and her portrait came up:

Elaine : ”I hesitated when I hovered over the jpg you sent in the email”

“What would it be like? would my hair be awful, would I be old. But when I saw it, it wasn’t that superficial physicality I saw, but myself. I saw into myself.”

“Later I shared it with my son and he said its like you are, Mum”.

I was so very happy that the portrait had enabled Elaine to see into herself and for her son to see her Mother.  She was so honest to explain that she hesitated – we are all concerned about our image, and how others may perceive us.

Before her lecture we visited the print room and looked at some portrait prints including her full size portrait.  She was a little taken aback by the size but I could tell she liked it now she could see the materiality of the printmaking. After her lecture I presented her with a tube containing her portrait before she left for the train back to Dundee.

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