Urban landscapes

Catherine McWilliams Boy With Pigeons (detail) 1983 mixed media on paper 36 x 40cm

Louise Wallace looks at the work of Catherine McWilliams, whose survey exhibition is showing at the FE McWilliam Gallery

Catherine McWilliams is unique among artists in Northern Ireland. The overarching stimulus across her oeuvre may be termed ‘painting as empathy’, a practice that mines deep and complicated feelings for the city of Belfast, its people and environs. McWilliams’ Self Portrait (Fig 2) captures her own resolute gaze in a range of Van Gogh yellows. Her use of yellow across key works may be seen as a marker of hope. For McWilliams, hope is something rooted in home and hills, in city streets and back gardens, motifs she returns to throughout her career.

McWilliams moved to north Belfast in 1966 with her husband, fellow painter Joseph McWilliams. From this point onwards, her practice became largely focused on the urban. While art history highlights the isolation of the painter’s studio, McWilliams’ work seems to be full of locals: people running in the park, dinner ladies, council workers with a digger. This connection to people has been evident from the beginning. In her early career she was an art teacher at St Gemma’s in the Bone area of Belfast, a locale marked by social and economic deprivation. During the conflict the schoolgirls would be surrounded by nightly riots and police raids. McWilliams describes the art room as an oasis for her pupils amidst the darkness of surrounding streets.

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