We spoke to artist Mira Connolly on capturing Bow at night and why working with less colour enhances her art.
Painting the night’s sky in its all-consuming cosmic darkness, it is easy to assume that the most used colour would be black. But, for Bow artist Mira Connolly, black is something she never touches.
‘It’s too strong. And in nature, you know, nothing really is very black that is natural,’ she trails off and pauses for a second. Her brown eyes widen as if she’s misled herself; she concedes that soot and coal are innately black but, because they reflect their environment, they reveal a fleck of silver or a flash of grey. It’s a paradoxical, if effective, way of demonstrating her point; nothing, not even the night’s sky, is ever truly a solid block of black.
I am sitting at a square table in a well-loved kitchen on Mile End’s Lockhart Road, opposite Connolly. Her slender olive-skinned arms and hands gesticulate when speaking about her paintings.
She points to me her first ever painting, hanging on her kitchen wall. It is a small painting on canvas, around A5 size, and is of a gleaming red onion on an ochre table. There are a few more food paintings from her early art days of sunny lemons and shiny red apples. From there, she dabbled in surrealism (she chopped up Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’) and now, she focuses much of her talent on painting the East End at night.
A self-taught artist from Serbia, Connolly came to London aged 21 as Mira Anđelić in the summer of 1973. After meeting and marrying an Irish man, she lived in West London, only to make the journey east 20 years ago, after encouragement from friends who live in the area.
Fast forward ten years to 2010 when Connolly, aged 58, picked up a paintbrush. She enrolled into morning art classes (‘With old ladies like me,’ she quips) at the Idea Store Bow after her company closed its London office, terminating her three-decade career in publishing.
Alongside her burgeoning skill in painting, Connolly made marmalade. Lots of it. So much so that, by 2013, she was winning awards. At the World’s Original Marmalade Award in Cumbria, she won gold for her pink grapefruit marmalade and silver for her grapefruit and lemon marmalade. But, after this stint in mixing flavours, Connolly returned her hand to mixing colours, something which she loves in equal measure to painting, if not more so. With that artistic sparky passion, she exclaims: ‘I just love, love, love, love mixing colours.’
Her pivot to painting full-time paid off. In 2020, her painting of an immaculate lemon French Fancy was shortlisted for the Royal Academy’s prestigious Summer Exhibition. And now, aged 70, Connolly held her first solo exhibition entitled ‘Painting Bow’ in January at the Brady Arts Centre. Forty-eight paintings were showcased, 15 of which were from her night-time Bow series. The remaining 33 were of other local identifiable places, such as Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park.
Connolly never set out to paint Bow at night but, like with so many, at the start of lockdown in spring 2020, Connolly needed to find new inspiration to keep herself occupied. For the government’s allotted one hour of exercise a day (remember that?) Connolly took to walking in the evening.
‘Sometimes nine o’clock or even 10 o’clock at night, because there’s fewer people around.’ As the spring progressed, Connolly noted that the evening light was ‘absolutely fantastic’, helped by the fact that ‘there was less pollution. Suddenly, you could see more sky in the evening.’
Connolly’s first night-time picture was of a double-fronted house in Mile End Place; it basks in an iridescent Godly glow emanating from one streetlight, against a charcoal sky. The painting comprises a mixture of rich golds, deep blues, and strong greys. The result is a still, mellow, and peaceful night’s scene.
Connolly also has painted three variations of the front door of Mile End Road’s Malplaquet House in different stages of light. Its path is shrouded in layer upon layer of lush impenetrable foliage, as if Malplaquet’s door, let alone its path, is reluctant to let us in on its secrets.
Connolly is something of a snooper; her instinctive curiosity of the seemingly banal enables her to see beyond what is presented. It is reminiscent of the East London Group, a collection of artists based in Bow who painted buildings, streets, and the local ways of life; they had that ability to capture the beauty in scenes most people would eschew. And, like the East London Group, this is where Connolly’s work sings.
For example, the entrance to Mile End Place belies its charm. This unassuming cul-de-sac of row upon row of Victorian workers’ cottages, can only be entered by a narrow lane, away from the speed and horns of Mile End Road. Most people would hurry past, their commuters’ eyes blinkered. But Connolly is inquisitive, and this is what makes her paintings so intriguing; her curiosity for what is next, what is beyond.
And this interest is reflected in her paintings. She says most of her paintings depict a path or door to show that ‘there is something beyond, it’s like an opening. So, it’s more of a story.’ It creates a mysterious feel to her art.
This intrigue with the unknown is further reinforced through her interplay between light and dark. Her colours of choice are moody blues, browns, greens, purples. By using these colours, and adding in touches of white, Connolly captures the twilight zone by gradually bleeding soft powder blues, light periwinkles, dark indigos, and regal navy.
Her dedication to her works makes her check up on the exact minute the sun drops off the horizon to capture the best light. While Connolly takes photographs to work from, she says she visits the same place ‘at least five or six times, back and back and back again,’ to get the light just right.
Working with oils, a slow drying paint, is forgiving when altering and adding light as it allows Connolly time to manipulate her painting. She says that, rather than start with the lighter colours and build up to dark, oils need to start with the dark colours and build up to the light.
Doing a one-eighty, Connolly recently attempted a ‘white period’ and dabbled in lighter-hued paintings, but the night continues to lure her: ‘I didn’t plan to do another night time picture … And then I say, “Oh, I’ll just paint one more night-time”.’
It’s a combination of her love for the more moody, muted palette (which to her is ‘more pleasant’ than bolder colours, such as reds and yellows) and the inspiration that the area continues to give that keeps her returning to her night-time series: ‘The area offers so much to paint. So, you know, why would I look elsewhere?’
You can see Connolly’s night-time paintings, as well as more of her paintings, at Tower Hamlets Local History and Library Archives Monday to Friday from 10am to 5pm until end of May.
If you enjoyed this, then read our interview with artist Marc Gooderham.
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