Eleanor Carlingford has been grappling with the question of who we are and what makes up our perception of ‘identity’ for some time now. Graduating from the Glasgow School of Art in 2005, with previous work experience in fields such as journalism, translation and relationship counselling has equipped her with a wealth of experience around people, and that has been vital to her painting. This sense of curiosity about people and the world results in a play with colour, texture and form to create stories, a sense of identity and a psychology on the canvas that is fascinating, investigative and deeply mysterious.
What was your earliest experience of enjoying and appreciating art? 
I discovered while at secondary school that I could draw, and really draw well. But, at that time in the art world, drawing was not much appreciated as a skill and it would take many years for me to crack open my imagination enough to develop that innate skill into something differently creative.
I read that you had a few different jobs before becoming a painter, could you tell us about what lead you to painting?
The biggest block to starting out as a painter was that I was not allowed to apply for art school when young, and so I believed that I was not meant to be a painter. I pursued other careers which interested me. As it happens, you need a great deal of life experience and considerable internal substance to make your work manifest in the world of Fine Art. All my jobs play into my art practice now – theatrical costuming, relationship counselling, translating, journalism, broadcasting, and of course my experience at sea.
When at last as an adult I arrived at the great double doors of The Glasgow School of Art, I knew, I simply knew that it was the logical next step for me.
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On your website you have your paintings as well as blog entries such as stories and voice clips, are there narrative elements to your painting?
Well, my whole life is a narrative. The most apparently insignificant event in your day can link together with other threads to fill out the story of an identity. Things happen to us, but yet I firmly believe that we are not a person conditioned by the sum total of our experiences. Rather, things happen to us which substantiate the context through which the internal individual emerges. These are two fundamentally different scenarios.
References in artworks can have multiple threads, of course, and the writing interplays with common elements in the visual pieces – lyricism for example.
You had a solo exhibition Paladin on the Ramparts and another one titled Boil a Magic Potion, both at Artpistol in Glasgow – could you tell us a bit about how your work has been changing and evolving between the two projects?
There is no doubt in my mind that my work did undergo some changes between Paladin and Boil a Magic Potion but I had not been prepared for that change as it was invisible within me, and much dependent on my inner life. Paladin was prepared for during a 2 week research trip to Málaga, while the second exhibition was prepared for during the first lockdown.
I was so taken aback by the loneness of the paintings for the Magic Potion show that I took some time to get used to them… To ensure they were right, honest and authentic. In some ways, the painting seems to come out of the end of the paintbrushes, irrespective of myself.
Other than visual artists, what grabs your attention and inspires you to paint? 
The subject matter of my work has been the same since I left art school, and it is prompts, quotes and stories along these lines which invite me to develop work.
I am slightly intrigued by my interest in paraphernalia – particularly old rusty and broken down machines – if they are in a nautical setting, all the better. Bright decay, natural materials and the human body, good light, colour, museum exhibits, stories from the distant past, costume, theatre and opera. I draw all the time.
“We artists are not in the business of answering our own questions, we are posing them. We are posing them for others to continue the interrogation.”
I really enjoyed spending some time on your website reading your blog entries and looking at your paintings, it’s quite an immersive experience to have access to different forms of expression all in one place. How has the internet and social media affected the way you work as an artist?
It is a particular thing to maintain a website which is not interactive. Needless to say, my website needs to serve as a portfolio for people to get a look at the work, and the chronology of it. But I wanted to flesh out the work through my writing as there are inextricable bonds, and so I felt an intermittent blog was appropriate.
However, I do not invite an ongoing dialogue with others, as we artists are not in the business of answering our own questions, we are posing them. We are posing them for others to continue the interrogation. The noise of social media and the internet is way too much clamour for me, but I am not a luddite, and so I keep a light hearted hand in there. That said, how much more alone and invisible would our lives as artists be if we couldn’t have some little rippling responses on social media!
I loved the piece you wrote on the commission you had for an identity portrait and how much you enjoyed working that way. Could you tell us a bit about this idea of the identity portrait and what draws you to it?
My work as a relationship counsellor, supervisor and trainer has taught me so much about the internal workings of an individual that I have antennae for mood, attitude and atmosphere. It seems to me that our appearance is one of the smallest impinging elements on an identity, and it is the substance of what is inside which interests me more. So, I glean some stories about my 'subject.' Another element of a painting which can give us clues as to the identity of the person is the way in which the paint is applied, and the surface of the paint.
I’m really interested in this sense of colour and in the mystery of your works, the figures are represented by colour and brushstrokes, rather than just their physical likeness. In that same blog entry you mention asking people who are going to be in the portrait to send three colours each they respond to. What is the process like once you have all the details you need from them?
Once I have the personal information, the three colours, some stories, their name, I start my research. This process is intriguing as I am at this stage casting the net wide into the world of the internet to find links to what this person’s stories have prompted in me. It has taken some time for me to trust the authenticity of my instinct – almost my permission to make connections and haul in stories from a wider world from which I can collect visual images. I also make things from which I can draw, frequently pieces of costume.
I now know that I am the catalyst in this process and the information is stirred together within my sketchbook – like a magic cauldron – and I can trust what comes out onto the canvas. As you say, there is a mystery about the images on the canvas, but the viewer would not stay engaged if the images did not actually have substance and the power to move the emotions.
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They show something more than a physical likeness of someone, something of their inner selves comes out too. What role does that inner psychology and spirit of the self play in the works?
Oh, it is everything to them! It brings them to life. That spirit of the self as you call it appeals to the viewer and calls on a response.
Your work has grappled with this sense of who we are and where we come from, what have you found from exploring these deeply complex questions?
Good question! But, frustratingly, I am not going to put an answer into words because I continue to paint my questioning. As you are well aware answers are contentious and enigmatic. Like all facts they lead us to the intellectual rather than the gut response.
But I can say this, there is no better time in the world for getting to grips with the self. Political and social polarisation (a climate all too familiar to me in my upbringing in Northern Ireland) are rife. Ethnic/social/class/religious/political hatred for the other is most vehement in those whose own sense of properly filled out identity is missing. These vague individuals become a cauldron of intense fear of others who they feel are doing them down, harvesting all the advantage and basically threatening them. A comfort drawn from nestling in the refuge of self is not open to them and their lives are given over to behaviours. Behaviours are no substitute for a real sense of identity.
Lastly, what is next on the horizon for you?
Escape! I need to get away and have refreshing visual and emotional experiences…me and my sketchbook. I’ve been learning Irish all over again, since school, and I want to do some more song writing.
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