In the frame: The Common

A vibrant painting embodying the social nature of humans has won the UK’s biggest painting prize. Antonia Charlesworth speaks to Kathryn Maple, the artist behind it, about how it came about 

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Unable to get to the pub with friends, Kathryn Maple spent the weekend celebrating the biggest moment of her career to date by pacing around, jumping and skipping in the air. Even now, as we talk on the phone nearly a week later, her giddy excitement is intense and infectious.

She is just so happy. She has been crowned winner of the 2021 John Moores Painting Prize.

“Oh my god, it’s such a large amount of money alone, but to get a painting into a permanent collection is something I’ve always hoped for, that at some point might happen down the line. And as if getting the painting into the collection isn’t enough I get a solo show! I’m really excited and so lucky. It’s mental.”

Anyone in need of an injection of pure joy can watch the moment Maple was awarded the £25,000 prize, for her large-scale acrylic on canvas, The Common, in a video produced by the Walker Art Gallery in the absence of an
in-person unveiling.

“I had to email them to ask if they can tell how many times an individual’s watching it because I’ve watched it about 500 times. It’s so nice for my mum and family and friends to be able to watch and I was blubbing away because of the build-up to it, plus all the judges’ comments were just so so special. Some of the words they used – it was just really beautifully put. When you go to openings you never really get that much depth.”

Maple’s vitality and boundless positivity is reflected in The Common, rendered in vibrant pinks and greens and teeming with energy and life. A group of people gather in a communal landscape. They’re together but separate. Two of them appear to be about to embrace, one of them is perhaps using the space to exercise, but most are just passing through.

The Walker’s Sandra Penketh said The Common “has a special poignancy at this difficult time when the value of our physical and emotional connections to people and places have taken on such a deep resonance”.

Juror Michelle Williams said it struck a chord “perhaps because it depicts the very thing we are currently unable to share: the painting resonates with movement and communality, and embodies the deeply social nature of humans”.

“Maybe it’s a struggle of mine because I’m really sociable and I love talking to anyone but then I guess I spend quite a lot of time on my own,” says Maple. “As an outsider I really like to look and make up my own narrative for people as they’re walking along. I try and collage people together in that way and then hopefully it ends up building up on the surface as paint.”

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But the 31-year-old artist says the painting wasn’t intend to “reflect something of this common moment”, as judge Jennifer Higgie put it, at least not directly in relation to the current pandemic.

“In the studio I’m always hoping that the paintings will resonate with the moment, even if you are looking back, but it was started and finished before the outbreak so it has been really interesting to hear the comments. I think, when I was making it, it was really the feeling of the time, that sense of people when they’re caught up in their own head space a bit. They’re going out into the world with their own purpose and thoughts – you feel partly isolated and the landscape is moving around you. It’s a space that you’re passing through, a moment in time, or almost like a passage.”

The human figure is the focus but landscape is an important part in The Common and Maple is keen to push at the boundaries between the two forms, or at least try to create a balance between. There’s newfound resonance in this aspect of The Common too, as lockdown has encouraged more people to interact with the natural world, but throughout her body of work Maple has striven to showcase what she describes as every form of life.

“Even if you happen to be lucky enough to get into like the hills or into an open space where there are no people, the land can appear very much like other things, like a person lying down or like different shapes and forms. So I was definitely trying to work with making the people in the painting part of the landscape, knitting them together, almost like a tapestry of some kind.”

A photograph on Maple’s Instagram account shows The Common “before the people went in and the movement happened”. The landscape, populated with large lotus leaves, was based on Uneo Park in Tokyo.

“It was quite a scary moment. I always want to push the work forward but I thought, god, I could leave it at that. But I just wanted to disturb the surface, like it needed to be reshaped or broken free a bit. I thought, no, it needs to go further.

“I was standing back and trying to look at it and I could see the leaves had almost spaces within them where maybe feet could stand, or a shape could suggest where a head might go, or the back of a stem could then be the back of a person so then they started to participate in it, like a scene almost, like a stage.”

The inspiration for these figures came closer to home. Living in London, surrounded by human activity, has led to people finding their way into her work only in the last two years. Now that her painting has found a permanent home in Liverpool, and her first major solo exhibition is earmarked for the Walker in 2022, Maple feels she has a new artistic home in the city.

“It’s really easy to get stuck in a place. I can’t complain and I’m really lucky to live in South London – it’s amazing for the art scene – but I think it will be just really nice to be able to go to Liverpool. I’m having thoughts of me in my eighties, with a herd of old ladies, still coming to visit the annual Walker exhibition. And I can’t wait to spend a bit of time drawing a new city. As a loose idea I’m hoping to bring into the show things I discover in Liverpool. I’ll have to see how it follows but just going somewhere completely new and seeing what surfaces could bring in a new phase – I’m really excited.”

The Common is among the 67 paintings selected for the John Moores Painting Prize, on display at the Walker Art Gallery until 27 June. Until the gallery reopens a virtual tour of the exhibition is at 

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