Falkirk artist’s stunning exhibition is a slice of life

Even buttered toast becomes interesting if you look at it long enough, says James McDonald. Pictures: Michael Gillen.
Even buttered toast becomes interesting if you look at it long enough, says James McDonald. Pictures: Michael Gillen.

From mouth-watering slices of toast oozing with melted butter to evocative portraits, stunning etchings and beautiful landscapes, James McDonald’s work is difficult to pigeonhole.

But a new show, now on in Callendar House’s Park Gallery, reveals what his many styles have in common – a breathtaking and exquisite eye for detail.

James McDonald's portrait of his mum, Mary.

James McDonald's portrait of his mum, Mary.

There’s another theme here too – the significance of ordinary objects, whether that’s an ‘outsider’ slice of bread spread thick with strawberry jam or a painting of a crumpled five-pound note, so perfect that you feel it could be lifted from the frame and spent in a shop.

When he talks about these quirky pieces, he quotes the writer Flaubert, who said: “Anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough.”

In another painting, pearly beads of raindrops on a spider’s web glisten against the backdrop of a glowing field in Bannockburn, near where the artist was born.

“That’s the real field of Bannockburn – according to me and Neil Oliver,” the 63-year-old said with a grin. “Despite all the touristy impressions to the contrary!”

Born in Stirling, in 1956, while his grandfather was the pit foreman at Millhall Colliery, James grew up in Stenhousemuir, attending Stenhousemuir Primary and then Carron Primary.

From Larbert High School, he got a place at Edinburgh College of Art to study fashion and textiles.

“I only went there so I could get my diploma to teach,” he admits.

But he soon found a talent for high quality printmaking – “I tried my hand at it and it took off” – and began producing, printing and exhibiting his own etchings, as well as “editioning” those of other artists, including Dame Elizabeth Blackadder and John Bellany.

He went on to set up the art and design department at Cumbernauld College – until in 1986, he finally found the confidence to try painting.

His work sold straight away and he’s worked full-time as an artist ever since, mostly painting but also etching and printmaking, which remains a passion.

Tobacco in hand, ready for his next roll-up, James still seems slightly surprised at his success.

The stunning realism of his work means it hangs in galleries such as the Victoria & Albert in London and Glasgow’s Kelvingrove as well as gracing private collections across the UK and beyond.

This, incidentally, gives him some great one-line observations to throw into the conversation, such as “Bob Geldof haggled a lot”; “James Herbert’s a nice guy”; and “Auberon Waugh gave me his flat in Hammersmith for a week once”.

He now lives in Camelon, although his studio has been in Glasgow since 1988.

He has never driven but on foot he has followed the canals, the Antonine Wall and the many other pathways around the area.

At one point in his life he would walk from Cumbernauld to Larbert twice a week.

One small painting, which glows with the vivid pink shades of dawn, shows the view from his bedroom window – in the distance, Larbert East Church, of which his mum was a devoted member, sits at the foot of the Ochils which dominate the landscape.

Chatting to him as he prepared for the exhibition’s opening, his sense of humour twinkles.

Many of the works on display have been borrowed back from private collections, making it also something of a retrospective – so how does he feel to see it?

“I’m over the moon,” he says. “There are some works I haven’t seen since 1991.”

Among the portraits are members of his family.

He lost his mum, Mary, in 2014 and his brother, Jonathan, very suddenly, in 2015 and both feature prominently.

Jonathan’s image is reworked again and again in a series of stunning etchings.

One of his favourite pieces is a portrait of his mum and, beside it, a large, close-up canvas of her hands, cupping drops of water.

“I like that – the way it forms a heart shape in the middle,” he says, with quiet satisfaction.

Other favourites are what he calls the ‘soup notes’.

“My mum would leave me wee notes telling me things like how to work the microwave if she’d left me some soup to heat up,” he explains. “I’m not the best cook.”

He began to collect these wee notes and to paint them, lighting them with scrupulous detail to create a tableau. It turns these simple notes into a unique and beautiful memento of his mother’s love and care.

The exhibition runs in the Park Gallery until May 4.