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Jan Patience: Karen Strang’s portraits of humanity salute key workers

© Moe RocksmooreArtist Karen Strang with oil painting Look Aboot Ye at Lillie Gallery in Milngavie
Artist Karen Strang with oil painting Look Aboot Ye at Lillie Gallery in Milngavie

Just as artists have borne witness to the realities of war from the frontline, so they have been busy drawing out the universals of the collective experience of the Covid pandemic.

Last week, I saw a phenomenal exhibition of 90 portraits of key workers at the Lillie Art Gallery in Milngavie. From NHS staff to firefighters, security staff, carers, paramedics, shop workers and prison officers, Karen Strang’s portraits are full of light, colour, humanity and joy.

Strang’s exhibition, Look Aboot Ye, Caring Through The Covid Pandemic, is both a tribute to and a celebration of key workers. It also features people around the artist’s home in Clackmannanshire.

Her creative response to the pandemic started early in 2020 when, unable to travel or to work at her studio, Strang, who trained at the Glasgow School of Art in the 1980s, signed up to the NHS Heroes Portraits project set up by Oxford-based portrait artist Tom Croft. “After an amazing response across the country, I realised many local people also deserved recognition,” said Strang.

“A responsibility of an artist is to bear witness and to document. In this way, I could also thank many individuals by gifting them their portrait.”

Jan Patience: Artist Gilly McLaren is on a mission to honour NHS heroes

Normally Strang paints in oils, but apart from some pastel and pencil sketches, the vast majority of these portraits are in acrylics. “As I set myself the task of painting a portrait a day – reflecting the shift of a key worker – they had to be created using this method.”

The centrepiece of this remarkable exhibition, which runs until February 23, is Strang’s large oil painting, Look Aboot Ye. This ambitious work presents a line-up of Clackmannanshire key workers reimagined across time.

A book of Strang’s portraits has also been produced. It’s a remarkable testament to the triumph of hope, hard work and creativity over adversity.

A painting which features in a new exhibition at Irvine’s Harbour Arts Centre depicts a man in a bunnet munching a Gregg’s sausage roll. The work by popular Ayrshire artist Graham McKean has given the exhibition its title, Sex And Drugs And Sausage Rolls.

The show touches on several themes which McKean has toyed with in a 27-year-long career as an artist. There’s real brio and energy in all McKean’s work, which feature ordinary folk – and the occasional Bard – immersed in the moment.