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Into the Valley

From Cumbria Life Magazine. March 2024. Profile by Sarah French. Part of focus on the River Kent

The landscape in which her Kentmere home is set not only provides subject matter for artist and teacher Louise Sturgis but also inspires those who attend her art courses.

From school students to beginner adults and professional artists, all have joined her classes, taught from her studio and outside among the fells, woodland and, of course, on the riverside. "People have particularly loved being by the water for the reflections and shadows of the trees" she says.

Louise only began her art school last summer, having returned to her family home at Longhouses. A converted barn next to the house provides studios for both Louise and her artists husband Ian Frith Powell, while a second barn is currently being renovated as the Garden Studio.

Louise Sturgis Over the Mere

Louise, who was born in London, and her four brothers, spent many happy holidays here when they were children. Her grandfather, Stewart Nicoll, came from Carlisle and was director of K Shoes, in Kendal, and her mum, Jean Nicoll, also an artist, was born further down the Kent just outside Staveley. The family's Cumbrian ancestors go further back however, to farming at Sowerby Row near Penrith.

"My grandfather got into Oxford University and wanted to work in Art History, but having been badly injured in the First World War a doctor said he shouldn't live in London because it was too unhealthy, which is why he ended up coming back to Cumbria. His love of art was life-long and he used to buy paintings, and ran what he called 'painting parties' for children in Staveley, where he'd bring in professional artists, in particular Robin Wallace from Kendal - to teach them. I feel like I am following in a family tradition."

Longhouses has been in the family since 1966. The teaching studio was created from a barn in the 1990s. It is connected to the house , has a bathroom next door , a huge solid fuel stove, large windows and a mezzanine. The open, light filled space is ideal as a painting studio with plenty of wall space for hanging work.

Louise works mostly in oils and paints landscapes and the life within them. For an exhibition of her work at Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery, in London, she said: "The paintings in this show are about my return to a landscape that I have felt rooted in and inspired by all my life. They are an attempt to distil the physical, emotional and spiritual experience of being in a landscape that I have loved and carried with me as I have lived, and worked and painted elsewhere. It was this landscape that inspired me to be an artist."

She adds, "This is the place where I first experienced the numinous beauty of the world and recognised that this beauty comes to us as much through the crackling roughness of the lichen on a stone, the damp smell of a wooden gate or the mournful sound of the ewes bleating to their lambs at dusk as from the golden light on the majestic fells."

Louise Sturgis in her studio

Louise studied at The Ruskin School of Fine Art, Oxford University and The Royal Academy Schools in London. From there she travelled to Norway on a government scholarship, and to Iceland, finding inspiration in the light and wilds of the islands and fjords.

She is on the Faculty of The Royal Drawing School in London, teaching on its adult public programme and master of arts course. "When The Royal Drawing School was founded in 2000 there was quite a lot of suspicion about teaching drawing in art schools: it was considered old fashioned and stifling of creativity. The Drawing School sought to redress the balance. In the same way that a musician benefits from learning scales and arpeggios, I would say that an artist benefits from learning to draw, they are foundational skills."

"It doesn't matter if you are going to be an abstract artist a sculptor or painter, drawing from observation is about understanding and assimilating the world around you, learning to look, to see clearly, and translating what you see in your own way. It teaches you how to use materials and exploit their different characteristics to express what you want to. My aim is to recreate a mini Drawing School in Kentmere."

Having had five children of her own, Louise went into teaching young people, and for the last six years was head of Art at Ampleforth College, in North Yorkshire, preparing students for GCSE and A Level and supporting their applications to art schools around the country and abroad.

"I am a passionate teacher. There is nothing I love more than to help students grow in confidence and find their voice" she says.

She brings all this experience to her courses in Kentmere. "Part of my aim is to bring something to Cumbria that you normally only find in cities: life classes, week long and weekend drawing, painting and printmaking courses, taught by myself and other professional artists. There is not much of that, of the quality I am aiming at, here."

"There are courses, but they can be prescriptive, in that everyone ends up with the same kind of thing at the end of it. My approach to teaching is to understand the individual person, what makes them tick, what their personal voice is, to try to help them find it, and to flourish. It's a more personal approach, while at the same time teaching skills."

Her Young Artist courses run in the school half terms and holidays and her adult programme, which starts in March, includes Landscape Weekends, Walk and Draw Week, Woodland and Water, Farm and Fell, Interior and Exterior. In the near future Louise is aiming to run a weekly Life Drawing Class for local people and to offer 1:1 mentoring.

The courses are non residential, but Maggs Howe bed and breakfast and camping barn is within walking distance and there are other places to stay nearby.

"I have beginners and experienced artists; I don't think it matters, and in fact its interesting have a mixed group because everyone learns from each other. Keeping the groups small means I can tailor them."

She hopes her courses will be just the beginning of a 'journey of drawing discovery' for participants. "I want them to feel like they are ready to go home with lots of new confidence and excitement and ideas to carry on making work when they aren't here. I don't want them to think 'I've done the course, I've got my picture' and then forget about it."

"I want them to feel inspired and to have grown as an artist, from whatever their starting point, and to take away that impetus and energy, and of course they can come back to continue and progress further. There are so many sorts of landscape within walking distance and we can also work from the studios. We adapt each course to whatever inspires people."

Louise Sturgis - Kentmere Farmhouse


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