Sam Ainsley Out of Redness comes Kindness – Clare Henry

Sam Ainsley

I first met Sam Ainsley in 1978. She was a part-time assistant at Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery. I was reviewing the show. The following week we met again, bumping into each other at the station newsstand, buying comics for our young sons, who turned out to be exactly the same age. So began a friendship which has lasted over 40 years.

During that time, Ainsley has given herself to students far and wide, becoming Scotland’s best-known, best-loved teacher and mentor. No surprise, her current show in Leeds, where she did her foundation year in 1972, is titled Out of Redness Comes Kindness. Well known for wearing red, her kindness is legendary.

Sam Ainsley Out of Redness comes Kindness - Clare Henry
Sam Ainsley Out of Redness comes Kindness – Clare Henry

But kindness can stand in your way. For 40 years, she went without a solo exhibition in Scotland, the first on the far-flung Hebridian isle of Mull in 2017. Belatedly elected to the RSA, she got an Honorary Doctorate from the Glasgow School of Art in 2018 and was made one of the “Outstanding Women of Scotland.”

Now at 72, she is having a bumper year: already a solo show at the RSA, with upcoming solo exhibitions at Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow, Zembla Gallery, Hawick and on the horizon, Gallery North, Newcastle, where she did her undergraduate degree, before postgraduate at Edinburgh College of Art.

Why did it take so long? A man in the same position would, for sure, have received more, more quickly, more efficiently. Yet, in the late 1980s, she was unmissable. Her Why I Choose Red exhibition at the famous Third Eye Centre, 1987 (now CCA), was memorable, it’s twice-life-size spectacular Warrior Women towering around its walls. As Hugh McDiarmid wrote, “A man in a red shirt can neither hide nor retreat.” That same year she installed an immense hand-painted 40ft banner right across the facade of Scotland’s Gallery of Modern Art for the seminal Edinburgh Festival Vigorous Imagination exhibition curated by Keith Hartley and me.

Yet teaching is all-consuming. It can suck you dry. And even if it doesn’t, it reframes your life. Ainsley taught at GSA for 25 years retiring in 2005. She began at the Environmental Art programme and, in 1991, co-founded the influential MFA Programme. The list of GSA Turner prize winners and nominees it produced, 14 so far, owes much to Ainsley’s encouragement. As the revered John Calcutt wrote in 2017, “If the word ‘yes’ could rise in flesh and blood, its human form would be that of Sam Ainsley. The power of affirmation is infinite, and Sam is one of its sources. Generations of young artists who trained at GSA have risen high on the swelling waves of her encouragement and support. She proves that praise and critical caution can be offered in the spirit of generosity.” But Calcutt also saw that, meanwhile, many forgot she was a formidable artist in her own right.

Sam Ainsley 2017 Alien Landscape
Sam Ainsley 2017 Alien Landscape

Ainsley reads avidly and has travelled the world. Her work is infused with the spirits of socialism, feminism and cultural identity, all-powerful images. Anatomy, geology and geography often feature – maps, islands, organic and botanical forms sitting in a framework of grids, circles and vivid bursts of red. She describes her work as a form of ’emotional mapping’, navigating the intersection of the human body and the natural world with metaphors: trees as lungs of the city, rivers as hair, boulders as bones. “I am fascinated by the relationship between visual images of the “micro” and “macro’; I like to oscillate between the internal and stand back to view the the bigger picture.”

She began creating using traditional female skills – sewing, binding and machining fabrics. These huge shaped canvas panels and banners of defiant female figures are some of her best-known works. Now acrylic paint has taken over in paintings with evocative titles like “When you’re scalded, touch hurts.” These abstracted images are strong articulations of personal, political, geographical and territorial divides.

The current Leeds mini-retrospective is a selection of work from her RSA show with work spanning the last 30 years of Ainsley’s career. “Making a Heart Like a Stone” and “Red River” use her favourite colour combos of black and white, red and electric blue. Of course, red prevails: the colour of “lifeblood, passion and boundless energy.” As Ainsley rightly says, “Love is all there is.”

Sam Ainsley: Out of Redness comes Kindness at Leeds Arts University, till 24 March. 

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