Like a tree let the dead leaves drop
Many will be familiar with Jacqueline Alma’s telling portraits of Bermudian characters but now the artist has turned the focus on herself.
In a deeply personal exploration of love and loss, the Bermuda resident has revealed some of the most intimate details of her life to form her second solo exhibition.
The multidisciplinary show Like A Tree Let the Dead Leaves Drop opened at the Bermuda National Gallery on January 24 and features intricate sketches of objects that are metaphors for her relationships and experiences.
What was originally Ms Alma’s private diary in the form of a sketchbook evolved into what is now an autobiographical body of work that has filled the entire main gallery.
“I discovered with a previous sketchbook that I started using symbols to connect to things that had happened in my life,” Ms Alma explained.
“In this next book, the symbols led to a theme of drawing through things that had happened and one page started leading on to the next.
“I was brave enough to start showing a few people and they said I shouldn’t be closing it. I ended up realising how for years I had actually wanted to paint autobiographically but I was too afraid to tell my own story.
“I realised that the sketchbook broke that and there was no question that I wanted to paint and draw.”
Ms Alma, a native of Cape Town, South Africa, completed a diploma in graphic design at Cape Town Technikon in 1986 before leaving her home behind to work as a graphic designer in London, England.
After some years in the industry, she decided to focus on her artistic career and completed a diploma and post graduate diploma in portraiture at Heatherley’s School of Fine Art.
In 2003, she was awarded the Heatherley’s Prize with a notable commendation from The Royal Society of Portraits Painters in England.
Ms Alma moved to Bermuda in 2008 and held her first solo show, The Red Thread, in 2013.
The show featured full-length portraits in oil that each took between 500 and 600 hours to create, allowing Ms Alma to get to know her subjects and tell their story.
Like A Tree Let the Dead Leaves Drop brings drawing, painting and sculpture together, with digital media.
The exhibition has been curated by Julie Sylvester and is the first major one under the directorship of Peter Lapsley.
Two large scale oil paintings Soul Tree I and II hanging on the main wall of the gallery depict a tree with tangled roots woven with Alma’s many symbols.
The tree reappears in her Hanging Sketchbook Tree 1 — a series of seven concertina sketchbooks brimming with needle thin pencil drawings.
Everything from scissors, dolls and pencils to egg shells, feathers and porcupine spines appear on her canvas.
She explained the thinking behind some of them: “The broken egg shells in my paintings tie into when I was a child and thought about becoming an adult and having my own family but then I had my years of infertility.
“The scissors in one sense represent the relationships in life that have to be severed but also the cutting of the umbilical cord of my son Peter.
“Peter threads into most of my work. There is a bobbin with a red thread which I like to keep throughout my work as it represents the familial ties.”
Nothing in Ms Alma’s work is accidental. “Every seed or feather holds meaning,” she said.
Just two weeks before the opening last month she erased and redrew a swath of her hanging sketchbook until she was perfectly satisfied.
Ms Alma said that documenting her life in such detail is like a form of therapy.
“Anything that is emotionally charged or painful for me, if I get it on paper, I feel like I have acknowledged it and given it a place to be.
“I spend up to 17 hours, seven days a week on my work. It is the best thing I could ever imagine doing. I don’t ever see it as work; I see it as a need to express myself. I draw to mend and heal.”
•Like A Tree Let the Dead Leaves Drop runs until April 1 at the Bermuda National Gallery where an accompanying book is on sale. The gallery is running an education programme alongside the exhibition; artist Jacqueline Alma will be on hand to provide insight into her creative process
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