Hampshire art group Just Four

PUBLISHED: 10:57 09 August 2016 | UPDATED: 10:57 09 August 2016

Jenny Hill-Norton

Jenny Hill-Norton


Each individual artists in their own right, it isn’t until these four Hampshire women come together that their true creativity sparks. Sandra Smith pays art group, Just Four a visit to learn more about mixing working with pleasure

Visualise an artist at work and what comes to mind? More than likely you’ll conjure up an image of a lone figure, secluded from the sort of working environment familiar to most of us whilst striving to transmit ideas onto canvas. But allow yourself a little more contemplation and you might unearth a contrast within such solitude. For on the one hand this scenario offers a space devoid of interruptions so allowing, if not fostering, freedom of thought and expression. On the flipside, however, isolation may negate creativity for surely even artists, renowned for their preference to paint alone and at their chosen time, occasionally hanker for an empathetic environment in which colleagues bolster flagging ideas by offering constructive encouragement.

Just Four is such a partnership. Beginning with a far reaching idea and an inspirational teacher, over the past decade this group has evolved into a close knit foursome with each member recognising the value of motivation and support. Yet the impact extends much further. You see, this remarkable alliance has also played a major role in developing individual artistic vision, aptitude and success.

Jenny Hill-Norton, instigator of the group, recalls its origins.

“The whole thing evolved around me being taught by Anthea Stilwell. It took me a while to see how it could happen but she stays with me for 3-4 nights several times a year when we gather together. She is so generous with her teaching time and we’ve built a wonderful trust from knowing each other well. We have a ball!”

Anthea’s teaching style, I soon discover, is the heart and soul of this group.

“Art isn’t about accuracy, looking at what’s in front of you and exactly copying it,” she asserts. “It’s about using your emotion, marks and feelings to interpret the subject yourself in whatever medium you’re using to express you. You rule rather than it rules.”

The first day of the group’s regular gatherings usually involves drawing en plein with destinations pre-decided by Anthea and Jenny. The former, who confesses to being the most abstract of these four artists, incites curiosity and adventure in her colleagues.

“Our collaboration is incredibly interesting. We work well together and are very good friends. We have the most varied subjects and I help them unravel the muddles they get into - you can never do anything wrong, just use it. We’ve also learned how to put an exhibition together.”

Anthea StilwellAnthea Stilwell

For ex graphic designer Jo Ellis, meeting with her fellow artists tops up her enthusiasm.

“Being with the others is like feeding yourself, then you can explore on your own. We are all fairly energetic painters…not tidy, Sunday afternoon painters. At this point in our lives we’re mature and just want to paint. We’ve all had careers doing other things and understand where everyone else is and what each wants to achieve as individual artists. It’s an exciting place to be. We learn hugely.”

Jo works in her own purpose built studio at home between Just Four gatherings. She confesses to the permanence of art on her radar and makes a point of sketching whenever she’s away.

“I like to explore something to the nth degree,” she smiles, “pushing it off the cliff and pulling it back again. We respect each other’s skills and strengths. We do a lot of things we wouldn’t if we worked on our own. Being with like minded people makes me brave.”

Favouring mixed media presents the opportunity of working in layers.

“As I keep going the painting becomes more removed from reality, but everything I do has a foot on the ground.”

The camaraderie between the artists extends beyond artistic goals. Personal fondness manifests itself in a shared sense of fun whilst appreciation of everyone’s output aids singular growth and understanding.

And although each artist favours her own distinct style and preferred subject matter, collectively their work is harmonious. Indeed, this bond is akin to family dynamics – members sharing a resemblance whilst celebrating original traits and characteristics. For the uniqueness of these four women is accompanied by collective boldness, fluidity and an appreciation of movement in every canvas, qualities which are surely due to Anthea’s suggestion of drawing whilst focused on the subject rather than the paper.

Jo EllisJo Ellis

Sophie Bartlett’s paintings are, perhaps, the most colourful. A former painter and decorator with building sites and National Trust properties on her portfolio, Just Four has been her biggest inspiration.

“My art is now braver, more courageous - I am more confident, prouder, motivated and supported. Sometimes I’m taken out of my comfort zone when someone suggests a 
subject I wouldn’t normally do, but the physicality of being together is surprisingly helpful. Anthea is incredibly generous with her ability and knowledge.”

Sophie also stresses the rate at which productivity rises when they are all working in the same room. Belonging to the group is, she insists, “A joy and a revelation.”

Teamwork is a key ingredient when exhibiting, too. Just Four’s works are currently on display in Winchester’s Cityscapes Gallery, each artist taking care of the business side and gravitating to her innate skill as Jo testifies.

“Jenny and Sophie are great organisers. Logistically we pull everything together. We never fall out.”

“We’ve learned so much about how to put an exhibition together,” adds Anthea who favours oil but likes to ring the changes. “We work very well together, coordinating everything.”

Listening to the enthusiasm and admiration from these talented artists, I appreciate their commitment to Just Four as much as its stimulus. The luxury of working independently is boosted by the knowledge that group sessions are always on the horizon providing an opportunity to discuss, challenge and experiment in a safe environment.

“There have been tears occasionally,” says Jenny, “but we have an enormous amount of laughter and friendship. Now I go outside and draw, abstracting the essence of what I’m looking for before paring it down to what I’ve selected in my drawing. That is the starting point rather than the whole world outside.”

Sophie BartlettSophie Bartlett

For Jenny, whose experience encompasses glass engraving and landscape gardening, this way of looking at the world and approaching her art is very much down to the group’s talented teacher.

“Anthea never tells you what to do. It’s agony to go through and she seldom demonstrates. She will start with a talk and show us examples of art so we are learning art history. They are always way out, wacky and modern though we might compare them with classical stuff to see how things have moved on. We’ve never done the same theme. During breaks we look at each other’s work. She is genuinely trying to get out of you what is in you and only you.”

The passion vocalised by these four artists is equalled by the pleasure each gains from the group. Years of training and painting may have initially kick started their careers, but this special collaboration provides the courage and impetus to approach new subjects in innovative ways by recognising what’s inside the individual artist then using that knowledge to define her style, subject and technique. It is at once a reciprocal and highly personal arrangement, and one that is the essence of Just Four.

Find out more about the group at www.justfour.co.uk

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