SOUND asleep or deep in concentration, huddled over a favourite book or engrossed in a toy, all precious moments when worn-out parents may snatch a chance to pause and admire the pure innocence of their tiny terrors. Elaine Speirs watched her own trio of girls when they were at their most unaware, caught off-guard or sleeping peacefully, and saw their small, perfect frames as a work of art. And, inspired, she picked up her artist materials and began to paint.
Today the results hang in a New Town art gallery, a series of ten intriguing paintings that beautifully capture that charming moment in childhood, just as the lines begin to blur between little girl and young woman, when the age of innocence is approaching a fresh, more grown-up chapter.
Entitled Lost Sleep, the collection of paintings make up the award-winning Edinburgh-based artist’s first solo Scottish exhibition and already art lovers have been snapping up her paintings – much to the single mum’s delight.
For if being a struggling artist is tough with just one mouth to feed, it’s an even bigger source of anguish when there are three young bellies in the form of daughters Maya, 12, Eden, nine, and Stella, five, to fill.
“There’s not an awful lot of money floating around the galleries,” admits Elaine, 46. “But it’s nice that there has been some interest in my work.
“Sometimes I can get quite anxious about it, it can stop me in my tracks and I can have a few woeful moments. But the more stress I’m under, the more it seems to push me forward. It’s good motivation.”
She creates each piece at a studio near her New Town home, sometimes working on four or five canvasses at once. And her quality control is so high that she often discards paintings she doesn’t feel quite capture exactly the mood she wants to convey.
“I am really quite tough on myself,” she says. “I’m trying to get that special moment.”
She achieved that when, earlier this year, she scooped the Caron Keating Memorial Art Award, presented annually in memory of the television presenter who died of breast cancer in 2004 aged 41.
Johannesburg-born Elaine, who lives with her children in Stockbridge, uses rooms in the nearby WASPS studio in Patriothall. It’s a handy base close to the exhibition at Open Eye Gallery in Abercromby Place, and a short trip to where it all started, Edinburgh College of Art.
Raised in Paisley, she studied there in the early 1990s before her MA at Slade School of Fine Art in London in 1995. She worked in various London galleries before returning to South Africa in 2001 to start her family with her husband.
When the marriage collapsed, happy student memories of Edinburgh meant Elaine felt drawn to return here with her three young daughters in 2009. “It’s quite scary when you’re on your own, but obviously it was meant to be,” she says. “I have to do this.”
She started to show small works at various galleries and soon attracted positive approval from the Scottish art world, with an award in 2011 from Glasgow Art Club.
But it was becoming a mother, she adds, that brought a new mature aspect to her work – and gave her ready-made subjects to paint.
“I’m absorbed in life and like to convey the fragility of children, in particular the tension between girlhood and womanhood,” she says. “I want to capture the moment when they are absolutely still. I started to take photographs of them when they were asleep.”
Elaine hopes her art captures their innocence, but there’s a darker undertone to the images than first appears. “I’m trying to show the tenderness and warmth of children, not necessarily making them look pretty but still quite seductive.”
She has also used the word “erotic” to describe the paintings, perhaps a slightly odd choice but a reflection of the slightly deeper element to her art. For Elaine says that part of what she wants to do is prick the conscience of the viewer to make them question what they are looking at.
“When you look at the paintings, you’re not sure if it’s a figure of a child sleeping or a young woman,” she says. “There’s this strangeness to it.
“One painting is called Underage. It moves into that area of awkwardness, when you look, and you have to step back and look again. I like pulling people in to question why they find it interesting, when they realise it’s a young child it might frighten them off.”
Meanwhile, she admits not everyone fully appreciates her efforts. “My youngest two love it, but my eldest, not at all,” she laughs. “She wishes I’d get a proper job.”
n Lost Sleep is at the Open Eye Gallery in Abercromby Place until November 5