It is an honor for American Bedu to have this rare opportunity to interview artist Dorothy Boyer.
Dorothy, your works of art are not only beautiful and eye-catching, but very diverse as well. You have created works of art from watercolors, to exquisite murals and even on furniture! Thank you so much for this opportunity to interview you and ask you questions about yourself, your life and your art!
To begin with, please share a little bit about yourselves with American Bedu readers. What nationality are you? When did you first become interested in art as a career? When and where did you study?
Thank you for the opportunity to discuss aspects of my art with your American Bedu readers.
I am Scottish.
I do not remember a moment when I was not interested in art, but not always as a career.
Art was well taught at my girls’ school but I did not go on to art school, studying to be a teacher instead.
However I have always painted, and had the opportunity to study the works of master artists in galleries in Scotland. This is where I learned.
I did however take courses in all aspects of restorative work with furniture, and specialist painting later on in London and also took workshops with master watercolourist Charles Reid and Botanical painter Jenny Jowat.
When one thinks of Saudi Arabia, one does not typically think of an expat artist in its midst. When did you first arrive in Saudi Arabia? What was the first piece of art for which you were commissioned in the Kingdom?
I arrived in February 1992 to paint the walls, and columns in a grand villa, and to carry out mural work for a well known Sheik in Jeddah.
Since then, how long have you been in the Kingdom and what type of work are you doing there?
I have been in Jeddah for 21 years, carrying out all kinds of decorative painting, faux finishes, trompe l’oeil murals, teaching and painting my own watercolours, oils and pastels.
In your experience, how interested are Saudis in collecting art? What type of art works seem to appeal to Saudis? Watercolors? Oils? Murals?
For many years Saudis seemed to be interested in having murals, which historically are designed to show the status of the owner.
Collecting oils has always appealed, as homebuilders have sought to furnish and embellish the interiors of their new and improved homes.
There has always been a market here as far as I can tell, for copies of master works, predominantly from the Far East.
But the more educated and enlightened Saudi has always sought works that are original, frequently by artists from neighbouring lands. Many of these artists have studied outside the Kingdom of course, as art was not given a very important place in the school and college curriculum.
There is now a noticeably strong body of work unfolding, inspired by the ‘Arab Spring’
I notice recently that good watercolours are very well received and indeed my own solo show was a sell out. I certainly have a fan base here!
Please share what has been your favorite commission in Saudi Arabia and why?
What has been your most challenging commission in Saudi and why?
I shall answer the last two questions together
Being asked to paint the fine art work for the Leylaty Conference Hall or Wedding Hall as it used to be known was a huge commission.
I had to paint 24 large panels 2.2x 2mts wide, 6 oval panels, 2x 3.75 x 2.5 panels and a dome about 28 mts high with 8 panels each 5mts x 3mts.
This was to be in the French Baroque style as the interior of the building was to look like a Viennese Opera House.
The challenge was enormous just to get hold of reference materials given that there was no access to the internet at that time and that reference books with any material considered risqué was heavily censored. I devised many ways of getting what I wanted !
I was the only woman working on site of course and that posed some difficulties as well. Climbing down a 90 ft scaffold, donning an abaya, and hailing a taxi home every time I had to go to the bathroom was an interruption I could have done without.
The dome acted as a chimney or funnel for the extreme heat and of course the electrics were not connected till the end of the project—so no a/c.
I had a young friend of my son to help me with the dome. He had graduated from art school and this was his first job. He was motivated, and disciplined in the way that ‘public’ (private) schools in Scotland are famous for. With his help I was able at least to finish the dome in the time required. Once the scaffolding was removed the chandelier fitters from the USA were ready to pounce.
The pressure was huge and the project took 13 months.
Because of this long commitment it was only natural that it became my favourite at the time. It was hard to see it being handed over to chefs, and waiters and managers, people ready to set the whole operation in motion, when all that the building had been about up until then, was carpet fitting, canvas fitting, varnishing, marbling etc.
It was strange to hand over.
But of course I also have had favourite commissions in the UK
How easy (or not) has it been for you as an artist to become settled and well-recognized in the Kingdom?
As far as becoming settled, I am very adaptable. I would say that is one of my strongest traits.
When one door closes, and many have, I immediately look for another one to open.
I am very focused, disciplined, and passionate about my work.
It was never my intention to become well recognized as an artist in the Kingdom.
Nor am I even now preoccupied with that.
On the other hand my work has been received so well and I have had such good publicity that recognition has been inevitable.
It will never be for me like it is for Saudi artists though.
This is a young country in some ways and the thriving art scene favours its own.
So I am content that my work has been exhibited in London and Shanghai for example and I have received awards from America.
As a renowned artist, what is your favorite medium with which to create art? Why?
I love the transparency and the light that watercolour affords me when I paint. My work is all about the light.
Of course I also paint in oils and pastels but keep coming back to watercolour, the most difficult of all to master. It is that challenging aspect that keeps drawing me back to keep trying!
It is becoming a much more acceptable medium now amongst collectors. Galleries used to hate it because of freighting works under glass with all the associated problems of damage, insurance etc.
It used to be thought that watercolours were ‘fugitive’ but not now. Most pigments are permanent.
The perception amongst collectors was that watercolour was the second rate citizen and so galleries preferred to handle oils, finding them easier to sell.
It is changing though as shown by the number of recent exhibitions exclusively dedicated to watercolour.
Noteably the Watercolour Biennial in Shanghai. I took part in the second one in 2012 and was one of around 220 paintings selected out of 11,000.
Magazines (The Art of Watercolour) dedicated to this medium are now every bit as exciting as ones embracing oil painting and pastels. Watercolour used to be perceived as the preparatory work for an oil painting. Not any longer.
How do you get your inspiration to do so many vastly different pieces of art?
I will paint anything and everything provided the light has played a part.
The light changes ordinary objects into things of great beauty. Sometimes it can be just the light or shadow shapes themselves that are beautiful. Obscure, dull little corners can hold great promise when the sun streams in and that is what turns me on.
You also do interior design work and have even given some classes on refurbishing or changing the appearance of existing furniture. Can you give some examples of what have been some of your favorite “make overs” and why?
I did interior design work and my training made it easier for me to interpret the brief when finding out what clients wished from me as a painter.
I antiqued walls and marbled columns, distressing furniture to match. But I have not practiced interior design in Saudi Arabia and would not want to.
There is an impression that most Saudis like to buy new furniture rather than have pieces refurbished or updated. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
Yes I agree. Most do not want refurbished pieces.
But I do know of a few who have some rather gorgeous antiques!
Did you ever expect when you arrived in Saudi Arabia that you would come to make it a long-time home?
You’re originally from Scotland, have also lived in Argentina and spent time in London. How does Saudi Arabia compare? What has made the Kingdom most special to you?
It was in Argentina that I had to learn to be so self sufficient –we are talking of the sixties and seventies.
There were electric generators in the estancia houses, no telephone, long distances travelled to buy provisions etc. I learned and I coped.
When I came to Saudi Arabia in the early nineties it was very different from today, in that I was unable to obtain much of the material required to carry out my work, and so I learned to improvise, invent and compromise as I had done in Argentina.
Now of course I can order certain things online and have them delivered here with a carrier.
This facility was not a possibility in the early nineties. Indeed satellite television was forbidden.
Now the world is open via the internet, an opportunity that the young Saudis have embraced this with relish. So they are learning and absorbing, learning also to be discerning, a new concept if you have not had the opportunity before to be so exposed to everything on offer.
They are learning about art from all over the world and importantly finding a voice through their art. That is wonderful.
Although my art is not about political dialogue, (I am well able for that through the spoken word!) I can see that as a vehicle for bringing about awareness, progress and change, albeit slowly, it is an ideal medium.
So I admire the new art of the Middle East.
My work is about making people feel glad when they see it. That is not to say it is a mere representation of what lies in front of me. There is much more to it than that.
Usually a story, a set of circumstances that have led me to choose a particular theme. But then it is about trying to paint as beautifully as I can. Simple!
As far as comparison with Scotland is concerned the common denominator is family and certainly when I was young, faith.
That still holds true for me and my friends at home and I would say the majority of decent people.
My country was shaped by a strict protestant God fearing faith. The values, education and conduct of our people were so influenced. That was how I was brought up.
It was not so difficult to identify with people who had similar values although a different faith.
I can identify with them totally.
The Kingdom has been good to me.
Your paintings show so much intricate detail whether a scene from a souk, an expatriate or a Saudi vendor in action. How do you capture these details? Are your subjects aware of your interest in them? Do you take a photo first and then paint from the photo?
I always begin my work with a study from life. This can entail a 3 or 4 hour session in front of the actual subject—if it is a building in the souq.
I have a permit to sit and paint and my architectural studies start as quick watercolours. From this I create my larger paintings at home, in the studio, with the added help of a photo. I frequently return to the site to check on a detail if I need to. It is on these occasions that I have found that whole buildings have disappeared in the space of a week or two. Many of my paintings are of buildings in Jeddah that are no longer there.
Very sad indeed!
If it is a figure, I usually make quick sketches and then take a photo. When they become aware of what I am doing they frequently want to ‘pose’—and this is not what I want!
I have had some hilarious moments with some of the subjects but I do always have to be very careful not to attract unwanted attention—for that can create a problem here.
The painting of the shepherd was started from life but became difficult when the other herdsmen started to press in too close and I could feel a pair of hands firmly pressing my thighs, possibly testing my suitability for market! So a photo was the next step. I returned a few days later to distribute some of the photos to their rightful owners. Interestingly, some of the men were laying claim to the wrong picture of themselves. Either mirrors did not feature large in their chosen lifestyles or it was a form of illiteracy. It was of course a revelation for me.
The cheeky little black girl in the souq stood still for ages while I drew her. She was fascinated. Poor little mite should really have been at school –not out selling for a living. But then it was a wonderful opportunity for me.
I always purchase something from these kind ‘models’ so that they do not feel short changed!
And no I did not buy a sheep from the shepherd!
In the main, the folk around me, when I take up a painting position, are extremely solicitous, plying me with water to drink and making sure I am alright.
I paint very early in the morning starting before the shops are open –until midday.
I always wear a plain black abaya—nothing eyecatching, but do not cover my hair. If anyone protests at this –it is usually the women I have found.
I have felt privileged to record the Old Souq in Jeddah. It has been a huge inspiration for me as an artist and of course I just love crumbling old buildings with a history in the very fabric of their walls.
I am sad that this is a vanishing landscape however, and that future generations will just have to refer to photos, paintings and perhaps a re-creation of what is authentic.
But at least I have played a part in that.
What is a typical week in Saudi Arabia like for you?
I am usually very focused but at the moment quite frantic!
I fly home every 6 weeks to see my mother who will be 100 years old in July inshallah!
I am teaching as well as preparing for an Open House on the 29th and 30th of May with the help of Susan.
I paint on the days I am not teaching, sometimes visiting the souq or arranging a still life in the studio.
I scan my work and upload to my website.
When I am in Spain in the summer however I garden and watch my flowers grow. I paint in the afternoons and enjoy the evenings with my husband.
Where do you hope to see yourself five years from now?
Relaxing I hope! But never far away from my watercolour palette!
You have lived in Saudi Arabia for many years and mix naturally between the Saudi and expatriate community. What advice do you give to new arrivals to Saudi Arabia on how they can make the best and most enriching time of their Saudi experience?
Learn something of the background history of the people—history has always fascinated, and in turn local customs. Allow the people to show you their customs and be genuinely interested in the human element of their stories which they will love to tell you.
You can then be ambassadors when you return and help dispel stereotipic myths.
Some things don’t change however, and you are a guest. Remember that.
How can interested readers contact you and learn more about your art?
Anyone who is interested in my work can contact me through my website www.dorothyboyer.com where I post blogs and send newsletters.
I am on facebook at DorothyBoyerFineArt and twitter @DBoyerFineArt should anyone wish to follow me!
My representative is Susan Schuster without whose help I would not be able to function! Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Just to say a big thank you again for giving me the chance to talk to you and thrilled indeed that I can communicate through my art.
Thanks again for this interview and sharing with American Bedu readers.
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