Michael Alexander chats to Dundee woman Joanna Hay about how she turned the art of keeping busy during lockdown into an online masterclass in creativity.
When Dundee librarian Joanna Hay fuelled her lifelong interest in art history with a family visit to the Sistine Chapel in Rome a few years ago, she was blown away by the grandeur of the building and left speechless by the detail of Michelangelo’s masterpiece frescos.
The famous Renaissance artwork, which was painted by the Italian sculptor, painter and architect between 1508 and 1512, tells the story of The Creation of the Heavens and Earth, The Creation of Adam and Eve, the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden and the story of Noah and the Great Flood.
Over the years, the former Dundee College illustration student has enjoyed “dragging” her family to art galleries at home and abroad and is “surrounded” by art history books at home.
However, the 45-year-old mother of two teenagers could never have imagined that one day she would herself be posing as a model as part of an international online initiative to recreate dozens of these famous paintings.
Joanna’s unexpected artistic adventure began in March when the coronavirus pandemic lockdown resulted in her being furloughed from her Dundee libraries job.
As the “novelty of a mini-holiday” wore off after Easter, and as her husband Greig and children went back to being busy through their respective home working and schooling, an increasingly bored Joanna was browsing Facebook when she spotted a lockdown message from the Getty Museum in LA challenging people to recreate their favourite works of art using objects they have at home.
The message read: ‘Choose your favourite artwork. Find three things lying around your house. Recreate the artwork with those items. And share with us’.
Intrigued to find out more, she discovered that through what the museum described as the “creative genius” of the internet, recreations included everything from Francis Barraud’s His Master’s Voice with its gramophone replaced by an iPod to Portrait of a Halberdier by Pontormo — depicting a hockey stick instead of an axe.
One person had recreated ‘Still Life with Fish, Vegetables, Gougères, Pots, and Cruets on a Table’ portrait with three completely different food groups – tuna, cheese, and olive oil.
The one that really caught her eye, however, and made her wonder if she could do something similar was an “absolutely beautiful” recreation of the circa 1665 oil painting Girl with a Pearl Earring by Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes Vermeer.
Joanna was struck by the girl’s beautiful dark skin which contrasted against the original painting and “just took it to a new level”.
She persuaded her 14-year-old daughter Jessica, who is a pupil at Morgan Academy, to feature as the model in her own version
They had such good fun doing it, and got such great feedback when sharing the image with family and friends on social media, that Joanna decided she wanted to do more for a wider public audience.
The result? Joanna has since recreated masterpieces including her own take on The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, My Bed by the English artist Tracey Emin and Field – a sculpture by British artist Antony Gormley.
And while she has persuaded other members of the family to take part and crucially help with the photography, she’s “reluctantly” ended up posing as a model for most of the creations herself.
“It’s certainly not an original idea – I’m jumping on a bandwagon,” Joanna tells The Courier.
“But I’ve just done it to give myself something to do.
“It started with Girl with a Pearl Earring and I wanted to go on and do more from there.
“My two kids are at high school, my husband has been working at home. They are all busy and not bored – so I do have to pester them to be photographer.
“They’ve all been involved. But I’d say my daughter has been very involved with photography and being a model as well.”
Growing up in Birkhill, Joanna was “always painting” as a child and honed this interest through her days at Muirhead Primary and Harris Academy.
With a background in retail, a spell as a fitness instructor and time working at Eduardo Alessandro Studios in Broughty Ferry, she enjoys many different styles and genres of art ranging from the contemporary work of Damien Hirst to Renaissance and historical religious depictions.
Known to paint kittens, Joanna’s creative urges before lockdown included the design of colourful Easter eggs and pumpkins when the season was right.
When it came to finding inspiration for her daily lockdown creations, however, she’s been digging into her collection of art history books for ideas.
“In the morning I would just flick though and go ‘I really like that painting or I’ll see if I can do that’,” she explains.
“Some of them depending on what prop I’ve got to make may take a couple of hours and then it really it is just hanging about until one of them – my kids or my husband – is free for a break so they can come and take my photo.
“The hardest thing comes down to the photographer and really for them to get the tilting of the head and the expression correct.
“But for a lot of them, it just works straight away. Others, you just try and try and try.
“You’ll be like ‘there’s something just not right’ and it could be something down to the expression.
“But what my husband discovered taking his photographs is that the perspective artists use is often nonsense. It’s not real perspective and there’s no way some things can actually be done for real.”
During lockdown, Joanna has enjoyed dragging out everything from winter scarves and hats to Halloween face paints to dress up with.
But she’s also made novel use of everything from a toy Star Wars lightsabre to her beloved Dundee United scarf.
“Never in my lifetime would I ever think I would have said that the phrase ‘I need a sword’ so many times!” she laughs.
In one creation depicting 16th century one-eyed Spanish aristocrat Princess Eboli, she wore pasta in her hair as a head piece and toilet rolls around her neck as a ruff.
And in a Jack Vettriano rendition she used a garden fork instead of a candelabra.
She’s also enjoyed John the Baptist themed creations that have depicted a head – usually her daughter’s – on a plate.
Joanna also replicated The Scream – created by Norwegian Expressionist artist Edvard Munch in 1893 – and was impressed with a ‘Banksy’- styled street art piece that her husband managed to create using his good camera to “pick out” colours against a black and white background.
This tribute to Banksy’s 2002-started London murals called Girl with Balloon recreated a young girl with her hand extended toward a red heart-shaped balloon carried away by the wind.
The addition of the graffiti words ‘There is always hope’ was an appropriate nod towards the times we live in with coronavirus, she explained.
Meanwhile, Joanna’s dad also got involved. He recreated and sent a Cezanne, photographed by her stepmother, while her mum and step dad contributed by copying some avocados.
However, the creations Joanna has preferred most are the “art installations” like The Last Supper and the recreation of Tracey Emin’s bed – in other words, ones that she is not physically in!
With The Last Supper, for example, she used her daughter and son Dylan’s toy figurines as props: Bart Simpson became Bartholomew, Matt Smith of Doctor Who fame became Matthew and Obi Wan Kenobi from Star Wars replicated Jesus.
“It’s just been about having a big rake around the house and finding what you’ve got,” she laughs.
“The Last Supper was good fun but also one of the hardest to do. That took a lot of time to set up and getting all the characters not to fall over: because they are all little things – getting them not to shoot off and they are all different heights.
“The other hardest one I did was Picasso because to paint that in a mirror I had to flip the image the wrong way round for it to be right in the photograph in the end.
“I’ve got a couple of Halloween dressing up boxes and I’ve got face paints and things in there. There’s a lot going on in the Picasso!”
Joanna said there’s no doubt that the favourite art she’s seen in real life is Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel.
To see the images previously only viewed in books and on TV and to see the scale of the building is “quite magnificent and just amazing”, she says.
She’ll “happily wander around” any gallery and has also enjoyed visits to the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Her favourite painting that she’s not so far seen in the flesh is The Kiss in Vienna. The oil-on-canvas Vienna Secession masterpiece by the Austrian Symbolist painter Gustav Klimt was painted at some point in 1907 and 1908 and now hangs in the Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere museum in the Belvedere, Vienna.
Another world famous gallery Joanna hasn’t been to yet is The Louvre in Paris – home to Leonardo da Vinci’s legendary Mona Lisa.
However, with lockdown starting to ease at the time of this interview and with Joanna really looking forward to getting back to work when the time is right, she hopes that the day when she can potentially make those journeys will be a step closer.
She was also looking to bring her art project to an end – possibly with a recreation of the Mona Lisa itself – if she could get that “tricky” expression right!
“The whole point of this was that it was done in lockdown when we were stuck in the house with the items we had around us, the people we had and nothing else” she adds.
“So as lockdown eases, and more people and resources are available, it’s sort of not what the point of it was anymore.
“Now that we can go out and see more people, recreating these art works is not top of my list now of what to do.
“But I would encourage other people to go out and try something similar.
“Anybody can do it. There’s no skill involved!
“Why shouldn’t you feature in your own favourite masterpiece above the fireplace? If I can do it, anyone can!”