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How Shaftesbury, Cancer And Social Work Has Influenced Zara McQueen’s Art

Zara McQueen is one of Shaftesbury’s most-loved artists. Ahead of her latest exhibition, Alfred heads to her ‘shed’ in St James, where Zara explains how her recent experience with cancer has changed her work. Zara also tells Keri Jones why being Jewish is important to her and how her passion for Shaftesbury inspires her art.

I was privileged. Not everybody gets a chance to visit the shed where Zara’s magic happens. We walked down her garden path to the large outdoor workspace. The windows of this light and airy outbuilding were all open. A desk and the floor were strewn with paper and its walls plastered with sketches and studies. “Sometimes friends will come and have a cup of tea. Some people see the shed, lots of people don’t. It is my studio,” smiled Zara.

This shed is clearly Zara’s retreat. “I can put my make-up on and go into Shaftesbury and it feels like I will know every single person in the street. Being in here, this is my cave where I can just do what I need to do and respond however I need to respond, and it doesn’t matter.”

Zara McQueen

Self-taught Zara proves that an artist with natural talent can succeed without years of formal study. “I wanted to go to art college and I got turned down. I had a horrible interview and they told me to get an ‘A’ level,” said Zara. “So I went to evening classes and got it but from then on, I chose a different career. I would use my annual leave to do watercolour or oil painting workshops. I really had a chip on my shoulder about not going to art school.”

Zara has always displayed artistic abilities. “I was dyslexic. I could always draw. I would come bottom in the class for almost everything apart from art.” Zara’s careers advisor failed to recognise her student’s gift. “I told my headmistress that I wanted to be an art therapist. She told me I couldn’t do that because I wasn’t clever enough.”

Instead, the teacher suggested studying for a degree which would lead to care work. “I did get a degree in social psychology and counselling. I qualified as a social worker,” said Zara. “Later, I worked for Clouds House in East Knoyle. I’ve always worked with families affected by addiction. I didn’t become an art therapist, but I’ve used art therapeutically. I would work a lot with children whose parents might be addicted to drugs, alcohol or both. We would do drawings or make models of what addiction looked like. It was good,” she smiled.

Zara hails from Ilford. London’s eastern suburbs are very different from Shaftesbury, a town she didn’t visit until she was 35. “I didn’t imagine I could live anywhere else. Ilford was where I had always lived but we had friends here and used to come and visit them. One day I had the thought that I could live here. It is just so beautiful, the sort of place you came to for a holiday.”

Zara clearly recalls the moment when she decided to make our hilltop town her home. “It was New Year’s Day 1995. I walked between friends in St James and Enmore Green, up Gold Hill and down Castle Hill. It didn’t have steps then. You had to roll down it. I remember thinking it was somewhere I could live. It took nine months and I got seconded to Bournemouth University so it meant we could move,” she said.

Four years later, another life changing decision followed. Zara went freelance in her social work so she could spend time as a professional artist. “I was tired. I had become an accidental manager. I didn’t enjoy it. I’m no good at budgets. It was very high-powered and far removed from working with people. I just couldn’t do it anymore.”

There are two distinct sides to her art. Locals love how Zara captures Shaftesbury’s green landscapes. But her doodles scream stress and pressure. They seem heavily influenced by the challenging situations of her social services career.

“I’ve never found learning easy. If we were having a lecture on mental health law, I would be drawing all the time. I responded to my own feelings and emotions. My colleagues were always accommodating because I would always draw but I could listen properly and respond,” she said.

Zara says that portraying Shaftesbury landscapes also reflects her strong feelings but it is a different sort of emotion. “I feel really strongly about Shaftesbury. I couldn’t believe that, coming where I came from, I was living in the most beautiful place. I wanted to paint the landscape. It’s how I would relax. Fundamentally, I’m a landscape painter. I need to go out painting. Then I bring it back into the shed and I do other stuff with it. It’s becoming more abstract.”

Zara never tires of drawing or painting Melbury Hill. “I’ve done it repeatedly. And I’ve done it especially for this exhibition as well. It’s very symbolic. I just love it,” she said. “This landscape could be seen as twee by some people, but you go onto Park Walk, see that view and I can’t believe that this has been my home for 24 years. There’s the colours, the seasons and the way it changes.”

Zara’s perfect use of colour and how she presents different shades of green, really stands out. “Green is a nightmare to paint,” she said. “There’s so much green, if you don’t balance that with the structure of the painting and the tone then it’s not going to work.”

She has produced seascapes in partnership with North Dorset artist Kim Pragnell for a previous exhibition and enjoyed that work but it’s clear that her Shaftesbury connection inspires her. If she had to relocate to another scenic area, she’s uncertain about how that would affect her work. “I’d still be an artist but I’m not quite sure how. I went abroad, to Malaga, to see a friend last year. Everybody said, ‘Take your sketchbooks to capture fields of olives’. I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t switch my head from where I am now to a completely different environment.”

Zara has been receiving treatment for breast cancer during the last five years. This has impacted on her work. “I had a mastectomy and it has been a really difficult time. I’ve used the art therapeutically. I have been painting quite dark stuff when I have been struggling. Then, I have torn it up because I wanted to make something beautiful from something ugly,” she said.

“When I started collaging, I collected every pill packet, prescription and letter for the first two years. I had this huge bag, full of stuff. I’d rip it up and collage it and put it into my work.” said Zara, as she explained how she found beauty in the pastel blue, pink and yellow of the NHS paperwork. “I am pleased to say that after a couple of years I threw all of it away.”

Zara said that she found a new sort of creative energy following her chemotherapy. “I suddenly started working big. It was still landscapes but prior to that I would just work in oil. I was a purist because I didn’t know what to do as I wasn’t trained. Suddenly, I couldn’t care what I used. I now use watercolour, acrylic and I still paint in oil. I begin in the landscape then I come in the shed and whatever happens, happens. It’s been really good in that sense,” Zara stated.

“It’s pushed me, and it’s taken me to places emotionally where I had not been before. I said to Joe, my husband, if the illness helps me become a better artist then it would be worth it.” Zara paused to reflect on those words. “But I’m not sure that’s the case.”

Zara drew self-portraits when she was going through chemotherapy. Many people might consider such images to be so personal they would choose to keep them private. “I would draw while I was having the treatment. I was on the sofa. I wasn’t having a good day, and I did one in yellow and grey. It’s pretty nasty, Zara said. “Often people don’t like my self-portraits,” she added.

Zara is presenting one of these drawings in her forthcoming exhibition. She says that people have told her they don’t believe it looks like her. “To me, it’s me,” she confided.

We moved on to talk about Zara’s Jewish upbringing. She cherishes her heritage. “I’m a secular Jew,” she explains. “I don’t practice. I have broken all the rules, but I have a very strong sense of my Jewish identity. It is a very important part of my life because it is who I am. My youngest is going to be thirty soon. I’ve always said to them that they were born Jewish and they will die Jewish and whatever happens in between is entirely up to them.”

Zara’s children have pointed out that their dad is not Jewish but she’s told them that it follows the maternal line. “Whoever they want to be they can be. I have no expectations. I don’t practice,” Zara said. “It’s the food and family. You grow up with it and it is part of who you are.”

Zara’s exhibition in the Shaftesbury Arts Centre gallery will show how her passion for the town is conveyed through her art. “I really wanted to focus on the fact that I’m a Shaftesbury person. I am quite ambitious, and I want people to recognise my work. It is Shaftesbury people that support me. They are my community. This is me responding to my world since I last exhibited here, two years ago. It’s been a funny old two years. A funny five years,” Zara said, correcting herself.

“I’ve done exhibitions where I have been very clear about my theme. This is less like that because I feel that I have no choice but to come into the shed and do what I need to do,” she said. “I can get low and nobody would want to see all of the dark pictures. A friend of mine had two stuffed magpies that I brought into the shed. Joe couldn’t believe it, especially being vegan. I did studies of the magpies. They were quite dark. Then I tore them up, and a lot of them are included in the work I will be showing.”

Zara admitted she is nervous before a show. “I always worry that nobody is going to come in and nobody will buy anything. It’s just part of who I am. Whether you can buy or not, I don’t want people to be intimidated. I want them to enjoy it. I want people to see what I’m doing,” she said. With the popularity of Zara’s work and the love that many locals feel for her as a person, she’s needn’t worry about turn out.

We finished our chat reflecting on Zara’s good news from the last month. “I was discharged from oncology, which was great. I taught a local art group and they paid me proper money and it was lovely,” Zara laughed. “And I got a piece of work accepted into the Royal West of England Academy.”

After tough times, let’s hope this talented Shaftesbury artist is on a roll towards more recognition.

Zara’s Arts Centre gallery exhibition runs from 23rd October until 5th November.