The Art of Everyday Life

by Nina Ellis

Everyday life is my new escapist fantasy. I recently started reading Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet books, day-to-day epics which now feel like portals to delicious normality. They centre on tasks like cleaning up after a party or packing the car to go visit your sister: ‘He was back again, standing in the bedroom doorway, waiting with exaggerated patience for her to shut her suitcase,’ Howard writes of someone’s annoying husband. Her characters are immersed in the mundane actions that make up their lives — and after a year of not being allowed to throw proper parties or visit my sister, I’m loving being immersed in them too.

I was in Wales when galleries reopened last month, and I drove to Conwy for the Royal Cambrian Academy’s new exhibition. In the room on the first floor, a painting caught my attention: ‘The Swimmer’, by Swansea-based artist Carys Evans. It’s small and bright, and it exudes a sense of calm. A woman in a pink swimming cap (or pink hair) stands waist-deep in still water. The sky behind her is pale, almost white. Maybe it’s winter, but she doesn’t seem cold. Her arms are by her sides, submerged from the elbows down — I thought of Eva Green posing as the Venus de Milo in The Dreamers, except the swimmer doesn’t look like a movie star. She’s slim but not skinny, with lithe strength in her shoulders and neck. She has thin eyebrows and a peaceful expression. She gazes straight out of the frame, smiling slightly.

Many of her paintings are of people going about their daily business: ‘The Catch-Up’ features two women having a chat over tea; ‘Leaving the Chores’ shows a woman walking away from the washing-up; and ‘Washing Line’, my favourite, interrupts another woman as she hangs up some laundry. Evans’ Twitter bio explains that she celebrates ‘the everyday and unheroic,’ and she is quoted on her art studio’s blog saying that ‘sometimes when wiping a table I feel like I’m painting’ because ‘you see marks and notice things.’ For her, mundane tasks can feel like making art, while her artworks often focus on those same mundane tasks. Art and life spill into each other.

When I reached out to Evans to ask her for an email interview, she replied warmly and generously. She’s inspired by the everyday because, in her words, ‘that is what my life has been. I am an unremarkable woman who became a mother and a primary school teacher,’ and who ‘had the good sense to do a degree in fine art’ after taking early retirement. She says although she ‘played the game by engaging in conceptual art,’ all she really wanted to do was to ‘paint my experience. Hence the female and domestic became the medium. Everyday and unheroic, but a shared experience with so many.’ To my delight, Evans added that she loves washing lines. ‘They can be mesmerising,’ she says, and in her paintings they are.

I think Evans is wrong about one thing: she is remarkable in her treatment of the unremarkable. Her ability to make the everyday mesmerising resonates in the context of the pandemic. ‘The Swimmer’ focuses on what used to be an ordinary activity: swimming, probably for exercise, given the swimmer’s sporty one-piece — but lidos and pools were closed for months in the UK, and beach holidays remain out of reach for most people. During Covid, the once-mundane has become exceptional, and the exceptional mundane: we’re used to national lockdowns, but we haven’t seen our sisters in months, or years, and we have to book weeks ahead to go swimming. I’m sure I’m not the only one drawn to art about the old everyday we now long for.

Evans says that she doesn’t think lockdown has changed the focus of her work — but it has made her more aware ‘of what art can do in a therapeutic way. I couldn’t get to my studio,’ she recalls, so ‘I started painting on toilet rolls, a sort of visual diary of the little things that came to my attention.’ You can see some of them on her Twitter. I love how Evans fuses subject and medium here. These are celebrations of the everyday painted onto everyday objects: toilet rolls, which were briefly transformed into rare commodities in the first months of the pandemic. ‘The little paintings were not grand art, worthy of a big gallery,’ says Evans with characteristic modesty, ‘but they had value in that they brought joy at a difficult time.’ They confirmed to her that ‘art is valuable at any level.’

I am grateful for Evans’ odes to the mundane in her work, and for every instance of everyday art I’ve stumbled on since the start of the pandemic, from the Cazalet books to the beautiful Kashmiri stitching around the edge of my new shawl. It’s so difficult to plan for the future in these unstable times — and it can be hard to keep going through a present that feels like the same sad, dull day lived over and over again. I’m back at home in Islamabad now, where cases are rising and city-wide lockdowns are imminent. As we brace ourselves for another wave, I’ll turn to Evans’ paintings to remind myself to take pleasure in the day-to-day and unremarkable. As the writer Annie Dillard puts it, ‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.’ And life is worth celebrating.