Give her any surface, flat or curved, and she will turn it into the canvas for her next masterpiece: Giorann Henshaw has been painting for about fifty years, and nothing is going to stop her now from experimenting with new techniques and styles, from miniature Rock views on mugs to realistic cityscapes with a vertiginous sense of perspective, from flowery embellishments for a Twenty-First Century take on belle-of-the-ball’s crystal slippers, to showstopper pictures flashing with metallic hues.
Lately, in fact, creative Giorann has decided to go large and extravagant in her artwork producing a series of spectacular artwork by experimenting with synthetic gold, silver and copper leaf to add glitzy flash to her sunsets and a baroque glow to her still natures.
She had been toying with the idea of metallic leaf for a while, but she opted for synthetic at first to minimise costs and keep her paintings affordable while working on mastering the technique, which she seems to do effortlessly in an apocalyptic vision of the sunset over ‘Mount Abila’ and in the bunch of ‘Bearded Irises’ whose colours are likely borrowed from Renaissance tapestry.
Her latest artwork was exhibited at her first ever solo last November, held in conjunction with fellow painter Doris Gafan. “I’d been thinking about holding my own exhibition for a long time,” Giorann says, “but I’ve never had enough material to fill the Fine Arts Gallery walls, so I got together with Doris, whose realistic style well complements mine, and we are good friends from the days we co-founded the Arts & Crafts Association.”
Besides paintings, Giorann exhibited a collection of satin shoes personalised with delicate depictions of petals and leaves and abstract patterns, to fit all the Cinderellas out there readying themselves for a Valentine’s ball. Monochrome with diamanté studs, chequered with a splash of red in true Queen of Hearts style, blue-striped like a tropical sea or colourfully flowered like Chinese slippers, the hand-finished stilettos are a touch of class for brides and maids of honour – and if stilettos aren’t the footwear you’d walk a mile in, Giorann is happy to ‘glam up’ your favourite ballet pumps and trainers.
She doesn’t stop at shoes either: she paints garments and ball gowns as she’s successfully done in the past for Miss Gibraltar contestants, turning embroidery into a picture-perfect affair.
She has made a name for herself in Gibraltar for her detailed landscapes so realistic to be easily mistaken for photographs, and for being at ease with painting on tiny surfaces as much as large ones, but Giorann actually started her career in the exquisite art of porcelain decorating. This is nowadays lamentably dwindling and fewer and fewer certified artisans are still around to hand-decorate the glitterati’s dinner sets.
“I’ve always liked to paint and when I was in school, my drawings were shown around to art teachers and pupils,” she reminisces. “So I knew that I wanted to be an artist since an early age, but my parents were worried that their only child wouldn’t make a livelihood solely out of her talent, and advised me to opt for a sensible career, to become a secretary, for example. Funnily enough, I was indeed a secretary for a while later in life, but in my teenage years I never stopped pursuing my dream and I applied for the Royal Worcester Porcelain school.”
Barely 16, she was accepted at the atelier and she jumped on what she describes as ‘the porcelain train’, to be trained (and paid) to design and paint plates and crockery.
She was the first ever overseas student to be inducted in the prestigious institution, and she fondly remembers her interview call: “My parents were nervous I would move to the UK alone, in those days communications would be by letter only and crackly phone calls if you were lucky to get the connection through. But I wasn’t nervous at the interview, because I was confident it was my calling and I was handed a great opportunity in life. I showed the panel my portfolio and I was accepted.”
That was the first day of six intense years of painting and enamelling exotic flowers and birds on one-of-the-kind plates and keepsakes, often rimmed with real gold leaf. They nestled in Giorann’s heart until she returned to it last year, and she is still expanding her collection of metallic-effect work.
“I like to experiment with many media, and it also depends on my mood: if I feel tranquil, I go for watercolours, if I feel energetic I choose acrylics… some days, I work my one-hair brush to paint on small surfaces, while others I am keener for palette knife strokes on large surfaces.”
Upon her return to Gibraltar she attained a BA in Fine Arts and Arts History with the Open University and started giving classes at home to children and adults. Every other year, she organises a collective exhibition of her students’ best artwork: “I want them to see for themselves how it looks on a gallery’s wall, next to other paintings, in a professional way.”
She admits that not all children, despite a natural drive to drawing in their younger years, display the perseverance and continuity it takes to nurture their talent, but it is important to avoid pushing them to any hobby and electives they are not ready for. Yet, she tells how she had pupils returning to her classes after long hiatuses with renewed enthusiasm and a different outlook on fine arts.
As an active ceramic decorator with original handcrafted mugs, plates, ornaments and baubles on sale at the Heritage Trust and the Museum, Giorann is closely involved with the committee of the Gibraltar Artisan Market that regularly sets up stalls in Casemates on Saturdays and occasionally on Sundays, popular with tourists and locals alike, working hard to promote handmade products and fine artisanship in Gibraltar.
words | Elena Scialtiel