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In August, Monica Popham won the ‘Our Gibraltar’ Photography Award, worth £750, with her snapshot Orange Blinds: a play on blinding sunset light and leaves shadows on the façade of a local housing estate.

Her distinctive brushstroke balances micro and macrocosmic, traditional figurative and illustration styles, contributing to the artistic exposure of the Upper Town’s architecture. There are echoes of the late Mario Finlayson’s legacy, married with a certain tourist-poster flare in her choice of bright colours, geometric lines, and play on block shadows.

The genesis of her flagship piece submitted to the Alwani Summer Art Competition was serendipitous, and partly stemming from lockdown restrictions. Monica was in fact due to work on her final coursework in the United Kingdom when the Covid crisis struck in March 2020. Upon her return to Gibraltar, she realised that her large-scale project, designed to fill a few square metres of exhibition wall space, would have to be left on the backburner, as she hadn’t enough room at home to set it up and work on it.

“I’ve never been too fond of canvas either,” she says, “so I welcomed the ‘emergency’ use of small rectangles of plywood which my dad saved for me to sketch in preparation to my ‘big’ work.”

After some doodling, Monica realised that she’d found a new avenue to explore. Environmentally conscious art on recycled support, affordable because of its materials and size, and at the same time original and stackable, as if each frame was a still from a movie about Gibraltar. The small detail contributed to the bigger picture, both metaphorically and literally, when she later jig-sawed her ninety-six snapshots into one sizeable emotional portrait of the hometown she had missed so much while at uni.

There are echoes of the late Mario Finlayson’s legacy.

In the UK she longed for the Rock’s mediterranean colours and shapes so much that she had to remind herself of home by painting it; when she found herself constricted in lockdown, where space was limited but imagination wasn’t, she turned the photographs taken during her Upper Town ramblings into semi-abstract impressions, introducing her signature piece of a picture worth a hundred pictures – well almost, just four short of 100!

Monica’s research in this style successfully continued for the National Week Art Exhibition, that endorsed her potential as the artistic grasshopper on the path of local art giants like the above-mentioned Mario Finlayson, whose love for Gibraltar’s tiled roofs she shares, as well as Karl Ullger, Leslie Gaduzo and Christian Hook, whom she admires for their flawless technical foundation.

Monica paints with acrylics, as she’s aiming at two or three postcard-sized pictures drawn and painted per day. She’s done larger scale too, at university, but she seems to have found her trademark in ‘tight’n’bright’ – although she’s also proven her swashbuckling brush-brandishing panache with the challenge of a mural.

“I’ve never been too fond of canvas either”

The writing – the drawing, actually – is indeed on the wall, at GAMPA premises outer and inner walls: “I entered the Ministry of Culture competition for that mural, as I had an idea to bridge visual and performing arts. I did so because my sister plays there, and I reckoned a mural of mine would be my way of making my art and hers go hand in hand. My submission was selected, and so I was invited to reproduce it life-size.”

There the practical challenges started, and Monica turned her project into a family affair: “My parents and I went up there with a projector, and traced the outlines on the wall, whose texture however prevented me to draw durable and visible lines in acrylics. I managed eventually to sketch it and have it ready to colour in, but there was the extra challenge of the uphill wall, thus dealing with the consequent distorted perspective.”

More tests came from vehicular traffic, as the wall is located on a relatively busy road: “I wore hi-viz vests and delimited my safe zone with traffic cones. What seemed a flash project took four weeks to complete, and local motorists got to know me, and gave me feedback on my progress.”

And more from the heat: “It was July, so I painted from 9 to 11:30 am, before the sun flooded street and wall, and then again in the afternoon, when the shade returned. Obviously, I had to carry up there my brushes and buckets every day.”

Monica brilliantly managed not to paint herself in a corner, but for the highest corners she had to resort to a long-handled roller, and stretch her arm to Elastigirl lengths.

She requested permission to access the nearby school and hang out of one window to apply the final touches to her masterpiece, which is now out free for Gibraltarians and tourists to enjoy.

Monica is enjoying her graduate summer, basking in the dream of art as a lifestyle – with a few commissions here and there, including fancy blackboards for some local eateries. She favours traditional painting with brushes and palettes, but she is experimenting with virtual drawing on her iPad, with interesting results, specially in illustrator’s style – almost unchartered territory with potential galore to suit talent. 

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