‘I couldn’t draw at all. A friend of mine keeps an early picture I did of her dog, and you can’t even tell it’s a dog!
Everything I do I have learnt, and I believe one hundred percent that anyone can learn if they want to. What can’t be learnt, possibly, is the will or drive to do something, and that is my gift – my drive, not my artistic ability. That drive has come from great loss. What I do, I do on behalf of all the friends and family who have died young. I am the sum of all the people I’ve met and known. My duty is to live my life to the full and be the best I can be. For the first time in my life, I have made a conscious choice about what I want to do, and that is to paint. This is my time.’
Maria Burton estimates she has spent about 90% of her waking life outdoors and needs to ‘see the sky.’ As a child she was sporty and loved to be outside as much as she could, coming indoors pretty much only to sleep.
Alongside her previous career as a PE teacher, she also ran a photographic business, but both these came to a halt when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her chemotherapy treatment in 2012/13 took all her energy and she knew early retirement was the only way forward. By 2014 she had made the decision to give herself a year to see if she had any talent at all in this area, and to challenge herself to learning the theory and craft properly instead of just dabbling in a ‘pot-luck-results-kind-of-way.’
With the support of a friend, who was there for her through every step of her treatment, Maria sold her house, became a lodger in the friend’s spare room and blew the equity from the sale of her house on a campervan. This van is her bolt hole and the transport and accommodation for her trips around the country to learn and practise her art. She loves it.
After participating in loads of courses in every possible medium, Maria chose to specialise in oil painting, with the odd foray into acrylics. She continued to take more and more courses until she, literally, ran out of money. She has worked hard at her painting ever since.
She trained under various tutors at the Glasgow School of Art; at Higham Hall in Cumbria; and, for the duration of 2017, under Martin Kinnear at the Norfolk School of Oil Painting. In 2019/20 Maria had a year on the drawing course at Leith School of Art. She still studies at the Norfolk Painting School online.
Maria says she hopes ‘To die under an open, stormy sky’ – only not too soon! She’s too busy still learning, ‘Never stop learning,’ and wants ‘To see how great a painter I can become before I drop dead. We are alive for such a brief period of time.’
For Maria, painting is about a connection and an expression. She relishes the challenge of making a painting capture something of the wonder of being alive. Her three favourite subjects are skies, the Cumbrian fells and the sea. Though much of her work is produced at her studio at The EVAN Gallery in Penrith, she has begun to work en plein air more often.
She always, however, needs to have been to the place she’s painting – to have sketched and walked there, preferably in interesting weather full of energy and possibility. The paintings, produced back in her studio, emerge from those studies, a combination of experiences and memories. She aims to convey a sense of the place, of what it is about rather than a record of what it looks like. Except for specific places like Sharp Edge, Maria rarely paints from reference for more than a few minutes, even when a painting takes days, or longer, to bring to a sense of completion. Once the painting is loosely mapped in, the reference sketch is set aside, and even the original ‘mapping’ may change throughout the production of the piece.
I recall Maria talking to another aspiring artist about painting; several paintings were lined up against the gallery wall for a ‘crit’ – a recollection of holding your work up at Art School and facing the daunting questions of the tutors and other students. Looking at the work of Maria and the other developing artist side by side, Maria asked my view on the works. I commented that, though the other artist’s painting had definite talent and good composition, Maria’s painting made me wonder if, though depicting a sunny seaside scene, I might actually need to take my waterproof coat and a thick jumper if I was going to enter the painting and stroll around for a while. She adds that ‘something’ that you just can’t quite put your finger on.
Her favourite fell? Blencathra. And the subject of many of her paintings, including the one she was working on as we spoke. Though she admits Sharp Edge is too much for her to cope with in reality, she will paint it almost obsessively. ‘I can get cragfast, so I stay safe, but I am in awe of it.’
Maria loves the ever-changing weather in Cumbria. She says Norfolk weather is too predictable, it’s the same for days on end and one week there is enough. She loves the unpredictable weather of the Lake District. An avid walker, she is well aware how swiftly a sunny day can become stormy and, once the storm has passed, how the shafts of light can then burn through the clouds like a gift from the Gods.
I ask her if she believes in God and we discuss it in vague terms of how nice it would be if we lived in a world where the morals that the Christian faith preaches were followed by all, which we decide comes down to kindness, caring and respect for each other. Maria says it would be a pity if that was just it, death as the end, and it’s quite arrogant of humans to assume we’re the final or perfect being – ‘It, The Top.’ She likes to believe we have spirit in some form and that through memories we never truly die. She was raised by non religious parents who, even so, upheld the best Christian values, and confirms that she was not Christened. But later Maria phones me to tell me she’s thought harder about my question. She tells me that she must believe in a God as she prays when she needs to, or when others need help, so why should she deny that? God is a very personal experience for her, and she doesn’t need a special building or ceremony to relate to that idea. She is mildly religious without the need of a church, believing tolerance and kindness are the kingpins in her way of life.
Recently she was accompanying a friend to a scan and, by accident, found herself back where her own chemo had taken place. She hadn’t been back in nine years and it was a hugely poignant moment. She knew something of what everyone there was going through, she’d been through it herself. She knew their fears of the unknown. She knows some survived and others didn’t.
On seeing the Macmillan shop selling its hats and scarves she recalled the horrible shock of her own hair beginning to fall out during her treatment. She tells me how she went to the hairdresser and asked for all her hair to be cut off. Given a short haircut she said, ‘No, all of it.’ It was the one thing she could control, to remove that hair in one go, by choice.
The Macmillan group were lifesavers for Maria. Many people think of them as offering end of life care, but really, they offer care for survival. ‘They saved my mental health. My first meeting lasted about two hours; they were so knowledgeable. They’re not just volunteers to chat, they are specialist nurses and healthcare professionals who can advise on everything. The team help you survive in every sense.’
Maria had seen an advertisement for Brave the Shave only the night before she and her friend were at the hospital, and decided then and there to sign up for it. By the time you read this she will already have Braved the Shave, on 21st June. Her initial target of £300 was smashed within days. And you can still make a donation if you wish.
The funds raised also help those who don’t have the money to support themselves or their families when they are going through treatment for cancer.
Maria is astonished by the generosity of those who have donated. She believes that conversations about cancer are being normalised at last. ‘We’d never have talked so openly about cancer 50 years ago.’ And her hope is that this attitude will lead to other conditions also facing less stigma, not just in the future but right now. For example, mental health issues which are so often helped by creative processes and the arts.
Maria spends about five hours a day, four days a week on painting related activity. It’s not all just painting though, there are plenty of other things involved in the running of a successful business, though she would love to concentrate more on the painting side of things.
You can often see Maria at work in her studio at The EVAN Gallery. Her paintings are always on display there, along with her self-published book and a selection of greetings cards.
Maybe through her own art Maria will always be remembered. Her memory living on through her paintings long after we’ve all gone.
Maria’s book ‘Catching Constant Change' is available from the EVAN Gallery, priced £25.
Interview by Polly Marix Evans