Creative Caversham – Mary Phelan

PEOPLE WITH busy lives need to find some way of balancing life’s pressures. Some may enjoy sport or physical activity, but for others a creative outlet is the perfect solution.
Mary Phelan, who grew up in Stockport near Manchester, trained and has worked most of her life as a social worker. But art – both drawing and painting – has always been there for her, and now more than ever it is how she finds refuge from the stresses of everyday life.
Mary was educated at a grammar school, where the attitude was that art was what you did if you weren’t academic; she was encouraged to concentrate on science and mathematics, not drawing and painting. She studied sociology at Warwick, then qualified as a social worker and moved to London, and then 25 years ago, here to Caversham. She has no formal training as an artist, but has worked at her craft all her life.
“I have always painted, and I go to life drawing classes both in London and here every week if I can,” she says. “It’s something I have always done, and the thing I most enjoy doing.”
Mary explains that at the life drawing classes she attends, the artists – perhaps ten or twelve people – aren’t led by a teacher, although the artists do compare notes on their drawings. “It’s fascinating, as we are drawing the same model, but at the end everyone’s work can be completely different! I am always inspired by life drawing – people’s bodies are so beautiful, and so different,” she adds.
Not surprisingly, Mary is commissioned to produce portraits, often in charcoal or pastels. But she also likes painting, using both oils and water colours, and is inspired by local scenes such as St Peter’s churchyard and the huge gates to Caversham Court, as well as countryside around Caversham and beyond.
“Usually I work on commissions, which I enjoy. You are asked to do things you have never thought of,” she explains.

Arts trail – the early days
Mary began exhibiting her work in the early days of ‘arts trails’ in Caversham – “It started off in Patrick Road, but then as Lauren Denney got involved, it got bigger. Nowadays the arts trail would be my main way of exhibiting, though I may also go to Bix, and the Christmas event at St Andrews,” she says.
With the pandemic putting a stop to the arts trail this year, Mary has kept herself busy, producing the art work for the cover of Cafferty’s Truck (Dempsey & Windle), the latest book of poetry by her husband, Robin Thomas.
She has enjoyed producing a series of small water colours. “Producing small pictures is so mindful, I would recommend it to anyone,” Mary advises.
As well as working on her commissions at home, Mary loves to draw out of doors. “I like to sit and draw. People worry about doing this – I would say, don’t even think what the drawing you are doing is going to look like.
Drawing helps you to be really present, taking notice of what is there in front of you. The pleasure of drawing is what you see in the moment. It really doesn’t matter what the picture you produce looks like!”
Mary is missing the social aspect of the arts trail and doesn’t spend much time promoting her work on Facebook or other social media. “I want to see pictures ‘live’, there in front of me. When we have the arts trail it is such a social thing, we get to meet so many interesting people.”
She is concerned that the expressive arts – whether art, drama, or music – are being downgraded in state education when, as she believes, they should be more important than ever. “Discovering the expressive arts means having something you can take with you throughout life,” she points out.
Such misgivings aside, Mary loves the way Caversham has changed so positively in the time she has been living here. “When we first came to Caversham, it was so quiet! I remember sitting in Warings with my daughter Caitlin, when we might be the only people there. But now, Caversham has transformed. My husband Robin has found other poets, I have found other painters. Once the arts trail re-starts it will be like starting from scratch. I hope that people appreciate it more than ever. It is such a community event!”