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All Change: The Art of Living

Rosemary Cullum always wanted to be a painter but became a horticulturist instead. Going to art school later in life was a brave step and far tougher than she thought. But, with her art fast gaining a following, her determination paid off

Her work is big and bold, characterised by rich textures and earthy colours. The rusty hue of a fallen oak leaf, the orangey green of a willow stem, the brown gleam of a ploughed field. Some of her abstract pictures appear stunningly simple. A single line crosses an almost-black canvas; a square punctuates a blood red background. Look again to see how skilfully the oil paint has been applied.

Gazing at these images, you might imagine a confident artist at ease with her medium, standing paintbrush in hand to look squarely at her canvas. And you’d be right: Rosemary Cullum brims with life. She’s an excellent homemaker and gardener. She’s an out-and-about kind of person, nipping up to London, cooking lunch for ten. Her youngest daughter describes her as annoyingly talented.

Twice her pictures have been accepted for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, the first time when she was still an art student. Her work has sold well at shows staged by Fen Ditton Gallery – and her fans are eager to see what direction she will take next. “We love our Rosemary painting for its fine sense of balance and harmony in composition and colours,” says one recent purchaser.

Velvet: Life-change Real Life - Rosemary Cullum, Barn Studio, George Street, Willingham. Picture: Keith Heppell. (23363647)
Velvet: Life-change Real Life - Rosemary Cullum, Barn Studio, George Street, Willingham. Picture: Keith Heppell. (23363647)

But it hasn’t been plain sailing. When Rosemary applied to Anglia Ruskin to take a degree in fine art, she assumed that she would waltz in. She was, after all, proficient at drawing what was in front of her and had been star student on a handful of short courses. “I arrived for the interview with a stack of photos of my work and watched the head of department skim through them,” she remembers.

“He didn’t show a flicker of interest in any of them. He was dismissive of my pretty still lifes and my drawings of dogs. I was advised that I needed to take an art foundation course at Cambridge Regional College in order to prepare for the demands of the degree course. I went home feeling totally crushed.”

Rosemary now regards that foundation year as the first stage in becoming the artist she is today. Within days she had applied to CRC. “I knew I was making the right decision,” she says. “I’d worked in horticulture and garden design for 50 years. Always in the back of my mind I had a vision of being a painter. I wanted to go to art school to be challenged.”

Challenge was what she got. “It was hard. At first I really didn’t understand what the tutors meant about the importance of ‘mark making’, for instance. I struggled with art theory which is horribly conceptual. But I got to grips with it and did well. I wrote two dissertations and loved doing the research. I now have a completely different attitude and realise the learning process will never end.”

When she began the foundation course, Rosemary was 69 and a grandmother several times over. “Never once did I think: I’m an oldie surrounded by youngsters. I just got on with the projects we were set and with the help of some excellent teachers began to explore what art can be,” she says. “I embraced all of it except photoshop which made me weep at my incompetence.”

At CRC and then Anglia Ruskin, Rosemary met some wonderful people, many of whom remain friends, and began to find her own artistic language, partly by looking at how other artists expressed their experience of the world. “I adore many of the German painters including Anselm Kiefer – his use of textured surfaces and scraped back colours can convey so much.” she says.

Her work conveys darkness as well as light. “I was born in 1940,” she says. “It was a bleak time to be a child. The first moving images I saw, it must have been a newsreel, were of the bodies of Jews being bulldozed into trenches. I must have been 6 and it stayed with me. The need to escape, the barren fields and desolation. To be able to use the materiality of paint to suggest depths of feelings, more than just superficial representation, is something to aim for.”

Forging a new career in your 70s takes formidable energy, something Rosemary has in spades. She also has a supportive husband who has encouraged her every step of the way. “Dean is wonderful. He’s accompanied me to exhibitions all over the place, and shown huge interest in art. He’s built me a marvellous studio where I can produce larger than average works.”

What next? “I feel in a way that I’ve just started. That’s the best thing about beginning a new project later in life. I’m not under pressure to make money. I’m painting for the joy of it. I’m so happy when someone buys a piece of my work and tells me they love it. It’s one of the best feelings you can have.”

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