West End theatre dresser takes on her own starring role in art exhibition

A former West End theatre dresser on the hit show Phantom of the Opera is taking on a starring role of her own at a new art exhibition.

Mum-of-three Lisa Carter, from Llannefydd, between Denbigh and Abergele, gave up her glitzy life working with musical stars like Michael Ball, Shan Cothi and John Barrowman.

She transformed herself into a leading contemporary artist after escaping the rat race for the sake of her family.

The dramatic abstract landscapes created by Lisa will now be featured at the North Wales Open Studios Network exhibition which opens at Oriel Pendeitch, in Caernarfon, on Saturday, September 1.

It’s a far cry from her 10 years as a top theatre dresser for impresarios like Cameron McIntosh or from her time in the high pressure world of advertising, working on glamorous assignments for clients ranging from the Champions League to Virgin Atlantic.

They are mainly black and white though, influenced by the work of her father, Alan Grist, picture editor with the Western Mail in Cardiff, who had photographed everything from Royal Investitures to the Aberfan tragedy – her grandfather, Leslie Grist, had been the paper’s editor.

The Network showcases the work of area’s many artists in a summer-long series of events, part of the Helfa Gelf/Art Trail, which is funded by the Rural Development Plan for Wales.

It was Helfa Gelf, the open studios project, which kick-started the art college graduate’s return to her first love, painting, four years ago when she packed the youngest of her three children off to the village school in Llannefydd, between Denbuigh and Abergele.

She and husband Alex, a musician, moved to the village from London ten years ago to renovate a rambling cottage, Plas yn Llan, and bring up their children in Wales.

She said: “I wanted to come back to Wales but not South Wales so we stuck a finger on the map and found Llannefydd.”

The old house has the added benefit of wooden outbuildings, with one room neatly hung with Alex’s guitars and fitted with his desk and recording equipment while the other has Lisa’s canvases, a table scattered with artist materials and an expanse of floor, her preferred work surface.

She went to London at 18 to Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design and graduated with a theatre design degree and went to work in the capital, mainly as a dresser in theatres.

She said: “I specialized in costume and design, mostly set design, but worked mainly in the wardrobe department for people like Cameron McIntosh on shows like Phantom of the Opera.

“It was wonderful when you were young because you were out in the theatre world until four in the morning all the time and Alex was working as a technical stage manager.

“I was mainly working as a dresser and getting people into their costumes and out on stage with quick changes.”

Lisa, now 39, moved into advertising and branding, using her skills and contacts there and she said: “It was in the 1990s and it was the start of shopping as entertainment.

“I was travelling a lot, to the USA in particular, to bring back ideas, and putting together design teams for brands like Virgin Atlantic and the Champions League.

She worked with industry giant Global Design Register who number Sony, McDonalds and Kraft among their clients, but when the first of her children, Sammy, now aged 11, arrived, she and Alex decided a change was needed.

Agnes, 10, and Laurence, 8, have followed but by now the family had moved to North Wales and when the youngest went to school – all three are now Welsh speakers – mum took up her brushes again.

She said: “I started work the day he went to school, in the old stables here. I got involved with Helfa Gelf right away through Sabine Cockrill who I’d known at art college and I had two weeks to get my first exhibition done.

“I managed it though and then I put my work in for the National Eisteddfod at Bala and was accepted and that got me noticed and then I was signed up by the owner of the Ffin y Parc gallery in Llanrwst, and my exhibition there sold out.

“I don’t deal in the pretty, green fields, type of landscapes. I work from memory and my sketch books don’t have drawings in them – non-visual things stimulate me, often words and phrases.

“Writings by Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf and Japanese haiku poetry inspire me rather than the romantic view of landscape. I like a view that is more sideways.”

She has enjoyed Helfa Gelf and been surprised by how many people it attracts to her out of the way studio: “I get over 100 people each September,” she said: “The first year I sat there wondering if anyone would come.

“It’s lovely to be able to talk to people about your work and they are almost always really nice, even if they don’t like it.

“I remember one woman was quite rude though but after I had chatted to her for a while she actually bought something.”

Lisa’s work will be featured in a diverse and exciting exhibition of 28 artists is a showcase of some of North Wales Open Studios Network artists.

Sabine Cockrill, Project Coordinator for the Helfa Gelf /Art Trail, said: “Lisa is a fantastic example of how a project like Helfa Gelf can support and nurture artists abd bring their talents to the public’s attention.

“Her work is incredibly distinct and powerful and has found buyers from all over. It is nice to know that we played a small part in her success.”

The project sees Helfa Gelf /Art Trail working in partnership with Anglesey Arts Weeks with the aim of inviting the public into artists studios to experience first hand how arts and crafts in the region are created.

Helfa Gelf / Art Trail is now North Wales’ biggest Open Studio event with over 300 artists taking part in Gwynedd, Conwy, Denbighshire, Flintshire and Wrexham.

It takes place every Friday, Saturday and Sunday this September. Anglesey Arts Weeks is North Wales’ longest running event and takes place every Easter.

Delyth Gordon, Visual Art Officer, Gwynedd Council, said: “Oriel Pendeitsh is glad to support the open studios event by presenting a mixed exhibition to give a taste of the wide variety of work on view by the artists and craftworkers who are taking part across the six counties of the North Wales Open Studios Network.”

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