By Elaine Hunter

If people were colours – Iona Leishman would surely be a rainbow. She has a sunshine-warm energy; which you feel instantly when you meet her, which I later find out is imbued with a unique matrix of creativity.

The first artist to take up residence at Stirling Castle, Iona has her own unique style that seems to come from a higher place. If you look at her work, it’s like she’s absorbing forces from another place in time. Her style is intuitive; layered and historical; and most of all colourful.

“Working within the walls of the castle was extraordinary,” she says. “After a few weeks painting inside the castle, the energy I got hold of wasn’t male or military; it was all about the people. The women, the children, the animals, and the men who had lived and died and struggled, who had felt joy, heartbreak. It was like these characters, faces, horses, were asking to be seen,” Iona explains when I meet her at her Stirling home – which has a panoramic view of the Wallace Monument.

I point out a piece that has caught my attention – Dancing For Herself. “For this piece, I was letting the women of the castle come through in my art, she is Mary Queen of Scots or her mother Mary of Guise. She is regal and also the woman working in the kitchen. These women were the power within the walls; incredibly strong women. In this picture, she is letting her hair down, throwing off her tiara and corsets and sense of duty. She is dancing and letting go, being who she really is instead of who she is meant to be.” After meeting Iona, I think that very much sums the artist up.

Iona, a minister’s daughter, born in Perth, talks about moving home a lot during her childhood and living in many places, her love and respect for her father Murray and the memories of her mother, Marista, being happy. “When I smelled the paint when I got up in the morning, I knew my mother was up and painting and happy. She was always happy when she was painting; and that made me happy. This is a pretty early memory of mine, a lovely memory,” she says.

Obviously inspired by both her parents, Iona seems to be a free spirit and that comes across in the way she talks and dresses. She’s sporting a very short pixie hair cut; her natural grey highlighting her ash blonde (she reminds me of a Boho chic version of Annie Lennox, that same pretty chiselled face, belying her true age), she wears large rings on her fingers and looks much younger than her 56 years.

Her journey to finding her true pathway, took a few twists and turns, after studying English, she ended up nursing (until she realised when she kicked the end of the bed to stop a patient snoring that that was not her calling). “Well, I was an ok nurse, but it just didn’t fulfil me. I think the world of patients deserved someone better,” she says, with a mischievous glint in her eye.

“When I look at my topsy turvy life teenage life, I realise I just wanted to have a lot of fun. I remember my sister saying, ‘you don’t have any ambition’, and while I was good at art at school; I didn’t ‘that’ confidence at 17, I couldn’t stand the idea of being rejected,” she says.

“So I went to Wales and studied English, got my degree, did nursing, became an outdoor pursuits instructor, went to Kenya with Operation Raleigh and now when I look at my younger self, I realise I had angels sitting on my shoulders. I was just helped out of so many scrapes.”

She returned to Scotland where she had her first daughter, Ruth in 1990, who heartbreakingly died “it was like being dropped off a cliff’, her first son Calum in 1992 and it was at this time that art found its way back into Iona’s life. 

“I knew I had to express myself creatively, and the less time I had as more children arrived, the more important it was to carve out time to express myself,” she continues.

“It was important to make space for me at home. As Virginia Woolf said; ‘you need a room of your own’. I realised I had so much to paint about. Life experience gave me the power I didn’t have at 17… painting comes from the heart. 

“But of course when the children were small I didn’t want to be away from them or to paint full time; your priorities are different and you have to be focussed on your kids. 

“It’s different now. They come in and out; it’s almost a disquieting time of life. My life has been a certain way for the past 25 years – and it can creep up on one. I’ve got hours, no, I have days, no, I have weeks, and that’s a whole different way of living.”

The second child of four children, “Though I felt like the oldest” Iona has four children of her own now, Calum, 25, Ewan, 23, and the twin girls Bryony and Jennifer, both 19. The girls are at uni, Jennifer in Glasgow (studying philosophy and English), Bryony in Edinburgh (studying graphic design).

As well as taking commissions and painting, Iona also runs workshops called Creative Flow; “I quote Matisse that when he saw his five year old son painting, he wanted to get back to his five-year old self to tap into that unconditional pure energy,” she says.

“So many people are stuck, they have been told they weren’t good enough; so the Creative Flow is all about the sensuous enjoyment of mixing paint, then paint with ink, then ink with pastel and then pastel and ink and charcoal and paint altogether and we create these agitated lively surfaces and the images start to suggest themselves; float to the surface or not. It’s effortless. When we are in the flow, it’s like the way a piece of music floods through a pianist.

“I guess the feeling is like water moving; rippling, it’s intoxicating, peaceful and joyful, I sometimes look at my paintings and I don’t know where it came from, but I enabled it. I feel the energy from it; it’s at this point that you have make sure people don’t start to meddle with what they have created. Sometimes you just have to say… ‘Gonnae No’…’ she laughs.

When Iona’s not painting or hanging out with family, she’s working with Reach Out (with art in mind) in Alloa which is a self-help mental health charity where people improve their own understanding of themselves through art and has done this for the last seven years. 

And when she’s not doing all of the above, Iona is singing in a choir “I’ve always been able to sing; so I really love it.” 

Iona seems to live her life in the same vibrant colours she uses for her paintings complete with different layers and textures. She concentrates on things that bring her joy; a sense of fun and total fulfilment; but always at the heart is family and art… and her obvious love for both.

First appeared in Living Magazine… by Elaine Hunter