ALAN Riach talks to the artist Karen Strang about a new book of portraits of key workers, celebrating and acknowledging the hard and selfless efforts of people in various occupations that are so frequently undervalued and underpaid

Alan Riach: Karen, how did this project come about?

Karen Strang: Well, 2020 has been the year of the unexpected for everyone. I’d planned to spend it in my studio in Alloa, working on a large solo exhibition for 2021. Portraiture was not going to be a focus. Lockdown suddenly changed all that. Being in lockdown forced us all to reconsider our purpose and lifestyle. I’m an artist, trained in painting. I asked myself, what could I contribute to benefit the community?

Alan: So it was a priority for you to think of the community?

Karen: I was struck by the courage and selflessness of the key workers who put themselves on the front line. I felt I was twiddling my thumbs. I had no appetite to continue with the themes I had been working on. I wanted to bear witness, as a painter, but not in some lofty manner. I had to give something that could make others feel positive, to give whatever I could of worth, as I see it, to as many key workers who serve my community here, where I work, in Alloa.

Alan: Did you have a sense that certain people and kinds of work were being undervalued?

Karen: I have family connections with the NHS and they were being recognised. There were equally important key workers who were sometimes ignored, sometimes pilloried in the media as scapegoats for mismanagement by those in power, such as those working in care homes.

Even now, refuse workers are abused sometimes, which is at least partly down to general frustration at the situation. I saw parallels here with my earlier work, where those who were healers and carers in unsettled times of plague and political upheaval were the first to suffer. (See “Feminism, witchcraft, art and empowerment” by Alexander Moffat and Karen Strang in The National, Monday, March 26, 2018.)

Alan: Is this a corrective to the mass media swamp of images and film of inept politicians and overpaid “celebrities” whose faces come at us every time we turn on a television? And does that tell us about portrait painting as a form of value?

Karen: I’ve never felt comfortable with the idea that portraiture should be about paying tribute to the so-called great and good. This echoes the parallel debate over the statues, the difference being that statuary is far more publicly evident, emphasising class and power. Likewise, celebrities giving us advice from positions of comfort – that sticks in the craw when the reality for most people is just getting by, and many of the key workers are doing just that.

Alan: So how did you set to work on these portraits?

Karen: I dedicated myself to a daily schedule of creating a series of portraits of frontline key workers.

I asked for nominations from the local community and subsequently created around 50 portraits, to be gifted to the nominees, borrowing them and bringing them together for the exhibition.

Alan: How did the exhibition come about?

Karen: Kevin Harrison from Artlink Central, a charity I’ve been involved with over the years, saw my work on social media and invited me to exhibit at Forth Valley Royal Hospital. They connect artists and art activities with various communities in the health and wellbeing sector throughout the central belt.

Alan: And was the exhibition a success?

Karen: It was one of the first public exhibitions to be held in Scotland during lockdown, so the situation didn’t encourage the general public to view! But there were many positive comments from staff, patients and visitors to the hospital. It boosted morale. I was heartened by some wonderful anecdotes. One wee girl who had a bad arm injury was excited and happy to see her mum, a nurse (not at that hospital), on the walls – little stories like that make it worthwhile.

Alan: The portraits themselves are so valuable in a range of different, complementary respects. First, they’re simply curious, highly individuated portraits of people in specific jobs, so each one is worth studying and enjoying in its own right.

I’m remembering Hugh MacDiarmid’s comment that as he got older, he found people mainly just said the same things, came out with the usual platitudes, so what they looked like was far more interesting than what they said. But beyond that there’s the understanding that these are working people who do jobs any society needs to get done, for its health and wellbeing, especially in a time of attack from a contagious virus.

Karen: Originally, I thought of these portraits as tributes to the people in the community as well as documenting these unprecedented times. It wasn’t possible to paint all the key workers in Clackmannanshire, of course: those portrayed here also represent their colleagues and fellow key workers.

I titled one of the portraits “The Warrior” and had a woman question that, saying that although she admired the portrait she was uncomfortable with the military reference. I responded by saying that this was very much the work a war artist would do, that this key worker was indeed fighting the enemy.

How else could one denote the complete PPE coverage, the courage and obvious exhaustion?

Alan: So there is a particularity about individuals but there’s also a sense in which they represent others. These are exemplary people, and their work itself is a representation of what “essential work” really is.

Karen: Yes. I was particularly struck that, despite being virtually entirely covered by PPE, some key workers were immediately recognised by those who know them.

Alan: There’s a great line from Yeats, if I remember, that the mask is the medium through which reality becomes visible.

Karen: The whole process was a learning curve for me as an artist working in such constrained circumstances and painting PPE for the first time. It has also been a great pleasure to get to know these key workers and their nominators.

Alan: What’s next?

Karen: The warmth of the response gave me the confidence to develop a book of 50 portraits of 55 key workers in Clackmannanshire. I was overwhelmed by the support and the professional publishing group, with support from local businesses. All profits are going to three charities serving the local community. And a larger, more developed exhibition of the key workers, including a large-scale group painting in oils is being prepared for 2021. This has to be seen as a public exhibition in a real space. Fingers crossed!

The book is published by Heather Ann Dowd Ltd, Alloa. Photographs of the portraits are by Alan Paterson. The book can be bought for £10 locally around Clackmannanshire. To order a copy for £13 including postage and packing, email: Karen Strang at See also: