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“THAT’S a pop art Mark E Smith.”
Sandra Marrs and John Chalmers and I are standing in front of a wall of the latter’s paintings in a gallery space in Callendar House in Falkirk and Chalmers is telling me what I’m looking at. The singer of post-punk legends The Fall, in a jumper. And pastels.
Around us are pages and pages of the work the couple have created together under their joint byline Metaphrog since the mid-1990s. Pages from their first comic Strange Weather Lately to their most recent book Bluebeard. Painted pages, pencilled pages, sketchbooks. A life in art and comics pinned to the wall.
I am getting a sneak preview of a new exhibition in the Park Gallery that celebrates Metaphrog’s work. The Franco-Scottish couple are partners in life and art. Marrs is from France. In 1994 she moved to Scotland where she met Greenock-born Chalmers. His background was in science but soon they were making comics together.
Over the years Metaphrog have worked on their award-winning series of Louis graphic novels (six in all), little fables that work for both children and adults, and, more recently, fairy tales (Bluebeard, The Red Shoes, The Little Mermaid) retold in their own inimitable revisionist fashion. Chalmers provides the words, Marrs the images.
It is Tuesday, a few days before the exhibition opens, and Chalmers and Marrs are giving me the tour.
There are 54 images on the walls, with scripts, models, rough sketches and books also on display. It’s the summation of more than a quarter-century of work. “Sandra has roughly made over 1000 pages in 27 years,” Chalmers says. The exhibition allows viewers to see how the couple have evolved their ideas of what a comic strip is, from the wordy semi-realist style of their early days on their comic Strange Weather Lately to the jewel-like cartoony beauty of their more recent books.
Both words and art seem deceptively simple on the surface of Metaphrog’s work, but there are hidden depths everywhere. Standing in front of a page taken from one of their Louis books, Chalmers begins to talk of the couple’s love of Pollok Park in their home city of Glasgow. On the wall behind him, a green verdant space sprawls across the comic page.
Is that Pollok Park in this illustration, I ask? “A dream version.”
Walking around the room, the couple chat about the notion of time in comics, the importance of libraries, novelist Vladimir Nabokov’s love of chess, their own shared love of insects and the interplay between words and pictures on the page.
“If there are too many words you lose the sense of the musicality of the flow of the pictures,” Chalmers points out. “Sometimes it needs words. Sometimes it’s got to be quiet so when a word comes it is like an explosion. Words have power.”
The paintings, including Mark E Smith, are a chance to reflect the variety of Marrs’s artistic talents. “Over Christmas, when we were taking a break, I felt like doing something a bit different that’s not comics,” Marrs explains. “It’s completely different doing something where I can just do shading. It’s more meditative.
“These are pastels,” she says, motioning to the pictures on the wall, where the singer of The Fall is close neighbours to two drawings of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.
“Mark E Smith is John’s hero. I actually did it for the anniversary of his death. And then Kahlo, yeah, she’s the Jesus Christ of painting. She’s a martyr.”
The exhibition is also an opportunity for the couple to take stock of all they’ve achieved since they first met in October 1994.
“It’s weird seeing all the work in one room,” says Marrs.
Said work was a perfect fit for the Park Gallery in Callendar House, exhibitions officer Gillian Smith explains.
“This is the Year of Stories. And looking at John and Sandra’s work I was blown away by the link between art and literacy and I thought it would work really well in the gallery. Beautiful imagery and the stories behind it.”
Welcome to Metaphrog’s world.
The Graphic Novel World of Metaphrog opens tomorrow at Callendar House, Falkirk, and runs until April 17. Visit Falkirkcommunitytrust for details