“I’m often asked, ‘where is this light in your paintings coming from?’ and I always tell them ‘Malta. It’s coming from home.’” Ġoxwa may have lived abroad for most of her life, but the Valletta-bred painter has never forgotten her roots. Her artworks – vibrant compositions reflecting an almost elemental, mythical girlhood – are imbued with the tone and consistency of this spot in the Mediterranean. “I actually sometimes wonder why I was born there, for even though I don’t live on the island any more, it speaks to me when I’m alone,” she tells me during a Skype call which is brimming with warmth, anecdotes and personal memories.
Ġoxwa describes her relationship with Malta as akin to a “spiritual force”, and she has spent years asking questions to try and understand the unique idiosyncrasies of her ties to the land which had a central role in her formation. “Why did I come through these people? What does this mean? This is what I ask, and painting is like a friend who is trying to give you answers,” she smiles, going on to describe her technique as one of exploration into these emotions.
The shifting tones of light – particularly that of the Mediterranean – is what inspires her process, which is imbued with a physicality echoing the sculptural quality of Malta’s limestone walls, as well as influences from other cultures. “When I first started experimenting, I didn’t know if it was right or wrong, but it felt good. I was fascinated by Russian icons – and they were all made using wax. I didn’t want that fluid movement in the painting, I wanted to have something very static. I grew up in Valletta, so I have lived within those steady walls. I wanted the painting to have that steadiness, to move only when people are looking at it, so I create paintings as if I’m building a sculpture, in wax,” she explains.
This wax, which “can be very thick”, is mixed with carefully selected shades and laid onto the canvas using “everything I can get,” she asserts, specifying that she works with “a knife more than with brushes” as she builds her composition. Yet, this technique is in constant flux, evolving slowly, as she discovers new colours and new methods.
“I cannot say I woke up one day and that was it, nothing changed. I discover new things every day. It’s the colours, the medium and the tools which are in flux. It’s definitely a process,” she continues. This sense of exploration is particularly central to Ġoxwa’s use of colour, and she believes that artists “need to discover colour by sitting in nature and observing everything around them carefully.”
And it was this very sensibility – one characterised by adventure and curiosity – which led her to the artform in the first place. “When I was a child, I didn’t have the slightest idea I was going to be a painter and an artist, even though I loved to draw. I expected to become a wife and a mother, as was usual. But, one day, when I was four or five years’ old, I walked into a room in a monastery and saw a nun painting the Madonna. The smell of the actual paint had drawn me there, but I remember feeling shocked when I saw this woman and her work. The emotion was so powerful, I had to leave.”
Despite the force of the experience, Ġoxwa did not venture into painting immediately. Rather, “many things pulled her out of the island”, and she moved to London, fell in love, and later settled in Boston, while professionally venturing into the theatre world. “When I went to Boston, I checked out the art and theatre schools, but I thought theatre would be a good place to be since the medium allows you to find your voice. Since I was away from home, I felt the need for that.”
And even though she continued to draw – it was, she says, “her best friend” over the years – she committed to the stage, was granted scholarships for her studies and worked with the American Repertoire Theatre. But as time progressed, a voice started to whisper a different way of life. “For some reason, there were these thoughts – a silent language – which took over in quiet moments and which were having more control. This is an important voice for an artist. It’s a voice which speaks to you when you are alone, when you leave your country and your family. It’s almost a call to go back home, but you cannot, and this is where my painting started to have something to say,” Ġoxwa explains.
She had, in the meantime, moved to Virginia on an artist residence and scholarship called VCCA and this longing for home, which expressed itself in her innermost thoughts, changed everything. “The light in Virginia was very similar to that in Malta and I found a language in that. It started to remind me of my childhood. The place brought out all these memories – of being brought up within the walls of Valletta, of imagining the ghosts in that town – and it is at that point that I started to bring up my pictures,” she says.
A scholarship in Paris followed, and her work was welcomed with enthusiasm and accolade, leading onto private commissions and even work for the Grand Palais, where her painting Behind the Door – a duck-egg and yellow composition of a young girl in front of a weathered wooden aperture – was displayed in one of the 140 galleries which make up the artworld behemoth.
And this piece, she says, shows many of the characteristics of her work. “I’m very fascinated by old walls, old doors – and I really hope they don’t disappear in Malta! You can see something of the past through these spaces, and there’s something very poetic about them,” she explains.
Today, she still lives in Paris where she works as a full-time artist. She also exhibits all around the world, from New York at the Hugo Fine Arts Galerie to China, and, of course, Paris at the Galerie Felli. “I now have art dealers working for me; I accept individual commissions but most of my work has recently been for exhibitions,” she explains.
A worldly approach can be seen in her paintings, cognisant of the events which form public opinion and those which have elicited strong emotional responses. Millie’s World, for example, echoes the tragic photographs of the young Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, whose body washed up on Greece’s shore.
“I wanted to say that children should be dreaming, not dying. That is also why I used similar colours to the images broadcast of the tragic Syrian boy to show this parallel. Both are laying down on a beach by the Mediterranean Sea, but Millie’s lips are slightly open to show she is breathing and dreaming, and she is dressed like a princess, while the boy’s clothes were lifeless.” The effect is, indeed, surreal in many respects, navigating the fine line between fact and imagination.
And this overlap between the real with the imaginary fills the canvas of all her paintings depicting girlhood, allowing her “to see something of my own past”. Her work After the Dance, Sophia’s Choice and Sleeping Girl, where Ġoxwa’s images play with the innocence and humanity of growing up, epitomise this approach. “These are the images which come out and, I guess, they give a home to a humanity I can identify with,” she says.
But if Ġoxwa’s past is firmly tied to this rock in the Mediterranean, what does her future hold? “I just finished a big show for a gallery in New York and I am also working for one in Palm Beach, Miami. I always create new work for these exhibitions, so they take quite a bit of time to prepare for,” she says. Throughout, however, her motivation remains to “give people some kind of visual hope”, the hope of an exciting future, looked at from the perspective of childlike innocence.
This interview originally appeared in The Commercial Courier