Artist Spotlight: Rita and France-Lise McGurn

Raised by her eccentric grandparents who had an antique shop with a live menagerie of pet monkeys, lovebirds, and ferrets, Rita McGurn was profoundly impacted by affordable domestic materials and flea market finds. Entirely self-taught, Rita attended Glasgow School of Art, as a model, not a student. She continued her process of self-education—in oil painting, etching and engraving, as well as sculpting with felt and wire—while she established herself as an interior designer. After designing spaces for executives of a large mining company when she lived in Zambia, Rita decided to forge a career in film and set design when she returned to Glasgow in the mid-1970s and became well known for her imaginative and eclectic taste.

Left: Crocheted heads by Rita McGurn. Right: Rita McGurn, Untitled, 1990-2010. Tia Collection, Santa Fe, NM. Courtesy of Margot Samel, New York. Photos by Lance Brewer.

Beyond making a name for herself as a set designer, Rita began creating one of her largest bodies of artwork—life-size soft sculpture figures—working in crochet and knitting. Her website distinctly noted, “These are not dolls.” These softly-sculpted people were an obsession. The most legendary of the series stands at 15 feet tall and is called Izal, after the toilet paper from which she was partly constructed. Her daughter France-Lise McGurn recalls, “I remember somehow she got her hands on some IZAL toilet paper (the shiny stuff—if you know, you know), a lot of it, and it became a 15-foot figure which now stands in my dad’s hallway. She would use anything that was lying around… There was a joke that if you stood still too long in our house, she would turn you into a sculpture.… We all lost some good jumpers to those crochet figures, as stuffing or just stitched right in.”

France-Lise at Tate Modern. © Matt Greenwood

France-Lise’s artistic career blossomed in a more traditional manner. She graduated with a BA in Fine Art from Duncan of Jordanstone College, Dundee in 2005, and was awarded a John Kinross Scholarship by the Royal Scottish Academy, which allowed her to develop her painting practice in Florence, Italy. In 2012, France-Lise received her Masters in Painting from the Royal College of Art, London and participated in an exchange at Hunter College of Art, New York. France-Lise’s work is underpinned by an intuitive approach to making. Recognized for her refined and lyrical painting, she populates her canvas with figures from her imagination, drawing on a collected archive of found imagery which express notions of sexuality, ecstasy, loss and consciousness.

France-Lise McGurn, The Blow Out, 2023, Oil and marker on linen. Tia Collection, Santa Fe, NM.

Like her mother’s impulsive approach to art-making, France-Lise’s paintings do not remain on a canvas; she frequently paints directly onto the wall and/or floor or furniture, as if creating a set. Her titles offer clever insight into her thought process—and her humor. The sides of her canvases are often filled with title ideas written in paint and crossed off. Music—particularly from her childhood and teenage years—is a major inspiration and so is her childhood home. Working intuitively rather than through direct appropriation, McGurn uses swift brushstrokes and repeated marks to create loose associations about place and history, inviting viewers to conjure their own narratives.

Rita McGurn, Untitled, 2000-2010. Tia Collection, Santa Fe, NM. Courtesy of Margot Samel, New York. Photo by Lance Brewer.

In 2023, France-Lise organized a tribute to her mother in which their work appeared together for the first time. The joint exhibition at Margot Samel Gallery in New York featured soft sculpture figures, rugs, and paintings by Rita, and a free-flowing floor to ceiling mural by France-Lise painted over three days, and interspersed with her paintings. Full of color and movement, the exhibition had a buzzing electric feel, like a house full of family. “My mum would not have liked a very clear, austere art gallery setting. She would have absolutely painted over the whole thing. We wanted it to be very playful,” France-Lise said. 

Matching Mother/Daughter Tattoos installation at Margot Samel, 2023. Courtesy of Margot Samel, New York. Photo by Lance Brewer.
IZAL and crochet pillows by Rita McGurn in McGurn home.

The show’s title, Matching Mother/Daughter Tattoos, is a nod to Rita’s dry wit. In the 2000s, a young France-Lise returned to Glasgow from a trip to New York with a tattoo of a black star—a twin to one her mother had inked in the back room of a bar in the 90s. France-Lise remembers Rita’s reaction: “She was busy cooking and turned to me with an eyebrow raised. In her kinda cutting sarcasm, she said ‘matching mother daughter tattoos? Charming.’ She was half smiling and DEEPLY unimpressed.”

Matching Mother/Daughter Tattoos installation at Margot Samel, 2023. Courtesy of Margot Samel, New York. Photo by Lance Brewer.

France-Lise lives and works in London and is the custodian of her mother’s estate. Her work has been featured in numerous museums, including a large site-specific exhibition at Tate Britain in London in 2019, as well as her paintings being collected by the Hill Art Foundation, New York, The Dallas Museum of Art, Tate London, and the Stiftung Kunsthaus-Sammlung Pasquart in Biel, Switzerland.

Bottom: France-Lise McGurn and Rita McGurn, Glasgow, 1980s. Top image: Portrait of Rita McGurn. Photo: Amy Gwatkin.