WHILE we still reflect on the ending of Europe’s worst conflict, the country’s biggest public art festival, Oxfordshire Artweeks, is continuing to commemorate VE Day in reflective style.

The festival, which usually sees thousands of art lovers descending on studios and exhibition spaces, has now begun, with all work safely exhibited online.

In contrast to much of the bright, glossy and glitzy work on show elsewhere, the deeply thought-provoking work by artists in response to the poignant anniversary resonates with challenges and experiences – says organiser Esther Lafferty

Artist Lis Mann, from Aynho, north Oxfordshire, escaped Vienna in February 1939 after the German annexation of Austria – or ‘Anschluss’ – and came to England.

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“The first 11 years were the hardest as the only accommodation available to us as refugees was a slum dwelling in Nottingham, while my father was sent overseas with the British Army,” she says.

“For a child bought up with middle class values, the realities of slum life were hard. At first being unable to speak English at school I was a solitary contemplative child.”

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The experience continues to influence on her art, some of which is dark and sad. Inspired by the German artist Anselm Kiefer whose art confronts haunting stories of Nazi Germany, and British war painters Paul Nash and John Piper, she has told her story visually, in painting, collage and in stitched textiles and other media.

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Lis’s art is inspired by the natural world in times of peace as well as conflict, and each piece is textured, tactile, and imbued with meaning to encourage deep contemplation.

It is the experiences of her parents that influences the style of Eleanor Clutton-Brock from North Leigh, near Witney.

Her papier-maché sculptures are inspired by satire and humour which Eleanor sees as an essential way of looking at the darker sides of life, whether that’s history, current affairs or politics.

“As a child I loved Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales,” she says. “My parents read them to me when I was small and taught me to look and then look again at life to find the humour or irony in any situation because life can be pretty tough without that ability.

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“My parents very much influenced by their experiences in the Second World War: my mum was working with War Office statistics and her wry view of things was her coping strategy. I inherited their way of looking at the world and it inspires the caricatured and anthropomorphic figures I use in my art.”

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For Oxford textile artist Jane O’Brien, the discovery of letters written by her grandmother during the Second World War, gave her the inspiration to create artwork that tells their story. She highlights the fear and destruction described in the letters through stitch, textures and colours.

These letters only came into Jane’s possession by chance. Her grandmother sent the letters to her sister in Essex hoping that when the war ended, whether or not she survived, there would be a record of what happened both day and night.

The letters were passed through a series of relatives over time, and eventually reached Jane, who was shocked at the descriptions they contained.

Jane’s work tells historical stories, and the discovery of these letters highlighted the value of this form of communication and its survival.

“The fighting seemed to come specially to us. We had three or four warnings. Bombs were dropping all around us thick and fast and one whistling bomb made us hold our breath. We thought it was coming into our shelter; it gave us the fright of our lives.”

Colour is important in Jane’s work, so these war stories are set on khaki coloured textiles and stencilled with broken patterns which would have been seen in many of the bombed houses.

Her pieces are light with shadow in dark frames: the letters are printed on buff coloured silk so neat lines of text emerge from a small neat envelope. The envelopes are inked in black depicting the heart stopping news that they contain, and each is held in place by red stitched lines symbolising the planes above the air raid shelter.

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“Today there are many people trapped in wars such as Syria and Yemen trying to communicate with loved ones more than likely by email if they have power,” says Jane.

“Will the emails survive for decades like these letters to tell the story of their dark days when they are long past?”

It was the story of 1930s Vogue-model-then-war-photographer Lady Penrose or Elizabeth ‘Lee’ Miller, which captivated Wheatley mosaicist Becky Paton.

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Lee Miller was a fine art photographer who became Vogue magazine’s war correspondent filing photo-stories on the London Blitz, German concentration camps and the liberation of Paris. One of a series of warrior women, where ‘warrior’ describes someone with great spirit, strength, and fortitude, Becky’s portrait of Lee in rich orange-reds, is a delicious fusion of bohemian and high style and Lee’s face is surrounded by the swirly handwritten tenet ‘All You Need is Love’.

“It’s a wonderful mantra, a reminder of the importance of friends and family,” she smiles.

*This year’s Oxfordshire Artweeks runs until May 25. Visit artweeks.org to explore thousands of pictures in artists’ galleries, showing some of the latest pieces created by painters, potters, silversmiths, textile and glass artists, sculptors and furniture-makers along with video and virtual tours.

Visitors can enjoy footage of artists at work, explore ‘walk-through’ exhibitions on-line and delve deeper with through-the keyhole-interviews with a number of artists in different media.

Follow #oxfordshireartweeks on Instagram to enjoy the creative talent of these hundreds of other artists and designers who celebrate the local countryside in their art.