The murder that inspired a teacher to become an artist

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A decade ago, Margo McDaid quit her job as a primary school teacher after one of her pupils was murdered.

The shocking event made her reassess her life and she decided it was time to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming an artist.

After moving from inner city London to the Kent coast, she made a pledge to herself to create at least one painting every single day.

A decade on, she has kept that promise and, using the name Margo in Margate, has sold more than 16,000 of her joyful, bold, colour-packed pictures – almost all of which are celebrations of women.

“Somebody said my work is unapologetically female and that’s something I’m really proud of,” she explains.

Margo counts Drew Barrymore as a celebrity fan; one of her pictures is seen each week behind the models Munroe Brugoff and Leomie Anderson on Celebrity Gogglebox; and her work even adorns the players’ lounge at Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club.

Until last year, the most she had sold a picture for was £250. That’s about to change. This week, Margo opens a solo show at Helm Gallery in Brighton.

Speaking in her Ramsgate studio with a brush in hand (she seemingly cannot stop painting) Margo explained how the trauma she experienced as a teacher in 2006 changed her life forever.

“There was a little girl in my class, I was one of the people who put her on the ‘at risk’ register. And sadly, she was murdered, with her mum, by her mum’s boyfriend [on] the day he got out of prison. That really changed my life.

“At the time, after it happened, I remember thinking, ‘Actually I’m coping with this really, really well’. Then, three months later, I looked like I’d had a stroke. My eye dropped and my arm went numb.

“I realised then that you have to have a reason for living – something that is going to make you want to get out of bed every morning – because I’d lost that.

“I couldn’t get out of bed. I really was utterly broken by what had happened.”

A picture every day

Art played a huge part in her recovery. Back in the 1990s, she had moved from County Tyrone in Northern Ireland to study metalwork at Camberwell Art College. After the tragedy, she decided it was time to return to her original passion.

“I realised that life was going by really, really quickly. I was 44 and I thought I need to get back to the things I love. The things that make me tick.”

She started to draw small pictures at a desk in her bedroom every night. In 2013, she committed to her one-painting-a-day odyssey.

“It was never one drawing,” she clarifies. “It was like 10 or 20 and it just ignited this passion that I couldn’t switch off.

“It became addictive and compulsive and normal. I just draw every single day.’

The impact on her life has been huge.

In 2016, she opened her first pop-up shop in Margate, using the name Margo in Margate because: “It’s great to have the freedom to be a different person. I’m Margo McDaid. I work as Margo in Margate and then anything is possible. I have so much freedom as an artist to do and be creative.”

The following year marked a real turning point, when the Turner Contemporary art gallery in Margate started to sell her work in their shop. That institution is credited, along with the presence and work of Tracy Emin, as being crucial to the start of the regeneration of the town.

Now many of the local independent stores hang and sell her work on their walls.

Katie Barber of Albion stores, a fashion boutique, places Margo’s canvases between their coats and collections. “Lots of people come to visit Margate and have heard about Margo and will come to the shop to seek out the paintings,” she explains.

“People that have a really nice sense of style and are looking to make their homes beautiful. We get those people coming in.”

Round the corner in the beach-side gift shop Harbour & Tide, the owner Kattie Lassen, is a huge fan of Margo’s work and hangs a number of her swimming themed paintings around the store, even in the dressing room.

“We love her in here,” she says. “The inspiration behind the store was cold water swimming and sea swimming and also colourful, joyful products. So basically, Margo’s paintings fit right in.”

Across town, mega Margo fan Kara-Louise Ziebart shows us round her house, which has a Margo in Margate painting in every single room, bar one.

Her love for Margo’s art coincided with finding out that her mum had cancer. Kara explains that, after her mum died, “having Margo’s work in the house every day gave me confidence and strength to carry on. It really helped me to cope with my grief.

“There’s hope confidence and strength, not only in the colours, but also in the messages that are written on them,” she says, indicating a painting with the phrase Brave the Stormy Seas emblazoned on it.

That one, she says, was a particular source of comfort.

Margo in Margate in Brighton

A two-hour drive along the south coast, in Brighton, Margo is applying the finishing touches to her new solo exhibition, which features 126 pictures of women.

The 54-year-old, who is the mother of two boys, stands in the middle of the gallery and becomes emotional while surveying her work.

“To see everything together in one room, it’s mind-blowing,” she says.

“It comes from a place of genuine love and self-belief. I am really, really, genuinely proud of myself for working really hard, not giving up and believing in myself.”

And with that, Margo in Margate whips out a brush from a portable painting kit that she carries, and starts to paint a line of women on the white corridor wall: “I can’t stop doing it, I love it so much,” she laughs. “So, I’m just going to to keep doing it.”

Margo in Margate: Thinking of You, is on at Helm Gallery, Brighton until 18 February 2024