THE current Catherine McWilliams exhibition at the FE McWilliam Gallery Banbridge "confirms her place in the canon of Irish art," says Dr Riann Coulter in the foreword to the accompanying  book.

The paintings and drawings cover a period of six decades of her practice –  1961-2021 – living and working in the shadow of Cave Hill. The exhibition includes drawings of schoolgirls from her time as an art teacher at St Gemma's, the haircuts and schoolgirl looks putting it firmly in its era. But the other-worldly alchemy of the painter is very pronounced in a series of paintings, a way of women elevating themselves out of the Troubles and gloom around them in the 80s urban landscape. 

One image, 'Belfast Girl', depicts a corrugated metal fence with a glowing naked woman walking alongside it. In another, 'Irish Landscape 11', a woman is standing between two soldiers against a backdrop of security fences and nature trying to burst forth. The woman is almost an apparition, like a mythical figure existing on a higher vibrational level but manifesting itself in Belfast. Catherine talks about women just wanting to get on with their lives, go to the shops and keep their families together, all against a backdrop of grey streets and skies.

Art conflict paintings and narratives can often be about what the men are doing and the women get left out, but Catherine includes the children, playgrounds, teenagers, motherhood, dinner ladies and life that goes on around whatever is happening. You never get a sense of the women being victims in any of her paintings.

The painting 'Girls on Motorbikes' came from a scene she came across on the way home and shows the young woman with a lot of power and energy in the dark Belfast night. Her work is hopeful and in her paintings of Black Mountain and Cave Hill, be it with a digger or driving in the mist, you know that this person knows the landscape intimately along with the people and the weather patterns. The odd glow that redbrick houses can have when captured by sunlight at certain times of the year, or the lush garden hedge, or spring cherry blossom, are all captured. 

In a couple of paintings of graffiti, painted on the side of a wall or at the end of a playground, you feel as if you have seen these images around the city: the square blocks painted over the hastily scrawled political graffiti. It reminds me of how we almost visually edit this out of our view, while the beauty of creating it in a painting elevates it to demand our attention. The titles point to further revelation: 'Sunday Tied-Up Swings', says one; 'Grey Street' another.

There is a real sense of you seeing through the eyes of her life, be it watching a sleeping child or a mouldy orange. Her husband, Joe McWilliams, was also an artist who taught and for some time they had a gallery in their house that acted as a hub for the artistic community of North Belfast.

The exhibition also has a series of beautifully executed male nudes. Dr Louise Wallace, in her insightful essay, retells in the accompanying book that the male nudes became controversial when exhibited in the Royal Ulster Academy and in an exhibition at the Peacock Gallery in Craigavon – but no-one objected to the female nudes. 

Thank you to the FE McWilliams Gallery for holding this significant exhibition of a contemporary woman artist, initiated by the aforementioned Dr Wallace, lecturer in painting at Belfast School Art, who co-curated the exhibition alongside Dr Riann Coulter. The exhibition notes also thank  Simon McWilliams, who is depicted as a boy with birds in the exhibition, for the knowledge of his mother's work, and Catherine McWilliams for allowing us a glimpse into her world. It certainly gave me and many others  a more rounded view of her lifetime's work and I feel richer because of it.

It's worth the trip down the motorway to see the exhibition, a highlight of the year so far. If you have never been there it's well signed and the café/restaurant is worth a visit. If you want to extend your trip, the Boulevard outlet shopping centre is close by, which includes the Game of Thrones studio tour.

•Catherine McWilliams Selected Works 1961-2021 continues at the FE McWilliams Gallery and Studio, 200 Newry Road, Banbridge, until June 3. Open Monday to Saturday 10pm to 5pm.