Sarah Gillespie

Work

Recent Solo Exhibition: 11 April – 18 May 2019

 Catalogue Available

Past Solo Exhibition: Sarah Gillespie  

2nd February – 4th March 2017: Catalogue Available

Bio

Sarah Gillespie

1981-82 Paris.  One year studying 16&17C methods and materials at the Atelier  Neo-Medici

1982 Paris.  5 Person Show,  Gallérie Jean-Pierre Lavignes

1982-85 Oxford University (Pembroke Coll.) Ruskin School of Drawing & Fine Art BFA

‘When I arrived back at my father’s house in the June, I think he – a first generation Irish immigrant – took one look at me and said, ‘well, if you’re going to be an artist, you’d better go to Paris’.

I remember being bundled into the car at 4.00 am one morning, with my portfolio in the back and setting off for Calais. Over the next two days I had interviews at I think 5 different small art schools in and around Paris.  I don’t remember much about any of them until we drove up the long laurel fringed drive in Verneuil Sur Seine to the Atelier Neo-Medici. Verneuil is in the banlieue, just outside the city itself, on the way to Giverny.

The house was one of those huge timber framed Norman piles and I could smell the linseed and turpentine from outside as I climbed out of the car. What happened next was falling in love. The Atelier ran, as its name suggests, along the lines of a renaissance workshop.  The ‘Master’ was Professor Patrick Betaudier.  A French Trinidadian by birth who was educated at Cambridge, he was charismatic, intellectual and brilliant. After doing his National Service in the RAF he then attended St Martins College of Art.

I spent most of the day being interviewed by Professor Betaudier. He looked carefully through all my work, I had to draw from the model for him, he showed me his work and as we walked round the huge and ramshackle house meeting the other students all working intently in their studios, he talked and talked and talked.  He said he believed, like Van Eyck, that paintings must strive to unite Heaven and Earth that the Atelier formed a bridge from painting’s distant past to its living present. His extensive research of the Masters of the Northern and Italian Renaissance was evident in his own extraordinary work. I knew immediately that I didn’t want to be anywhere else. I’d never seen painting like it.

I say students but in reality we were apprentices and this was an apprenticeship – old school.  We were expected to take our turn cooking, cleaning and shopping.  We painted up to 12 hours a day and attended History of art lectures in the Louvre once a week.  All evening, sometimes all night, Patrick would talk to us, about perspective, about chemistry, about lead white, about Botticelli, about race riots, about colonialism, about love…whatever was on his mind.  On many occasions we would still be listening at 5.00 in the morning and as the ‘lapin’ (youngest student) I would be sent out to the boulangerie to buy the bread before crawling into bed for a few hours. We were taught drawing, colour theory and mixing, and XVth and XVIth century oil painting technique.  Specifically Van Eyck’s ‘technique mixte’ which involves detailed drawing onto the canvas, followed by an imprimatura and heightening of the whites.  Then a monochrome (umbers) underpainting and then, and only then, applying colour by painting with a tempera emulsion into resin/oil glazes.  We mixed glazing mediums of dammar varnish and linseed oil and pure turpentine. We concocted emulsions, stretched canvases, ground pigments, and I absolutely loved it.  For the first time in my life I wanted to learn something and, although it was exhausting and unbelievably difficult and I was way out of my depth, (all the other students were post-grads,) I was very determined and very happy.

Patrick Betaudier was very exacting and tough but maybe because I was so young he kept me very close to him.  In an atelier setting, you are in and out of the ‘Master’s’ studio all the time – helping and carrying, or just watching and listening.  For almost all of the time I was there, he was painting a huge insanely detailed and elaborate canvas covered in swirling dancing figures, in the middle of which was a standing figure of Christ.  

As the months passed and I could see he was going to paint the face of the Christ figure, I tip-toed round the studio increasingly wide-eyed and spellbound.  Eventually one day after hours and hours of sitting watching – I remember Gregorian chants and the smell of dammar varnish and inscense – I asked him if he had to be in a special state of mind to paint the face of Christ.  He smiled, paused and replied, “Baby, you must paint every inch of the canvas as if you were painting your grandmother’s ear. It wasn’t until many years later that I think I fully understood the importance of that teaching and it has never left me.  It was a teaching in equanimity.  Pay attention to everything.  Ubicumque me verto ades – wherever I turn you are there.  There is divinity in everything if you will only look well enough. I spent a full 12 months at the Atelier.  It was an unbelievable education.  Afterwards I went to Oxford to the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art for three years. Patrick Betaudier died in 2008.’

Sarah Gillespie, 2014

Selected exhibitions:

2019

Beaux Arts London – solo exhibition

2018

London Art Fair – Beaux Arts

LAPADA art fair – Beaux Arts

Artist in Residence at Dartington Arts, Dartington Hall Trust

Discerning Eye – Mall Galleries London.  Invited artist

Plymouth College of Art – Intaglio print exhibition, curated by Jevon Holman

2017

Beaux Arts London – solo exhibition

Selector for DRAWN Biennial RWA

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition

2016

Elected RWA Academician

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition

Derwent Prize – shortlisted

Cartwright Hall (Bradford Museums) ANIMAL

2015

Beaux Arts London – solo exhibition

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition

Beaux Arts Bath – solo print exhibition

2014

Beaux Arts London MASTER DRAWINGS

London Art Fair – Beaux Arts

2013

Beaux Arts London TREE – 4 person show

Beaux Arts Bath Small Works – – solo exhibition

Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition

Coombe Gallery – Dartmouth – ANIMALIA

Kestle Barton – Cornwall. Artist in Residence

London Art Fair – Beaux Arts

2012

Beaux Arts Bath – solo exhibition

Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition – Invited artist.

Threadneedle Prize Exhibition – Mall Galleries, London

Royal West of England Academy – Prize winner.

The Original Print Show – Waterhouse & Dodd, London

London Art Fair – Beaux Arts

2007-11

Represented by Waterhouse & Dodd (Cork Street, London and Portland Gallery London – solo exhibition

International private & public collections.

2010

Raw Materials – (3 person) Coombe Gallery Dartmouth

The London Art Fair – Waterhouse & Dodd

‘Native Place’ – Waterhouse & Dodd London

3 person show with Peter Randall Page & Anna Gillespie

New Street gallery. – Plymouth. Summer Show

The London Art Fair – Waterhouse & Dodd

Palm Beach 3 Miami – Waterhouse & Dodd

Art Hamptons NY. USA – Waterhouse & Dodd

2008

‘Crossing Over’ – Beaux Arts Bath

Artspaces @ Roland Lewinsky Building – Plymouth.

The London Art Fair – Waterhouse & Dodd

2007

Waterhouse & Dodd London – solo exhibtion

The London Art fair – Waterhouse & Dodd

Artist in Residence, Sharpham Trust, Devon

2006

Concepts in Realism – Las Manos Gallery, Chicago

The Last Picture Show -New Street Gallery , Plymouth

Selected Group Show – Coombe Gallery, Dartmouth

The London Art Fair – Waterhouse & Dodd

2005

Waterhouse & Dodd London – solo exhibition

Art London – Waterhouse & Dodd

Palm Beach 3 Miami – Waterhouse & Dodd

2004

Waterhouse & Dodd London – selected group exhibition

New Street Gallery Plymouth – 2 person exhibition

2002

New Street Gallery, Plymouth – solo exhibition

Thompsons Gallery, London – The Sea show

2001

‘Elemental’ Coombe Farm Gallery Devon – group show.

Thompsons Gallery – Stow-on-the-Wold – autumn show

New Street Gallery, Plymouth – group show

2000

Ariel Centre Gallery, Devon – two person show

6 Chapel Row Gallery, Bath – ‘The Sea, the Sea’

1999

Ariel Centre Gallery, Devon – solo exhibition

Ireland. Represented by the Kent Gallery, Kinsale.

‘Contemporary Realists’ Gallery North, Toledo, USA

Royal West of England Academy – open

1998

Cheltenham Drawing Open

1997

Ombersley Gallery, Worcestershire – solo exhibition

Royal West of England Academy – Open

1993

Birth of Son

1992

Birth of Daughter

1991

Hong Kong. Re-design and gilding of the Giant Door Gods at Peninsula Hotel.

1990

Gallery Revel New York USA – Atelier Neo-Medici retrospective.

New York. Represented by Gallery Revel.

London. Restored Sir Gerald Moira’s Arthurian Cycle frieze at the Trocadero.

1989

Thursday Gallery Bath – solo exhibtion

1988

Bath. Weir Gallery. 3 person show

Bath. Thursday Gallery. 3 person showLondon. Represented by Art for Offices.

Invited member of Bath Society of Artists.

Restored the John Piper stained glass windows at All Saints Church, Bristol.Paris. 5 Person Show, Gallérie Jean-Pierre Lavignes.

 

Awards:

1983

Egerton Coghill Award for Landscape Painting.

1985

Elizabeth Greenshield International Award for figurative painting.

2014

Making a Mark – Best art blog 2014

 

Selected private and public collections:

Merryl Lynch Bank.

Rolls Royce.

Victoria Gallery, Bath.

Government Offices for the South West.

Rowcroft Hospice

Chatsworth House

 

Publications:

The Slapton Ley Project – Pub. White Lane Press

A View from the Boathouse Window – Poems by Brian Patten, drawings by Sarah Gillespie. Pub. Sharpham Trust

Essays
Essay by Author and Naturalist, Mark Cocker 2019
Sarah Gillespie: Notes by the Artist

For much of this past year an imperfect Mistle Thrush sang from first light to last, in the tall trees that border the field behind my home. Imperfect, in that he had only one leg. Sometimes, in the afternoons, he would leave the swaying branches at the tip of his favourite ash, to sing from the ridge of the house. Looking up through the studio roof lights, it was possible to see quite clearly his single pale yellow leg, the delicate pink inside of his mouth, the exquisite dappling of greys and cream on his breast and the sheer bodily effort of every note thrown, head back, into the valley. For months he sang all day, every day. He sang from four in the morning, through March winds and long June afternoons, until well after field and hedge smudged into the blue-dark of night. I wondered when he ate, let alone procreated. Sometimes, but only sometimes, in the stillness of the evening air, I would hear another thrush calling back, an equally elaborate passage, from some oak-top deep in the valley. Thrush-song accompanied my every working day, until late in July when he stopped singing, quite suddenly. This is completely normal. All birds go quiet around the time of their annual moult. Why announce your presence to the world when you are drab and short of feathers to fly with? And now the valley seems somehow empty without him. I have wondered, in these quieter autumn months, in the calm exile of work, if there is something of the song thrush in the painter or poet? Do you draw all day because you don’t know what else to do with life? Do you write to sing the world into existence? You work in all weathers, real, political and economic, and although you are intimate with every species of fear, you cannot know fear. You cannot stop. With all you have, you try first this phrase and then that. You return to themes again and again. You try the same sequence, starting in a different place. You insist. You persist. Each mark follows the one before, hard won. Each line, a staccato burst, in themselves and in the moment, entirely abstract – approaching music. Sarah Gillespie, November 2016

Sarah Gillespie: On Drawing, 2017

On Drawing:   I make paintings, drawings and engravings that aspire to a quality the Japanese call Hosomi.  Hosomi describes an emotional delicacy, a determination to slight not even the most trivial, to understand the beauty of just anything.  The practice requires an emptying of the self, a stepping aside, a degree of modesty in order to make of oneself something more like a mirror, or lens, the better to reflect the subtler depths of beauty to which we are so often blind.   Nicholas of Cusa put it another way with his prayer – Ubicumque que me verto ades. ( Wheresoever I look you are there.)   In recent years I have chosen to work almost exclusively in black and white.  No one can deny the quick win and emotional power of colour but I felt increasingly dazzled by it, overwhelmed even, especially in this 24/7 technicolour age.  By renouncing colour for a while I have found I can access a quieter level of looking, appreciating   detail and qualities of light and life that might perhaps otherwise missed.   A long-standing interest in Buddhist and Taoist thinking has led me to appreciate the profound beauty of drawing: Drawing, the ancient elegance of black mark on white paper, is a near perfect translation of the Chinese cosmology that has all life – the ten thousand things – continually burgeoning forth, becoming present and falling back into Wu-Wei, the emptiness, or absence from which all things come forth again.   There is in a drawing only mark and no-mark.  Presence and absence.  This ‘absence’ is no lack or void, rather the white of the paper is a pregnant emptiness.  Every mark appears as a presence emerging from that emptiness and every mark comes to an end, fading back into no-mark.  The paper is all potential, possibility – other.   In the unmarked areas of paper I find a respite from ‘myself’, my marks, my decisions, and therein precisely lies its beauty.  The absences allow the rest of life, the ten thousand things – and that, of course, includes anyone looking at the drawing – to presence itself in the work.   If you push me for symbolism; the dialogue between paper and mark, black and white echoes the conversation we must re-start with the more-than-human world.  Drawing is, as John Berger knew, a conversation.  Oil painting has come to feel, to me at least, more like a monologue.  There is just too much of the artist in an oil painting – the canvas smothered in his or her marks – a drawing, by contrast speaks of another, gentler, more generous, perhaps more curious way of experiencing the world.   A note on source:   All my work is drawn from the land, sea and animals immediately around my home in Devon.  I walk and draw and relish the constant revisiting.   If you pushed me for influences I would give three.  Holbein for his plainness and commitment to looking, Seurat for his beautiful drawings and Agnes Martin for her silence.   Sarah Gillespie January  2017

Richard Davey 2017

Sarah Gillespie

Sarah Gillespie’s pencil hovers above the empty white paper. Looking out over the Devon landscape, her forensic gaze takes in a scene she is intimately familiar with. Each twist and turn, rut and stile of the paths around Slapton Ley have been engraved into her muscle memory through repeated walking; each branch and leaf, sunburst and change in light and tide, captured and held in her mind’s eye through continued observation. She waits, pencil poised, for the ordinary to become extraordinary. Then with a few lightly traced lines she starts to draw, turning each moment of her intense observation into a physical mark.   For twenty years these quick sketches have helped Gillespie keep a visual record of this small corner of the South Hams, capturing its overlooked spaces and hidden inhabitants. But as she works them up into paintings and prints in her studio, these visual observations mingle with memory and reflection: winter trees become skeletal presences, pinpricks of light seem to dance like fireflies on mud and water, autumn leaves, shimmering in the breeze, become angelic messengers caught in a tangle of branches.   For many years Gillespie represented the physicality of this world and evoked the materiality of what she was walking across using tiny strokes of oil paint. These covered the picture surface and became a geology of her gaze. Look too hard and for too long into light, and you can be left blinded. Gillespie has been gazing at the incidental, overlooked aspects of the world for so long that she has found herself absorbed into the landscape and drowning in the light she so lovingly recreates.  She has become dazzled, seeing light and dark rather than colour and form. No longer drawn to the physicality of things, she senses the presence of the void; the solid world falling away like shingle into the sea.   This border between dark and light, nothingness and being, is one that Paul Nash explored in a series of 12 woodcuts to illustrate the Book of Genesis in 1924. Nash’s work begins with the unformed void, a square of intense black ink. Out of this deep darkness light emerges; a series of thin white lines introducing the forms and solidity of a world coming into being. In contrast, Gillespie’s loving evocation of the Devon landscape and its ecology always appeared to start with the solid world, the void obscured by light and material things.   But things have changed in recent years. Gillespie’s vision has been bedazzled forcing her to occupy the tidal zone between the solid and immaterial.  Even though the heavy 600gsm hot press watercolour paper she now uses provides a smooth and stable white clearing for her worlds to emerge into, her use of compressed charcoal, graphite and watercolour brings a more fluid and fugitive quality to the work.  The paper is no longer covered with matter, but areas are left empty as if the charcoal has just blown away, or hasn’t yet arrived.   Unlike oil paint, with its cloying, viscous qualities, these tiny, black and silvery grey deposits of compressed charcoal are more fragile and ephemeral. They lie lightly, an atomic cloud of carbon that whilst appearing to hover above the white paper also seems to pierce it, disrupting its solidity and creating visual cracks in its surface that lead us back into the void instead of out into the world. Gillespie has become fascinated by this crepuscular tidal zone between the material and immaterial, night and day, an unstable littoral zone where every step could plunge us over the edge. In drawings such as Deep Lane, Swan and Tidal Reaches we find ourselves in this mysterious world of shadows and half light, punctuated by moments of intense black and white, where things are glimpsed rather than seen, and edges are blurred rather than fixed. It is a shadowland, which demands a slower, more concentrated attention from the viewer.   Gillespie begins each drawing by mapping out the composition. This allows her to establish the contours between light and dark and, more importantly, to identify the areas of paper that need to be left white and bare. She starts the process with the hardest grade of charcoal pencils, kept constantly sharpened, weaving a dense yet pale forest of hatched lines. Then she turns to a more lyrical, probing mark, building up a cloud of dancing lines that gyrate across the paper surface, allowing her to create softer edges and more hesitant forms: from the dazzled, interconnected blur that allows the mottled wings of the Puss Moths to blend gently into the black night, to the gentle haze that dissolves the body of the Fallen Bee into the surrounding light.   As Gillespie moves through the different densities and softness of pencils, from a silvery ‘H’ to the velvety richness of a ‘3B’, whilst alternating between these two types of marks, layers of carbon accumulate on the paper in a translucent, almost painterly glaze, that traps light and builds depth. Applying only light pressure to the pencil as she holds it, Gillespie relies on the mechanical movement of her wrist and fingers to do the work. Consequently, as the pencil skims lightly across the smooth paper, she falls into a meditative trance in which the ego is lost. Focussing on nothing more than these black marks and their relationship to the white paper, she waits for forms to emerge, looking into the emptiness for signs of life, listening for the beating of moth wings in the darkness and watching for the white feathers of a swan to emerge from the night.   John Berger wrote that ‘To draw is to know by hand, to have the proof that Thomas demanded.’ When Thomas placed his fingers into Christ’s wounds, he was not only looking for proof of life, he was looking for the new life of resurrection, the combination of the material and immaterial that holds the divine and human in creative tension. Gillespie’s pencil, dancing in lyrical repetition across the paper is also probing, constantly alert and inquisitive, looking for the void beneath the solid, allowing the immaterial to slip into the material, and glimpses of the sublime to be found within the everyday.   Gillespie’s new drawings take us to the liminal boundaries of dawn and dusk, asking us to become crepuscular beings sensitive to the coming of light. She asks us to wander through a world that is no longer solid, but transformed into a tidal zone of flux and flow; where borders are blurred and indeterminate, swans dissolve into ripples of darkness, blackbirds become blackholes in the fabric of space, and dry land has not yet emerged from the sea.   Richard Davey, December 2016

Richard Davey 2015
Richard Davey
Sarah Gillespie It seems almost too obvious to describe Sarah Gillespie as a representational artist of rare talent. Trained in a traditional Parisian atelier she translates the slow, incredibly intimate way she learnt to look at the world into works that seem to pulsate with life. These drawings are not to be confused with the slick, technical products of ‘photo realism’, but rather the intensely detailed drawings of Hans Holbein and Albrecht Dürer, whose almost forensic depiction of the natural world produced works filled with awe and wonder. Focusing on just a few locations and subjects Gillespie draws us into a world where we find ourselves mesmerised by moments of everyday beauty and interconnectedness. She is fascinated by the play of light and dark that breaks down the boundaries between solid and liquid, or the way in which a flurry of tangled lines can knit together disparate forms. She is not concerned with the scenic view, but with those interruptions into our daily life that catch us unawares with moments of otherworldly annunciation: a bird’s nest, the play of light on water glimpsed through winter branches and reeds, the dappled interior of a wood. The charcoal and ink Gillespie uses to conjure up these intricate drawings perfectly capture the fleeting character of her subject matter, their essentially fugitive and fluid substance leaving a trace that seems to caress the paper rather than physically imposing itself on the surface. She can achieve the most dazzling darks imaginable with charcoal, but there is always the feeling that these areas of intense black are on the cusp of dissolving into light, or being blown away on a gust of wind. Gillespie allows us to see things in almost forensic detail, and yet as we look at these drawings and investigate the worlds they bring to light, we come to realise a startling truth – that Gillespie is in reality an abstract artist. Her works are not about making faithfully accurate copies of the physical world. They are about making visible the invisible and giving form to the intangible. They are about the purely visual relationships that occur between light and dark, they are concerned with the interplay of forms, the dazzling patterning of a surface. They may emerge from specific places, but only as a springboard to reach out to something more universal, into a place beyond language and beyond specifics. Her drawings call us into the universal, into that space of light and dark where colour, boundaries and the individual are not yet born. Reverend Richard Davey
Nicholas Mann 2014

Woods and Water

I need only look up to see that darkness is as deep and boundless as the Cosmos itself. David Hinton, Hunger Mountain Listen to the birds singing outside. But they are not outside. There is no border between them and us: no separation. Zen Master Hogen, The Other Shore

Consider the hair on a bee’s leg, or the tender fluff of the feathers of a moorhen’s belly, or a single ripple on the surface of a moonlit estuary. In this hasty electronic age we have almost lost the capacity to observe such minute and exquisite details of the everyday, the small miracles of natural life that surround us, eloquent in their silent testimony. Sarah Gillespie knows how to look, and to listen to these fleeting or fragmentary elements: in her recent work each is imbued with a vital energy of its own that brings the insect, or the bird, or the landscape out of stillness into life. Nothing escapes the intensity of her gaze as she guides the pen or charcoal that tracks the pulse of the living world, not simply transcribing but translating every quiver of it to a point where representation and abstraction fuse as the marks on the  paper build up a life and a raison d’être of their own. Somewhere between the hand and the image, the outer and the inner worlds coalesce in what it is sometimes hard to believe are drawings: a drawn contemplation of things that are so familiar and yet profoundly transformed by the creative process.

There are subjects that have become frozen in the moment of death, yet by being drawn generate a new energy, living again through charcoal and paper; there are subjects that are never still, but change from moment to moment: water that is always there yet never for a second the same, trees that have stood against the elements and that through the alchemical marriage of their burned element and ink come to mark an endlessly strengthening resistance to time. There is a sometimes dazzling light that comes from nothing, and is nothing but blank paper, and yet, in the manner of Zen paintings, is the nothingness that gives everything coherence and a meaning.

The calm contemplation of the Devon landscape, and the infinitely slow process of transcribing it to plate or paper, are part of an extended meditation in which all our expectations are reversed.  Paradoxically, the depths of velvet darkness and their ramifications become a force field vibrating with life; the still light brings emptiness, but a void that is the intense space of an inner vision that we are invited to share. At times the merest touch of moon- or sunlight brings warmth and colour flooding in; at others its very absence makes you feel the swift advance of storm clouds across the bay, just as in the making of the image, the clouds of charcoal advanced, but how much more slowly, across the paper. In the long, patient, mindful act of creation, all is stilled to the single point that makes the mark or leaves the white unmarked, the better to make visible the turbulent chiaroscuro of the forces of nature.

Many years ago, when she was still a student, Sarah Gillespie produced an image of a female form emerging from the darkness into the light.  You sensed the speed of the flight, but also the energy and anxiety of purpose: she knew where she wanted to go, even if she was not yet sure how she would get there. Nothing could be more different from the images in this exhibition.  The speed has gone, the purpose is fulfilled. There is now a quiet certainty of hand and vision, and a stilling of time that comes from the intense calm of her gaze and the mastery of her technique. If we are to enter her world it must be on her terms: a quick glance will not suffice. We need to look as intently as she has, to contemplate as patiently the woods and the water, to see beyond the networks of branches and the interweaving of currents, to the life-force that inhabits them and that inspires her work. Indifference is not possible: if we can open ourselves to this world and experience its energy to the full, we too can be transformed by it and look with a new eye at what surrounds us, and is within us.

Nicholas Mann Professor Emeritus of Renaissance Studies at the University of London October 2014

Exhibitions
Royal Academy Summer Exhibition

8 June – 16 August 2015

29 Jan - 28 Feb 2015
Tree

4 Sept – 5 Oct 2013

Articles
Christies, 2017
Manor Magazine, 2017

Manor Magazine Still Life: Sarah Gillespie

Late Winter 2017

  In separate conversations about art and landscape with two different friends, neither of whom knows the other, both encouraged me to seek out charcoal drawings by Sarah Gillespie. When I asked what it was that most appealed to them about her work, they paused amid the tumble of enthusiastic praise for her technical skill, her rigorous attention to detail, and tilted their heads to one side as if casting themselves into the image in their mind’s eye, and said, “The stillness.”   It’s an apt description, but not because Sarah’s work is in any way static; if anything, her drawings seem to buzz with unseen energy, as if they only pause their constant motion when your gaze alights upon them. Rather, the stillness speaks of her keen attention to the landscape and the life that teems within it; instead of capturing a view, it seems more appropriate to describe her as being engaged in a dialogue with it. Her pieces are as much about what she’s receiving as what is witnessed.   “That’s why I love drawing,” she says, as we sit in her sunny Blackawton studio, surrounded by work framed in preparation for her upcoming London exhibition. “You have this ancient thing – a piece of carbon – and a piece of white paper and there’s just mark or no mark. And in that simplicity, there’s space and time for other things to presence themselves to you, and you’re not totally absorbed with yourself and your own expression and your own choices.”   That sense of space in the drawings is perhaps one of the reasons that they are so immersive; you can imagine yourself into them. They are at once contemplative and delicate, and yet loaded with expectation.   “For years I’ve been interested in Buddhism, Chinese mountain poetry and Japanese aesthetics, and there’s a lot in those thought systems about not being afraid of emptiness and absence,” says Sarah. “In Chinese cosmology, rather than being a void, absence is generative, out of which all the ten thousand things – their concept of everything, sentient and non-sentient beings – emerge and continuously fall back. When you spend time in nature, you can’t avoid that: things burst forth and flower and rot and come back, and that’s going on continuously. And it occurred to me that it applies to drawing: those areas where there is an absence of marks are often far more present than the places I’m making marks, and it’s that paradox, the play between the two, that I find endlessly fascinating.”   This confidence to step out of her own way, if you will, has been hard won, not least because she has subjected her own artistic intentions and process to the same level of rigorous scrutiny that she harnesses for her work. Until seven years ago, Sarah was enjoying a successful career as an oil painter. At 17 she’d gone to Paris to study 16th and 17th century methods and materials at the Atelier Neo-Medici, followed by a degree in painting and printmaking (with history of art) at the University of Oxford’s Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. She won awards, was represented by London galleries, and her work was snapped up by Rolls-Royce, Merrill Lynch and Damien Hirst, among others. But a crisis was looming.   “Everything was going well, my work was in Cork Street, it was selling, but I was perennially unhappy,” says Sarah. “I’d finish a piece and couldn’t work out what the problem was. And in 2010, I just hit a wall and couldn’t physically finish a painting, couldn’t push myself through it.”   So, she stepped back from the large landscapes and focussed on a couple of small projects, one of which was a series of quick still life paintings, in the hoping of changing gear or shifting whatever was blocking her.   “And I was standing in a private view of the still life project, which included two or three drawings, and a woman came up and told me how much she liked them, and I heard myself say, ‘Oh, well, I love drawing, but I don’t allow myself to do it because I should be painting.’ And she looked at me, incredulous, and repeated my words back to me, and I thought, ‘Ok, that’s weird. What’s going on there?’”   Sarah listened to her heart and stripped everything back. What remained was the purest form of drawing, the creative activity that had given her most pleasure in childhood and which had sustained her during difficult times. And in the sense that a crisis can also be an opportunity – “I was completely stuck, so actually more open,” says Sarah – she accepted her friend, the artist Alice Leach’s, invitation to go printmaking, specialising in drypoint and mezzotint, techniques that stayed as close to drawing as possible. Immersion in both is what enabled her gradually to interrogate her process, the structures and hierarchies of her thinking.   “With a painting, you’ve got a canvas and you, the artist, covers every inch of it with your decisions, and you make multiple decisions about colour, tone, size of brush marks, type of mark, transparency, opacity, how representational that mark is or how symbolic or gestural… it’s you all over, entirely. And I’ve come to feel that there’s very little space in that process for what’s coming in from the outside. With drawing – and it’s taken me seven years to get it clear in my head – it’s much simpler; you’re not juggling these things that are all about you. And the more you open yourself up to it, the more rich it becomes, and there’s a big difference between that and the pinnacle of the European oil painting tradition, which is very much about the artist.”   And while she is in no way demonising her classical training – “it’s meant I’ve been competent enough to make a living while working out what I wanted to do, which is fantastic” – she’s only now fully understanding what to take from it. “It took me a long time to just loosen myself from that teaching and find my own voice.”   A peek into Sarah’s outdoor sketchbooks brings this home: a collection of short marks, no bigger than a thumbnail, conjure a deer with striking verisimilitude – it leaps from the page. “I’m definitely no longer interested in gesture and the drama of it,” she says. “I’m much more interested in seeing how still I can be and what comes and what happens, and slowly finding my way round it. That deer was playing; it just came out into this stubble field. Overhead, crows were doing barrel rolls, playing in the air. But you have to hang around to witness that.”   Study that deer, or a copse of trees, the powder on a moth’s wings, a swan just visible through the reeds, and your awareness awakens to the knowledge that we are all constructed from the same matter, just vibrating at different frequencies. Sarah’s deep understanding of that, her empathy for her environment, is what makes her such a good conduit. And while she uses photographs to capture tiny details, and for picking up tricks of light that can then be adapted, it’s putting carbon to paper that creates the weight. “Sketching is wonderful for absorption, as much as for the process itself – it internalises the image, adds depth to the drawing. I have a habit of picking up dead birds…” She points to the print of a blackbird. “I found that one in the road, it had just been hit and I didn’t want it to get squashed. I felt the way its head lolled, the one sticky blob of blood, its scratchy little feet… if you just looked at a photo you would know much less about it.”   It’s not surprising, given her precision, that the bookshelf in her studio is stocked mostly with poetry; Yeats, John Clare, and TS Eliot are favourites. “I often come into the studio in the morning and sit and read for ten minutes, as a way of getting into the right frame of mind.” Also there is a collection of essays by art critic John Berger, whose piece ‘Professional Secret’ articulates beautifully the notion of the two-way conversation between artist and subject: ‘To draw is not only to measure and put down, it is also to receive… [That dialogue] is a burrowing in the dark, a burrowing under the apparent. The great images occur when the two tunnels meet and join perfectly. Sometimes when the dialogue is swift, almost instantaneous, it is like something thrown and caught.’   Sarah’s studio is filled with evidence of that dialogue. She says she loves printing because it seems, somehow, more humble. “It sidesteps this slight obsession we have with the unique. The whole thing that’s happened with art as a commodity – the more rare something is, the more value it has – and printmaking goes around that.”   There’s humility, too, in sitting in the landscape, in nature, listening, being open to what’s being offered. Sarah’s work, her worldview, is an antidote to the current climate, in which dialogue is less about a two-way conversation and more about who can shout the loudest. It’s time to pay attention.   Solo exhibition, 2 February – 4 March at Beaux Arts London, Maddox Street W1S 1AY.

Press Releases
Menu