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Modern Master: Sarah Shaw

Creating art with heart and authenticity isn’t always easy, but Sarah Shaw has mastered her process. She talks to artrepublic about everything from morning studio rituals to painting through the darkness.  

Citing influences from Francis Bacon to Goya, artist Sarah Shaw paints scenes that feel simultaneously specific and incomplete. Like the work produced by the Old Masters, the longer you spend looking at one of Shaw’s paintings the more you see… and the more you appreciate her skill and ability with paint. We grabbed a few minutes of this Modern Master’s time to find out a little about what makes her tick.

AR: What Master (modern or historic, dead or alive, well-know or lesser-known) would you want to exhibit your work alongside, and why?

SS: I’m very flattered to be asked to be part of this show! It’s an honour so thank you. One of the highlights of my career so far was showing work in a room which also housed Victor Willing and Frank Auerbach paintings – this was part of the winner’s art show for the National Open at Pallant House in Chichester. I’m still pinching myself about that one.

There are far too many historic painters I could mention that I’d love to exhibit with, but top of the list would be Francis Bacon, Goya and Peter Doig; I find them phenomenal and ever-inspiring painters. In terms of living painters, my dream list would include two American painters Alex Kanevsky and Martin Campos, also Adrian Ghenie and Justin Mortimer. All of whom blow my tiny little mind. 

AR: That’s quite a list Sarah! What about beyond the art world? Who do you think is a master of their industry?

SS: No-one who knows me will be very surprised to hear this. It’s got to be Nick Cave and PJ Harvey. Uncompromising, original musicians and artists with the greatest conviction in themselves and their muse. Conviction is a huge thing. It’s a difficult thing to define but when you see it, hear it, sense it, you know it and trust it. That is, to me, what any kind of master of their industry has to have – conviction in their art. 

AR: When it comes to your own art, do you have any studio rituals that you practice?

SS: I’ve recently begun meditating every day to clear my mind and get focused on the work ahead. I do have a little ritual also – I have a little shelf by my window on which are my ancient candle holder, a ceramic heart a friend made me, the aorta of which acts as a handy incense holder and a piece of card which has a beautiful Seamus Heaney quote – ‘I rhyme to see myself: to set the darkness echoing’ – and a line from Robert Burns – ‘Now’s the day and now’s the hour’. I light my candle, light my heart and remind myself of the quotes, find some good music, then paint. 

AR: And what about if you're feeling uninspired? How do you regain your creative mojo?

SS: Good question! I think by its very nature creativity is cyclical. The ups and downs involved are very much part of any process which has any heart and authenticity. The documentation of this cyclical process can often lead to a better piece of work but, like everyone, I struggle with it sometimes. When I’m going through the darker side of the cycle I sometimes choose to work in an entirely different medium than my usual to try to fire off different synapses in the brain – coming back to painting circuitously through drawing, printing or writing. Sometimes it’s better to turn all the canvases faces to the wall, sometimes it’s better to truck on and put up a fight with them. Occasionally it’s better to just take a walk. But I think it’s important to keep showing up to work; you have to be in the process of making work for inspiration to strike. I think the key thing is not to worry about it too much – just keep showing up. 

AR: That’s solid advice, too. What is the best piece of advice you were ever given in relation to your work?

SS: Hmm, difficult question! I was always advised by my tutors to trust myself, my aesthetic, my process. To be brave and have conviction in my work. When having difficulties with any one painting I was advised to just start another – just keep making and making. I’ve stuck with that – the result of which is a hell of a lot of work on the go at once! 

AR: And finally, how would you finish this sentence: When I was little, I always wanted to...

SS: Quite honestly – when I was little, I always painted, and it’s all I ever wanted to do. 

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