Contemporary painter Sarah Shaw graduated from Falmouth College of Art in 2001 with a first class honours degree in Fine Art. Based in Brighton, she creates incredible paintings which explore some of the conditions of being human and the concept of living through time. New to artrepublic, Sarah kindly took some time away from her brushes and canvases to answer our curious questions..
What’s the idea behind your Monolith series?
I’ve always been fascinated with those flowers that people leave strapped to lamp-posts in memory of the people who have met their end there. They have always seemed so charged and poignant; morbidly beautiful and strangely evocative of so many things: all the hopes, fears, loves, disappointments, losses that we have all experienced in life at some time, whether it be the actual loss of a loved one or the loss of something else, like love, youth or dreams.
I remember even as a child being fascinated by them appearing on the roads I walked to school. Death, that thing that seemed so very far away, brought abruptly into the present. I noted their eventual decay and their regeneration when the flowers were sometimes replaced, the old blooms still visible behind the new. I wanted to make a series of paintings which evoked something of the feelings that they evoked in me then and still evoke in me now.
Where did you grow up? Were you a creative child?
I grew up in the North surrounded by the beauty of the Yorkshire landscape. You could see for miles around where I lived. There was a hill I used to go up often from which you had almost a panoramic view of the world, interrupted only by the grim and loud M62 to one side. That landscape, both in the day where I would sit up there sketching for hours and when the twinkling lights appeared stretching into the distance at night, have often featured in my work. I think the M62 has appeared too!
What made you become an artist?
I don’t think I ever made a career decision to be an artist. It’s just something that I have always loved and have always done. I can’t imagine life without making work. It’s a huge part of the way I think, see and make sense of being alive and in this world.
How did you get started?
I’ve always made work. When I lived in Wales I had a studio in my attic, when I lived in Yorkshire I had a freezing studio in my cellar. When I was a teenager I also had a spidery studio in my cellar. These were all beset with difficulties, I fell backwards out of my attic studio and broke my arm, I painted my studio cellar with whitening lime and burnt my arms too! (very daft in retrospect). My point is, I don’t think there was a point where I started; making paintings has always been in my life.
Where and what is your studio?
My studio is an amazing place with an amazing heritage. It is the old studio of Dan Baldwin, Simon Dixon, Chris Kettle amongst others and feels like it has a real sense of history. It wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste, it’s an old wooden shack that used to be a fire station (it still has the hole for the firemens pole, though unfortunately not the pole itself!). It is ramshackle, wonky, walking around feels like being on a boat as the floor is so uneven, I sometimes get rained on INSIDE the studio, but I just stick on a hat and get on with it. I love it.
How do you approach the actual making of your work?
I have loads of ideas spinning around all the time. I collect images that mean something to me, on the internet, in magazines, personal photos, newspapers etc and kind of collate them in my studio, scribbling on them what it is that has evoked my interest. My studio is strewn with these images and words scribbled on the walls, bits of a poem, something someone has said, an eclectic mix of stuff from the world which may or may not make it into a painting, but is a way of identifying my artistic languages.
My tutor used to say that I had too many ideas, and that I should spread them out over a few canvases rather than trying to make everything come together in one painting. Great advice. I am currently working on 12 paintings at the same time… I’m trying to keep things minimal in each painting as I think that’s where my work is the most successful. I create almost like a collage, usually in photoshop, trying out different elements together, printing images out, working from them. Photoshop becomes irrelevant in the end, but it is a way of generating information to paint from.
My paintings tend to change massively through this process... ideas are tried out, rejected, altered, dismissed, lovingly painted and then cleared out with a massive swipe of the brush! The paintings are the most successful when they retain a sense of the dialogue that has occurred between me and the painting.
What would you say are the main themes you pursue?
Just being a human being living through time and all that implies. Nothing too lofty!
Which of your works are you most proud of?
I know it’s not very fashionable to say it but I’m proud of all my work. I know the blood, sweat and tears that have gone into every piece of work that I have considered complete. They are my sad eyed children, and I always feel a tinge of sadness when they go out into the world on their own journeys.
Do you care whether people like your work?
I go through phases to be honest. I have periods when I care far too much, periods where I couldn’t care less if people like it or not. I’m in a semi non-caring phase at the moment where there are a few key people whose opinions I trust. If they like/get it, and no one else in the world but me and them like it then that’s ok. ‘Like’ is a weird word anyway. I’d rather people loved or hated it, at least there is some passion there.
What’s the biggest myth about artists?
Ha! That we are all up in garrets being all tortured and emotional. There are times of pure anguish and pure joy and I am in a kind of garret, but its all part of the amazingness of the making of work. I play music loudly, dance whilst I paint and in general, have an absolute ball!
What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?
Trust yourself. And keep a well stacked fruit bowl.
Which artists do you most admire?
I admire all my tribe. It takes guts to be an artist; to live an emotional life which is visible and open to the criticism of strangers. In terms of painters I admire, the list is endless.
If you weren’t an artist what would you be doing?
I don’t see myself as an artist, I see myself as a painter and I’d still be painting.
Describe an average day in the life of Sarah Shaw...
Well, home stuff, get my daughter ready for school, feed the cat etc. Two cups of coffee and a bit of a chat with the studio manager, stick on some music, and paint. After couple of hours destroy painting, turn canvas around and then paint some more. Put on some more music, paint some more, start to like bits of a painting so leave it the hell alone and put it out of sight at far end of studio. Work on a different canvas, repeat all of above to infinity. Eat at some point, read a bit, walk home late at night usually looking like a chimney sweep attracting stares from glamorous pub goers. Sleep. Repeat next day.