Artist of the Week: Sarah Shaw

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This week Brighton Journal spoke to Brighton-based fine artist, Sarah Shaw. Sarah leans towards a cool palette in her work, which she contrasts with intense heat from other colours in order to create moments of unrest. She is consistently inspired by “everything and everyone”, and explores themes such as time, psychology, mystery and ambiguity. We discussed how politics and technology have informed her current projects, as well as her love of oil paints and Vincent van Gogh. Take a look at her colourful and dynamic work.


What are you doing today?

Nice timing to ask me that question! Usually I’m heading to the studio about now for another day trying to excavate paintings, but today I am driving to central London with a boot full of paintings to exhibit in a really interesting group show I’m proud to have been asked to be in – private view is tomorrow evening – there’s some great work there and it’s beautifully curated: should be a good turn out!


Describe where you do most of your creative work.

My studio. It’s a big ‘ol ramshackle garret of a hut. It has an a very interesting heritage being the old studio of artists such as Dan Baldwin, Chris Kettle and Simon Dixon to name a few. It’s an old fire station, interestingly made of wood which tells you how old it is, and still has the hole for the fireman’s pole, though unfortunately not the pole itself! The floor is wonky, it feels like walking around on an old boat when you’re in there, but the light is beautiful, and the ceilings are high. I sometimes get rained on INSIDE the studio, but I just stick on a hat and get on with it. It’s never that bad, just a smattering of rain gets through in one place which I avoid! It would not be to everyone’s taste, but it is to mine. It suits me, I can play music loudly and make a mess – I love it!


What’s the most exciting thing you’ve worked on?

Ooh! Well – I don’t know about ‘worked on’ as the paintings already existed, but the most exciting time in my career so far was when a music manager emailed me out of the blue and asked me if I’d be interested in a small proposal with a band he manages. I had no idea who the band were, he couldn’t tell me and I couldn’t do any detective work as I was at a music festival with very little internet access…exciting but frustrating. Obviously, I said pretty much ‘yes, tell me more’.

Weeks later I was walking through Tate Modern when I got a phone call from the manager telling me the band was 4AD signed ‘Daughter’ who were apparently fans of my work and could they use my paintings for their new album artwork…this was the beginning of quite a trip culminating in my painting being blown up to a massive scale and used as the stage backdrop on their world tour. The most surreal moment was when I was watching the band play at Glastonbury and my painting was their backdrop – the other time was seeing it in all the major music magazines and on big billboards in London tube station – and in HMV! It was crazy. I was constantly pinching myself. I’m looking at the vinyl record right now – still pinching myself!


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What made you decide to become an artist?

I don’t think you ‘decide’ to become an artist. Painting has always been my way of making sense of being in this world. I did decide to go to art school and further my fascination with what I have always done since I was knee high to a grasshopper. I have been very lucky in that since graduating and making a working space I have managed to keep creating opportunities for myself and selling the paintings I make.


What are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on a series of paintings inspired by an etching I saw by the British socialist William Balfour-Kerr. The etching is called ‘From the depths’ and is an image of a poor or working class crushed strata of society dynamically punching through the marble floors of the elite who are dancing and drinking champagne above them. My painting has, maybe unsurprisingly, become much more political of late and reflects more and more the injustices of society. I don’t often go to a canvas with something particular in mind ‘to paint about’ but sometimes a pertinent image can provoke a painterly response and I go with it and see where it leads me.

I’m also working on a series of paintings which I describe as ‘timelines’.  Being a painter in an electronic age means you are automatically involved with ways of looking and seeing in which technology plays a vital part. The screen is ever present. I have recently been making work which incorporates computer glitches and the buffering that occurs when you are wanting to watch something but instead have to be in the moment you are in instead. I think painters are living through an interesting time, a challenging one in which exciting work is being made despite the fascination with ever advancing technology. I’ve found an incredible sense of joy, elation, frustration, anger, serenity, any emotion you could name through my relationship with paint and its interesting to marry this with the imagery which we see as we scroll daily through our various media and attempt to bring this into a painterly dialogue.


What are the key themes in your work?

Time, life, death, psychology, love, painting, sex, somethingness’s, mystery, peripheries, stillness, ambiguities, the in-betweens. Y’know. Nothing too lofty!


What would you like people to notice about your work?

Interesting question! Apparently, the average person spends just a few seconds looking at a painting in a gallery. I would at least like a viewer to spend some time with a piece of work – or come back to re-experience at a different time.

One of my intentions in painting which I hope that a person would notice is that I leave space for the viewer to bring themselves into the spaces I’ve created. I like leaving things a little unsaid, a little ambiguous, to allow for a breath of life but also to create this space. Painting is something that, even for the maker, can be reflected on and retrospectively can transcend the most mundane of intentions. I try and leave my ego at the door of the studio. There is a consciousness at play, but it seems to be less of an unconscious/subconscious than an accelerated consciousness where aesthetic decisions are being made speedily and without censure. At its best it seems like it is almost a form of meditation. At its worst it is a constant torment.

I tend to go through different phases with painting, though at the base of all my paintings whether they are paintings of spaces, places or figures is the wish to make images that reflect something of the fractured sense of being a human, with all our passions, our fears, our loves, our ever-changing thoughts and emotions.


What attracts you to the medium you work in?

There is something about oozy, pungent, beautiful oils and the way they move which gets me every time. I will continue to use paint until I’m no longer surprised by it, but I don’t think that will ever happen. I’m constantly surprised by my peers’ use of oil paint, and continuously inspired to keep on pushing to create these illusions on a two-dimensional space. I don’t feel I’ve even scratched the surface yet.

I’ve found an incredible sense of joy, elation, frustration, anger, serenity, any emotion you could name through my relationship with paint. The dialogue between us is ever growing like the most profound relationship I could ever have. Maybe that’s old fashioned but I’m okay with that.


What equipment could you not do without?

That’s a difficult question! I don’t know really – I’m not particularly attached to anything specific.  Obviously, I have favourite brushes and surfaces to paint on, but you can work with anything really – if you have a surface – a medium and something to make a mark with that’s all you really need. A space to work in is the essential thing. Having said that, I do have a favourite crappy old paint spreader that I am fond of.


Who or what inspires you?

Everything.  Everyone.


How is your work affected by living in this area?

I think the main thing for me is being by the sea. I love the light that is reflected back even when it’s a dull day. I don’t enjoy the feeling of being landlocked. I studied my art degree in beautiful Falmouth so was completely spoiled by having the luxury of a free education in a fantastic art college with incredible lecturers and in the most stunningly beautiful place.

I can be worrying about something – something that’s happening in the studio or otherwise and take a run by the sea which always offers perspective on my minuscule problems in the face of its eternal enormity!

Brighton is a very cool place to live and exhibit too – its people are unerringly generous of spirit and love. I’m proud to live and work here in such an inclusive and creative town.


What’s your favourite thing to do locally?

Running! I run pretty much every other day down the beautiful seafront and around our wonderful parks. It’s a great way to clear out my painting head, especially when a piece of work is being troublesome and uncommunicative, and to just be by the sea. I love running by the sea, particularly at night and when all the stars are out. Beautiful and ever inspiring.


What’s your favourite gallery (or place to see/experience art)?

There are too many to mention! There are some great galleries in London – y’know – all the usual’s – Tate, Serpentine, Pace etc, but I love the Towner gallery in Hastings. I was thrilled to exhibit there a few years ago – such a great space. I’ve also been honoured to exhibit at the fantastic Mall Galleries on numerous occasions. I would dearly love to have an exhibition back in my hometown of Huddersfield at the Huddersfield Art Gallery, a beautiful high ceilinged and light space where I’ve enjoyed some amazing exhibitions over the years. I’m about to exhibit in a fantastic gallery in my birth town of Halifax (up North) – an old converted mill called Dean Clough which has a wonderful exhibition space. Very excited about that!


If you could collaborate with one artist, from any time, who would it be and why?

Blimey. I’ve never collaborated with an artist. I don’t quite know how it would work, but like that Dr Who episode from a few years ago which brought tears to my eyes (it finished with a time travelling Van Gogh being brought by the Doctor to a major retrospective of his work in the future) – I’d go back and work with Vincent – if only to assure him that in the future he would be regarded as one of the most loved painters of all time. Even if he would never believe me. We could sit in the corn fields and paint black crows together.


What’s your favourite colour?

Green. I find it a very difficult colour to paint with though, so I rarely use it other than in small areas but it’s still my favourite – a beautiful deep forest green. I don’t paint with it but I’m wearing it right now and as I sit at my window now, I can see a million different shades of green in the trees. Beautiful.

I also really enjoy an edgy grey. It’s something about a kind of latent stillness. There’s a sort of volatile calm in its edginess – like it’s about to tip over. I like a cool palette. I tend to work with cool palettes with very intense heat from other colours to bring things to an unrested place. There are elements within my painting where I want to veer towards some sort of realism in colour or shape, some sort of feeling of a leaden sky, a rainy feel to something, maybe a halogen glow. These things are quite resonant and evocative, and I find the colours that I use, when I’m happy with them, evoke a similar kind of feeling.


To find out more about Sarah and her work, check out her website.


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