Steffie Shields MBE talks to Grantham based artist Sarah Watson.
I have very much enjoyed following the progress of artist Sarah Watson ever since my husband Mike signed up for her art classes. In recent years we have joined a group of her students every summer for a wonderful week of landscape art ‘en plein air’ on the north or east coast, or abroad.
Sarah shares my passion for landscape. However, she is strict in not using photography, other than as an occasional reference point back in the studio, or to jog the memory of a certain line. Her preferred medium now is oil sticks. These are pure oil pigment combined with wax for easy transport, offering an intense consistency to transform the way she works very successfully.
Born in Rutland in 1972, Sarah graduated from De Montfort University with a first class degree in Combined Arts in 1994, specialising in Abstract Painting. She spent fifteen years working in the music industry in London, although continued to paint and undertake several large-scale commissions, before moving to Gonerby, near Grantham to pursue her art full-time.
A professional artist while managing family life – with arboriculturalist/tree surgeon husband, Liam, and 9-year-old Zach – Sarah has loads of self-motivation, also designing and running a series of diverse art courses, besides organising successful painting holidays. A craving for speed and sporting action sees her regularly expending any remaining nervous energy playing in a women’s roller derby team.
Sarah grabs every opportunity to capture natural landscapes wherever she travels. Painting trips to St Ives, Norfolk and Northumberland have been recent highlights. She was awarded the Rutland Open Creative Leicestershire Prize in 2012. She has exhibited her landscapes at one woman shows in the Lake District (2015), Grantham (2016) and Dulwich (2017). Yet it is the surrounding fields, pattern of crops and ever-changing skies within walking distance of her home that provide the major inspiration for Sarah’s works. She finds something new in the landscape every day. After living in a one-bedroom flat in Camberwell, it was in Lincolnshire that she found she could breathe, her ‘tireless, beautiful muse’.
Her little terrier Teddy is her constant companion on daily walks, patiently lying down, and eyeing his mistress when she invariably ends up sketching or painting sitting on the ground. In winter they retreat to the car, for Sarah to draw ‘en plein voiture’. I find it fascinating to watch Sarah react to sense of place, light and weather out in the countryside, sometimes sketching crazy silhouettes. She mostly wears predictable black, yet her works and love of life and nature are expressed in full-on colour. The rest of the world is forgotten in her excitement.
Sarah admits: “I have got wilder in my marks, and mentally freer.”
Totally absorbed in exploring the view, making flowing and dynamic marks freehand, often without looking down at the paper or canvas, she draws quickly in direct and confident reaction to express her emotion, and occasional inner turmoil. Nothing tentative, she responds there and then to the expanses of farmland and vast Lincolnshire skies with real feeling.
On returning to her impressive studio, any further oil painting will always be translated directly from these original works. Here Sarah listens to her favourite music. Extremely loud, rhythmic goth music, pounding in her ears, succeeds in heightening her senses and concentration and, more importantly, in bringing back similar feelings of joy experienced out on the land. As a result, rather than gentle clouds scudding over muted groves of trees and hedgerows and pastoral levels, her paintings abstract pure form heightened with colour-rich drama.
When working with oils on canvas, she produces instinctive abstraction with little memory. Sarah often ends up painting with her hands, rubbing or scratching at the canvas with fingers, nails and palms for subtle changes in texture. Both her use of colour and her marks are fascinating, full of movement and uniquely vibrant, with all the physical energy that she herself exudes. “I put colour where I want to, playing God a lot,” she told me.
The morning I visited, after surviving being blasted with Siouxsie and the Banshees as I photographed Sarah at work in her studio, she rewarded me by showing me her sunny garden. When she’s not out walking or beavering away with her art, Sarah likes to tend her plants. Her artistic eye for bright colour, texture and quirky interest were immediately apparent. Stylish, ivory-white tulips feathered with green, Tulipa ‘Spring Green’, in pots on the patio, contrasted with a straight line of Smartie-coloured tulips setting off an arbour seat and bright blue wall enclosing the bottom of the garden. Nearby, casually leaning against the shed, but skilfully arranged, an eye-catching collection of unusual curly aluminium sticks would grace any art exhibition.
I asked Sarah about a mysteriously woven and textured, tangle-wood sculpture ornamenting the middle of the lawn which is playfully decorated with multicoloured plastic ties, like a giant ball of pick-up sticks. She told me that on one of her many country walks with Teddy she had come upon this tangled ‘thicket’ of dead twigs where hedge cutting clearances had been made. Immediately spotting potential, it was worth dragging home!
Some of Sarah’s work is on show alongside pieces by Tom Voyce (winner of Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year 2017) and Joyce Cairns, at the independent Fletcher Gate Art Gallery, adjacent to Nottingham’s Lace Market car park in the heart of the city (www.fletchergateartgallery.com). I heartily recommend a trip. The immediacy of bold strokes and brilliant colour in unique paintings is always heaps better to observe and enjoy in the flesh than on the page. Fine art often brings an unexpected, emotional response. That sudden connection, that surprise frisson of joy, signals the best time to get the purse out! This is an artwork worth indulging in, to give to a loved one, or maybe to take home. When you find the right spot to grace and uplift your own walls, that single, momentary frisson can turn into years of pleasure. Sarah’s landscape paintings, reflecting her warm, energetic and vibrant personality, are sensational, totally memorable – and eminently collectible.