w+DC Q&A: The Bonded Beauty of Romanticism

Fascinated with the physicality and energy of the human form, our July cover artist, Sarah Muirhead, captures the deepest beauties of our idiosyncrasies and pains.

With the touch of her paint brush the Scottish artist contrasts textures and tensions, pleasures and performance into enthralling 'records of examination'. Each pore on her subject's face and wrinkle on their body becomes an entire universe of pattern, rhythm and expression. Irregularities become nodes of empowerment; nuances transform into pathways of the unexplored. With her most recent exhibition at Leyden Gallery, "Bonded", proving to be a commercial and critical success (paintings still available), join us as fans of Muirhead and her "true emphatic realism".

You’ve described your paintings as the “record of your examination”, can you explain this further? Is there an element of discovery as you create?

SM: I stare intensely at each subject over a period of weeks-a kind of scrutiny without judgement.  It creates an intense bond, all be it a one-sided, fictitious one because what I'm looking at for such a long time in such detail only existed in reality for fleeting moments and I like the idea that the marks I make in creating a drawing or a painting act as a record of this intimacy rather than a photorealistic copy.  I suppose I also referred to it as making a record of something because I am interested in figurative art as a form of documentary even when there is no natural context.  I like the idea that painters archive something of our time and it's something I've always taken from work that I like.




Your creative process often involves your subjects interacting with tools and objects. How did you originally come up with this approach, and what does it do thematically for your works? 

SM: I like to use objects or projections that allude to an underlying theme or idea. Some of these are explicit and others become lost as the subject of the work interacts with them and distorts them.  Giving a subject something to fiddle with has always worked well for me as it removes their urge to pose too much or look overtly calculated and provides something for them to converse with although they are alone.  I find that they move more naturally this way and improvise with unexpected results.  Kasia, a good friend and the subject of a few paintings and drawings is a shibari artist who works by suspending her body from intricately wounded and knotted ropes.  I find it staggering to watch her twist and use her flexibility and strength and i think the ropes become a kind of frame which emphasises the contours of her body and accentuates its movements and shape.
I’ve met with artists who need routine in order to create, and I’ve met with artists who thrive on spontaneity and chaos. Where do you fall on the spectrum?
SM: I used to be pretty messy but I'm finding that the more hours I work and the more detail I use the more organised I need to be.  I'll never be a neat freak but theres a strange level of satisfaction in organising your brushes and having a little spectrum of paint lined up next to you although this usually ends up jumbled and chaotic by the end of the day.  Being left alone is probably more important and having good noise or music in the background which gets me into a rhythm.


What inspires you to create? How does your creation process begin?

SM: I find I work compulsively most of the time and I feel hellishly guilty when I don't.  It's probably 80% forced focus and a magic 20% of almost meditative concentration when you work without any pauses and ideas flow even when you're knackered.  Music definitely makes this possible and finding a subject I get really excited about.  I try to look at other artists work as often as I can, if only to concentrate on a bar of excellence and creativity I'd love to achieve.


Do you ever draw from, or are inspired by outside mediums? Film? Music? etc?

SM: I worked from a few film stills while I was at art college but I always felt like I was copying someone and that it was lifted from the experience of another.  I like to use my own images and to have the advantage of knowing the figure now but I have recently projected stills and videos on to some of my models skin.  The original image is distorted by the surface and broken in to prism-like lines of light by the projector and I like the idea of having some hidden message or three levels of reality-the projected image, the person infront of the projection and the physical painting it's self.  Film and music really inspires me and I have made a few small nods to those influences but I think I'd like to push that further in future. 




How would you describe yourself as an artist?

SM: I used to get a little embarrassed about referring to myself as an artist as it has such lofty connotations and it seemed like you'd need some unknowable qualification to justify the title so I usually just say I'm a painter.  It feels less pretentious and implies a level of work and skill...i hope.  I remember reading that artist was a term used so that members of European nobility could pursue aspects of the arts as a hobby without diminishing their status to that of artisans.  Later it became intrinsically linked to our romantic illusions about artists as tortured geniuses.  Like a lot of my contemporaries I find it difficult to define my work or my role in it because it's instinctive but I suppose when I look at the art I most admire and that of artists I would love to match in terms of skill and situation it usually falls under the umbrella of figurative art.  I do have plans to explore other subjects and methods of working but for now that's my obsession.


What is it about physicality, pleasure, pain and expression that intrigues you artistically?

SM: I've always had an aesthetic attraction to images that project some kind of emotion or sensation.  It's impossibly difficult to find that balance between exaggerated drama and understated realism and I think there's a really interesting, penetrating effect in work which is compelling but ambiguous in this way.  It's a very British trait to be slightly emotionally illiterate I think and as such I think a lot of us are drawn to imagery which explores what's bubbling underneath.  I do like a bit of theatre in visual art and am slowly building the confidence to attempt more of this in my own.  
    Experience has also played a part.  I was seriously ill and had some fairly aggressive treatment for a couple of years and while I've made a full recovery and feel pretty positive about life and about my own experience it's left me with a very heightened sense of bodily processes, healing, damage, movement and the integrity of flesh.  I'm much more emotionally dissociated from my physical self and a lot of my subjects are the opposite.  They work physically and are usually comfortable in their skin in a way I find fascinating.  I feel like I understand the potential of bodies more and that I work in a less superficial way now. 


How has your artwork evolved over your career?

SM: I think I'm beginning to feel less inhibited about what I make.  I've been working for a long time to develop my technique and I'm not there yet but having more confidence in my skill level means I'm experimenting more and although I started by making street portraits and letting the subjects appearance and spirit speak for it's self.  Now I want to move away from portraiture and in to a form of figurative art that is more narrative and expressive.  I had an exhibition recently showing work next to that of Paula Rego and Leonor Fini and I loved the alternative worlds both artists managed to create, it inspired me to try and ask more questions about this one.  I'm beginning to find a voice and I want to be more of a participating story teller than an observer. 




Describe the first piece of art you can remember creating?

SM: That's a hard one.  I think the first time I felt like I'd made something successful was in my first year at art college after a life drawing class.  I totally switched off and stopped worrying about the expectations of the others in the class and enjoyed every minute of work that day.  It was a painting of the seated, sleeping life model and I painted loosely and quickly-nothing like what I do now but it felt good and it felt like me.


What is your next challenge? Where do you hope to take your art next? 

SM: I have lots of plans and projects ahead.  I'd really like to work on some more ambitious, large scale paintings with multiple figures who are more active and dynamic than in previous work and who exist in a clearer context.  I may have the opportunity to make this a site specific project in the coming months but i'll need to wait and see.  I've been lucky enough to make contact and establish friendships with some amazing people who will feature as models in these paintings and I've been trying to gather a really good photo library to use as reference points for them.  Other than that I've booked a space in an anatomy workshop which I'm really excited about and plan to do a little research in that area.  I'll make sure news about upcoming work and project is on my website www.sarahmuirhead.com and that WIP is on the blog www.sarahmuirhead.tumblr.com




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