The paintings of British artist Samson Shepheard-Walyn explore the relationships between contemporary society and the power of object and significance. We met with Samson to tell us more about his artistic practice, his greatest influences and goals for the future.
It became glaringly obvious when at school I had little to no interest in anything other than drawing and painting. Due to medical reasons I then had to miss a year of school and that was the nail in the ‘academic’ coffin. I then had an excuse to fully pursue art and put all my time into it. In terms of seeing myself as an artist, its difficult to truly believe you ever are, it feels like a title that is always slightly out of reach, but I enjoy chasing it!
Where are you from and what was your upbringing like? How has this impacted your work?
Im from London, lived here my entire life. I’ve had quite a few health problems and this somewhat led me to be interested in the themes that I explore. They are not necessarily sad by nature, but they definitely question those more sublime emotions and feelings.
Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. Have you gone through the traditional route of art school and what was your experience?
I graduated school with shockingly bad grades but was accepted into City & Guilds Art School for my art foundation which was a very small and intimate course. This was a year of experimenting; new mediums, processes none of which I had tried before. It was also my first experience of being surrounded by other creatives, at school there had only been two of us who studied art! Just towards the end of the course I began painting, it was something that I knew I was bad at but that I felt suited the needs of my themes particularly well. I then was due to study Fine Art BA at Bristol UWE, where I attended for only one week before having to drop out for a year due to more medical issues.
Once I was back on my feet I started studying at Kingston School of Art, here I continued the foray into painting. My tutors made the course, there’s no longer that weird relationship of student and teacher as there was at school. Following on from this, I am now studying my Masters at Central Saint Martins.
What’s the message of your work? Are there themes/narratives/purpose?
I think we all have an underlying, subconscious attraction towards the more sinister emotions. Melancholia is particularly interesting, I feel that everyone knows how it feels but few people could really describe or define it. It’s not necessarily depressing in nature, for example the quiet remembrance of a happy time past. It’s only when left alone that people really know themselves. The most defining memories of myself arise from those moments of raw loneliness and isolation, solemnity and stillness. I guess that most of my work is really self-studying, it feels reflective and introspective, physical displays of very internal feelings void of image and definition. I have bounced between many therapists for depression since I was 13, never really finding one that felt right for me so now I have finally settled with using my work as an avenue to explore these feelings. I hope someday to be able to, and interested in, painting things more upbeat, but it would feel disingenuous to do that now. Right now it’s an attempt to throw the viewer into a scene from a film, they’re suddenly met with a situation or event that’s currently taking place or has just happened. It’s confusing and you don’t know what to make of it. A dog sat on a car with a fallen bird, a spacious room with a crow precariously perched on a ladder surrounded by alien-like hounds. It’s dramaticized and confusing but also intriguing and always stirs these somewhat suppressed feelings of melancholia or stillness or loneliness.
Who and what are your greatest influences?
Literature is my main avenue for influence. I’ll be reading a book and a certain scene or two will encourage the investigation of an emotion or feeling. Or sometimes the entirety of the book will leave me feeling a certain way and then it’s about how I try to represent that. Occasionally this is quite a direct representation as I did with 004G which is a scene from Goethe’s Faust in which Mephisto disguises himself as a dog to enter the home of Faust. However, more frequently it’s a much more indirect exploration of the feeling resulting from the book.
Herman Hesse’s body of work has been the most influential on my practice, these very self-reflective and internal struggles that come together to form an introspective and critiquing book. William Maxwell, Albert Camus, Nietzsche (and then his counterparts, the Stoics work of Aurelius and Epictetus) are the authors who I have read recently. Other than literature, I find music to be my other primary source of influence, presumably because it’s what I listen to whilst I work and paint so it inevitably shapes the outcome of the painting. Rarely do I actually look to take inspiration from other art, in the past I have found that I am too directly influenced by this process and come away from my work feeling like it’s not necessarily my truth but rather someone else’s.
Are your works planned? What do you want people to take from your work when they view it? Do you have the audience consciously in mind when you are creating?
I take lots of walks and I photograph everything that interests me, even mundane things like a particularly deep garage with a door swung ajar. In my head there’s always the crow occupying the space, or a skeletal dog sneering around the door. From these photos I then stitch together a rough sketch of the layout for the painting. Sometimes I think long and hard about colour but more often than not it’s just a matter of getting started and making it up as I go. I’m not worried about mistakes, I used to be, but now I’ve realised I can mess it up and then just put a fresh coat over the mistake and restart. I say my ideas come from these exteriors, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that often these ideas just formulate whilst I’m working on a different painting. This often leads me to rush the piece I’m working on because I am already excited about the next one. I am not interested in pursuing a mastery of painting, I am only interested in expressing these ideas and themes, hence I would consider my paintings to be somewhat poorly painted, more concerned with the content than the process. But I think this adds to their charm and appeal. The viewer is hardly considered when I am working, the painting is self reflective/studying and so is not concerned with the audience.
How has your art evolved? Do you stick to one medium? Do you experiment? Do you see any parameters to your work?
The requirements of the painting, in as much as I consider that each piece has requirements, pushes for change. For instance, new mediums are required to achieve the wanted effect, encouraging trials of encaustic wax or self-rusting paint etc. Often these end disastrously and that’s just a part of the vicious learning curve, especially when it ruins something that had the potential to actually be quite good but then perhaps it wasn’t and this was the state it was always determined to end up in. Paint can be quite forgiving, mistakes can be covered up and paint can be removed, so really the medium facilitates change and this is very appealing as opposed to sculpture perhaps, which I think would be less forgiving for my practice. The art seems to evolve as a result of the themes, a perpetual motion of a new idea, followed by how best to depict it, followed by what mediums, colours techniques to utilise to achieve the end result I have in my mind.
What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?
If you think you’ve found an end point for the piece then you haven’t, its a matter of not settling just because its easier or circumnavigates an obstacle. True representation of a less-than-physical feeling or way of being is difficult to achieve, I find comfort when viewers seem to understand the angle at which I am coming from but similarly, I can’t be convinced that a painting I have made has beauty residing in it by anyone if I don’t see it for myself. I don’t think I’ll ever produce “good” art, I feel like this would be the end of my exploration into it. Having made a ‘good’ painting why would you continue to make more as opposed to just resting on your laurels? All my paintings need continued work done on them, they’re all in a state of completion that allows them to be left but could still be heightened.
What are your goals for the future? (Projects, collaborations)
Finish my masters, find a studio and somehow find a way to support myself as I continue to pursue painting, this last part seemingly the most difficult.
How have you been staying creative during the pandemic?
With some difficulty, mostly by just going for walks and reading.