In the Studio with Sarah Cunningham

Within Sarah Cunningham's paintings, there is a continuous desire reflecting her relationship with the natural world, its flora and fauna and mysteries. We met with Sarah to tell us more about her artistic practice, growing up in Nottingham, and her greatest influences.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?

I’ve always been described as creative. I would spend all of my time filling in my schoolbooks with these crazy drawings that my teachers would always comment on, whilst making works out of anything I could find. I don’t ever remember making that decision to become an artist. I think it just happened instinctively. I have always had this innate desire to create something that doesn’t exist yet, and it has become a way of coping for me. If I don’t paint or draw after a few days… it really affects me! I think the first time I saw myself as an artist was when I had my first exhibition and showed some big paintings at college when I was 17. I made this triptych of these black and white intricate paintings on huge sheets of calico; paintings of forest debris and things I had collected off the forest floor. I didn’t like them at the time but I see them really differently now, it was almost the beginning of something for me. That was the first time I saw my work in an exhibition and I remember thinking, so this is what it’s like to be an artist.

Where are you from and what was your upbringing like? How has this impacted your work?
I grew up in Nottingham, England. A lot of people told me not to be an artist when I was growing up. I knew I wanted to draw and paint, and there was no telling me otherwise. My mum encouraged a strong relationship with the natural world and educated me ecologically from a young age; from walking in forests, collecting natural materials, to teaching me about plants. I have, as far as I can recall, always had a particular interest for plants and botany, but I think a lot of this came from my mum. Plants have been a part of my work since the very beginning. I consider them as living forms, not just decorative things. My focus has been on the links between human beings and their environment, which led me to push my knowledge in botany and anthropology. My dad is one of the hardest working people I know, and has always been a huge inspiration for me.
Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. Have you gone through the traditional route of art school and what was your experience? 
I always knew I wanted to be an artist and my education has reflected this. I studied art at GCSE, A-Level and then Foundation. I then went to Loughborough University to study a BA in Fine Art. During this time I was making these huge large-scale paintings in mixed media and collage. I graduated in 2015 and I took some time out to work independently as an artist. Nottingham has an amazing creative community and I had numerous studio residencies, whilst continuing to exhibit nationally. I also worked for two art galleries whilst working as a van driver up and down the country. Three jobs and an art practise is not something that I would recommend to anyone, but I somehow managed to keep that going for quite a long time! In 2018 I was selected for an international research residency with La Wayaka Current in the indigenous region of Guna Yala, Panama. I have always felt very passionately about forests and the local communities that cultivate them. This experience had a profound impact on my work. I’d always wanted to go to the Royal College of Art. The school was the only option for me, and the Masters in Painting was the only course that I applied to. I have now completed my first year at the RCA and this would not have been possible if it wasn’t for the Ali H Alkazzi Scholarship award, for which I am immensely grateful. I was also awarded the Djanogly Art Award at the time.
What’s the message of your work? Are there themes/narratives/purpose? 
Within my painting there is a continuous desire or interest in a relationship with the natural world — its flora and fauna and mysteries. I draw on collective memories of landscapes to create works that deeply connect to the human psyche. The paintings exist as an attempt to inhabit the space of an in-between, the interval between ‘worlds’ – an attempt to open up a space for these transformations. For me the forest in particular is a recurring motif in the work and it stands as a metaphor and a model of thinking, a reflection of our existence in this social climate. What makes a forest rich and fertile is the interactions and interdependencies. I’m interested in how all of these things are connected and how they translate into my painting process. I favour this notion of interrelation in order to create a second nature, a mimesis, a bodily knowledge, a means of ‘contact’ between distant beings, in different realms, different time zones.
Where do they come from? How would you describe your aesthetic? 
I have always had this strong sense of interdependence and connection to nature. The forests that I have experienced have become my muse. I grew up next to a forest and since lockdown happened I have moved back home. I decided to make this forest my studio. The light, the shadows, the trees… it is so quiet and protected. You can hear your own breath and your body and in some ways for me I guess that is very comforting. This solitude and this stillness that I can retreat into with my work has become something I really value, within my work and my life. I would describe my aesthetic as active, rhythmic, chaotic painting with a vibrancy of colour. There is this freedom of going back and forth. I’ve always wanted to embrace the impossible space of a painting and to make clear that this is a highly artificial space. Tonal values and passages are laid down using heavily loaded brush work; pockets of space and washes create depth. My brushwork plays with how paint acts on a surface, marks are painted intuitively and act as an entangled foliage of sorts; a network of botanical bonds. The notion that the experience of a landscape is connected in some intangible way with deeper matters relating to our personal existence and the span of life remains strange and hard to define. I want people to look at my paintings for longer, I don’t want them to be clear. I want to convey the idea that nothing is too fixed.
Who and what are your greatest influences? 
There are so many… but some of my favourite painters that I keep coming back to are Makiko Kudo, Cecily Brown, Hernan Bas, Hurvin Anderson, Frank Bowling, Anselm Kiefer. An incredible show that I saw before lock down was Vivien Suter at Camden Arts Centre. Her connection to the rainforest I found relatable, her feelings come through in the work so your body and not merely the mind can intuit what she sees and feels.
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 see a lot of things and I listen to a lot of things. I am always drawing, reading, writing poetry. The paintings sort of exist as ideas that are always ticking away inside me before they’re ready to burst out. I often try to understand everything about a certain something, but in the end the result itself can be quite simple. It is really beautiful when someone can associate their own experience with one of my paintings – the paintings can act as a mirror. Simplicity of emotions can make works that make you feel something; one brush mark can describe something very complex… painting has such efficiency that way.
What events in your life have mobilised change in your practise and/or aesthetic? 
When I was living in the indigenous region of Guna Yala alongside the Kuna community I was so taken in by the richness of this landscape, the ancestral connections to nature that the community has carried for centuries. To reach the landscapes that I would paint, I would borrow a canoe from the community and drift down the waters of the Armila river. I would stop the canoe and explore the surrounding rainforest while I carried my art supplies overhead. The wildness of the jungle revitalised my fervour. This is where the inspiration for my series of Mangrove paintings came from. In the past year I have ceded more agency in the materials. I use different devices, as I need them in order to introduce the uncontrolled or serendipitous dialogues within my practice. I mainly work with painting, collage, film and photography.
What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?
I often work best when I am quiet with little distraction so I can access a state of sensing, but my painting can also be very energetic and require a lot of energy… watching me paint can be like watching me do acrobatics at times.
What are your goals for the future?
I plan on completing the second year of my Masters in Painting at the RCA and continuing to exhibit my works. I have some exciting projects coming up. The lockdown may have put some things on hold but I am really excited for what the future brings!
How have you been staying creative during the pandemic ?

I have been painting and drawing in nature and embracing the immensity of my environment, this has come to play an integral role in my work. I have also been combining film and painting, which has been interesting.

I think we need to be nimble in this new world. People have sensed the degree of fragility that extends beyond the virus; art takes a deep dive into many questions. I have taken this time as an opportunity to retune and to re-question my relationship with otherness and my identity; the paintings have become individual parts to a larger on going narrative.


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