Monday, 26 July 2010

Artist of the Week - Sara Downham Lotto

Sara Downham Lotto's paintings are primarily abstract, celebrating the spirit and sensation of seeing. Composed in mixed media, they illustrate a dynamic exploration and consolidation of decorative form and colour, surface and light. At conception they are free and organic, embracing the accidental and playfully arranging pleasing shapes, colours and textures. Increasingly, the creative process becomes slower and more considered, drawing on an intuitive sense of when to stop. A lifetime‘s passion for beauty in art and nature, plus years of study both the practice and how it exists in a historical context, have significantly fed this intuition. Technically, the paintings evolve into a build up of translucent layers of paint and collaged paper creating a sense of depth and intrigue as to how they were actually made. Traces of these layers or ‘lives’ can always be seen beneath the surface to remind us of the complexities of experiences past and present; whatever is said or done has shaped and continues to shape us. The painting, therefore, is almost like a living organism with its history exposed. One might say the work is an unconscious attempt to evoke the rhythm and energy of the real world we inhabit.

Favourite Living Artists
On reflection, it seems all the artists who most interest me are those who have a dynamic hunger for life and knowledge. Their approach to life and art is honest and direct, resulting in authentic individualism unfettered by convention and preconceptions.
Callum Colvin I have enjoyed for his breadth of reference to art history and literature, his unpretentious uniqueness and provocative subject matter and use of mixed media.
Howard Hodgkin’s sumptuousness as a colourist and intuitive command of paint leave me envious

Favourite Historical Artists
From early student days I have devoured Delacroix for his breadth of knowledge and dynamic use of line and colour. His journals are a great read, illuminating the extent to which a passion for travel, literature and music can feed into visual interpretation.
In contrast, and more directly influential on my own painting technique at the time, was the Abstract Expressionist work of Franz Kline and Pierre Soulages. As a postgraduate I studied Emil Nolde and Primitivism. His “Unpainted Pictures” with their glowing colour and seemingly miraculous balance of light and dark, space and form defy explanation. Nolde’s preoccupation with the Primitive – whether tribal cultures and their artifacts or the primordial forces of nature – parallels my own interests. . Ivon Hitchins’ exquisite semi abstract landscapes have taught me about the importance of space in composition and a balance of both gestural and decorative mark making.

When and Where I first Wanted to do what I do
Childhood memories of living in central Africa have very much shaped my ambitions to do what I do in the ways I have chosen to do it. A passion for the bush with its intoxicating smells and sounds, abundance of colourful bird and insect life and the inexhaustive ingenuity of the Africans making so much from so little, have fueled my enthusiasm for creative making and living. I try to take as little as possible for granted; within my chosen confines of making paintings, the range of possibilities is endless if one is prepared to keep things open.

A Place in the World that has been an Inspiration
I have a pantheistic love of remote and wild places, untainted by contemporary notions of industrial and technological progress.These places could well be inhabited by communities. Communities that share and tell stories , that work on the land and adapt to seasonal and ritualistic rhythms. These have taught and inspired my creative spirit the most.

Influence of Style at age 15
An individual who very much helped me on my way. My art teacher at the time – Joe Taylor – had an eccentric enthusiasm for art and music. His continued reference to connections between the two had an enormous impact on me. As a teenager I was a very keen French Horn player to the extent that when I wasn’t drawing or painting I was playing or listening to music. My painting style at the time was influenced by Kandinsky and Malevich, later to be overtaken by shaped wall pieces of Frank Stella and colour experimentations of Rothko, Frankenthaler and Morris Louis.

How I set about starting a new Project
Clear the decks. In order to maximise the intuitive flow of ideas I have to be undistracted by everyday ‘stuff’. I therefore ensure all outside the studio is more or less obsessively organized so I can switch off from the everyday and immerse myself in ‘my thing’. Fridge full, house tidy, garden dug, animals and kids fed and happy – THEN I start. I also tend to work in blocks of time, given other demands on life like teaching, being a mother, wife, friend and smallholder. I find it near impossible to integrate fits and starts of painting amongst all this, so will ‘book in’ a period of two to three months of devoted studio time when the house and garden pretty much look after themselves and the kids get used to humbler meals.

Where and what is my studio?
The studio is a purpose built wooden and glass cube set into a hill several metres from the house. It has superb views over the Avon Valley and beyond to Dartmoor, and is integral to the small holding we run, surrounded by fruit and veg patches and a field of free range sheep, geese, ducks, guinea foul and hens. Having always painted to music before I came here, I now find the natural sounds around me more conducive to clear thinking. The fortune to have this set up is thanks to an inheritance from a relative who followed my work and wanted to see continue with it come what may.

Do I work best alone or in collaboration?
hen painting, I most definitely work best alone. However, I love people and hugely enjoy collaborating ideas and general banter when teaching. Sometimes, sorely lacking, is constructive dialogue with other artists when it comes to my own painting. For years now, I have been entirely alone which may not be a good thing.

How much do I bend my ‘vision’ to suit the marketplace – if at all?
Not at all –never.

My work/life Balance
Work/life balance couldn’t really be better, although I could always do with more time in the studio. Blessed with healthy kids and always stuff to do with the animals and garden, I have to be disciplined to carve out time for painting and teaching. My ideal is to run four or five art workshops a month to assist finances, as well as work towards an annual show of new work. Things like housework I try not to waste time with when I have the place to myself, preferring to focus instead on stuff that needs time and space to think. Weekends tend to be sacrosanct vis-à-vis family and friends, ideally getting all involved in stuff around the farm.

Where did I Train, what are the favourite/least favourite aspects of that Training?
My last years of school in the late ‘70s were in Newcastle Upon Tyne. Then, unlike now, there wasn’t a huge amount going on culturally, so I chose to continue studies in London. Having failed to get into the Royal College of Music as a French Horn player, I incredibly fortunately got a place at St Martin’s on the Art Foundation Course. This was just as well, as I really don’t think I was cut out to be a full-time professional musician. The course and tutors at St Martin’s were superb, the only criticism being it felt too short. London, however, I did not enjoy, despite all those free lunchtime concerts and student stand-bys on the South Bank. The metropolis has always felt too big and impersonal to me and to this day, I have a kind of phobia of the place.
As an undergraduate, I was based at Manchester Polytechnic for three years from 1981. Like most Fine Art degree course, we were pretty much left on our own most of the time. I used to enjoy being one of the first in to the Medlock studios in the mornings, sometimes with my horn to practice in the peace and quiet, sometimes just to get more work done. Frustratingly, the tutors were all male who I felt didn’t really take us ‘girls’ too seriously. David Sweet, Head of Painting at the time, was an inspiration, however. On occasion, we would get a very fine female visiting lecturer coming through who kept me going. The Department of Art History and Contextual Studies at the Poly was, in contrast, full of dynamic and motivating tutors. I enjoyed this aspect of study so much, that I signed up for the 60%Painting - 40%Art History and Contextual Studies option.

In 1987 I began Post Graduate studies at Glasgow University, gaining an MPhil in 1989, the Thesis title being “The Role of Primitivism in the work of Emil Nolde”. My hope had been to experience some inspired, academic teaching, but again, we were very much left to our own resources and my tutor was absent with M.E. much of the time. Sitting in on Scottish Opera rehearsals and artist lectures at Glasgow School of Art made up for this.

Between 1988 and 1991 I was based at the Gdansk Art Academy in Poland, having been awarded three consecutive British Council/Polish Government Postgraduate Scholarships to paint. These were some of the happiest most interesting years for me, a time of Zomo police, Lech Walesa rallies, black market and lively social gatherings. The Academy itself was very traditional, organized into ateliers/studios headed by aging professors. For four years the students were to study and develop the working style of their professor, culmination in an exhibition of uninspiring copies of their master’s work. The more academic easel painting I saw, the more it pushed me to turn things on their head with abstract paper collages and sploshy paint.

Sara will be exhibiting at the Brighton Art Fair in September.

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