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Sarah Kelk ‘Common Ground’

A huge thank you to artist Sarah Kelk and all those who made it to the Modern Times Artist Talk on the Saturday morning. Together with our generous sponsors Everyday Coffee we had a wonderful catch-up following on from the opening of Sarah’s beautiful exhibition ‘Common Ground’. Enjoy reading our in-depth interview below to gain insight into Sarah’s inspirations, influences and artistic practice!

Let’s start with this series ‘Common Ground’ which opened on Thursday 16 November. Can you take us through how this series came about?

I was lucky enough to be chosen for an artist’s residency at The Jacky Winter Gardens, which saw me spend a week on my own in the most gorgeous house and studio set amongst the idyllic Sherbrooke Forest. With my upcoming solo show, this residency could not have come at a more perfect time.

I decided to use the residency to begin researching and working through ideas for my solo show ‘Common Ground’. Part of that process was having to submit myself to wasting time, pottering about, reading books, sitting with a cup of tea by the creek … I needed this time to just ‘be’ before anything was to become purposeful.

I’d forgotten how important it is for my creative processes to just stop and breathe, and the Jacky Winter Gardens Residency was the perfect setting not only to start working on ideas for my solo show, but also to re-introduce some ‘quiet creative time’. I had forgotten how necessary that is!”
— Sarah Kelk

One of the ideas that we discussed about this show was the internal struggle you have when creating work; oscillating between the structured and the fluid flow of things.
How do you see this body of work within that struggle? Do you feel like you have been overpowered by one or the other, or is it still a conversation?

I always feel like I’m torn with the style of my work. On one hand, I feel a strong need to work in an expressionist style, and then once I start, I always get pulled into the idea of producing strong, bold and almost geometrical compositions.

On this latest body of work, I decided to embrace both of those feelings. I’ve been itching to explore a more structured, simplistic, almost architectural ideas in my work, but didn’t want to abandon the organic energy that comes out at the beginning of each piece.

For this body of work, I made sure my first few layers were fast and energetic, full or expression. As each painting progressed, my focus became more defined, and structured. I really enjoy the narrative each layer creates. To me, the little glimpses of those energetic first layers almost ‘ talk’ to the final layers, creating a their own conversation, and even though the final layers appear to be a lot more structured, they still feel very fluid and intuitive to me.

To be honest, I’ve actually really enjoyed embracing the ‘internal struggle’ you mentioned, and since I have embraced the urge of wanting to explore a more structured and resolved composition in the final layers, I’m really happy with the direction my work is taking.

You’re quite lucky with your studio being at home. What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?

I’m really lucky to have my studio above our garage, which just a hop, skip and jump across the yard from our house. I love working in an upstairs space, as it has loads of natural light and even though it’s so close to our house, the space feels completely separate.

I’ll usually get in the mood for a painting session by making a big plunger of coffee and popping on a podcast or some 90s hip hop. I love having background noise, but nothing that completely distracts me. I try really hard to give myself a social media ban when I’m painting, but sometimes the power of Instagram is just too much, and I’ll take a quick inspiration break. I love when I get in a long stretch of painting, but the reality of living with young kids and running another business means lots of multi tasking! When I do get time to be ’in the zone’, hours can literally fly by and before I know it, it’s school pick up time (which is pretty stress free as the kids school is literally across the road)!

Having my own space is paramount to creating my work. I’ve had shared studio spaces before, and although it was a lot more social, my productivity went way down! Things can get pretty hectic in the studio, and once I’m on a roll, I hate packing up / putting things away, so being able to leave my studio space ‘as-is’ is really helpful for my ongoing practice.

Photo by
Trent Johnson Boe
Photo by
Trent Johnson Boe

Are there painters who you feel you’ve been influenced by in terms of your approach?  If so who are they?

Ever since high school, I’ve loved the work of the Colour Field Painters, with one of my all time favourites being Helen Frankenthaler. I love how she uses fluid shapes and abstract masses with an emphasis on spontaneity.

I have a few of her past exhibition catalogues, which a friend kindly gifted to me. I treasure these, and will often flick through them with a cup tea when I need a bit of inspiration.

I really love this quote from Helen Frankenthaler, “A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once”.

Are there artists that you have a particular admiration or love for that may not be a direct influence?

I’m endlessly inspired by a whole host of different artists. Almost too many to name!

If you had asked me what I wanted to be straight out of University, I would have hands down said that I wanted to become a textile designer! My love and interest in influential textile artists such as Anni Albers, Sonia Delauney, Lucienne Day and to some extent Louise Bourgeois knows no end! Even though their work might not seem like direct influences, every time I explore their incredible bodies of work, I come away with more ideas … to me, that’s a sign of constant inspiration.

Photo by
Trent Johnson Boe

You’ve lived in a few places in the world now, New Zealand, Scotland and Australia.  What, if any, affect has the location played on your practice or ideas?

Different locations, whether they be foreign places, or an hour down the road always affect my way of thinking. I’ve always been really curious, and love exploring the small, but fascinating differences that spending time in ‘other lands’ provides. I spent a year living in South Korea way back in 2003, and it really taught me how to explore creativity in all its forms. Korea, like Europe and then Scotland, were a world away from where I grew up in New Zealand, and I still have all my sketchbooks full of ideas, postcards, tickets and other souvenirs. All of these ‘resources’ evoke memories, places, experiences, colours and inspirations, all of which I still pull upon in my practice today.

In the same way that location can play a part in your work, do you feel that your big life changes; children, partner, friendships influence your work and ideas?

Of course! I think big, monumental life changes  (and also small everyday life changes) influence my work and ideas. How can it not!

I find it really hard to think of my work in ‘chapters’, for example,‘work before I was married’, or ‘work before I was became mother’. To me, my life, work and ideas are so intertwined, that I never really take a step back and think about how one influences the other, they all exist simultaneously together.

My family, friends and husband James are incredible supportive of what I do, and I feel really lucky to have a strong and encouraging ‘village’ around me. Their support, in whatever capacity it may be, gives me the confidence to take on the incredibly personal aspect of creating.

I’m very much a half glass full person, so I find negative people really hard to be around. I hate it when someone complains without looking for a solution, which is why I purposely surround myself with, confident, positive and inspiring friends. I never underestimate the inspiring individuals in my life, and I think this directly translates back to how I work in a creatively.

Becoming a mother is obviously a massive life change, and whilst I never thought it would hinder my creativity (as so many female artists fear), I never imagined it would help build my confidence in more areas than I had ever imagined. Having kids really taught to me stop focusing on the small stuff, to trust my own intuition, and to just ‘go with it’. I use these life lessons both in, and out of the studio everyday!

Photo by
Trent Johnson Boe

One of the most romantic notions about your work is the intuitive element. Can you tell us about how you navigate your intuition during painting?

I never know how a piece is going to end up and that’s what I love the most about creating it. When I start, there’s lots of energy and it’s really exciting, but the difference between that and when it’s finished is worlds apart. My paintings almost feel like completely different pieces from start to finish…the whole process is fascinating to me, and something I never tire of.

For me, painting is a very intuitive process, with the painting often dictating the outcome by itself. Often when I start doing one piece I can’t stop my brain working. I get really focused and obsessed on the texture and colour and balance and that takes over from a visual perspective.

I start off each work with a few really gestural layers, full of quick brush strokes and the energetic marks made in those first few layers of my work actually help dictate which direction each piece will go. I might have made a strong, bold shape, in one of those first layers, and as each layer is applied to the canvas, I’ll work around that, narrowing my focus, and adding, and building a narrative layer by layer until a piece feels just right. If I’m listening to my intuition correctly, I clearly know when a piece is finished or not. If something in a piece is bothering me, I’ll often leave it alone till I can clearly see what I need to work on. 

While the piece might end up, at first glance, looking a lot more rigid and controlled, I love the fact that there is always a loose, energetic side to each work too. I’ll always leave a few clues to those first layers, and those little windows into the development of a piece are often my favourite part.

Sarah Kelk Studio Visit

Can you perhaps talk us through a typical day for you?

No two days are the same, which I think keeps things fresh. I usually get up and head for an early run or gym about 6am (which sounds crazy, but it really clears my head for the day). Then its back home for the crazy hour that is getting the household fed, dressed and ready for the day. We are super lucky that the kids school is literally across the road from our house so our commute is pretty painless (although someone usually has a piece of toast in hand as they walk across street). If I’m lucky, there is time for a quick coffee stop before heading to the studio for the day.

I try to spend the morning getting on top of those necessary things; emails, meetings, admin, packing orders, running samples etc. My amazing sister Helen and I work together running the online store and homewares brand, Hello Polly. It’s one big mix of running the Hello Polly shop as well as dealing with wholesale orders/sampling and designing and then of course, fitting in painting time. I always make a point of taking some time out to cook a big healthy lunch, as I find it a really good way to take a bit of a step back before I head into the afternoon.

During the afternoon, its either more of what I’ve been doing in the morning, or if I’m itching to paint, then I try and grab a few hours in front of a canvas.

The 3:30 school bell always comes around so quickly and I then switch off from work and really focus on the kids for a few hours. You can often find us out on a bike ride, running round our local park, or cooking up a storm. We try and do a family dinner half of the week, the other half, my husband and I cook dinner together once the kids head to bed (which I also really enjoy as it doesn’t feel as rushed). After food, a wine and a chat, at least a few nights a week, I try and get in a few hours more painting before I head off to bed. I can get really pulled into working on paintings at this time of night and get my second wind about 10pm. If I’m still working then, I may as well carry on painting until 1 or 2am. It just means I have to drag myself out of bed the next day! (Which is easier said than done).

Photo by
Trent Johnson Boe

What is the last thing you do before finishing work for the day?

I try taking 5 minutes to sit and take in any paintings I’m working on. When I’m busy working away, it can sometimes be hard to take a step back and look critically at a piece, so I’ve come to really enjoy my 5 minutes of just starring at the end of each day. By doing this, I’ve found that I more often than not, arrive back at the studio the following day with a clear focus.

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us today; it has been an absolute treat to get to know you and your work!

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