Parks, Children & Art: Sarah Pickstone

Sarah Pickstone female artist in her studio in front of her painting
Above: The artist Sarah Pickstone in her studio.

Sarah Pickstone always knew she was going to an artist. “I don’t remember having much choice about it,” the London-based mother of three says. “Art was all I wanted to do from a very young age.”  After receiving a degree in Fine Art from the University of Newcastle, the Manchester native moved down to London to do a post graduate degree at the Royal Academy of Art before winning a Rome Scholarship, enabling her to round out her seventh year of art studies. Following that came the studio at Cubitt Artists in Islington — where she still is — marriage and three children, the oldest of whom is completing his first year of university. On the eve of her current show, ‘Other Stories’ at CGP London The Gallery, we talk to Sarah about how motherhood has influenced her work and career as an artist.

N.B.: ‘Other Stories’ is on at CGP London from 26 April – 4 June.

Paint containers and pots on a concrete floor.
Above: Sarah’s colours.

Fabulous Fabsters: Why did you want to be an artist?

Sarah Pickstone: I have been really single minded about wanting to do art from a very young age — not because I was the best but because it was really important to me. I remember how it felt to make things like papier-mâché ashtrays and how it really mattered to get the colour right and what it felt like to get it wrong. It really mattered.

Whatever I’m working on, I always have this feeling that it’s a work in progress and there’s this incessant urge to do better. Being dissatisfied all the time is so annoying because it would be nice to be really pleased with yourself. Self criticism comes from within and it doesn’t ever really go away. Thankfully, in my case, it goes hand in hand with a tremendous sense of optimism that I will do better next time.

1960's photo of mother, daughter and son
Above: The budding artist as schoolgirl with her mother and brother. “I had much older brothers and parents”, she says. “and was definitely the youngest with a lot of time on my hands. Always having an art project on the go was my way of structuring the time.”

FF: How did having children and raising a family affect your work and your sense of being an artist?

SP: I know that I have definitely become a better artist for having a family because the kids enabled me to become better connected with myself. When they were younger though, I did struggle with finding enough headspace for them and my art. I suppose my solution was to pretend I wasn’t working when I really was by reading and drawing. But even then I could feel quite divided and at those times, I would just give up on the career aspect of my art and didn’t concentrate on showing my work. It takes a lot of energy to show and to self promote.

Artists pin board and shelves filled with colourful images and books
Above: The research corner of Sarah’s studio.

FF: What were you reading?

SP: Instead of focusing on showing, I turned my attentions to thinking about the creative process. I looked at what other women were doing, which was really important to me. I was reading female writers and it seems to me that they manage to continue with their writing while raising a family more easily than female artists can with their art. There weren’t many female artists that I knew with kids who were managing the whole thing.

FF: What and where were you drawing?

SP: When the children were young, I often found myself in Regents Park. It could have been any park, really — the different layers and meanings of a park interest me. So there I was literally drawing trees because I couldn’t exactly draw elaborate landscapes in the playground. And in making the best of my situation and acknowledging where I was, my work started to get better.

In parks, I enjoy observing human interaction with a nature that is slightly artificial and I take elements from it. If I need a rose, a branch or a pigeon for instance, I can take them from my drawings and put them into a painting at a later date, like I am composing with them.

Artist's studio
Above: A painting in progess with Sarah’s study sketches taped on the wall by its side.

FF: After reading female writers, you were inspired to paint ‘The Writers Series’, which turned into a show at Roche Court. How did that come about?
SP: While I was doing my paintings from Regents Park, I started reading a short story by Ali Smith. The Royal Parks Foundation had commissioned Ali to write a story about Regents Park, ‘The Definite Article’. There’s a paragraph in her story where she recalls the writers who have once been connected to the park and asks, “Could any place be more historied and less ghostly?”

So I took up the baton and imagined the lives of those writers in my paintings. Elizabeth Bowen and Sylvia Plath both cite Regents Park in their work and I also discovered that George Eliot had written “Middlemarch” while living in a large villa to the north of the park. And of course, we know that Virginia Woolf was walking in and writing about the park. It just seemed like a lot of women inhabited the space.

Drawing of a mother and three children in a park
Above: Parks, Children & Art. Drawing by Christine Chang Hanway.

FF: Do you think these female writers used the park as a source of inspiration?
SP: I like to think they did. I started wondering about where women used to work. They didn’t have studios or offices. They weren’t allowed to go to university. I like to think that they might have been in the park. I certainly was — pushing prams and thinking. The novelist and historian Marina Warner calls it the font of female creativity and she talks about stepping inside metaphorically. I drew on that thought for sustenance in trying to find my own identity as a female artist.

'Eliot' by Sarah Pickstone
Above: ‘Eliot’, painted in 2011 as part of ‘The Writers Series’, is in the current show ‘Other Stories’ and is on loan from art collector, Kate Gibbons.

FF: Why has it been important to you to find your identity as a female artist?
SP: It’s only occurred to me quite late in life that being a female artist is different from being a male artist. When I was growing up, the art world was a very masculine place — we were taught by men and all the work I was looking at in museums was by men. Museum directors and art collectors tended to be men. I was slow to understand that the potential of a female aesthetic could be different. The optimist in me can see that shifting now. Every year there are more female museum director appointments and female collectors are emerging as a force as well.

Sarah Pickstone, female artist in her studio
Above: The optimist at work.

FF: Tell us about your first major show after having the children?
SP: In 2012, I won the John Moores painting prize for ‘Stevie Smith and the Willow’ (Sarah was the first woman to win the John Moores painting prize since Lisa Milroy in 1989). The New Art Centre at Roche Court in Salisbury then invited me to exhibit and luckily I had this back log of about 4 years worth of work — quite large scale pieces that I had been working while the kids were young, ages 7 – 11. These pieces including ‘Stevie Smith and the Willow’ are what eventually became ‘The Writers Series’.

'Stevie Smith and the Willow' by Sarah Pickstone
Above: ‘Stevie Smith and the Willow’, painted in 2011 as part of ‘The Writers Series’, is in the current show ‘Other Stories’ and is on loan from the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.

FF: And ‘Other Stories’, your current exhibition at the CGP Gallery. Tell us what excites you about this new show.
SP: This time, I had to respond to the challenge of preparing several large scale pieces in a short amount of time. I didn’t have the cushion of 4 years of work behind me like I did the for the previous show. The exciting part is that now that the children are older I noticed I felt completely differently because I suddenly got my focus back and felt much more confident about the job I had to do.

FF: Why is it called ‘Other Stories’?
SP: ‘The Writers Series’ has never been shown in London and at least half of the pieces from that series are on show here. We have even managed to borrow ‘Stevie Smith and the Willow’ from the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. So this show will be paintings from ‘The Writers Series’ and ‘Other Stories’.

Artist's studio
Above: Sarah’s large scale painting, ‘The Tempest’ fills the studio.

FF: What ‘Other Stories’?
SP: I’m back in the park again and this time I am responding to the gallery’s surrounding Southwark Park with its adjacent rose garden. I started studying roses in 2015 and was intrigued by this symbol of Englishness and yet roses actually come from other places, China, the Middle East — Syria. Migration, general upheaval, I started to get cross, which is probably reflected in my recent work.

The political turbulence of this past year comes out in another new painting ‘The Tempest’, inspired by Shakespeare’s play, which is one of my favourites. I am very interested in the connection between theatre and painting. In ‘The Tempest’, Prospero gets to put on a cloak like a creative act and then he makes magic. This appeals because new forms are exciting to me and they motivate me — I want to put things together in an original way.

Artist's studio
Above: “New forms are exciting to me,” Sarah says. “The reason I make is to put things together in a new way.”

FF: Any Wardrobe Wisdom?
SP: I like block colours, good shapes and the unusual — Marni, Zara, vintage and young London designer Florence Bridge.  If I had a default though, it would be a pinstripe suit and I would wear it with a tailored shirt that had a good bow in the front.

FF: What’s in your Prescient Pantry?
SP: Coffee, champagne and chocolate in that order. And I really like salad with a good Italian Romaine lettuce and all those herby leaves like rocket.

paint splattered leather trainers on concrete floor
Above: “When I’m painting, I wear leather trainers,” Sarah says. “They have to be comfortable.”

FF: How do you stay strong and well in body and mind?
SP: I meditate. Acem Meditation is absolutely fantastic for anyone looking for an easy meditation because it’s straightforward. It’s a Nordic meditation where they give you a mantra, which you repeat for thirty-five to fourty minutes a day. I often do it in the studio when I have come to the end of something or am waiting for a bit of paint to dry. It’s about letting things be and not concentrating in a really focused way. It goes well with the unconscious. You’re the action, which is repeating the mantra but your mind is going elsewhere. Over time the unconscious comes through — a bit like painting. Freedom comes from doing the action.

FF: If you have any messages to your younger self, what would they be?
SP: Don’t be self-conscious or worry about what people think of you.

FF: Other than your family, what do you hold dear to your heart?
SP: Political and personal freedom and education. I am thankful to be living in London in a democratic country and have the freedom to be an artist and to be able to make choices as a woman.

Cover of 'Park Note', an anthology of writing and art inspired by Regents Park
Above L: Following on from the ‘Writers Series’, Sarah published Park Notes, an anthology of writing and art inspired by Regents Park. Above R: Sarah wears her magic cloak to a wedding. “When I was younger, I developed a squint — from having had whooping cough — which eventually developed into my acute sense of vision ,” Sarah says. “I went to the eye hospital a lot.”

A Fabulous Fabster thank you to Sarah Pickstone!

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