August 5, 2021

Q & A with Sally Stokes

1. Please select one painting from your exhibition. Tell us more about this painting; your process, and why you think it will connect with your viewers.

Beginning to breathe slowly‘ 2019, oil on linen, 153x153cm (sold)

Art is such a personal experience, some experiences ignite and others burn out, so I’m never sure what will connect with viewers- all I can do is live through the painting and hope some viewers catch the flame.

As I sit in my boatshed studio on Marramarra Creek, with the tide lapping the jetty posts and the rain falling, I remember the genesis of this painting— many canoe trips to Kulkah Bay, one of the few places where in mid tides you can canoe amongst the mangroves. The canoe of course is in continual motion, as the water moves around but when you arrive amongst the mangroves a silence emerges and it as if life starts again. For me, the artwork, ‘Beginnning to breathe slowly’ is ike entering a European cathedral on a busy day— silence, different smells, sacred light, colours, the reflections. The water moves amongst the pneumatophores (mangrove aerial roots), the muds reflect the different colours with falling light and mangrove trunks are decorated with muddy socks and stockings. I sit in the canoe drawing — gouaches, graphite and charcoal, balancing books, paints and brushes as the water ebbs and flows. Over time I probably completed around 50 drawings – emphasising  different qualities of line and space.  I returned to my Dural studio, pinned up the drawings and commenced a series of “mangrove paintings” working on a few at once, and over months as the oil paint dries and is layered, it comes into its own being and the painting is born, with its own unique life force.

Amongst the mangroves

2. Why do you choose to paint abstract?

I am wanting to convey much more than I can see at one time, so working with abstract qualities allows time, doubt, impermanence, life force, emotions to enter the work and the viewer. As I sit with the landscape, leaves move,  the light changes, a bird flies across, a branch falls. I want to convey both the moment and extended time. The spaces that come back and forth depending on what you concentrate upon. A sense of place and my connection to it.  The silence of soul. The life force that connects – a line that tells you of energy, a line of quietness, a colour that emits emotion – often joy and harmony, but always connection.

3. There is a real sense of solitude from your works. Can you tell me about this.

I am hoping there is connection, joy and new perceptions. But certainly, I paint alone, and although I draw en plein air in a group one day a week, the painting seems to require solitude to enter the territory of discovery and newness. It’s worked through the imagination, but based on a tradition of art making that goes back to earlier humans and their need to create from our experiences of life. I try and reach the silence, the emptiness that allows a new energy, a new being to enter — and perhaps physically you need to be alone for this.

4. Can you tell me about working in your two studios and the inspiration you gather from Dural and the Hawkesbury?

The Hawkesbury boatshed studio is situated on a tidal creek, access only via boat and jetty where stingrays and fish swim beneath – pelicans, herons and cormorants fish. When the tide falls out, the crackle of crabs and mud emerge. Being imprisoned until the tide returns – you start knowing the tides and its patterns. It’s on solar so you watch the sun. Tank water, so you watch the rain. The moon changes the time of tides. Some days you can hear the freeway; it’s so close to Sydney.  Here I paint paintings in acrylic that can fit in the runabout boat we use to get here.

Boatshed Studio, Marramarra Creek, Hawkesbury River

In my purpose built Dural studio, I am surrounded by the angophoras, rock cliffs, the whip bird and the entertaining lyre bird. I paint in oils here with the numerous drawings to inspire the next series of bigger works which are inspired from my trips on the river and through the bush, desert and mountains.

In both studios the paintings emerge over time, from memory, imagination reinforced by the drawings – my way into seeing.

5. Can you explain your connection to the Australian landscape and our native trees?

The landscape around me is a metaphor for life. There is so much diversity and complexity in a single tree – from the bark, leaves, branches, new shoots, surprising colours and different root patterns. I walk amongst it and new relationships form, day to day it changes, yet there is an underlying order – if only I can find it. Trees take on the forms of dancers, tall men, whole societies of common needs and unique niches. The bush can look so bland and tertiary from the distance but when you relate and communicate with it, suddenly a crimson red leaf will emerge. There is always some mystery, a sense of belonging and an incredible vulnerability. The story of life.

6. How does Giotto’s work reflect in your paintings?

Giotto inspires me. His sense of colour, observations, and particularly his regard for nature.  He interprets the world not just from what he sees, but from a connection to being alive — observing, interpreting and bringing forth a new reality in his paintings.  You can sit in his chapels and new emotions and realities emerge – that connect you to yourself.  It’s what happens to me also when I sit in nature. I connect to the unknown spirit of life, complexity, birth, time and death.

Giotto’s Arena Chapel located in Padua, Italy which is filled with the most wonderful frescos.

7. Can you tell me about Tony’s incredible support for your art?

Tony is a people person – he does amazing things like contact art galleries to see if they like my work! (and also to enlarge his world.)  He approached Lisa Rochfort back in 2018 and she has been showing my work ever since.  Approaching art galleries brings with it lots of rejection- there are always many cogs to fit into the machine of having an exhibition, and painting is filled with doubts. But Tony handles the business side of my art career, buying the canvasses, paints, updating my website, enters art prize competitions, handles the accounts, and delivers and collects artworks.

Tony and Lisa Rochfort tgoether with her staff chose all the paintings for this current show, ‘The Black Honey of Summer‘ another time consuming demand that meant I could continue with my routine of painting.  (I like to be in the studio by 9am).

He also drives us to the desert most years, does most of the cooking and over breakfast he reads a poem, usually by Mary Oliver to transform the day from the practical with its separations to the oneness of being.

He enjoys people, and gets me to join the human world more often. We both love visiting art galleries together both here in Australia and Europe (pre-covid), this is where the joy of sharing art began. So between that and his love of nature, our lives are so enriched.

As all my artist friends say “Everyone needs a Tony”

Pictured: Tony Scotland

8. How long did this exhibition take to put together. Did you paint any of these works during Covid lockdowns?

The earliest work from this show was 2017, and the last completed in 2021.

Many were completed during the covid lockdown, unlike the last 12 years we couldn’t go to the desert over winter so we stayed on the river for 7 weeks. Many of the river and mangrove paintings were completed during that time as well as works from the previous year’s trip to the Flinders Ranges. In fact I relished the lock down time — less distractions, more involvement with the day to day cycles. 

9. Can you give me a general overview of this collection of paintings?

 The collection of works are landscape paintings, which I’ve completed in the last 5 years.

The Rochfort Gallery is an amazing space, and Lisa and her team are so lovely to visit. The staff are happy to let you look or engage in conversation about the work. It’s an old masonic hall transformed into a European style gallery, not the traditional white cube. I love the way my work vibrates in the space, particularly the larger works. They curate the work with a lot of care. It’s such a good experience.

10. Tell me about winning the Muswellbrook art Prize and what this meant to you.

It was a thrill to win the Muswellbrook Art Prize, to be acknowledged by the judge, Lauretta Morton,  Director of Newcastle Art Gallery, and for the work to be acquired by the Muswellbrook Regional Art Centre- directed by Elissa Emerson. It is a highly regarded art prize in the art world- one of the best for art prize money.

Art prizes are so hit and miss- sometimes you are selected mostly not- so to win this was an unexpected privilege, and great endorsement of my art practice.

The Black Honey of Summer‘, 2020, oil on linen, 102 x 102cm
by Sally Stokes

For Artwork Enquiries and Catalogue Requests
Please contact – 0438 700 712
or email [email protected]