Sandy Campbell is in her third year as a Fellow with Digswell Arts and is based at the Forge. She is particularly interested in materiality and surface and creates richly textured abstract paintings.
How would you describe your current practice (e.g. materials, techniques, themes, key questions, approach)? Although I have previously worked across a range of disciplines that includes drawing, photography, and 3D, since being with Digswell Arts my focus has mainly been painting. Paint is a medium that I love and that I find completely compelling, so it is only natural that I come back to it again and again. My work is abstract and each painting is basically my conversation with the canvas, my dialogue with the paint, although the work often references abandonment and decay, things that I have been interested in since childhood.
I enjoy using chance as a methodology; the push and pull between what the paint on the canvas dictates and what I control as the artist. I begin my paintings by creating a textured surface as a base, using a kind of automatic drawing, and then I start working into the surface with paint. It is quite a lengthy process of addition and subtraction, mainly using a palette knife, until eventually something emerges that has resonance for me personally. Because there is inevitably an element of hidden history buried within the surface of the canvas, this gives the work an energy and depth of meaning. If I had to give my work, a tagline I guess it would be probably be Hidden/Revealed.
What are you working on at the moment? Over the last few months I have been building up a large body of work as I have a number of projects planned over the coming year or so. With this year being the sixtieth anniversary of Digswell Arts we have a very special Open Studios at the Forge, 6-7 May, and then just after that I am once again the feature artist at The Foyer Gallery in Letchworth, for six weeks from 17 May. I am also taking part in the Affordable Art Fair in Hitchin in July and then am working towards a joint exhibition with another local artist early next year.
What is the question you get asked about your work and how do you answer it? That’s easy, “where do I get my inspiration?” It’s difficult to explain because generally people are desperate for me to have worked from something, to have abstracted something, but it really isn’t the case. I start with a blank canvas, I randomly create texture and then I paint. As I explained above it is my dialogue with the canvas and the fascination for me is paint and surface and the energy that elicits. Each painting is a new, exciting, and sometimes nerve wracking experience, but the more I do it the more confident I get that it will work out… and it usually does. Inevitably my interest in abandonment and decay filters into the work, but this is not done necessarily consciously or deliberately.
What or who inspired you to be an artist and why? I became an artist quite late in life, just a few years ago. I was fascinated by art as a child but totally lacked confidence at school and so gave it up, pursuing a career in finance instead. Only relatively recently when health issues forced me to go in a different direction did I try several taster courses, and art and design just happened to be one of the courses I went on. Although I subsequently decided to retrain as a garden designer I found that I enjoyed the drawing side of the course so much that I switched to being an artist and went to art school. I suppose it hit me that if I carried on pursuing design I would always be working to another person’s brief, whereas being an artist brought a much greater creative freedom. Of course, it does have its own challenges too, but being able to work on whatever I wanted to do was a key factor for me.
Since I made that decision I can honestly say that every single tutor that I have had, be it at evening class, college, or university has inspired me. I certainly would not be doing what I am doing today without their encouragement, guidance, and enthusiastic support. I particularly want to mention my tutor Rebecca Meanley at Bedfordshire University, who truly understood what I was trying to do, even when I couldn’t always vocalise it or explain it myself; she really pushed me to be more experimental and expressive, and helped me to move fully into abstraction.
Which artist do you most admire and why? This is a difficult question because there are several key artists that inspire me, and that have really been pivotal to the development of my work, but if I had to name just one then it would be Joan Mitchell. She is my ‘go to artist’ when I have a creative wobble or start to doubt myself. The Abstract Expressionism movement really contextualises and grounds my practice, but it is Joan Mitchell’s work that has a special resonance for me personally. She was described as having “a rage to paint;” a powerful description for incredibly powerful work. Her use of colour, her explosive, gestural mark making – it is all about energy and emotion, and is so arresting. I will never tire of looking at it.
How has your relationship with Digswell Arts Trust strengthened your practice as an artist? The Trust has not only provided a fantastic studio space, but being part of a community has been so beneficial. When I graduated from art school I was still very much a beginner and I felt extremely vulnerable and lost for a few months afterwards. Coming to the Trust gave me confidence and validation when I needed it most, and has continued to give me a safe environment in which to experiment and progress as an artist, as well as inspirational colleagues that spur me on.