Rose Strang interviewed by Giles Sutherland (Author and Art Critic for The Times) July 2013
Giles: I first met you in 2001 and at that time you were working for Richard Demarco at the Demarco European Art Foundation in a curatorial capacity and I remember you did a Post Grad in Museum and Gallery Studies at St Andrews University, then pursued a curatorial role in various projects including with the NHS in Scotland and the Midlands in England, and through all that time, knowing you quite well, I didn’t have a sense of you as a painter. And it was a great joy when I started seeing your work and I liked the work a lot, to the point of buying a couple, so from my perspective there was a kind of hidden talent there. Why was that? Was there a lack of encouragement?
Rose: Well…after I graduated Art College I did various shows – 3 D work and installations. Then exhibitions at the invitation of Richard Demarco, and Charles Ryder (formerly Senior Designer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) who worked with Demarco on several projects. Also, you’ve been encouraging, and thank you for what you’ve said about my paintings!
But focussing on curating rather than my personal creativity was more to do with a self imposed voice which was all about choosing a sensible career. And I think it takes a lot of guts to choose an artist’s life in any form, you have to be prepared to take a stand and to be feeling quite confident. However much encouragement you receive it’s not that that gets you anywhere.
I was also waiting for a time for the dust to settle, to be able to relax enough to let my creativity come to the surface. So a lot of the time, working as a curator within the NHS, much as I was inspired by it, was to do with feeling a need to prove myself in a professional environment. So after five years of that, I thought, well, I’ve done it. After that, I was in a position to start painting because I couldn’t imagine doing something else at that time. Starting to paint was a kind of self acceptance…which was motivating – and this sense of having wasted time perhaps, as an artist
Giles: I look at your work and it makes something in me move, particularly I suppose because it’s close to some of my own experiences, I’m not an artist but I have an enjoyment of nature and your work is particularly not urban. Would you like to say more about that?
Rose: you’re right that nature is the inspiration for me, but I would say that the paintings are about inner states too. The theme of nature is central to my life though most of the time I’ve lived in the city. I’d say that some of the most profound experiences I’ve had, have happened in nature – I suppose you could say spiritual experiences and I suppose this is quite Romanticist – in landscape there’s the sense of the infinite and possibilities, and we do also project on to landscape. So although the work is often about the way things look with an element of expression, it’s also often about a state of mind. Dandelion for example..
Giles: Let’s have a look at it…so if you talk me through it..
Rose: Well that was at the River Almond near Crammond, there’s a kind of cliff-face that the river, or weir, runs past and there are niches carved into it, by people a long time ago. So weathering over hundreds of years has happened and weeds have grown there. Something about that spoke to me, I took lots of photos, did some sketches, then came back and developed the painting. The first thing was laying down all these layers, and I realised it looked quite ugly but I wanted to keep that and found it interesting, but the Dandelion on the right of the painting, in this niche, was I suppose – this surviving weed, it’s tucked away there in its little niche in the wall, with all this harshness next to it, and I admire dandelions I suppose; just the thing of weeds being weeded out and dandelions being somehow tenacious yet modest.
Giles: Do you see yourself as a dandelion?!
Rose: Haha! If I did it was unconscious. When I sold it to a buyer, I never mentioned any of this, but her Mother had recently passed away and her Mother had planted dandelions, and she said that she saw turbulence, dark waters and troubles in the painting but also this surviving dandelion that reminded her of the spirit of her Mother. So that was just beautiful that she’d see that, because there is an element of that, it’s almost as if the dandelion is laughing – maybe I’m anthropomorphising dandelions..
Giles: Doesn’t nature always have the last laugh..
Rose: Ha! yes, that’s it. But I suppose the thing about painting nature, and landscapes or walls, or things we don’t communicate with in the same way we do with our own species, is you know it doesn’t answer back, so you do project ideas on to it. I have painted portraits but I always feel obliged to create an image that the person wants
Giles: So, talking about portraiture – you feel obliged to do something that represents something that they want?
Rose: Yes definitely. I suppose it’s more free-ing to paint landscape, which answers back in its own way of course in reality, but in painting it’s about ideas as well as visual ideas that fascinate you as an artist, there are no restrictions. I absolutely admire artists like Joan Eardley whose expression of people is fantastic, but I would struggle to paint pictures as she did of, for example, children in Glasgow tenements and not feel I was coming in with some prejudices, imposing my own ideas on others
Giles: This painting I’m looking at is of trees, it looks like it might be spring..
Rose: Yes, early spring. It’s called Spring Sycamore, it’s a forest in South Queensferry and it’s a place we sometimes went as kids. My Mum and Dad have always enjoyed the countryside and nature, and we got out into it as much as possible. When we were kids my Dad would set up swings in these huge, tall elm trees at the woods in South Queensferry, which he’d achieve through a variety of lassoe techniques to get really high up in the tree, so you could swing down an entire valley. The trees in Spring Sycamore are young trees, but there might be something of that exuberance of swinging in trees there, but also I loved the blackness, you know – where you’re looking into a forest when the spring leaves are starting to come out, incredibly luminous against the velvety black.
Giles: The next one’s called Pincushion Moss. I was thinking recently about my definition of an artist, what an artist is, what an artist does, and the only definition I could come up with that made any sense was – an artist is someone who tries to show us the world in a different way, in a way we might not have considered, or make us look at things differently that we think we know. And it seems to me from reading your artist’s statement that that’s what you do. You want to celebrate what many people would regard as the mundane…ordinary weeds, bits of moss. You celebrate these things, and you celebrate them in a way that’s not mimetic, there’s a mimetic element in it, but you’re bringing the whole force of your feeling and experience and I suppose your love of nature into your work, and there’s great talent there and energy, and a lot of passion, a lot of love. You can see that the work’s been layered, and there’s a lot of work and experimentation. But you’ve managed to capture moss that’s vivid and green, and growing in a way that, I suppose it’s fore-grounded by the technique and the composition. It’s been made to stand out and you’re saying ‘pay attention’ to this, because it’s important.
Rose: That’s true, and I can think back to when I was working with Richard Demarco in 2000, and I was looking through these prints in the archive by Joseph Beuys. Most people know his work that uses 3D materials, you know, it’s quite mysterious a lot of it, about natural elements, but one of the prints I saw was of this single, tiny clover leaf in earthy colours, on a background that was a swathe of what looked like watered down clay soil. I felt there was reverence, you know, and love there. So maybe that’s unconsciously come in to this. I’ve not nearly, nowhere near captured the beautiful simplicity that’s in his work, his drawings and prints. Another drawing he did, I think called ‘Hide’ which was part of the collection in the National Gallery of Scotland, again using very earthy colours, of a stag. He just captured this absolute essence of nature, it was difficult to grasp why he’d captured that more than other artists, but he had.
Giles: He had a profound love and respect for the natural world and grew up in a place where he could celebrate and explore that. I went to the museum near Kleve and his early work is in abundance there. It’s full of stags and hares and swans – beautiful, beautiful things, absolutely wonderful works, sometimes drawn on slate. But you’ve had a strong influence having worked with Demarco – his links with Beuys are strong and so you’ve absorbed that, I would imagine, in different ways.
Rose: Yes, and in unknown ways too probably, it was meaningful
Giles: And you also celebrate an elemental quality in works of the sea, and it’s something many artists have been drawn to and fascinated by – in Scotland McTaggart, or Turner – many people have been drawn to this, maybe you could talk a little bit about that because in Scotland we are always quite close to the sea and it does shape our country
Rose: Yes, absolutely, it’s the difference between living here and living somewhere like the Midlands, you feel it, it’s a sense of feeling exposed to, sometimes, harshness. There’s a grittiness about being in Scotland, I think. And perhaps it is the proximity of sea. The painting you’re looking at now, Sandwood Bay which is from sketches of Sandwood Bay in the North of Scotland, particularly expresses that because it’s looking directly North, where you know there’s nothing between you and the North Pole and there’s something really exposed about that, it makes me feel a touch of vertigo. I also find the sea frightening, but beautiful. I think the sea is, for a lot of people, representative of emotions
Giles: Again it’s synthesising an external reality with an internal truth and the two merge in your work. I do get the feeling in your work, of a Northern distance which is something we experience in the North of Scotland, this vastness, thousands of miles of empty sea. It can be lonely and frightening, but it can also be incredibly inspiring
Rose: And connecting as well, despite feeling I’m not in my element in the sea or water, just to sit in a bay and watch wave after wave you begin to feel that you’re moving in tune with the earth again
Giles: The painting I’m looking at now Orkney Sea and Light, it’s a different mood, it’s a winter scene
Rose: It’s Orkney so even in summer there’s that sense of white, white light, not soft, very hard but beautiful, with these pixels of light that dance on the water. I lived there for a while, but this painting is not a view as such, it was the impression in my mind that I remembered from the time I lived there. I’d joined a theatre company and we toured the islands so we were very much surrounded by sea, lashed by wind and horizontal rain. Very elemental, surrounded by sea and sky. The feeling of places like that can be inspiring, you feel alive and awake. Though there was much about it I didn’t enjoy in a sense.
Giles: I spend a lot of my time in that part of the world, as you know, and you’ve stayed in my bothy up in Sutherland. It’s a tough environment, it’s challenging but you get those great highs and lows I think, through living in the landscape, but it can be very lonely, you can feel very small in such a huge, open place, with sky and the elements that are very present all the time. What I’d say about my experience of Orkney is similar to yours, although, there’s a great artistic feeling there, there’s support and love of the arts. Artists go there, there’s a thriving art centre and all the rest of it, but what I find in your painting is that, again, there’s no humanity, there’s just the low lying shapes of the islands and a big sea and a big sky. It’s something that an author I like very much, George Mackay Brown has written about on a number of occasions – the vastness of that. He’s written poetry and prose about that, which is beautiful and inspiring. Also the composer Peter Maxwell Davis, whose music I think attempts to address some of that – the weather and elemental magic really.
Rose: Yes, and going back to Hugh MacDiarmid too
Giles: Yes, he lived in Shetland and did a lot of writing that dealt with those things. Maybe you’d like to say something about , we’ve talked quite a lot about different artists and Scotland, but do you, even in an individual way, imagine yourself as a part of a tradition or do you feel that’s important?
Rose: I don’t feel a part of tradition, I don’t feel that’s important, to me, and I suppose I don’t feel…a part of the culture of Scotland, hugely. Although the landscape is very much an inspiration. You were talking about Sutherland, and I remember when we drove past the valley there, where a massive Highland clearance took place
Rose: Yes, and often I feel when I’m in the Highlands or the West Coast, there’s this sense of it having been scoured (though some places are very gentle) and the history, so I feel somehow mixed about that, I’ve never felt I fitted in particularly – I’ve tended to have easier times of it when I’ve lived down south or abroad
Giles: I’ve lived in the South of England and it’s a very different kind of place, it has its attraction – it’s gentle, it’s easier, there isn’t the same idea of pain, I think I do understand what you’re saying . But there is a tendency in Scotland, there’s a Nationalist art historicising tendency to assimilate people into a kind of putative, almost imaginary tradition that doesn’t really exist, it’s that tendency that exists that assimilates people whether they felt that way or not. Which is something I’ve always felt rather resistant towards myself. Because most artists, not all, but most tend to work alone and they don’t feel they’re particularly part of some great movement or part of some political force. This painting I’m looking at now is Rain Shower
Rose: Rain Shower, and the series of paintings with it, was inspired by a Paul Eluard poem – Nuit Partages, which means Night Partings, from his collection La Vie Immediate. I discovered the poem back in art college and I’ve never found a really good translation, and I don’t speak French, so a lot of it is guess-work, but it’s a really beautiful poem and a lot of that series of paintings on wood was inspired by that. And that’s also where a Japanese influence comes in a little bit. Ukiyo E are prints from the last century and Ukiyo E means ‘the floating world’, it’s all about the ephemeral nature of experience, of life and desires. Behind it are a lot of spiritual ideas, but most of the paintings are about pleasure, but also how fleeting that is. Most of them depict urban life, Geishas, that sort of thing, but a lot of them are landscapes and I love the feeling of fragility and the translucence of the prints. Changing weather can express it. And what I wanted to capture in that series of paintings, and still try to capture (I’ll probably be trying for a long time) is the fact that when you’re in a place, you’re not fully present a lot of the time, and we’re so ruled by time, and afterwards you may regret that. So you distil the memory and it becomes perfected or idealised, or it becomes art
Giles: I like Rain Shower very much
Rose: I gave it to a friend who was going through a difficult experience and was in a difficult process, I suppose of finding ways to hold on to a precious memory. And that’s where the Eluard poem expresses this sense of distilling experience, and of being present – When I arrive, the small boats leave, a rain shower brings flowers and their luminosity blinds me. I think Nuit Partages is about Eluard’s relationship with someone he could only see at certain times, and they try not to corrupt it, they try to maintain its perfection, but it’s illicit in nature, or already corrupted, because they were both married to other people, but it’s about how that becomes gradually brought in to reality, and it’s no longer this beautiful thing which they’ve attempted to hone into a sort of precious diamond
Giles: Real life intrudes on the ideal..
Rose: Yes exactly, precisely and I think that’s what painting is for me
Giles: I think you’ve tried to preserve that ideal in your work, and that’s the place where, in a way, you feel free…and at peace
Rose: Yes. And possibly that’s true of anyone involved in a creative endeavour, it’s an oasis, yes
Giles: Ok, well let’s leave it there, thank you
Rose: Thank you