Interview with Sara Marlowe Hall
1. Tell us a bit about your path as an artist.
I grew up in between London and Los Angeles and have creative parents that, from a young age, have always encouraged me to paint and make art. I went to art school in London Camberwell College of Arts and lived a year abroad in Leipzig, Germany studying at the Academy of Visual Arts. These years in art school gave me the structure and freedom to create and develop my ideas into what they are now. My Nona was the star artist in the family and an incredible painter, I always admired her art and I never quite had the confidence to paint as a profession as she was so good.
After she passed away I inherited her brushes and began painting, it seemed to be the only way I could connect with her. That was the blossoming of me becoming more confident within painting and finding my own style. Painting for me has always been a visceral and emotional response to what’s going on around me. Travel is a huge part of who I am and my practice, I am heavily influenced by experiencing new places and culture. I have been traveling frequently to Morocco over the past 4 years, during my travels I collect natural pigments from different regions to use for my paintings. I tend to gravitate to different materials which you see when looking at different collections of my work. For the last six years I have been living in Los Angeles, where I have been inspired so much by the vast Californian landscapes especially the high desert, this is where my plaster series blossomed from.
2. What does your day to day look like in the studio right now?
I usually begin by getting the space ready and organizing whilst listening to music. Working in plaster gets quite messy and my studio is small so I have to make sure everything is in order. I start by filling my buckets with water, washing my brushes and cutting my plaster into strips to prepare to mix with paint. Once finished preparing I usually will sit in the space, work on some studies and then think about what colors I need to make. My work is heavily involved in the investigation of color. I’ll mix my pigments or paint into different hues in the buckets, adding water and then begin dipping my plaster with my hands and applying it to the canvas. When working on these paintings I am on my feet for up to 8 hours at a time so it can be quite intense. When painting in my studio I go into a very meditative zone where the work almost takes on a life of its own.
3. Can you tell us more about the plaster paintings — like the piece in our studio? People really gravitate in its direction.
Over the past couple years I have been incorporating plaster into my paintings, I wanted to be able to add depth to the canvas and create sculptural paintings. The plaster painting Avalanche commissioned for Loq, was inspired by the Californian High Desert and the relationship between objects and space. There are many layers to the painting revealing moments and tones beneath the surface of what would remind you of the Earth.
4.Who has influenced your work? Even if it doesn’t show explicitly in what you make — or if it does.
Helen Frankenthaler is one of my favorite female artists, I am always in awe of her work. Her use of color and expression creates such a beautiful language on the canvas. When visiting her work in person, the paintings create this burst of expression that makes me feel happy or at ease. I would say Rothko has always done the same for me too, his use of color and layering is so beautiful, when I was younger, and still today, I always rush to the Rothko room in a museum and make sure that I am able to spend some time, quiet amongst his paintings. They have always connected with me.
5. I know you did a residency on the Varda houseboat — how did that specific space & its histories affect you and the work that was made there?
The Varda Residency is a magical place. It was one of the most precious times I have ever had creating a body of work. The residency took place on a ferry called SS Vallejo in Sausalito, California. The ferry had been docked there since the 1940s where Jean Varda an incredible artist had resided and invited other artists, philosophers, writers and creatives to either stay or live there to name a few, Ruth Asawa, Alan Watts, Allen Ginsberg, Agnes Varda, Maya Angelou, Jack Kerouac and many more. When staying on the boat, there is so much history that lives in walls that surround you and the floors that you step on, that you are constantly filled with the energetic spirits of those that have worked and lived there.
Living on Water is a series of works I launched with Tappan Collective, the series consists of paintings, watercolor studies and drawings made during a month of living there. When looking at this series you can see that I am heavily influenced by the 1970s which felt like an era that the SS Vallejo had been stuck in time. I use a mix of vibrant colors blended with rust textures mimicking the materials around me such as the boat itself, water, wood and the deck. The shape of the circle is consistent throughout the series referencing the nautical windows around me as well as the gird of a deck in my watercolors. This collection is a direct connection to the residency and space that the Varda Residency have created for their artists.
6. Speaking of Agnes Varda, what are some other mediums of influence for you? Is there a film you saw recently, or perhaps music, which informs your work right now?
Film and music are very much part of my practice. I love all of Agnes Varda’s movies, I would suggest watching Uncle Yanco a short film about Jean Varda filmed on the SS Vallejo. But also Black Panthers is one of my favourite films by her and so relevant during this time of civil unrest in America. I collect a lot of records, music is very important to my life and daily routine at home. I have recently been starting my morning by playing Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou who is an Ethiopian pianist, composer and former nun. Her music is so beautiful and peaceful it immediately eases you into a state of relaxation.
7. What are you working on at the moment? Is there a certain question you have been trying to answer in that recent work?
Currently I have been working on drawings and a few plaster paintings that are exploring a feeling of imbalance with objects and materials on the canvas. I have been using a lot of white and calm colors, referencing peace and tranquility that I am searching for within the world during this pandemic and now politically.
8. Does art function as a form of activism for you?
My art is always reflecting my emotions in time, which in itself is political in that moment. However it is not a direct protest in function. I do use my art however to raise money and donate to causes that are changing the country for better such as Black Lives Matter.
9. With the stay-at-home order we have adopted a new lifestyle. How has more time alone impacted your process? This can be tangible, or just in the way that you've thought about your practice.
I think there is a lot of pressure on creatives during the pandemic to create, which I have found quite hard. I was lucky to have already made a collection at the Varda Residency during march which was the beginning of lockdown so I was able to take a break after. When I returned to Los Angeles I found it very difficult to get inspired. I was so overwhelmed with what was going on in the world that I mainly spent my time reading, cooking, resting, listening to music and enjoying my home. I took the time to reflect and reset myself which slowed me down.
10. What are other activities or rituals, which work to ground or inspire you currently?
My number one ritual is waking up, making coffee and playing a record to start the day, that pretty much will set the mood of the day I want to have. I recently have been using my free time to protest for Black Lives Matter, in taking action for a better future for the city and country I live in, going to protests and taking action in change has been my biggest inspiration at this moment.
See more of Sara's work @saramarlowehall.
Photographs by Kate Berry @katebe_.