With the deadline for the prestigious Black Swan Arts Open competition now less than a month away – the Frome arts centre is accepting entries until 14 September – we’re taking a closer look at the judges selecting work for this year’s show. This week we’re in conversation with artist Sue Conrad who is sponsoring a new prize this year for Works on Paper.
Sue Conrad studied constructed textiles at Goldsmiths College in the 1960s and later went on to complete a master’s degree in multidisciplinary printmaking at the University of the West of England. She became a teacher and taught art and design in various schools and further education colleges in Glasgow, Somerset and Wiltshire.
In her own work, she is continuously experimenting with surface, texture, line and form to build layers of meaning. She deals with the themes of distance, decay, solitude and man’s relationship to the natural world. She says, ‘One does not merely look at these paintings, one voyages through them.’
Q. Did you always know that you wanted to be an artist?
A. I never imagined that I would ever be called an artist when I embarked on my creative journey. Embroidery was my passion, and I spent many hours on the intricate possibilities of stitch. These studies were purely technical and not in any way experimental.
Q. Where and what did you study?
A. The course at the Hammersmith School of Art covered all aspects of textiles, including ecclesiastical embroidery, hand and machine embroidery, fashion and basic design. I completed my intermediate certificate and then moved on to Goldsmiths.
The advanced diploma in art and design at Goldsmiths was new in conception and we were encouraged to move away from the traditional image of embroidery. Central to the course was the huge emphasis placed on drawing – the stitch was no longer a stitch, it was a mark.
Q. How was art practice changing then – it seems the rigid boundaries between art and craft were starting to change in the 1960s?
A. When I first started at Goldsmiths there was little, if any, opportunity to work across disciplines, such as with the fine art department, sculpture or ceramics. As embroidery became more popular and established as an art form, there were fine artists who wanted to come and experiment with those with embroidery skills. Likewise, we were encouraged to take part in life drawing studies within the fine art department.
Q. Who were your early influences, and who do you follow with interest now?
A. As part of my training at Goldsmiths, we spent a whole day a week drawing historical textiles at the Victoria and Albert Museum. This obviously guided my early work in stitch. More recently, I have been influenced by Keith Vaughan, Francis Bacon, David Hockney, Anselm Kiefer and Alberto Giacometti.
Q. What triggered the shift from your early interest in textiles to paint and print? Or does this still inform your current practice?
A. The shift came about as a result of my changing circumstances. For almost 30 years I was involved in running a business with my late husband and also teaching part time. This left little opportunity to further my own practice. However, circumstances changed again and I decided to return to art, graduating from Winchester School of Art with a degree in visual art – this time specialising in paint and print.
Following Winchester, I completed an MA in printmaking at the University of the West of England, so I am keenly aware of surface and texture; etching proved to be an inspiring and enriching experience. My previous training in stitch continues to inform my work: scratching, hiding, covering and scratching again reveals different layers. This is very similar to fabric collage when using fine fabrics and stitch.
Q. Your most recent work has been inspired by a series of voyages along the west coast of Norway – what was it about this maritime landscape that appealed to you and how has it manifested in your work?
A. Having found a quiet and private area on the boat, usually in the bar, I would work in my sketchbook, recording the impact on my senses of the power and beauty of this remote maritime landscape, and the sometimes turbulent activity of the weather and waves around it.
My sketchbook became more special as the voyage progressed, superimposing one image over another as we sailed through the fiords, observing different kinds of snow reflecting different light. Sometimes the view would be totally obliterated as we moved slowly through a veil of horizontal snow. I became more and more experimental and meditative, often reflecting upon the empty overwhelming land.
On my return to my studio, my imagination was empowered by memory and strong feelings, and images gradually emerged. The process is one of layering, scraping, erasing and re-establishing, while at the same time reaching into the well of memory and the subconscious.
Q. Your paintings are not literal representations but neither are they non-representative abstractions – how do you navigate the blurred line between realism and imagination, memory and feelings?
A. I find the process almost always starts with a ‘chance’ encounter of some kind. Whatever it is, it embeds itself in my psyche and starts resonating there, activating my imagination. I have no idea what it is about, where it is leading or why it is important to me.
How do I know what I am doing if I don’t know what I am trying to do? I can only infer that at some level of my unconscious I do know, and I allow these deeper voices to surface before I interfere too much and bring the process to a premature conclusion.
I do not navigate the blurred line, the blurred line navigates me. In fact, I love the blurred line, the mist, the fog and the unknown. My paintings are memories of my journey through life and are the result of layering and changing surfaces and encounters.
Q. Some of your work has been inspired by Salisbury Plain. Why do you think so many artists are drawn to this landscape?
A. Living in Warminster and lecturing in Salisbury, I was immediately attracted to this wonderful local landscape. I spent many hours walking and drawing in the area, in particular on Scratchbury Hill, an Iron Age hill fort surrounded by other Bronze and Iron Age monuments. This area of chalk landscape was once the seabed, and there are opportunities awaiting the observer to discover shells or fragments of other siliceous organisms.
It is a landscape that represents more than just the visual aspects of the scenery. It is a rich historical record of material features and human activity dating back to times for which there are no written documents. The underlying geology and soil structure have determined the natural features, while the utilisation of the land by man has played a significant part in shaping this particular hill. Its beauty and diversity reflect changing patterns of population and settlement, trade and communications, and war.
I used mixed media in my renditions of this immediate landscape, often incorporating found materials including chalk and even cow pats. I am concerned about issues relating to man’s insignificance in the landscape and of distance and separation. Strong feelings of solitude and silence are conveyed in my paintings, allowing the viewer to pause and contemplate issues relating to time, death and previous lives.
Q. What was Black Swan Arts Centre like when it first opened in 1986, and what artists were shown in the gallery?
A. I remember it as being rather small and cosy with a roaring log fire beneath the inglenook. The food was excellent, being run by Scoffs, if I remember rightly. They later moved to Bath.
The craft shop was a jewel in itself, selling bespoke items of jewellery, knitwear, glass and ceramics, all on a sale-or-return basis. Most of the exhibitors were local, some coming from as far afield as Bristol and Cardiff. To this day, I wear a special pair of silver earrings bought from the gift shop 28 years ago.
The main gallery attracted visitors from the whole of the South West – in particular, I remember two stunning shows, one by David Hockney and the other by Norman Ackroyd.
Q. How do you feel it is going now, over 30 years on?
A. My most recent experience was showing in ‘Back to Blue’ in the Round Tower – an exhibition about the local woollen industry – which was organised by Carolyn Griffiths. It was a well-received show with excellent footfall.
Q. What prompted you to sponsor a prize for a Work on Paper at this year’s Open?
A. As I live and work in Frome, and I would like to help and support emerging artists, I decided to donate a prize of £1,000 for the next 10 years to the Black Swan Open. I limited it to works on paper in order to encourage practices that are important to me – mainly drawing, painting and printmaking. In particular, I hope to encourage observation, mark-making and freedom.