Firstly, let me say that Sara has given me permission to tell her story, quote her own words.
Whilst this is an unusual statement to make at the start of a feature, readers will understand why if they read on. Sara emailed me after we chatted and said, “I like to think of myself as quite a happy soul in spite of everything.”
Well into our chat in Sara’s Timperley studio she says, “An artist’s work can’t be sentimental, can’t be theatrical, can’t be dramatic. That’s too trivial to take it seriously. Work being emotive is allowed, but it can’t be too obvious. You’re allowed to talk about death… but it can’t be too obvious because then it’s not legitimate. That’s all bullshit.”
Sara grew up in the Solomon Islands, then Hong Kong, before moving back to London to attend Wimbledon School of Art at eighteen, graduating in 1987.
She loved the foundation year, but felt cast adrift on the degree course, not really knowing what she was supposed to be striving for. “I don’t think anybody should go to art-college before they’re twenty eight. Because before that you don’t know who you are.”
After graduating she was offered a show at a London gallery, but in panic and self-doubt said that she couldn’t, because ‘she didn’t have a van.’ The lamest of excuses she now says and, “Possibly the most stupid thing I’ve ever said. But I was riddled with self doubt.”
Instead Sara found whatever work she could and over subsequent decades – whilst marrying and having three kids – earned what living she could in bar work, warehouse packer and ‘even serving in a video shop.’ It was, she says, “Easier than attempting to be an artist.”
There was a period where she worked for the Institute of Directors on their magazine ‘Director’ and at one point illustrated an issue. “But it was really a non-job and I left when I became pregnant with my second child.”
Moving around the country with the kids, according to where her husband worked, in St. Albans she applied to train as a post-grad art therapist, although had to find ‘work experience’ as part of the application and spent two years working at The Royal Home for Incurables in Putney. Sara smiles and says, “It’s now called The Royal Neurological Hospital.”
Move on some years and, now divorced and after several moves she found work for a property developer in Manchester – whilst living in Uttoxeter. Painting ‘corporate’ abstract art for buy-to-let properties. “I had hundreds of canvases around a big room in a school, just worked along the line. I had no conscience. They wanted lime, avocado, mocca, blush…” Sara smiles again, “not brown, green or purple.”
When that work dried up with the financial crisis she moved to Timperley in 2005. Work followed in autistic and social care. “I did that for years, yes washing and cleaning, home visiting. But at that time I began to dig through old Kodak photos from the Solomon Islands and Hong Kong. And I started painting them.”
But now we need to step back. From very young Sara had a friend Debbie, who seemed to follow her round the world wherever they lived. Debbie was, it seemed, the friend who had everything.
A bohemian artist mum, an illustrated Bible – “Beautiful coloured illustrations on white pages.” – but most of all a Tiny Tears doll. A possession impossible for Sara to own in the Solomon Islands. In 2009 Debbie was diagnosed with breast cancer. “When I was a child I always wanted everything that Debbie had. Ironic then that I was also diagnosed with breast cancer a year later.”
A mastectomy and recovery over a long period led to Sara painting again, recovering a passion that she had all but abandoned after art-college. “But I was obsessed with Tiny Tears dolls – a theme that appeared constantly in my painting. I painted Tiny Tears as a Botticelli – The Birth of Venus. I guess because I had had a rebirth myself.
“And another theme was the Solomon Islands’ sea spirit, Tararamanu. There’s no concept of heaven and hell in Solomon Islands culture. Instead there’s a final canoe ride. I started including images of empty canoes in my work, I guess because it had sailed off without Debbie and myself.”
Then I remember one Friday in 2014 I had nearly completed a painting of Debbie and one of Anita, another friend from the Solomons.
Finally, I thought, I’ve found what I’ve been searching for in my work since 1987. I patted myself on the back. On the Sunday morning my mother phoned to say that my brother had died by suicide. I’ve not painted since. Now I make things.”
Maybe as a cathartic process Sara made an installation of thousands of pink flowers, assembled in tear drop shapes and accompanied by a sound track of a Solomon Islands lullaby, Oceanic women water drumming and her own sobbing.
“The flowers were like the Botticelli flowers. It was a grieving process, not about my brother but about me. I guess it was an exercise in dealing with trauma through art. Making became my MO and that’s what I do now. Not painting.”
Sara then tells of finding a family photograph album and reproducing the images with her brother’s image removed. “I even thought myself that this was weird, but then he was insecure, sensitive and somehow it made sense because he’d always felt invisible. By erasing him he becomes more prominent in a way. I can talk about death until the cows come home. Death is my thing. This is all over now.
“Last June I was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer. All of the work I do now is about death and some of these things will continue to come out. I’m learning how to die, I think that’s what it is.
“I’ve experienced avoiding it, I’ve experienced other people doing it and now I’m prepping for my own because I don’t know how long I’ve got. Now I’ve got to squeeze everything that I want to do into an uncertain period of time.”
Sara smiles a genuine warm smile, but I don’t know what is going on behind the smile.