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Sarah Needham

My work engages with people, trade, place, transience and preservation : I make abstract paintings prints and small objects

An artist concerned with human inter-connectedness, and the interplay between the personal and the universal as expressed though the material  of pigment.

Artist’s Statement

I start with the way in which pigments leave material colour across human history and geography leaving traces of our interactions. The projects chosen have resonance with the now. The form of the work is abstract spaces to fall into. I make oil paints by hand from the relevant pigments.

Each collection has an historic or geographic specificity: I have visited the 20,000 year old cave paintings in Pech Merle and learned about the material traceability of ochres and that a prehistoric artist might have travelled long distances: Researching the British Library archive I found the historical spread of cobalt based glass and glazes through archaeological finds, which illustrated the expanse of cultural exchange during classical and pre-classical times. Researching the pigments listed in the Bristol Library’s  Presentiment Papers (1770Jan-June), I found evidence of transatlantic indigo just like St Katharine’s (see below) , but also of madder, ochre and verdigris in a little pocket of peaceful trade between the European wars. I looked through The Admiralty papers at the National Archive, to find pigments in ships captured by privateers during the Anglo Dutch Wars. Inspired by Turner’s Slave ship I have researched the pigments imported into St Katharine docks at the time of the abolitionist movement, and found indigo, a slave trade product, making it a colour of exploitation as well as beauty: I have looked at the evidence of Turner’s palette at the Tate, for the new pigments, at the turning point from a predominantly Colonial  and alchemical to an industrial and scientifically based society. Always looking in these points of change for relevant echoes of our current flux.

The form my work takes is abstract spaces, spaces to fall into to get lost and to remember. I owe a debt to twentieth Century artists for the freedom to play in these colour fields, to Rothko and Frankenthaler, to Kandinsky, to Sonia Delaunay and  breakthroughs with colour as substance. But also to the unnamed Church painters of the Middle ages for whom pigments had their own symbolism.  Technically the medieval dislike of palette mixing, which was a question of material interference, echoed for me in retaining the integrity of a pigment for the story which it holds. And to the developments of oil painting by the Northern Renaissance artists and into the Southern Renaissance, and the technical traditions of glazing which allow me to layer and lends me understanding of paint as a suspension of pigments which can be layered like strata.

My understanding and expression come through the exploration of these colour traces of our thought and history and the way in which the material holds its own story.  That we must remember our human story, how we got here, how this society came into being and what the costs were is a given.  There is a sense in which these colours hold more than the formal record, they hold nuance and space for connection, for potential and extant symbolism and for the stories never told.


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