‘I think life is about people and human connection’: Q & A with Sarah Jane Moon

With our first show, ‘Motherhood’, opening this week we take time to chat to New Zealand born Sarah Jane Moon, recipient of The Royal Society of Portrait Painters’ 2013 Bulldog Bursary, about life lived across continents, her transition from curatorial theory to portrait painting and several exciting upcoming projects.

Sarah Jane Moon working on a commission in Scotland

Sarah Jane Moon working on a commission in Scotland

How did you become a painter?

I often feel like the process of becoming a painter is a continuous one, but that stated, I first started painting as a child. I was always ‘good at art’ winning several local awards for drawing and was often accused of ‘copying’ by friends at primary school, which I took as a compliment. I distinctly remember the excitement of finger painting before then at kindergarten and also a peculiar fair ground entertainment that involved squeezing tubes of paint onto a spinning wheel with paper attached to produce a sort of kaleidoscopic pattern. I was always drawn to pattern and intricate detail, my most favourite colouring in books being those that had repetitive designs ad nauseam.

Teenage years saw my interest in art continue and I was very keen on New Zealand painters such as Toss Woollaston, Rita Angus and Colin McCahon. I had one particularly memorable teacher who was flamboyant and bohemian and used to refer to colours as ‘flavours’ and seemed to be viscerally affected by tone and line. She was fabulous and her enthusiasm infectious. However I was also fascinated by other subjects and a rather pragmatic upbringing encouraged me to choose Japanese language and English literature to study at university. Having to choose extra courses to fulfil points requirements I soon added Art History as a third major and looking back it was obvious that I had probably just wanted to paint.

On graduating university in New Zealand I then travelled for a decade or so, living and working in countries such as Japan, Malaysia, Australia and, by roundabout route, the UK. A break in my nascent career in Arts Management led me to take a short course in drawing at Central St Martins (after having not drawn a thing for 12 years) and that soon led, by chance to a late application and enrolment on Heatherley’s Portrait Diploma. I was very very amateur in the beginning but many of the tutors were kind enough to encourage me anyway and I soon gained some degree of competency in drawing. Since finishing the course in 2011 I have been painting and drawing professionally.

What drew you to portraiture in particular?

The week long course I took at Central Saint Martins was tutored by a fabulously enthusiastic young woman by the name of Alice White. At the end of the course she was astute enough to suggest that my inept scribbling, which she kindly referred to as ‘mark making’, would potentially suit portraiture. Being rather adrift in all other areas of my life at the time and searching for something to invest myself in, I was off to google ‘portrait courses london’ immediately and thus ended up at Heatherley’s.

Although I like to paint landscape and still life, I continue to be seduced by portraiture and find it a rich vehicle by which to contemplate intimacy and distance, presence and absence and the things that constitute the identities of our selves and others. I think life is about people and human connection and so feel fortunate to have my profession reflect that in some way.

'Tamson, Kilburn', 140 x 146 cm, acrylic on canvas, 2013

‘Tamson, Kilburn’, 140 x 146 cm, acrylic on canvas, 2013

Which other artists or painters do you look to for inspiration and why? 

There are so many. Some that come to mind immediately: Lucian Freud, Alice Neel, Henri Matisse, Paula Rego, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cezanne, David Hockney, Maggi Hambling, Frank Auerbach, John Bratby, Euan Uglow, Leon Kossoff, Colin McCahon, Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka, Laura Knight, Francis Bacon, Tai-Shen Shierenberg, Hokusai Katsushika, Amedeo Modigliani and Georges-Pierre Seurat.

Also many of the tutors I have been fortunate enough to study with (Atul Vohora, Andy James, Linda Nugent, Khan Holly, Susan Engledow, Susan Wilson) and many poets and novelists too.

What, to you, constitutes a good portrait? 

I think there are many definitions of a ‘good’ portrait, but when making work myself I like it to, as a given, have something of an accurate likeness, and then to further go beyond this and convey something of how a particular person IS in the world; to state something about their presence or demeanour or character. It must then function as a good and interesting picture formally, that is, to be harmonious in terms of composition, colour, detail, content. I like portraits of people to be set in environments that are particular to them and that tell part of the story of who they are.

Do you have any current projects that you’d like to tell us about (exhibitions, articles, websites, commissions, personal projects)? 

I currently have a painting in the Lynn Painter Stainers exhibition at the Mall Galleries which runs until 22nd March, and I shall be exhibiting again in May with The Royal Society of Portrait Painters in their annual exhibition (8th- 23rd May) as recipient of the Bulldog Bursary.

There is a short article on my work in the current issue (2) of Muff magazine.

I am working on several commissions, one for Jesus College at Cambridge, and also have several personal projects ongoing. One that I’m particularly excited about involves two very large (250 x 200 cm) group portraits that will be set in a late 17th century house in Stepney Green.

My website is sarahjanemoon.com and I have a facebook page here.

Many thanks Sarah Jane! 

(all images and text copyright thelotsroadgroup 2014, please ask permission before use)

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