“I’ve always found the cyclical nature of things to be incredibly life affirming,” says Sarah Pickstone of her work, Stevie Smith and the Willow, this year’s winner of the John Moores Painting Prize (she’s pictured above with judge, Sir Peter Blake).
In a Biennial brimming with conceptual art – a huge black pillow here, a carpet of soap there – it’s so refreshing to see something as limpid and luminous as Pickstone’s beautiful work: a palate cleanser after the knotty machinations of the City States exhibition up the hill.
Deliberately underpainted, and as delicate as the floating worlds of Japanese Ukiyo-e paintings, it’s the stand out piece in this year’s strong collection.
Infused with a shock of chlorophyl, and ignited by sunlight Stevie Smith and the Willow is a painting from a series of canvasses Pickstone has been working with for the past three years. Nature, and the intersection of person and place, a reoccurring theme in her (Saatchi-approved) work.
Through the vertical, almost prison-like bars of the willow is a drawing that originally accompanied Stevie Smith’s 1957 poem, ‘Not Waving But Drowning’. It’s a shocking intervention of a primitively drawn figure, grey, limp and lifeless. Set against the vibrant spring-green of the willow leaves, like the jagged panes from a medieval stained glass window, the piece is an affirmation of renewal.
In the painting, the girl bathes in the water under an old weeping willow: her tresses mingling with the fronds and branches, limbs and leaves. Not willow, not person. The willow, for those whose tree lore is rusty, being a tree of mystery, medicine and healing (literally – its bark giving us the active ingredient in aspirin).
“I’m drawn, again and again to a certain tree. A very particular tree, from a particular park in London,” Pickstone tells SevenStreets.
“My paintings, however they end up, are always from the experienced world. I think that’s so important. Painting comes out of looking,” she says.
This painting comes out of looking at Regents Park – one of London’s oldest parks: a landscape hardly changed in over 1000 years. “Even though you’re in the heart of the city, I doubt very much that Regents Park has ever been built on. That unbroken history, to me, is a great source of inspiration. It’s always been a place where the public and the private, the external and the psychological worlds, come together.”
It’s also one of those rare green enclaves where nature can claim dominion, and where decay and regrowth, death and rebirth are the only constant in the troubled city that wraps around it. It is – as those glaring video shorts in the Tate grasp towards explaining – a place where one goes to seek the source.
“I love that tree, although when I went to paint it, it had just had a haircut!” Pickstone laughs.
“Often my paintings start with a place, or a story. Maybe that’s why I’ve been reading so many works by writers who set foot in Regents Park, like George Eliot. I like to think some of these trees gave her inspiration too.”
Painted on a sleek aluminium canvas with gesso (a primer often used by the Old Masters to achieve a silky smooth finish) Stevie Smith and The Willow invites your caress (but do resist!), as the water invites the willow’s leaves to break its surface. Then again, look what that willow that grew aslant a brook did to poor Ophelia…
“When I painted it, my daughter became very ill, and had to undergo a series of chemotherapy. I think, subconsciously, the hair, and the fragility…I think I was searching for connections, somehow…The marks we make on a page, or a canvas, always respond to something within us, somewhere.”
Ultimately, though, Pickstone admits, almost with pride: “To be honest, I’ve no idea how I painted this. And I honestly don’t think I could do again.”