On the shortlist: a chat with artist Sarah Jane Moon

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Sarah Jane Moon, artist.

Being shortlisted for a big prize can be exciting, but also nerve racking. Artist pal and booklover Sarah Jane Moon is currently short listed for the Bulldog Bursary, along with four other painters. I asked her on the blog to talk about her experience of being ‘on the shortlist’. Sarah Jane, I knew there was a shortlist for the Turner, but was blissfully unaware of the existence of other art prizes. I certainly didn’t know that art bursaries worked like this, with the artists interviewed by judges of the award, to help them select a winner. So tell me, how are you finding life as a shortlistee?

Hi Lane & readers, many thanks for having me on your fabulous blog! Life as a shortlistee as you put it, is much the same as usual. I have been encouraged by getting onto the shortlist for this bursary, but as an artist who enters a plethora of open exhibitions and is just as frequently turned down as accepted, I know the importance of maintaining one’s own goals irrespective of outside influence. However, to be selected for the bursary would be wonderful of course and a brilliant opportunity to further my practice with the support of The Royal Society of Portrait Painters.

The interview bit sounds scary, but at least you do not have to go on the Big Brother House! For what it’s worth I really like your shortlisted portrait, ‘Louise & Hayley’. Something about it reminds me of a page from i-D magazine — unusual for an oil painting. It’s a memorable piece, as prizewinners in any creative field need to be. What do you think a prize-winning painting should achieve?

louise + hayley

Louise & Hayley, by Sarah Jane Moon

The initial selection phase for the Bulldog Bursary requires two paintings to be submitted, of which this is one. The second phase, an interview in late July, requires the presentation of a portfolio of work so that members of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters can make a more in depth decision about who would best be able to use the bursary. I believe they are looking for potential to develop skills, technique and practice rather than excellence in and of itself. The bursary is largely to nurture an artist at the beginning of their practice. (Read more on the Bulldog Bursary here.)

At what point in your life did you really know you wanted to be a painter?

I knew very early on that I would ultimately end up a painter, but was frequently side-tracked by other subjects throughout my school and university years such as Japanese and literature and art history; all of which held the seduction of my being able to acquire discrete knowledge in a systematic way. For me, painting has always fallen outside of this tradition; it has always been more of a catalyst or vehicle for my reactions to being in and of the world rather than a subject or discipline to apply myself to. It is also something that mediates my relationships, on all levels, with people and things and places. It is largely an emotional and responsive practice for me, though I am also fascinated on an academic level by the formal qualities of paint, and object-making more generally.

You may not agree but lots of people think of a painted portrait as something ‘not for them’ that comes in a swirly gold frame and is sort of anachronistic. What (if anything) are you and the next generation of portrait artists doing to change that perception or reality?

Speaking for myself only, I am not sure I would want to interfere with others’ perceptions of portraiture. When working to commission, I paint people who are interested in the process of portrait and picture making and also those who are interested in the end product (ideally in both).

I suppose portraiture is a loaded tradition in this country, with many connotations. I think that it is a wider playing field than many people imagine and there is always room for the innovative. I would like to think that there will always be people who have an appreciation of the act of painting, the process and the meaning and who want to collaborate and engage with an artist in the production of work.

Give me a ballpark idea of how one of your portraits might cost. Also, how much time does the subject need to commit to sitting (or standing) for it?

The commissions I undertake are priced individually depending on factors such as size and complexity of the subject matter, however prices start at £400 for something of a modest size and £900 for larger, more complex work. I am able to work both from life and photographs, so sitters would be required for at least one sitting, ideally two or three if possible. 

We met when I was giving a reading at Foyles Bookshop. Tell me why reading is important to you, and about some of your recent paintings inspired by literature. Could you still think of these as portraits, in a way, even if there’s no actual person in them?

I have always loved reading and I find it is a constant source of input in my life and painting. These days I am most drawn to poetry, biographies and diaries; internal landscapes. Many of my non-figurative work operates in an autobiographic way and I enjoy creating visual narratives through assembling objects that have a significance for me or are representative of connections and relationships. So yes, in a way they are fragmented self portraits.

Finally, what is the first thing you will do if you win the bursary?page3image27256

Double check they have the right name! Then triple check. Then feel overwhelmed and ecstatic in equal measure. Spend a good deal of time on a proposal and schedule for the year’s work, then cloister myself in the studio to get on with it all.

Well best of luck with your interview, Sarah Jane, and keep in touch!

And if anyone reading this is thinking of having their portrait painted, why not set up a free half-hour meeting with Sarah to discuss options? Sarah Jane Moon is a New Zealander who lives in London, and can be reached on sarah.j.moon@gmail.com or via her website, http://sarahjanemoon.com

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