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Interview and studio visit #18

Sophie Westerlind

A spontaneous life

Ph. Camilla Glorioso
Ed. Francesca Iovene


F.I.: Places are like containers of stories belonging to the ones that experience them, even when they are empty. They are micro-worlds full of intimacy, memories, and objects connected to precise actions. This concept is cherished by us at Camerae: places as phenomena and museums of everybody’s life experiences.

You had the opportunity to explore Fincantieri’s workshops, where its employees spend their days. Your artworks evoke their lives and the place’s atmosphere through your imagination, without showing any human presence. Where does this choice come from and what was your source of inspiration?

S.W.: When I entered the construction site at Porto Marghera for the first time, I was quite overwhelmed by the enormous volumes and spaciousness of it all. It made me feel tiny, as if we were inside a gigantic ant colony. Over time I became fascinated by the many individual work spaces, often limited to a small and narrow area but richly decorated and cared for. They felt intimate, as if they were minuscule ‘micro- worlds’ in comparison to the large-scale spaces at the vast site they were part of. I was fascinated by how personal they felt, how they seemed to tell something about the person they belonged to. These ‘personalized’ spaces’ became my favourite subjects for drawing and painting during the project. I continued to be drawn to them since they made me feel as if I were in somebody’s home. Allowing myself to be inspired by the personal spaces at the site at Porto Marghera became a natural way of finding my own domain in this initially nearly intimidating location.

Inside those ‘micro-worlds’ there could be secret kitchen arrangements in a drawer, maybe with an electric hob and a coffeemaker. There were often plants and flowers, writings on the lockers, crucifixes, stickers, postcards, calendars and posters with motorcycles and all variations of porn, contemporary as well as from several generations back.
One day while painting, an employee invited me to join his colleagues for a slice of home-made tiramisu. The group of workers seemed embarrassed when they realized the quantity of nude photos on the wall behind them, but we all started laughing when one of them explained how the women depicted on the thirty-year-old photos most likely had retired by now.

The interaction with the owners of the personalized spaces became a fundamental part of my work during the residency. No need to mention the importance of asking permission, always. After all I was the visitor entering their ‘homes’. When drawing and painting in the room under the staircase that became one of my favourites, the owner gave me a traffic sign to use as a palette and sent away any intruder to allow me to work as peacefully as possible. Sometimes we worked quietly and sometimes we talked. He told me about when he first started working at Fincantieri about 40 years before and that how he was about to retire soon. His radio was tuned to a channel playing only Italian music from the 70s and 80s. He had a big potus plant on a shelf and urged me not to miss the handmade parrot hanging from the low ceiling next to it.


«It can be a music journal thrown on a sofa or a pair of slippers left outside on a camping site. I love the imperfections and casual placing of objects that happen spontaneously in a space lived by somebody.»

F.I.: Whereas visiting a new place leads us to experience a sense of surprise and discovery and to pay attention to its unfamiliar details, a place we know well will make us feel intimated and comfortable, but sometimes less involved. What relationship do you have with familiar places and how do you deal with their representation?

S.W.: I find it difficult to explain what it is exactly that attracts me to a specific room or location and what makes me so fascinated by them. The spaces that interest me are often not particularly beautiful or pretty. But something about their character often tells of a spontaneity and tenderness in human everyday life. I think this is mainly what draws me to them. It can be a music journal thrown on a sofa or a pair of slippers left outside on a camping site. I love the imperfections and casual placing of objects that happen spontaneously in a space lived by somebody.

Locations like this become ‘friendly’ to me because of the way they make me feel at ease. The time it requires to draw or paint them directly on the spot is a way of familiarising myself with them, a way of studying them more carefully. I remember the first drawings I did in the Sanità district in Naples in 2010. When somebody would offer me a plastic chair to draw the street scenery next to them, that very corner suddenly would turn into a very familiar and comfortable space by the end of the day.

F.I.: During the lockdown you had to shift your work’s focus to flowers. Can you explain me why and how you quarantined in your studio?

S.W.: I spent nearly the entire lockdown on the island Giudecca (Venice) where I live close to my studio. I remember I missed following the changes of season and green spaces more than ever during this time, and it had never felt so urgent to paint directly from nature.
It was Easter, and only the most necessary shops were allowed to stay open, while florists were not included. Everyday acquaintances and friendships became more important than ever in my local area in Venice, and probably elsewhere as well.

With the help from my close friend Martina, I got in touch with a lady who normally sold flowers in Campo Santa Margherita on Saturdays. We arranged over the phone to meet in a narrow backstreet one afternoon. It seems weird today when thinking about the secrecy of our encounter, as if we were about to exchange something that could be harmful. I will never forget the rush of adrenaline and the lady’s satisfactory expression before I ran back home with the ‘forbidden’ bouquet of flowers. I had not expected it at first, but that thrilling experience really made it even more lovely to paint them.

F.I.: Let's focus on your painting techniques: the aim of your work is to convey certain sensations and evoke situations: what methods do you use to get what you want from your works? Sometimes you also take photographs to remember places you want to paint, where do you store the pictures you take?

S.W.: For me the process of preparing the studio and myself mentally the days before painting is a fundamental part of my work. Especially if a person is coming to sit for me. In that case, I do my best to prepare the studio so they will feel as comfortable as possible. On the day of the sitting, we decide the poses together on the spot and take many breaks. It is definitely a work of collaboration.

Painting for me is quite demanding physically. I use a great number of large brushes every time and mix a vast amount of paint on three or four different glass surfaces. I work standing up, walking constantly back and forth to see from a distance. Before starting a new canvas I try to focus as much as possible, as if I had to run a marathon. I start working early in the morning to benefit from the daylight. I am becoming better at dividing the work into more days instead of trying to do everything in one go. But I’m still usually quite exhausted the day after I finish a piece. The days afterwards are important for reflecting and for seeing what worked and what didn’t. Some days I find it difficult to be satisfied and in these occasions I simply “destroy” my work and start over on the same canvas. I feel sorry when it happens, but now I accepted that this is part of the process too.

I find it important to never stop questioning and experimenting to keep things as ‘fresh’ as possible. I struggle from time to time, I have slowly learnt there is no point in trying and get around things easily, painting is a ‘bitch’ and she always wins in the end. John Berger’s writings about drawing were an incredible inspiration for me some years ago and I feel like reading them again. Talking about the process and my work with colleagues and curators whenever possible is something I find precious. I am grateful whenever I get great advice from my amazing ‘mentors’.

Painting from photographs is very different from working directly from life. I used to prefer working from the pictures I take with my own film camera. I store the images in a drawer in my studio. Sometimes it takes a few years before they feel interesting enough to work with. The experience of a collaboration with a friend and artist last year made me appreciate working also from digital images. They felt quite ‘cold’ at first, but it turned out to be a great challenge for my imagination and helped me to concentrate only on the actual emotion I wanted to convey through the final paintings.

«Before starting a new canvas I try to focus as much as possible, as if I had to run a marathon.» 

F.I.: There are two names that you often mention and that have often inspired your work: Titian and Tintoretto. In some of your work you explicitly address them. When did you start to take an interest in them? How much do you think they influence your work?

S.W.: The project revolving around Tintoretto and Titian has been fundamental for my development as a painter. I keep coming back to the lessons I learnt from studying their expressive compositions and use of light and colour.
By special permission of Scuola di San Rocco, the Doge’s Palace, and a number of churches in Venice between 2017 and 2019, I had the opportunity to work directly from the masterpieces on display. Dealing with the Venetian masters has helped me to find my own language in painting and drawing.

The expressive use of gestures and body language in Tintoretto’s compositions continues to be a great source of inspiration, where figures give a life-like idea of movement. Drawing in front of a dynamic large scale canvas such as ‘Strage degli Innocenti’’ (‘Massacre of the Innocents’ - Scuola di San Rocco) gives the sensation of working in front of a violent real-life scenario.

Working with the Renaissance Masters has been an opportunity to learn more about the biblical and mythological figures featured in their compositions. Titian’s colourful use of nature for the settings of his narrative paintings seems to be inspired by his hometown landscape in the Dolomites. My own visual memories from my stay in the area during a residency with Dolomiti Contemporanee in 2019 keep inspiring my painting.

Together with Dolomiti Contemporanee, I had the opportunity to exhibit a selection of works in conversation with a masterpiece by Tintoretto at Museo Diocesano in Feltre in 2019. The experience of exhibiting a selection of paintings and drawings from this project in Stockholm 2019 allowed me to come face to face with my painting in my home country. It was a thrilling challenge since the cultural and art scenes can be quite different in Italy and Sweden. I was happy to receive a national bursary for the works inspired by Tintoretto in Stockholm 2019.

F.I.: In 2019 you spent some time at the Ex-Villaggio Eni, an art residency curated by Dolomiti Contemporanee. I can imagine you had to go through a process of discovery and familiarization with the territory. How did you spend your days in the mountains? What did you work on?

S.W.: The residency allowed me to immerse myself in the incredibly inspiring environment that is the Ex- Villaggio Eni. The interplay with nature and the special architecture in the area is fascinating. I stayed in one of the wooden cabins that used to be part of the camping site for the children at summer camp. I had my meals in the nearby canteen together with Catholic school children staying on the site for vacation. Living close to them allowed me to follow their quite strict routines from a distance. It reminded me of when I went to summer camps myself as a child in Sweden. It also nourished the idea of what the summer camp could have been like during the time when hundreds of children spent their vacations there.

I spent part of the residency drawing on location, part of it painting from my own photographs and drawings in the assigned studio space. The spaces at Borca di Cadore, where a great number of children have spent their holidays, are filled with emotion and anecdotes that keep stimulating my imagination each time I go back. When walking along the corridors, I keep thinking about what could have happened between the dormitories and the canteen, the gym and the dressing rooms.

During my my first visit at the former Eni summer camp in 2017, I was particularly impressed by the showers. The space seemed to contain the memory of voices, sounds and encounters. The location bears witness to childhood emotions such as embarrassment, happiness, fear, expectations and agitation. The details of the interior like the curtains, the heaters, the lamps and the hair dryers seem to tell stories about the people who used them in the past, leaning against them or simply touching them. Like many of the other spaces at the summer camp, this location tells about the presence of the various children who passed by. These highly expressive spaces became natural subjects taking centre stage in my drawings and paintings during the residency.

F.I.: You currently live and work in Venice. Before that you lived in London. How has this change influenced your work? How would you define your relationship with Venice?

S.W.: The six years I lived in London taught me to not underestimate the importance of ‘looking in your backyard’ for new ideas. The work method I learnt to develop is still what keeps me floating whenever I get stuck.

My BA at Central Saint Martins was all about experimenting with ideas and images. I was in my early twenties and the big city was a great first springboard. I spent four years in the old university building at Holborn, which came to feel like a second home. It allowed me to grow and stretch the boundaries for creative thinking. Thanks to great initiatives and collaborations with other institutions, I had the opportunity to draw extensively in a range of different contexts during my time at the Royal College of Art. This naturally led me more and more into painting, and when I graduated in 2013, I finally admitted to myself it was time to take the risk. I really wanted to learn more about anatomy, so I enrolled at Accademia di Belle Arti in Venice. I had not imagined I would end up staying here.

Living in Venice keeps inspiring and stimulating my artistic practice. The city facilitates human interaction and the exchange of knowledge between people. The natural network of human connections has made it an ideal spot for a painting practice where people and their way of being keeps being the central theme. My time here so far has allowed me to concentrate on finding my own path in painting and it keeps helping me to develop my skills. I love having the opportunity to work closely with other professionals such as the brilliant artisans and technicians who nowadays have become my friends.
For me personally it is the network of people from my everyday life and the relationships I have developed over the years that have kept me here.

Sophie Westerlind
Giudecca, Venezia

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Audio by Nicola Di Croce
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