I’m painfully aware of how elastic our ‘selves’ are… exploring the ‘self’ becomes a paradoxical and ultimately futile journey, like the search for the unicorn.Stuart Pearson Wright
The following interview forms part of a series where I invite contemporary artists to each reflect on their personal history, meaning, and philosophy, and how those are expressed throughout their creative process.
This week, I talk to Stuart Pearson Wright, an English portrait artist and first-prize winner of the 2000 National Portrait Gallery’s BP awards.
Are you guided by any essential philosophy in your creative expression?
Not at all. I’m not sure I have an essential philosophy with regards to my artistic practise. I have a personal philosophy which applies to my ethical and moral behaviour but I’m not sure how that links up to art. My sense is that in my practise I am simply stumbling in the darkness from A to B, trying to find a path which works, ideally the path of proverbial least resistance but often this doesn’t prove to be the case.
How is your art a means of reflection or exploration for you?
I suppose in its entirety. Whether I intend it to be or not. I think it’s inevitable that everything anyone does or makes articulates something about who they are. I’m painfully aware of how elastic our ‘selves’ are though, so exploring the ‘self’ becomes a paradoxical and ultimately futile journey, like the search for the unicorn. Perhaps that is the point though: the journey itself.
We live in an age where identity-politics have become increasingly pertinent and volatile but I don’t feel that sense of urgency has seeped into my own efforts thus far. I have spent many months and years exploring ‘self’ through my work, in particular the issue of not knowing the identity of my father dominated that for many years. However, since I discovered my father’s identity in 2019, my sense of self has been on a roller coaster ever since and I am still only in the early stages of working out how this might affect my approach to making art.
Feeling lost, stuck and without meaning are experiences we all face as human beings. Why do you think that is? How do you approach those feelings in your work?
Absolutely. Before I became a father, my work was the only context in which I explored meaning. Often I was plunged into feelings of existential hopelessness. Now I am a father I realise that my life has meaning and so I never have to plunge so deeply into existential despair anymore, since I am clear about my ultimate purpose (to try and be a good father) and that if I manage to make any worthwhile artwork in addition, it is just a bonus. Having said all that, I often sit and wonder how on earth to be an artist, where to start, and I have the feeling that really I am still at the beginning of a very long process.
What is the most unsettling work of art you’ve come across?
I can’t honestly think of any work of art that has ever unsettled me. One of the most unsettling experiences of my life however related to a kind of ‘exhibition’, though of course it was not an exhibition at all, just that what I saw had been curated in some sense, that it could be described on one level as a kind of installation. I am talking about visiting Auschwitz as a teenager and seeing a room-sized display case full of human hair. There was another display case just full of shoes. Amongst all the hair was a little blonde plait. That is the most powerful image I have ever seen and it still makes the hair go up on the back of my neck when I think about it, particularly since I now have a six year old daughter who has blonde plaited hair sometimes.
I recently had the privilege of painting a portrait of a woman who survived Auschwitz called Rachel Levy. I’d say that it was a life-changing experience listening to her testimony and being witness to her extraordinary dignity and inner-strength. In fact, my daughter met Rachel and we had a kind of tea-party together. It’s difficult to articulate my feelings at seeing my little girl in conversation with a woman in her nineties who has witnessed so much and not only survived but emerged as an incredible human being. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life.
If you suddenly became a master in another material entirely, what material would it be and what would you make?
Good question. Well, I started off at art school as a sculptor and in some sense I feel like I have been sidetracked for the last twenty-five years in painting. So I now feel an increasingly urgent need to sculpt and so I have recently been doing lots of short courses: welding, coppersmithing, wax sculpting, sewing and so on. I’m trying to skill up and get stuck into multi-media sculpting. So watch this space.
If there were an artwork that depicted your current experience of the world, what might it look like?
I’ve no idea. If I did I would be busy making it. That kind of clarity always eludes me. My brain is like a sea-fog. I only catch the barest glimpses of direction and intention when I’m lucky.