Recent events have stimulated conversations around finding new boundaries and horizons closer to home. Here, Meryl Ainslie talks with artist Sara Lee in a long distance phone call during lockdown.
Meryl Ainslie –Your images have a profound relationship with the land and nature. As an artist living in London what have you been on working during lockdown?
Sara Lee – I’m very aware of how lucky I am to have my studio here at home – in old garages at the bottom of the garden. To start, there was a certain amount of continuing the work I was already on – including finishing a print made especially for Rabley including Threshold (below).
I’ve been editioning existing prints – something I usually have very little time for.
..Like many artists, there’s also been a lot of tidying up and a chance to do things I never usually have time for – taking all the ivy off the studio roof for instance and clearing out all the detritus that gathers dust in a busy studio.
I’ve spent a good deal of time looking out of the window and lots of time outside in the studio garden reading! Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees and Rebecca Solnit’s Faraway Nearby the most related to my thinking about my work.
Inevitably my new work has begun to take in my experience of the lockdown – the coming and blossoming of Spring (which so many people have had such a connection with). I feel the air quality in London improve so radically as we all stopped moving around. The distance you can see across London has massively improved and the light is so much brighter.
The Rabley series – The horizon light is set by the paper tone in ‘Out Along the Boundary’  ‘At the High Ground  and ‘Reaching the Edge’  drawing the images into the distance as glowing, silent, expanded space. These are beautiful, understated prints, aware of the history of the Japanese landscapes of Hiroshige and Hokusai. They are technically accomplished and, eloquently, the artist’s own contemporary voice. View more works from the Rabley Series visit Sara Lee’s artist page.
Sara Lee’s images are a response to the ephemeral nature of landscape and our profound relationship with it. The expanse of the landscape has no bearing to assess distance. Each is a desert of infinity where one is pulled into the nuance of surface.
Lee predominantly works with drawing and print, including pastel and woodblock in the ukiyo-e tradition. Her practice involves working from site-specific landscapes, followed by extended studio-based work.
MA – Your imagery often pulls us to the horizon, and previously recognisable places, including Venice, The Wiltshire Landscape in the Rabley Series and the Cornish Peninsula?
SL – I’ve been able to have my walk each day in Greenwich Park from where it’s possible to see the Thames and London spread out in the distance beyond it. The sun sets behind the city so my horizon has been towards London rather than the more usual away from it. The city is out there but feels remote and distant from our lives at home. I’m making a start on some new images of this city horizon, with the evening light distancing the city even more.
MA- In your recent pastel drawings for ‘Beckoning Lines’ and new prints the place appears less specific and more universal? located under moons – Can you tell me about Hunters Moon and the new monotype series.
SL – Luckily, I was already working on images from my imagination with the moon and half-light as a focus, before lockdown happened. More about the feeling of moonlight across the land than the specific of where the image might be.
The moon has felt a profound part of these past few weeks – it sounds so obvious but I love the fact that it is the same moon for the whole planet. When I feel distant from colleagues, friends and family I find the fact that the same moon will rise on them too comforting
Through April, the moon was at its closest to the earth and was so bright and large – I know many people have felt a strong fascination with it. It’s been helpful to have its presence part of my current work.
MA – There is a subtlety to the colour and sensitive use of woodgrain apparent in the new prints – can you talk a bit about why you like to work with Japanese woodcut?
SL – I love that the materials are related so strongly to materials I use when I’m not making printed work. I find it a wonderfully ‘painterly’ way to work – applying water-based ‘inks’ (for me, gouache) using brushes and hand-printing onto beautiful paper. It’s a methodical practice and quite meditative – quiet and calm – very useful in these anxious times!
I’ve been exploring that subtle palette for a while – it lends itself well to Japanese woodblock and I like the sense of contemplation it brings with it.
MA – The prints appear very pared down and minimal – are you finding more space for us to breath in the images and do you think this is related to the method you use?
SL – My imagery is often paired down and void of an obvious human presence – I like the feeling that the human presence is the viewer of my images. And that the viewing takes you to empty expanses – to a connection with the land and the comfort/reassurance that brings.
It feels especially profound when we see how just this short period when our ‘being’ in the outside world (or lack of it) has made many of us appreciate the changing land within which we all live?? And how quickly the environment recovers when we all slow down.
Isola Series (Venice)
Rising each morning at dawn to witness the changing sky over the laguna in Venice, Lee painted the surface of each print in watercolour (Gouache) on location the Isola series. Later in the studio adding the Japanese woodcut of the iconic skyline. Very limited numbers of prints are available from this special place.
MA – Usually at this time of year I would receive a postcard from you as you walk or embark on residency under a new sky – where had you planned to venture this year?
SL – I was due to be heading to Denmark next month to a summer-house alongside a fjord on the east coast there. The residency has been long in the planning and I was of course really looking forward to having time to work there on the long days and short nights of summer, in that beautiful northern light. I’m really hoping it can happen in the future.
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More about Sara Lee
Sara Lee first joined Rabley Gallery as Artist-in-Residence in 2013. Inviting an artist to spend a year with us, visiting and revisiting this place throughout the seasons, is like planting a crop. The seed that was planted in 2013 has become a perennial, Lee returns each year with fresh growth and ideas for new drawings and prints alongside new groups of work for exhibitions – ‘Isola’ (Venice) in 2016 and ‘Beckoning Line’ in 2019.
Sara Lee walks and gathers. These are not journeys to be conquered, they are space and time inhabited. The ‘being in’ the landscapes a conduit of thought and experience an ultimately into the imagery for her prints and pastels. Full biography and more works Visit artists page.
Simple Japanese Woodblock Monoprint – Sara Lee
The Making of a Woodcut Monotype. Watch our video of Sara Lee’s printmaking demonstration. Click below