Sarah Roberts is a Welsh artist who lives and works in Leeds and Wales. She is interested in our capacity for momentary encounters with the world, primarily with visible surfaces of architecture, landscape and the body. Moments in which these surfaces are seen as collisions of form and colour that reverberate and invite us to reencounter an object and the power of visually driven connections to take us back to the past.
Sarah creates immersive installations and mixed media tableaux using sculpture, large format print, found objects, textiles, sound, moving image, fragrance and whatever else is drawn into her material conversation with the tactility of her place of provenance as she researches, meticulously collecting the scent, the sensation and the hue of a suburban concrete driveway, a casino carpet or a cliff edge.
Court went to her studio at Barkston House in Leeds to see what she’s working on.
Court: I absolutely love your studio and the sense of space. It’s got all these different rooms to it for different purposes. How long have you been here and how did you find it?
Sarah: I’ve been here for just over 4 years, since I moved to Leeds from London. I signed a lease on the spot when I saw it. I thought it would be easy finding a studio space up north, but actually it seems large and affordable spaces are limited here too, maybe its improved since I moved though. Luckily I made it a priority to find a studio space before I moved, me and my fellow studio holder Laura (@sewingfordragqueens) saw some hilarious options with roosting pigeons and holes in the walls that made the spaces more like caves!
Scale was a bit of a non-compromise for me, so joking aside I felt lucky to find this place, in fact we moved our flat and our studios up from London at the same time and the studio probably took as large a truck as the whole flat! I have, shall we say, a hoarding practice. I’m constantly acquiring and producing.
Laura and I loved this studio from the minute we arrived, it looked awful with greyed out carpet tiles and mucky magnolia partitions everywhere and somehow despite all the windows and the top floor aspect it looked dark! But the bones were great, and it has been said I am excellent at polishing turds on a low budget when it comes to spaces. We just went at it for 2 weeks and it’s so light and airy now, I could live in it. I think it has a feel of a studio in Berlin or something, the whole block feels like it hangs between something residential and commercial. I love the brutalist architecture too, Barkston is an unsung beauty. I feel spoilt.
I love the division between spaces that you mention. Here I have different spaces within the space, so space for reading, space to write, space to draw and collage, and a larger space to feel free to create chaos without having to clear up just so I can get back out of the door. I can do something for a bit and then clear my head doing some reading. This space also allows me to do set up’s and test installations. In smaller spaces I would at best test slices of pieces at a time. Although I still like to keep this notion of flux in the work so it will respond to the space it lands in, I do like this more controlled approach to testing conversations between pieces that the bigger space allows. It certainly makes it a lot less tense for installing!
Court: Yeah, that must be reassuring to have a better sense of how it sits as a piece. Do you make all your work here or do you also have space at home?
Sarah: I have a ceramics room and a study at home. I got a dog when we moved (obviously) and pictured this dog going everywhere with me and holding crowds in raptures. Turns out Jess’ bad start to life means she doesn’t love walking that much, and that she’s a bit bitey for the bus, and allergic to dust!! So during lockdown I adapted things so I could work at home as well. To be honest that works well for me, I think before lockdown I felt I needed to be out of the house in some separate space to be able to get into a work mindset. Covid changed everything and I think I could easily work at home full time now if my practice didn’t have such filth and scale attached to it. So it’s nice to have that ability to work at home as well.
Court: What brought you to Leeds initially?
Sarah: I first moved to Leeds in 1998 to study Sociology at Leeds Uni. My best friend Vaa and I had set on it, it had great courses but it also had an amazing night scene and was close to Manchester and Birmingham and Liverpool. I think London was too big at that point, we had grown up in a small village in rural Wales, our nearest ‘big’ club was ‘Pier Pressure’ in Aberystwyth and aside from that and a few illegal raves we were starved. Leeds had a scene that was small enough to be friendly and big enough to entice!
Court: So you then moved to London and how did the art thing come about? Was that always something you were interested in?
Sarah: I worked in schools and colleges on projects to re-engage young people. I loved this work, helping people find the right fit, helping people to engage. I did that for 8 years before moving to London. The decision to study art felt like a bolt out of the blue, but on reflection was perhaps prompted by a desire to find my own fit. I’d studied sociology almost as a thank you to the social workers who had supported me and my family whilst my father and sister were sick in my youth. I grew up on a council estate in rural mid-Wales, the daughter of a care nurse and a cobbler, the first in my family to go to university. I wasn’t taken to galleries or the theatre as a child, I would never have considered taking out loans to study art. I didn’t even study art at school, I was told French would be an easy A for me. Merci.
Looking back, I can really see the influences of my childhood in my practice. I was always encouraged to be myself as a child, and I drew a lot, and painted found objects. I loved casting garden gnomes with my dad before he became ill and I was also obsessed with making mini collections on mantelpieces.
The lightning bolt struck when I was in New York, visiting the Whitney Biennial with my friend Anna. We stumbled on a crit. Standing there listening, I thought – yes, this will do.
When I got home, I filled out an application form for a foundation diploma at Chelsea, and it started there. I knew if I was going to make the shift, I needed to do it completely, so months later, we were loading up a van and moving to Dalston. I kept working in colleges part-time for a bit so I didn’t completely give up my other life and I still try and keep engaged in something that keeps me out of my own head like regular volunteering.
Court: So what prompted the move back to Leeds? And how are you finding being back now that you’re not a student?
Sarah: One of the primary reasons for me leaving London was to find a studio with more space and ventilation that I could afford. My practice incorporates labour, being cooped up in a tiny space with no opening windows and a mountain of ‘’stuff’ building around you is not so fun. When I’m working towards a show I produce prolifically and spend most of my waking hours in the studio, so the space is important. I’m one of those people who procrastinates by tidying my workspace before I begin, it was becoming impossible!
Choosing where to live is hard when you have too many options. We looked at the south coast as I love the sea and miss it when I’m not in Wales, we also thought about Liverpool and Glasgow, but in the end we chose to move back to Leeds because my partner Simon grew up here, and I studied here in the nineties/noughties and then worked here so we had family and friends and it made sense. Saying that, Leeds had changed a lot since we lived here the first time, it’s an ever-expanding city, and despite being small it has a lot going on. I think it was a good move for us, and because it felt so different, it felt like a completely new place to be, and I love newness.
Its so different of course not being a student and being back in LS6, I actually live in Far Headingley, so it’s not very studenty, there’s a Waitrose mate! But I volunteer in the thick of Hyde Park, and walk past the houses I lived in, pubs I worked in, and it feels like a world I collected once, that visceral one from the picture books of nineties clubbers, of walking home in half-light, of pulling sofas into the garden when the sun hits and luxuriating with a can of Stella in Hyde Park, full of potential and super noodles for tea. I tend to only remember the good bits, I’m all about the rose tint!
Our side project Hyde Park Art Club draws us into the student side of things a bit too, and there are loads of students at Rainbow Junktion where I volunteer. I think from this, and from my experience of being a mature student at Chelsea, students are A LOT more together, than I was at that age.
Court: Can you tell us more about SHELF and Hyde Park Art Club, your part in these, your vision for these projects and the role they play?
Sarah: SHELF was a nomadic curatorial project and patform that was active between 2016 and 2019. I started SHELF https://www.shelflondon.com with artist Bex Massey, although we had both been at Chelsea at the same time we were on different programmes and never met, but we met later through a show at HaHa put on by the fabulous Liv Fontaine and Jen Harris.
I loved Bex’s work, but beyond that, I think we were drawn to each other by a sort of insane transparency. I love when people really are what they say on the tin.
We had both been fortunate to be selected on leaving art school for various things, to have known people who are dynamic and self-starting who had given us the chance to show work. I think Bex and I were in agreement that spaces where emerging artists can show in a safe supported space is really important, and we thought we could try and add to that pot of opportunities. We also couldn’t believe how little information was being shared between artists, we were very up for being transparent about where we got things made, where we found open calls etc. SHELF was borne out of that and penned as a ‘simple concept of function, support and display’.
Hyde Park Art Club [HPAC] is an extension of this concept and based in Hyde Park Book Club in the LS6 area of Leeds. Founded with Jack Simpson and Simon Rix over a beer in Hyde Park one sunny evening not unlike this one! Our hopes for HPAC are to provide a validated supportive space for emerging artists to show work, and the fact that it’s nestled within the pan arts venue of Hyde Park Book Club means it is very available. We offer the visual work, but there’s always an accompanying text to go alongside the works, we work with the artists to create a publication to allow them to showcase from all angles. I should also say, artist led spaces give back too, for me, it is also a great opportunity to meet people within the creative arts, in what still feels like a new city, in a very rich and meaningful sort of way. We have been so lucky to have worked with some amazing talents and people so far in both projects.
Court: Moving specifically to your own art – you’re probably most well-known for your colour block installations. Can you talk us through the ideas behind these, the inspiration or memories you’re referencing, the materials you use, how you incorporate scent etc?
Sarah: I’m interested in our capacity for momentary encounters with the actuality of the world – primarily with visible surfaces of architecture, landscape and body. Moments in which peripheral surfaces are seen as collisions in form and colour, reverberated into ‘matter’ that invites us to re- encounter the thingness of objects and the power of visually driven connections.
I create mixed media installations in material conversation with the tactility of place of provenance, meticulously collecting the scent, the sensation and the hue of a suburban concrete driveway, a reno spa, a 1990’s boyfriend’s bedroom or an untouched1980’s shop front. I see my process as a remaking of the palettes of these collected places that I see as materially seductive, making non-representational representations through a process of labour and experimentation in the studio. The final works seem to encompass the original site, the studio and the final site of the exhibition, aiming to create new site specific yet displaced material heterotopias (a world within a world) for the viewer to encounter in the flesh whilst being firmly rooted in the real. I hope to harness the histories of things but also to exploit and acknowledge the physical properties of things and spaces, to allow the viewer to be the third protagonist, to use their own bodies to activate the work, to make it perform as objects do through movement, viewing, and looking.
I often use colour as a sort of chromatic wash, allowing people to pause and realise the materiality of the things in my mixes that I have extracted from the everyday and remade with extra visibility. I’m fascinated by visibly constructed ‘places’ like spas – with their ‘get relaxed vibes’ blues that are bizarrely plastic, permitting them as ‘leisure pleasure space’. Hospitals and their attempts at small domestic gestures in and amongst the sterility, to create comfort, that in fact highlight the disconnect further. Casinos and their overdone opulence that comes loose in the sticky carpets. It’s the ‘making visible’ in the cover up that I enjoy the most.
In the ‘new normal’ I started working more from my late mother’s cardboard box ‘archives’. Instead of research trips to find moments of material newness, I found myself turning to old photographs of remembered rooms. This time forced an address of perhaps the more personal drive for the colourwash, the smoothing over of spaces, the highlighting of visual connectivity. I’m working it out as I go, but my latest works have more of a sense of transparent intimacy in and amongst the yellows of ‘Everything’s Mustard’ (2019) and the over blue hues of ‘Blue Promise’ (2022).
Court: You’ve recently started lecturing. Is there any reoccurring advice you give (or would like to give) artists who are a little earlier in their careers?
- Take advice
- Take opportunities
- Take risks
- Know your worth but don’t be precious
- Use parameters and restrictions as a challenge not a barrier
- Think about your goals and map them out unashamedly
- Be generous
- You’re not competing with peers, you’re only ever competing with yourself
- Don’t be a dick
- Make things happen
Court: That’s ace, and good advice for everyone I’d say! You’ve been involved in some amazing projects. Do you have one or two career highlights to date?
Sarah: I’ll never forget the opportunity that Block 336 gave me when they offered me a solo show. I created a large immersive installation in their subterranean space in Brixton. It was my first solo show and my first large scale work ‘Torremolinos-Tableaux-Tongue-Twister (after sun)’ and it contained quite literally tonnes of red washed gravel. The piece depicted an after dark version of Torremolinos and worked in zoned space that were delineated by their bespoke scent and crafted sounds. There were over 300 sculptural elements and various found objects. Set to emulate the red brick promenade ‘strip’ on the seafront it is evocative of the labour and construction of the place, coalescing with the cooked flesh of sun tanners and the slightly seedy glow of a post-baked bonanza on the costa del sol after dark.
The whole experience felt more like a residency than a show, I spent a month in the space making the work, growing it. I felt a real connection with the team and the space and was encouraged to take risks. This felt like a turning point for me, I think I started to place more value on my practice because they were so supportive behind the scenes. Having someone else take a chance on you is a great thing. This is when I really started to consider the importance of the different elements of my work, the text especially and I think that’s no coincidence. When a curatorial team makes a dream scenario feel possible and enable you to surprise yourself, you know you’re winning -and Jane, Alex and Rob at Block 336 do just that.
I guess also being in the London Open at Whitechapel a year after graduating was a great thing too, that was mad. A classic example though of finding the opportunities that fit, not trying to fit to opportunities. The open that year was centred around labour and materiality – perfect. I’ve learnt the hard way that even if an opportunity seems great, there’s no point trying to shape your practice to fit it, it’s just a waste of admin and makes you feel bad when you (obviously) don’t get selected!
Court: And do you have a dream project you would love to make happen?
Sarah: Oh yes, I’m older, but still an art baby – so many dreams! I’d love to do more residencies, I love how they get you outside your box. On a residency with IN-RUINS in Calabria I started using film and performance to bounce off the parameters of having less materials – I’d love to continue this.
I dream of doing a show at the The De La Warre Pavilion, in Bexhill, to create an installation that chats with the sea. I’ve been in love with it ever since I saw Cerith Wyn Evans’ show there years ago. The building reminds me of the backdrop to seaside Agatha Christie’s that I love to read to switch my brain off, coupled with the Red Dragon Hotel that used to sit proudly on our seafront in Tywyn like another behemoth of modern architecture landed in the landscape between the more ‘normal’ architecture.
I dream of working one day with Leeds legend Derek Horton on basically anything – not only is he brilliant and an encyclopaedia of brutalist architecture and adventure playgrounds, we are connected via his many trips to my hometown in Wales. We are probably the only two people who would miss the original façade of the aforementioned Red Dragon pub to be honest. I basically stalk him now. (Hi Derek! x)
I’d love to do more in Wales (Hi Arts Council Wales! x) to respond directly to landscapes I have known in the past and could re-encounter anew. I’m super interested in the idea of working with my crumbly first language Welsh. I wouldn’t speak in any language other than Welsh until I was 4yrs old – it’s my mother tongue and it’s stooped in teenage vocab, and I’m losing even that… it’s literally disappearing, I dribble out words now like some human Google translate. The fascination and shame feel tangible and I feel I could connect my idea of visual alphabet soup with this.
To be honest – I think any project is dreamy really, because I’m naturally drawn to things as part of the process, my practice depends on a palette that has seduced me in some way at it’s root. I’m genuinely enamoured by these crumbly, shiny, plasticised, or whatever visual created spaces. If I’m not loving it – I wont do it, it takes too much investment. When the lust stops – so will I.
Court: Speaking of dream projects, one of mine has always been to open a gallery, and I’m hoping to take on a temporary space to do just that and I’m so excited that you’ve agreed to show with me – so a massive thank you for that! I’ll obviously be shouting about it on social media once confirmed but aside from that, what’s the best way for people to follow you and check out your work?
Sarah: I’m so excited to work with you Court, you’re another of those curators that makes the dream seem likely, always generous. And the other artists you have lined up are brilliant.
People can look me up on www.sarahrobertsfa.com or on @sarahrobertsfa on Instagram for pictures of WIP’s, and holiday snaps of tasty walls and fibrous carpets and super blue spa’s and such!
Court: Fab! Well thank you so much for your time and for letting me snoop through your studio and peek into your practice and the worlds you create!
Sarah: Anytime! I’ll always have a drink with your name on it here at Costa del Holbeck xoxo