Interview: Artist Sarah Pickstone at Mercer Gallery

Artist Sarah Pickstone.
Artist Sarah Pickstone.

By Graham Chalmers

Spend even five minutes in the pleasant company of artist Sarah Pickstone and you get a good sense of why she does what she does.

Biding her time in a small tea house tucked away in the Montpellier Quarter while waiting for her turn to speak at Mercer Art Gallery’s Reader’s Day last month, this London-based artist tells me over a coffee she’s been attempting to read an entire book by each of the authors she’s about to share the bill with.

Talk about research. It’s a noble gesture but entirely unnecessary.

It is, however, typical of the care on show in every piece of work Pickstone has created since she trained at the Royal Academy.

Not that it’s easy to sum up this artist whose work is in both the Saatchi Collection and the Walker Art Gallery.

Talking to her is a little like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway made flesh.

“I work a lot in Regents Park. It’s like a beautiful garden in the centre of the city.

“But I’m not a landscape painter. I read a story about Ali Smith where she talks about all the famous writers who ever walked in the park. That’s what interests me.”

At the moment, visitors to the Mercer Art Gallery are enjoying seeing Sarah Pickstone’s beautiful ballet-inspired paintings and drawings, their flattened surfaces reflecting her interest in Japanese prints, as well as today’s computer screen culture.

Boasting pastoral colours, lines that cross and clash and elements of collage, the pieces in The Rehearsal are subtle and pretty and feminine.

But it would be a mistake to see them as decorative. There’s a thought behind every brush stroke and that thought is would happen if I apply the mindset of one art form to the content of another?

Sarah sips her coffee again.

“I played the music of Stravinsky a lot when I was preparing this exhibition, the famous score he wrote for the ballet The Rites of Spring. I wanted the music to guide me, to be faithful to its spirit. I like bringing together different forms into one.”

It’s easy to love the fragile, beauty of Pickstone’s painting inspired by Dame Laura Knight The Rehearsal in the Harrogate Fine Art Collection from the pre-Great War era of the 1910s when Knight spent time with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes.

Just try understanding it at a glance, though.

Pickstone said: “When I was preparing the exhibition, I tried to get inside the head of Laura Knight who was steeped in Ballet Russes.

“But I wasn’t not trying to encapsulate her story in my painting, just as when I painted Stevie Smith and the Willow I wasn’t just painting a tree. What I wanted to do was see a tree from a poet’s perspective.”

Sarah Pickstone’s The Rehearsal runs at Mercer Art Gallery, Swan Road, Harrogate until July 5.

Entry is free.

Sarah Pickstone is interviewed in a new book called Writing About Art: Literary Connections in the Harrogate Fine Art Collection by Lara Goodband and John Wedgwood Clarke.