Sunday, 7 April 2013

Sarah Pickstone - Stevie Smith and the Willow

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John Moores Painting Prize won by Sarah Pickstone
15 September 2012

Artist Sarah Pickstone has won the £25,000 John Moores Painting Prize for a work inspired by poet Stevie Smith.

The award is billed as Britain's most prestigious painting prize.

Manchester-born Pickstone based the winning painting on an illustration by Stevie Smith to accompany her 1957 poem Not Waving But Drowning.

Judge Fiona Banner described the work, titled Stevie Smith and the Willow, as "an enigmatic double portrait that grapples with the creative self".

Banner, herself a Turner Prize-nominated artist, said: "It's a representation of the poet Stevie Smith in a deranged landscape.

"It's also a painting of one artist reflected through another, a meeting of literary and pictorial minds."

Pickstone picked up the award, which is handed out every two years, at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, as part of the Liverpool Biennial.

The painting of a girl bathing in the water under an old weeping willow tree is based on the illustration of a girl that Smith used to accompany her poem, which Pickstone said "might represent some kind of everywoman - an artist or mother or child".

"It's a very dark poem," she said. "The poem was one of many sources for the painting, I've always been intrigued by Stevie Smith and how she worked, and I had a sense of wanting to make something more joyous out of the poem."

Previous winners of the award include David Hockney, Richard Hamilton and Peter Doig, while Sir Peter Blake, who won the junior section in 1961, is now the prize's patron.

Pickstone, who was also nominated in 2004, is the first female artist to win since Lisa Milroy in 1989.

She was chosen from more than 3,000 entries. Other nominees included Ian Law, Narbi Price, Stephen Nicholas and collaborative duo Emma Biggs and Matthew Collings.

Fiona Banner was joined on the judging panel by fellow Turner Prize-nominated artists George Shaw and Angela de la Cruz, plus BBC creative director Alan Yentob and Whitechapel Gallery director Iwona Blazwick.

Yentob said the entries proved the art of painting was "alive and well and bursting with ideas".

"The selection was tough because the quality was high, but the jury was especially impressed and heartened by the creativity and conviction on display in the final five prize winners," he said. "Yes, painting still matters."

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Sarah Pickstone:

"How do we define image? Is image a visual thought? Do all images have their source in other images, or associations with other images? 'Stevie Smith and the Willow' is a painting from a series of works which nod towards creative communality. It has at its heart the drawing that accompanies Stevie Smith's 1957 poem, 'Not Waving But Drowning'. Smith was definitely an original, whose poems (and pictures) make a confluence of the comic and the metaphysical. In the painting, the girl (artist, poet, reader, child) bathes in the water under an old weeping willow: part tree, part self, part story, part rebirth.

I've been working for the past three years on the ways in which figures, places and ideas meet and open each other, specifically referencing writers who happened, in history, to pass through London's Regent's Park. The park has long been a source for my work, a place where the public and the private, the external and the psychological worlds, come together. It's also a place of constant renewal. The painting is about this renewal, natural and aesthetic, across form, time and image."

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Sylvia Googled, 2010

Sarah Pickstone: The Writers Series
6 April - 12 May 2013

The New Art Centre is delighted to announce the first solo exhibition by Sarah Pickstone since she won the prestigious John Moores Painting Prize in 2012. For a number of years, Pickstone’s work has explored the ways in which figures, places and ideas meet. She has, in particular, found inspiration in the many writers associated with Regent’s Park in London at different times throughout history, from George Eliot, Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield to Sylvia Plath and Stevie Smith. This interest has culminated in the paintings in The Writers Series, which are shown together in the Gallery at Roche Court.

Pickstone considers the importance of Regent’s Park as either an actual presence in fiction or as a background to various writers’ lives. However she does not represent the reality of the Park in her paintings, nor does she illustrate the writers’ lives or scenes from their books. Instead Pickstone evokes the atmosphere of the Park as a magical place which blends together public, private, external and psychological worlds. So whilst writers and the Park are her subject matter, Pickstone’s overriding interest is in human connections, the forces of the natural world, memory and imagination

As the writer Ali Smith has written, Sarah Pickstone’s paintings question how we actually define imagery. Is an image a visual thought? And what would thought look like, if we could see it?

Sarah Pickstone’s park pictures are a versatile and liberating act, a meld of vision and thought come together into an embodiment of both. They take what we think we recognise or already know – landscape, portrait – and by means of fusion and metamorphosis redefine and revitalise both. Her device, an investigation of the image of the writer in nature, particularly of the writers who've happened to pass through one particular green London landscape over the course of several centuries, or of one green landscape through which so much cultural thought, invention and creativity has by both chance and design passed, actually banishes time, redraws notions of fertility and uncircumscribes fixity of both image and expectation.

Sarah Pickstone lives and works in London. She studied at the Royal Academy Schools* and subsequently won a scholarship to the British School at Rome. The Writers Series is her first exhibition with the New Art Centre.

Sarah Pickstone and Ali Smith will be in conversation at Roche Court on Monday 3 June, as part of the Salisbury International Arts Festival. Tickets are available from


Not Waving but Drowning

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.


Smith discusses and reads the poem at

* after studying Fine Art at Newcastle University, where I sort of knew her.

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