Artist in Focus: Sophie O'Leary

As part of the Letchworth Open, curator Kris Day will be shining a spotlight on some of the creative people working in and around the town today with our new series ‘Artist in Focus’.

Our next Artist in Focus is the landscape artist Sophie O’Leary. Sophie graduated with a Fine Art diploma from Morley College, Lambeth, in 2014 and has been working from her studio in Clapham to recreate scenes of nature, travel and wonder.

KD- Could you tell us a bit about yourself - how long have you been a practising artist and where did you study?

SO- Whilst my first degree was in Social Anthropology, I have always painted and am largely self taught, but began to take this seriously after a long period working as a Governess in Moscow. In 2014 I went on to study a Fine Art diploma at Morley College in Lambeth and soon after began exhibiting abstract art and landscapes.

KD- What does your work aim to say?

SO- My work is a celebration of nature. I am curious and seduced both by the patterns in chaotic nature and more formally designed landscapes. I aim to communicate the sense of wonder and awe I experience when immersed in such vibrant, organic and colourful beauty.

KD- Tell us a bit about how you spend your day and your studio routine at the moment? How is this different to your pre-lockdown practice?

SO- My pre-lockdown studio was mainly based in Clapham, featuring a somewhat nomadic studio practice, sharing my time in Bedford with travelling abroad extensively and painting out of a suitcase. Since Covid, any foreign travel/residency plans are all on hold and I have been based full time in a ‘pop up’ studio in my partner’s spare room in Bedford. Inspired by condensed bursts of ‘hourly daily exercise’ in Bedfordshire’s beautiful woods and nature reserves, I have been able to indulge my passion for walking and photography. I have a very personal way of choosing locations which I develop into paintings. During lockdown, I have moved to making smaller works on linen boards, a homage to glorious colours of spring emerging into the summer landscape of the Chilterns. I am now very happy to have been invited to join Kris Day’s Zoom art group for artists local to Letchworth Garden City,  and under lockdown have had the time to engage with a much needed online business development course for my art. These increased ways of connecting and working remotely with technology to continue showing my paintings, learning and networking via instagram are invaluable and I am sure this will become a permanent fixture!

KD- You recently completed the Turps Correspondence Programme. Could you tell us a bit more about this and explain how it changed your work?

SO- I had wonderful Mentors, including Colin Smith and Phil King who greatly encouraged me to consciously develop my Landscape painting and be more aware of the relevance contemporary art history and modernism to my work. Turps CC enabled me to connect with peers on the course who have been an inspiration to me on an otherwise solitary and somewhat nomadic pursuit. Turps Art School co/founded by Marcus Harvey, evolved out of the Turps Banana Magazine in 2012 and is based in the Aylesbury Estate in South London. A much needed and exciting response for a new kind of art school, run by contemporary painters.

KD-Who are your biggest influences?

SO- Firstly all my teachers and fellow artist friends have been my most major influences, including Lisa Gray of FLUX Exhibition. My neighbour Frank Bowling and his wonderful recent retrospective at Tate Britain!  Kandinsky and Klee. French Post-Impressionist painters, particularly Van Gough. Also, Edvard Munch, David Hockney, Peter Doig, Tal R. Per Kirkeby. Travelling around France painting in Paris, Antibes, St Jean Cap Ferrat, Collioure and my Residency in Arles Sur-Tech with the painter Mark Hammond!

KD- What artwork have you seen recently that has resonated with you?

SO- Most of the art I’ve seen lately has been on Instagram due to gallery closures, but the silver lining of this has meant seeing new work on platforms such as @paintworks_london and contemporary artists such as: Benjamin Risk, Andrew Cranston, Ben Sledsens, Jordy Kerwick.

KD- We’re living through challenging times, why do you think its important to keep making art?

SO- It provides hope. To inspire and communicate with each other across social and political boundaries and personally to heal and explore inner worlds. Another vital function for me is to resist cynicism and retain a sense of wonder and gratitude in relation to the natural world. During the crisis and devastation of the major wars, the most incredible influential art movements were born and thrived. Expressionism, Dada, Fauves, Surrealism, Modernism. In these difficult and rapidly changing days, I expect lockdown endeavours to be the springboard bearing the fruits of exciting new styles and collaborations. Particularly art with social or political messages.

KD- Is there anything new and exciting in the pipeline you would like to tell us about?

SO- Plans for a second group show with the ‘Yellow Room Artists’ is in the pipeline! We are a group of mostly painters from diverse parts of the UK - with one rogue photographer. Initially, it was a shared delight in making it onto the walls of Grayson Perry’s Room room at the RA Summer Exhibition that drew us together, but a common sensibility quickly emerged. We all have a clear voice/vision, a commitment to our craft, a generosity towards and willingness to support our fellow professional artists. This, cemented by our experiences as women in the art world, has blossomed into a hugely valuable ad hoc peer mentoring group. I am also the in-house artist for Verdant Recordings, a boutique electronic music label based near Hitchin in Hertfordshire. My 5th vinyl cover art will be released with them next month.