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Meeting Sophie Westerlind

A conversation follows between Italian curator Eleonora Savorelli and Swedish painter Sophie Westerlind, a graduate of the Royal College of Art in London, currently based in Venice. "Coming to terms with the Venetian Renaissance masters have been fundamental for the development of my own language in painting. Standing in front of one of Tintoretto’s enormous canvases at the Doge Palace or Scuola di San Rocco gives me the sensation of being in front of a gigantic orchestra.", shares Sophie.

Sophie Westerlind. Photo: Marco Cappelletti

E.S: Your personal and artistic journey has led you across Europe: from Stockholm to Padua on the Erasmus program, then several years spent in London, to then return to Italy and settle down in Venice. What do your works tell of your travels?

S.W: Somebody noticed the other day how the light in my last painting of an interior from my family home in Sweden looks more Mediterranean than Nordic. When imagining the natural setting for a revisit of Titian’s hunting goddess Diana, the nature I was automatically thinking of was that of from my childhood summers in the Swedish Archipelago by the Baltic Sea.

I think sensorial experiences of light and colours from different locations both in the present and past naturally come alive from time to time as references in a painting practice. Just as recalled encounters with people and environments can become evident in a composition sometimes quite unconsciously.

It is stimulating and a privilege to have the Swedish and the Italian culture parallel in my life, although it can also be a challenge since they are quite different when it comes to common references. When I showed work inspired by the Renaissance masters in Stockholm a few years ago, it was interesting to see how differently the public reacted.

The six years I lived in London allowed experimentation with drawing in different social contexts. I’ll never forget my obsession with the Afro-Caribbean markets and hairdressing salons in Brixton. Like with the first experiences from drawing in the Sanità quartier in Naples and Piazza dell’Unità in Bologna, I was thrilled to see how drawing as an activity would lead to interaction with people in different locations. I loved drawing where there was live music, lots of people and things happening. I still keep being attracted to places where people can easily be involved with the activity of drawing. When I look back at those drawings today, it’s evident that the aim then was just like with my paintings today; which is nearly always to express an emotion.

Sophie Westerlind, (Diptych) Titian and the Dolomites - The Bacchanal of the Andrians, 2019, oil on linen, 85 x 110 cm. Photo: Marco Cappelletti, courtesy Galleria Michela Rizzo

E.S: Your works and your research focus on the expressive potential of the body. What is the reason behind this interest of yours? Also, your figures often seem to disintegrate, merging with the space around them. What does this cohesion between subject and environment mean?

S.W: What interests me about the body is how much it can express an emotion through subtle movements or simply the way our weight is placed. The position of a pair of feet while somebody plays an instrument can be fascinating and very personal. The expressive potential of dancers in a choreography can certainly be very strong, but I find just as significant the uncoordinated movements of an old lady trying to do up her bra.

A drawing project at the Royal College of Art about my then 90-year old grandmother Ingrid became the starting point in my interest in the expressive potential of our physicality. Perhaps it was the first time I realized how much emotion can be expressed in details, small things and subtleties.

Ingrid had dementia and I went to stay with her over a few weekends in the south of Sweden just before she became too ill to live on her own. When we looked together at a pair of her old dancing shoes, she started sharing memories with me that I had never heard of before. It was moving when she suddenly started putting on those shoes and then tried taking a few trembling steps, supporting herself on me and the furniture in her small flat. She said she remembered how they had been dancing at every dinner party no matter how small it was, and they had danced with sweeping movements.

Sophie Westerlind, Laura, 2020, oil on linen, 120 x 120 cm. Photo: Marco Cappelletti, courtesy Galleria Michela Rizzo

E.S: How do you strike a balance between these figurative and abstract representation in your creations?

S.W: Drawing a portrait of a person you have only known for a few minutes is different from interpreting somebody you know very well. It was a very special experience for me when my parents came to pose for a painting for the first time in my studio in Giudecca. They had been featured in my paintings and drawings before, but I had never painted them from life. Their closeness to me and the fact that I know their expressions and physicality so well meant that I could play quite freely with the brushstrokes, but it was also an incredible challenge. It was like seeing them for the first time in a very different way. Having them both in the studio was also special as if they suddenly had entered my "real world", or maybe "playground" is a better word for it.

When somebody poses for me in the studio, it can seem dull having to deal with the same bare studio walls over and over again. However, I find that everyone has an entirely original way of making the space for the sitting their own. It is as if that specific environment suddenly becomes an extended part of someone’s personality, it is instantly "owned" just by his or her way of being there. I like including objects in the composition; it becomes like a conversation between them and the person posing. I find it interesting trying to make for example the play of colours on the model’s blanket "speak" with her facial expression. Whenever I get stuck, I keep coming back to the notion I learnt from a great woman in London: "Don’t forget looking in your backyard". Repeatedly, the solutions and ideas are often found closest to us. I find a lot of inspiration in the environments close to me. A lot of personality can be found in a room where an electric guitar stands next to the table where a kitchen degreaser is placed casually. An unmade bed can tell more of a human presence than if the person was represented as a figure in the painting.

Sophie Westerlind, Carolina, 2019, oil on linen, 110 x 85 cm. Photo: Marco Cappelletti, courtesy Galleria Michela Rizzo

E.S: And how do you balance drawing and painting in your production? When you imagine a painting of any kind, do you start by drawing it or do you devote yourself solely to painting straightaway? Can only paintings be defined as "finished works"?

S.W: I see drawing as separate from painting. For this reason, I don’t really like using the word "sketch". I find that a drawing can be as complex as a painting. A variation of marks can be a very strong medium to express an emotion. Drawing is great since it is very direct and allows you to work more easily outside the studio. Drawing-walks is a great way to "listen in" and learn about a specific location.

Whenever I start a new canvas, I begin by marking out the composition with the brush, but it’s more a way of getting closer mentally to what I’m about to paint. Just as John Berger states, drawing can be a way of thinking. It is an immediate way of getting to know the shapes of volumes and distances.

Sophie Westerlind, Psychedelia - il rock nel paese delle meraviglie 120 x 120 cm, Oil on linen, 2021. Photo: Marco Cappelletti, courtesy Galleria Michela Rizzo

E.S: Your paintings show a wise use and combination of colour: this makes me think of the taste and attention to colour of the Venetian school; in particular two pivotal artists like Tintoretto and Titian come to mind. The diptych Titian and the Dolomites, comprising The Death of Actaeon (2019) and The Bacchanal of the Andrians (2019), typifies the refinement of your palette, as well as showing your interest in mythological situations typical of the paintings of those years. Do you draw inspiration from these pictorial currents both in terms of technique and content?

S.W: Coming to terms with the Venetian Renaissance masters have been fundamental for the development of my own language in painting. Standing in front of one of Tintoretto’s enormous canvases at the Doge Palace or Scuola di San Rocco gives me the sensation of being in front of a gigantic orchestra. The movement created by the gestures and torsions of the figures around the table in one of his Last Suppers is an incredible lesson in how to invite the audience to take part in a composition. Drama is expressed by dark skies where the clouds seem as heavy as the androgynous figures that sometimes rest upon them. Revisiting these masterpieces keeps being stimulating since it often feels like drawing or painting in front of a very theatrical scene. Having paintings at hand in Venice is a great privilege. Studying the works of Titian and Tintoretto has also allowed me to learn more about Greek and Roman mythology. The strong characters and dramatic narratives keep being an incredible source of inspiration.

E.S: Painting is mostly a solitary activity. Your portraits, however, show the genuine closeness and rapport that you establish with the subjects being represented. I am thinking for example of Laura (2020) and Carolina (2019). How can the presence of other people harmoniously coexist with your work rhythm?

S.W: I find exchanging experiences with other artists and practitioners to be incredibly important as it gives me the necessary strength and inspiration. A great thing about Venice is the constant daily interaction with other people. It feels special that it is so natural to mix with between different professions, age groups and life situations. To me, so far, painting has never really been a solitary practice since it mostly has been connected to people and events close to me. I wouldn’t do to a great job working in complete isolation.

The people around me are also the ones who have repeatedly got me "back on track" whenever I for some reason got stuck. I remember my desperation a few years ago when I was working on commission in Venice in the middle of August. I was about to leave it after the first two days just because it was so unbearably hot and humid to work in the studio with the oil paint that seemed to melt. But a close friend of mine kept encouraging me to keep going until it was done. After four days, and despite all the suffering, it turned out to be one of my most important works that year.

The inspiration you get from the interaction with another person is probably the main reason why I prefer painting and drawing from life. Both Laura and Carolina have been incredibly generous with their time. They have given me the opportunity to paint their portraits more than once. We did not know each other very well before, but the painting sessions became a space for reciprocal trust. I miss them both as neither of them live in Venice anymore.

Sophie Westerlind, Stora Hult, 120 x 120 cm, Oil on linen, 2021. Photo: Marco Cappelletti, courtesy Galleria Michela Rizzo

E.S: The space inside your studio became all-encompassing during the lockdown. How did you experience this forced coexistence with your studio? Interestingly, the lockdown also brought about the series Finding Flowers during Lockdown (2020). Since nature was not a recurring subject in your previous paintings, could you explain the reasons behind this?

S:W: The strangeness of the situation last spring made it feel more urgent than ever to paint. The studio in Giudecca became nearly like a dimension in its own right and a “safe haven”. The practical difficulties and limits became a challenge, and I learnt to appreciate the situation for what it was. A great experience I learnt from the lockdown was to see how willing people were to help each other with practicalities. Just to make life a little easier for each other.

A friend who encouraged me to paint from flowers put me in touch with a flower seller in Campo Santa Margherita. We arranged a meeting in one of the alleys behind the square so I could get hold of a bunch of flowers although it was "forbidden" during that time. The fact that it was difficult to get hold of the flowers made it even more interesting to work with them as subjects. It was lovely painting them also because I missed nature so much. At first, I didn’t know how to even start. It helped looking at the amazing work from nature and still lifes by Emil Nolde and Paula Modersohn Becker.

E.S: You had the opportunity to explore Fincantieri, one of the most important shipbuilding sites in the world. From an artist’s studio, a reassuring and personal place, to the huge and industrial spaces of the construction site; can you tell me about your experience in those huge spaces? What were the most surprising aspects you recall from that experience?

S.W: It was an incredible experience since it meant living a different side of Venice and Italy from what I’m used to. The daily repetitive rhythm and the ongoing interaction with the employers about the site, their daily life in general and the works I created there on location together with them became fundamental elements for the residency.

It shows through in the works since I chose to focus on the personalized environments of the people I were constantly in touch with. Everyone was incredibly generous with me, allowing me to eat with them every day in the canteen and making me feel like "one in their team". I never thought I would become so fascinated by cranes and their movements, and all the different metallic sounds at the site. I never thought it would be so interesting to paint what I would see looking down from a rooftop. Those were big surprises for me.

Sophie Westerlind, Serie Finding Flowers during Lockdown – Detail (3). Photo: Marco Cappelletti, courtesy Galleria Michela Rizzo

E:S: Two of the most characteristic spaces at Fincantieri are the massive space dedicated to production and the tiny workers' rooms, which they are free to decorate and furnish as they see fit. What did the encounter between impersonal and working spaces with those that clearly reveal the workers' personal details arouse in you?

S.W: Since I was most interested by the conversations I had with the people I met on a daily basis, it became natural to portray their personalized spaces in my drawing and painting works. These locations seemed to tell something about their owners, and so they became more significant to me than the enormous and more impressive volumes and spaces at the site. I kept being attracted to their many details, how they made me feel as if I was invited to somebody’s home.

E.S: Lastly, details of your works have been chosen by GIUNGLA (@Giunglamusic) for the album cover of two singles, Walk On The Ceiling (2020) and Turbulence (2021). How did this collaboration come about?

S.W: I love collaborating with talented friends who use other creative mediums. Whether it is photography, writing, film or music, I find merging multiple approaches inspiring since they can lead to a different take on the subject. Perhaps this has also been even more important during the pandemic. Sharing inspiration and encouraging each other creatively has been a way of giving each other positive energy. I find being invited to collaborate incredibly generous since it means sharing an artistic research project.

The collaboration with GIUNGLA came about thanks to the curator and close friend Tommaso Speretta. He is amazing at discovering connections between people and their different expressions creatively. It is exciting to work with the talented GIUNGLA since it means exhibiting my paintings in a different context than what I’m used to and to a different public.

Eleonora Savorelli is a curator and is is currently collaborating as art dealer with the contemporary art galleries Superstudiolo in Bergamo and with Wallector in Rome. Simultaneously she is curating BLUELINE, an artistic project with the artist Matteo Messori and designer Daniele Coletti.

Sophie Westerlind is represented by Galleria Michela Rizzo in Venice.


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