Sarah Duncan is an artist and printmaker based in Bristol. Informed by the realms of science, astronomy and microscopy, her work explores the tension between seen and unseen, light and darkness, change and permanence – while opening a dialogue about ephemerality, transience and transformation. We caught up with Sarah at Spike Print Studio – an open access print studio located within the Spike Island building on Bristol’s South Harbourside – to have a chat about the underlying philosophy that informs her artistic practice and to find out more about her creative process.
For people who are not yet familiar with your work – who is Sarah Duncan?
I am an artist and printmaker based in Bristol. My practice is based on the natural world, and my most recent work focuses on our relationship with the remote and inaccessible, notably the ocean and the cosmos. I am drawn to phenomena that appear constant and uniform on the surface, but on further inspection reveal themselves to be unique, fractal and constantly in flux. My work tries to embed the world of human experience into the unknowable enormity of the cosmos. Optical technology and scientific research increasingly allow us to glimpse the unseeable; my work reflects on these technological revelations, and tries to grasp what would be unknowable without them.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
One of my earliest memories is living in Scotland and the fishmonger would come to the front door every Friday; he used to give my sister and I a mint imperial as a treat for if we ate all our fish! I also remember the start of the summer holidays, packing the Renault 4 with all our camping and beach gear and driving to France for the whole six weeks. My parents were both teachers so the holidays lasted forever.
What about your first memory of art?
We were always taken to galleries and exhibitions as youngsters, maybe not always willingly on my part! I think when I was about 7 or 8 at primary school, we had to make an observational drawing of a rubber plant, and I remember thinking it was the best lesson that year. It was about the time you become aware of your future and jobs you might like to do when you are grown up. I thought along with an astronaut, being an artist would be pretty cool!
How did you get into art? What are the milestones of your journey?
It was all about the teachers for me. I was super lucky at secondary school to have very inspirational teachers. In my spare time, I was always painting, drawing or making some weird object out of balsa wood. At A levels I got good results in Chemistry and Maths, and our head of sixth form was keen for me to study a more academic subject. Luckily my parents stood by my decision to study art.
The realms of science, astronomy and microscopy constitute your primary creative context. How did you arrive at creating art within this context and why is this context important to you?
I am drawn to wilderness and large spaces, the huge and intangible. My efforts to capture these on paper may be attempts to tame them and make them more familiar and accessible. My recent work has focused on the Earth, sky and water. These elements are immeasurably large, but the process of observing, selecting and reproducing a portion of them inside a frame makes that section more knowable. But it also hints at how unknowable the whole is. They are shifting and unstable bodies of matter, which I attempt to suspend outside of time just for a moment.
One example: many of the stars we see in the night sky no longer actually exist. We are looking back in time, not at real stars, but at the old light they emitted before they died. Capturing this image with a print or drawing is magical. The same is true of the physical formation of our own earthly landscapes. I am interested in the forces that have shaped our planet and left their marks and traces upon the landscape. My research starts by walking through a landscape and responding to it through photography, sketching and note taking. These records then become the starting point for a piece.
In your work, you seem to articulate the tension between seen and unseen, light and darkness, change and permanence – while opening a dialogue about ephemerality, transience and transformation. Can you tell us more about the connecting thread or underlying philosophy that ties together your work?
You’ve put that better than I could... permanence and transience – I like that!
How do you go about developing an idea for a new work? How do you prepare for it?
I have been lucky enough to undertake three artist residencies, all of which have been the starting points for major bodies of work. The first was in 2014 when I went to Kitt Peak Observatory in Arizona. I was studying for my MA in Printmaking and for one of the modules in second I carried out a self-lead residency at Kitt Peak. I was affiliated with an astronomer there, and he just let me do what I wanted. At night, using any source of light was banned as it would interfere with the telescopes, so you couldn’t even have any playback on your camera screen! I created lots of time-lapse sequences, setting my camera to take a photo every 5-10 minutes. The sequences look like they record the stars moving... but actually they show that the Earth is spinning! I was also able to hook up my film cameras to some pretty massive telescopes.
A recent residency in Iceland allowed me to experience some of our planet’s youngest landscapes, on which the drama and power of their births are drawn much more obviously, whether through flowing glaciers, violent tectonic upheaval or volcanic eruptions. The cycles of landscape creation and erosion are echoed in my drawing, which has become less about the line and more concerned with the nature of layers. I use layers of organic materials – charcoal, graphite, wax and chalk – to build up surfaces on paper, and erode portions of them by erasing, echoing the forces embedded the landscapes they represent.
In 2018 I spent a month in Finland. I was based in the middle of a forest in winter. It was -27 degrees when I arrived, and so I had to abandon my ideas of sketching outside as you couldn’t take your gloves off for long enough. I ended up taking photographs which I printed out on an old black and white printer. Unsurprisingly they were mainly white – white trees, white snow, white lakes – all printed on white paper. Pretty difficult to do anything with! But then I stumbled on the idea of working with dots, to give form to the image without losing the overall whiteness of the Finnish winter. I ended up giving myself a huge technical headache, pixelating the pictures and having to work through a magnifying glass!
What would you like the viewers to take away from your work?
My practice is not obviously engaged with worldly issues, but I think the subject of climate, and its precariousness, resonates throughout my work. My subject is the natural world in its broadest sense – water, stars, ice and snow. But underlying these is the planet’s fragile equilibrium. I want the vulnerability of my subject matter to be apparent in its grandeur.
What’s the most memorable moment you’ve had related to your art?
Being selected and hung at the Royal Academy summer show in 2018 by Grayson Perry. That has to be one of the highlights!
You currently live and work in Bristol. As an artist and a city-dweller, can you tell us a little bit about your relationship with the city and its people, and how does this relationship influence your creative practice?
I was brought up in Devon, so city life has always been a challenge! Bristol feels more like a small friendly town which got out of hand. Like when you go to a really friendly festival and it just feels like a party which a few more people came to! I love Bristol, I know a bunch of amazing talented inspiring people who are all doing their thing, be it film making, music, writing or art. It feels like it has the best of both worlds, a vibrant city which is close enough to the countryside and the sea that you can escape at weekends.
What are three questions you don’t have an answer for?
1. This one...
2. Tea of coffee?
3. Drum or bass?
Where can we see your work this year?
I am working towards my first solo show, which is going to be at Trowbridge Arts Centre early next year.
What are you working on at the moment?
I have just started a pencil drawing of the moon, I am enjoying it no end. I am finding hard to stop at the end of each day, thinking just one more crater!
Finally, what’s next for you? What new ideas are obsessing you at the moment and where do you think they will lead you?
I am planning a residency in the Atacama Desert in Chile – astronomy, archaeology, geology, it’s all there. The trip will give me time and space for personal and professional growth, the freedom to learn and experiment creatively, gather and find new inspiration in a remote, vast place far from structural or institutional frameworks and limitations. I haven’t fully planned my time there yet, but have nurturing ideas of somehow ‘drawing with the sun’, thinking of burning lines or dots into paper using lenses and magnifying glasses. I also have an idea to use dust and sand within my work. Who knows where it will lead – that’s the whole point!