On Dec. 17, Park City’s Gallery MAR will open an exhibition by Sarah Winkler titled Mountain Glow. Winkler, a Manchester, England native who also grew up in Malawi and Brunei, studied Art and Earth Science at William Paterson University. Working from a studio at 9000 feet in the Rocky Mountains, she combines both subjects in her desert and mountain geological interpretations of the American West in collage works and large-scale acrylic paintings. In anticipation of the exhibit, 15 Bytes writer Rebecca Pyle interviewed the artist. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
RP. Has anyone ever described your work as never leaving an airplane? Staying forever up?
SW. My dad would love that analogy, having spent his entire career in aviation. We flew a lot as a family. I even flew a small prop plane once or twice. Even now, I always get the window seat on an aircraft and spend the entire flight with my husband looking at clouds, the curvature of the earth, the sunsets, other planes, crop circles on the landscape. The coolest thing we ever saw through the window was the Aurora Borealis before landing in Iceland. So maybe that feeling of flight, or flying forever, comes through in the artwork.
RP. With growing-up years in Malawi, West Africa, and Brunei, Borneo (due to your father’s aviation engineering career) your standards for dramatic landscape must be high.
SW. What I remember most about the African landscape is its brilliant red, orange and purple sunsets setting over a dusty landscape. I remember vividly the animals running wild and free in the nearby Liwonde wildlife reserve. It wasn’t unusual to see vast herds of antelope running, elephants crashing through the bush, Hippos in the river on any given outing. I attended a French missionary school with a mix of expats and locals. The common language was art, and story-telling through dance. My English teacher made us keep a daily journal of sketches, notes and collected things.
It was very different than the industrial city of Manchester in the north of England which was where I was born, and lived. Borneo was a tropical, humid, jungle country with beautiful deserted beaches and spit islands. I think the best education is direct experience. Living abroad in different cultures taught me so much about people, landscapes and nature. The urge to travel and explore has been with me ever since.
RP. Was there a certain sight which made you fall in love with America?
SW. I have always thought people move West to escape from something or run toward something. For me I had always wanted to live a creative, adventurous life and I knew it was waiting for me in the West. After six years of being on the East Coast at college and a subsequent job in the DC-area newspaper biz, I felt an enormous pull and desire to move West. I’d had a taste of it visiting L.A. on school breaks from England when my Dad worked at LAX. The sun, sand, sea and roller blading up the boardwalk was awesome. California was the magical kingdom and I wanted to be there. The rock music of the ’70s and ’80s (like The Doors) coming out of California promised a life of amazing freedom and potential. I was lucky to have met my now husband before moving out West; we have now spent the last 25 years making some wonderful memories chasing double rainbows across desert floors.
RP. Your works can seem like an unrolling backdrop for characters, creatures, who have yet – to appear. Mountains, tall-stage backdrop: mountain lakes looking like a perfectly smooth … stage.
SW. I do see the paintings as enchanted landscapes. Mythical and magical places awaiting the characters and story to unfold. They feel literary and descriptive. Each one is based on my reality of daily visuals living up in the Colorado high mountain country. There is an unearthly quality of light, playful atmospherics, dramatic weather and summit views living at almost 9,000 feet up in the sky. I feel like it’s in another realm … meadow, conifers; foxes and rabbits, bear and elk as forest friends … brilliant carpets of yellow Aspens, mist and frosted-ice trees. This mountainous landscape has become my muse and like any muse, it holds my attention and fascination and purpose.
RP. You live above Morrison, Colorado. Did you stumble upon it by accident?
SW. I started to paint the geology of mountain and desert landscapes of the American West when we moved to Colorado six years ago because of the exposed rock layers that are so prevalent in the scenery.
We picked Morrison to set down roots, for its interesting rock layers, open space parks and mountain living. It fascinates me that certain rocks, gems, minerals that are quarried here can be transformed into energy, a product, or a luxury piece of jewelry. It makes the mountains come alive for me. We live above the town of Morrison, some eight miles back and about another half-mile in the air. The town itself is tiny and most will have not heard of it, but it is very famous in geological and paleontology circles for its exposed red rock layer called the Morrison Formation that spans across the entire West, and contains the dinosaur bones. Morrison was the first place the Stegosaurus bones were spotted. We have lots of interesting geological walks here through the Dakota Hogback and Red Rocks where you can spot fossilized dinosaur footprints, ancient marine life and really cool rocks.
RP. Your work, it’s said over and over, collage, is the building up of layers. When you have a coffee or a tea, do you always order the layered kind? Cortados? London Fogs?
SW. Being born in England, I do drink copious amounts of black tea with a splash of milk. But the adopted American in me has discovered a “Pinon Pine” spiced coffee, from Santa Fe, that I grind, do a slow pour-over brew into a 20-ounce thermal mug, and take into the studio daily. It completely fuels the painting sessions.
SW. Music that tends to speak to journeys, stories, the West, and longing. Anything from Appalachian mountain ballads, to American classic rock, to ’80s pop, to Beethoven. When I hit one tune I really like, it does get played, in repeat, for hours on end. It can set the mood and rhythm to the painting day.
RP. You begin with small drawings (miniatures, in comparison to large paintings you ultimately produce). These are time-intensive, you say.
SW. I work out all my compositions, colors, textures, subjects and solve problems on a small scale first before committing to a larger work. They are in a different media too, so there is another element of translating the collage sketches to acrylic painting with crushed minerals. Being fluent in multiple media creates both surprises and hurdles that can lead to some interesting imagery. I keep all my collages as a library of work. The paintings are the final “object” for show and sale.
But yes, these miniature 6-inch worlds of wonder can often take longer to surface than a 6-foot painting. It is the Grand Depart. The beginning of something unknown. The blank canvas. The abyss. The act of conjuring a fanciful 3 a.m. vision into reality. Making something out of nothing. There is no recipe to follow, no rules to know. Just the act of creation in all its mystery. Sometimes the muse shows up, sometimes it doesn’t. So it can take a minute.
RP. Favorite color! Has your favorite color changed, through time, through your geographical location?
SW. ORANGE in all its varied glories has been my steadfast BFF. It is the color connected to the chakra of creative birth, the sacral chakra. This chakra governs your emotions, your creativity, sensitivity, sexuality, intimacy, emotional well-being and self-expression. I wear it, eat it, embody it as much as I can. I feel joyful and energetic surrounded by oranges and yellows.
For the paintings though, I paint with a buffet of color that has out-foxed even the keenest RGB screen in terms of accurate reproductions. You have to see the art in person for the full technicolor experience. But, yes, my color mixes are sourced directly from land and nature. Desert rocks from the Rio Chama river in New Mexico, obsidian from an extinct volcano in Mammoth, California, pine needles from the Colorado blue spruce, have all been color matched and lent their hues to my palette.
Color is layered. That is why I’m drawn to it and perhaps it is the real subject of the art, not mountain and desert vistas. I love sampling the pigmented pancake of rainbows from warm to cool, intense to subtle, daring to dull.
For my upcoming solo show, Mountain Glow at Gallery MAR, I’m introducing mica-infused, pearlescent and metallic-based pigments so the work really shimmers and shines, and is waiting to be visually “mined.”
RP. You say your paintings are stories; but they also, keenly, look as if they’re waiting for story. The tall-curtain backdrop, the mountains; and below, in countless works of yours, the glassine lake, much like a glossy, possibly ice-coated waiting stage.
SW. I do feel like the imagery in my artwork exists in the realm of magical thinking. I often experience it as a download from the cosmic cloud. Outside of myself, but channeled through memory, experience and the trance-like meditative act of creating something out of nothing. It lends itself to exist beyond gallery walls. I’ve often thought about a creative collaboration. To bring the work into a different realm like an illustrated book, a 3-D projected animation you can walk through, a set for a modern dance performance. I immediately think of the fantastical worlds of of Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland), C.S Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia) and J.R.R. Tolkien (Lord of The Rings). Also, the two-person play “Waiting For Godot” by Samuel Beckett. Two characters, stuck in time and space in a setting that is not quite real, who have a variety of discussions while waiting for a man named Godot, who never comes: I could see an abstract play paired with equally abstracted landscape artworks.
RP. One of your reviewers says he eventually realized you are, at root, abstract artist. How true?
SW. Yes. Denver arts writer and critic, Michael Paglia, realized that the paintings were, at their core, abstractions. I’ve always thought of myself as an abstract painter who controls her layers in a landscape motif. When I’m painting, I’m taking elements of shape, notes of color, layers of textures into a pleasing or purposeful arrangement with repetition, pattern and form. I’m looking at the minutiae of how paint, tools and materials are behaving and relating to each other across the surface of the panel. I’m opting for the essence, emotion and impression of a place (instead of reality).
I have a number of works about Utah. Her deserts and mountain landscapes. I spend time in the Wasatch range, the high Uintas and the national parks. All of which I show at Gallery MAR.
RP. Your work, often incorporating bits of pumice, mica, bronze, iron, and many other minerals/metals, you say you hope adds to the rallying cry to Save Our Earth. You’ve even pointed out your unpeopled mountain landscapes may be “what (the world) may return to after we’re gone.”
SW. In a way I do think I’m nostalgic for what once was. I don’t know if it was merely through a child’s lens, but in the 1970s there was a lot less people on the planet and many wide-open desolate places to explore. I remember my childhood in Africa as one of the most magical times in my life. We lived amongst free-roaming wildlife, healthy oceans and verdant landscapes. I rarely see that now unless it’s a protected landscape.
I do embed rocks and minerals discretely into the paintings for people to find. Themes of discovery, exploration and being the first voyager to see things runs through my visual language. It’s important to me to create that sense of wonder, preservation, and direct connection to wilderness.
RP. A last question I must ask. You even multi-layered studies in college: art, and earth sciences, and English lit, and creative writing, too. This pretty-enchanted life of yours – painting atop a mountain, your paintings coming down the mountain to be displayed far and wide – they’re even now in the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan – is due to many influences, I’d guess?
SW. Over the years, I see all my interests in art, travel, poetry, adventure fiction and earth science have led me down rabbit holes to discover creative heroes and ancestors that have all lent their wisdom and guidance to me on this journey. Art is a career with no set road map to success, so I learned pretty early on to invent my own yellow brick road, and seek advice through the works, life and efforts of painters I’ve admired like David Hockney, Georgia O’Keeffe, Wolf Kahn, and Gustave Monet.
My main takeaway is to stay true to who you are, what you are doing, the trajectory you are on, to let criticism and praise roll off the back equally, to be courageous, and Get To Work Every Day.
Sarah Winkler: Mountain Glow, Gallery MAR, Park City, Dec. 17 – Dec. 30.
Rebecca Pyle is a writer and an artist with work in dozens of art/literary journals, in the United States and also in journals (in the English language) in Hong Kong and the U.K. and Northern Ireland, Belgium, India, France, and Germany. She graduated from the university the Wizard of Oz adored, the University of Kansas, where she studied art and lit. See rebeccapyleartist.com.