When I look at Sam Owen Hull’s work, it brings me joy. I love how colourful it all is and the textures and layers really satisfy my eye. Her work seems youthful and bright, but then, when you read about her inspirations and the meaning behind each piece, you realise the work carries a heavy heart, with themes of our decaying planet and our eroding environment.
This contrast, and the fact we are huge fans of Sam’s work, make her June’s Manc of the Month! Read on to find out more about Sam, her art, and what she is most looking forward to after lockdown is lifted.
Cotton On MCR: Please introduce yourself/your work to the Cotton On MCR readers.
Sam Owen Hull: ‘I’m an artist making abstract embroidered paintings. My work is concerned with edges, the spaces between things. During the enforced break in my practice that motherhood brought, I rediscovered embroidery. When I returned to painting, the drawing with thread that I’d been doing to stay creative found its way into my work too.’
CO: Your work has a large awareness for our environment but comes across in a very vibrant and mixed media, abstract compositions. How do you see the marks and colours you use as a reflection of what you see?
SOH: ‘My work is about the many polarities we exist between, and explores those ideas in an intuitive way. I’m looking to find a tension or balance between these, to find the edges where they meet. Our exploitation of the natural world is reaching a critical point, yet collectively we are still unable to put the needs of the planet first. The unfolding climate emergency we now face is polarising people still further. The hubris of those who hold power is astonishing, and depressing. As I write this, in the middle of a pandemic, it’s still hard to see that any meaningful change might occur even after this passes. When I see things like a tree swallowing up a fence that is in its way, or the patterns that decaying paint make as nature reclaims an urban surface, it gives me hope. Seeing these things speaks in a way that I can’t articulate in words about my feelings around this, so I guess I’m trying to recreate that kind of feeling in my work, through the use of colour, line, gesture, texture.’
‘In terms of visual language, lots of my cues come from those observations. I’m fascinated by fences and borders that delineate edges, and the signs and symbols we use in our built environments, both of which speak of our desire for individual freedom being tempered by our need for structures and systems to organise us collectively. There are some marks that I use frequently in my work that relate to the idea of fences, or borders, that delineate edges. Some of these are painted, mostly they are embroidered. I see the paint as something that represents movement, flow, transience, illusion. The stitches, in contrast, are solid and physically contain or overwrite the painterly marks, and represent for me a connection with the weave of the canvas itself, but also a slow, obsessive overthinking of the paint.’
‘The threads I use reflect or absorb light to varying degrees, and that comes from transient light effects, like the reflections from office windows across a car park. I see my Instagram feed as a kind of visual sketchbook, so I’ll post photos of things I’ve seen that inspire my work, and these will often translate into the marks I make. French knots and bullion stitches growing from the canvas echo lichen growth around decayed paint, or lichen growing out of the peeling lettering on road signs.’
CO: What places, in and around Manchester, have you found that have been your favourite and most inspirational for your work?
SOH: ‘One of my favourite observations recently has been stalactites forming under the platform of a tram stop in North Manchester. I once had a studio in the Hotspur Press Building and was mesmerised by the worn stone steps in there. In fact, that whole building was incredible. The canals out of Manchester are great for decaying graffiti on various surfaces, and the transition from urban to rural along the towpath is beautiful. The Bridgewater Canal is my current favourite, but the Ashton canal which starts at the Velodrome out of east Manchester set off my love of cycling towpaths. I saw an old industrial red brick building along there with decaying blue paint on it that perfectly matched the sky, and it looked like it was dissolving.’
CO: What do you think about Manchester’s art scene?
SOH: ‘I’m not really a big part of Manchester’s art scene, my work has been very much in development whilst my children have been small. Since having kids I’m not great at getting out to previews, so I’m more of a silent observer of Manchester’s art scene in school hours these days. I’m very much an anonymous daytime gallery visitor, and to be honest that’s the way I like it. I do visit the brilliant galleries we have in Manchester and the North West though, and I think our region is doing pretty well these days in terms of having lots of great galleries at all levels. I have a very soft spot for Manchester Art Gallery because I lead workshops there for school and college groups, so I’m in there interacting with their collections and talking about art with young people regularly. It’s a real privilege and stretches my art brain. I’m also a Castlefield Gallery Associate Artist, which is great for support, opportunities and getting to know other Manchester artists.’
CO: We love a A T R F N 1.3 piece. Please can you tell us more about this?
SOH: ‘My hoops are experiments that try out painterly marks and embroidery which I then take into my larger canvases, so I see them kind of like pages from a sketchbook. It’s almost impossible to undo some of the stitching over paint, so these studies are essential to prevent me ruining a larger work that has taken hours! I also work on paper in the same way, but some stitches can only really work the way I want them to on fabric. This particular hoop came after a very difficult period in my life, and I had had a long break from making my work. There’s a clear contrast between dark and light in here, in both the paint and the whipped back stitch curving across the bottom. I use a variety of threads that reflect light differently so that light is intrinsic to the work. The turquoise marks that appear in much of my work evoke landscape and maps, the orange lines across the centre here are caught in a space where they are both support and release. I begin my work with a plan, and usually by the time the stitching is underway it will take a different path as the marks and colours determine what they need. Since this study was made, my larger work has become darker, or higher contrast, with fully painted grounds instead of working on raw canvas. There’s some autobiographical content to much of my work, and this one was particularly concerned with love and loss, life and death, and came from a period of long, exhausting contemplative journeys, both mentally and physically.’
CO: Where would you love your work to be exhibited?
SOH: ‘I’d love to have my work in the Tate, it was the first Gallery I really fell in love with, I didn’t go to galleries at all as a child, it just wasn’t on my family’s radar. I liked it because it was huge, so there was always had something interesting to find in there. I would also say Manchester Art Gallery, because my kids would buzz about my work being in there, the school groups I work with always ask if my work is in there, and it’d be amazing to say it was.’
CO: How have you found making art and staying creative during the lockdown?
SOH: ‘I usually work in my studio at home, so being at home a lot is standard for me, and I have all my materials to hand. In that respect, it’s fine. And it’s how I think my way through the world, so it’s definitely helped me to cope at times of emotional extremes I’m sure we’ve all been feeling. Having uninterrupted time to make my work is often hard to find though, and it’s in extra short supply right now with my kids at home, needing help, support, and someone to hang out with. And I can be easily distracted! On the other hand, they’ve been very helpful with directing and filming me in videos as my usual freelance work becomes online content, so that’s been good. They’ve helped me with making examples for some of the online art projects I’ve been working on, and have come up with some creative projects themselves we’d never usually have the time to do together. I’ve also really enjoyed seeing people open up and change their ways of being on Instagram in response to the pandemic. Artist Support Pledge and Isolation Art School have been lovely things to see unfolding, and I hope people remember the role that the arts have played in getting us through this strange time once lockdown is lifted. Especially those in government.’
CO: What do you have planned for after lockdown is lifted?
SOH: ‘Really, all I’d like to do after lockdown is to see my friends, drink in bars and eat in restaurants, go dancing, go to galleries again. I miss people. In terms of my practice, I feel like I’d benefit from finding a studio space to work from, so I can start to do some of the larger scale/messier things I’ve got planned. I’ve liked quite a few things about this enforced pause… spending more time with my family, in a different way, without the pressure of our usual lives and its demands. The air being clearer, people consuming less, driving less, there are lots of those things that I’d like to take into my everyday life and I hope other people do too.’
CO: If you could choose one artist, dead or alive, to be stuck in quarantine with who would they be and why?
SOH: ‘This is a tough question, I’d like to meet loads of artists, but probably wouldn’t like to be in quarantine with many people. Sheila Hicks or Annie Albers because they are my most recent artist crushes. Or maybe Grayson Perry because he seems like he’d be fun to hang out with, and he’s got a nice, big studio I could work in.’
CO: And lastly, if you would live in any piece of art, what would it be and why?
SOH: ‘I’m not sure I’d like a permanent home in any, I had nightmares about someone with no face coming out of a (possible) Lowry painting on Sapphire and Steele as a child, so definitely not those! But if I could have a holiday in one for a short while I’d probably go for a Peter Doig painting, maybe Pelican (Stag). The lushness of the trees looming out of the darkness, the flash of blue light, the uncertainty – I’d like to be in there for a while. If a mini break was an option, I’d love a wander through Bosch’s Garden Of Earthly Delights. But really, I think the only art I’d like a permanent home in is my own.’
Read previous Manc of the Month articles here.
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