Sarah Walker is an artist and owner of the Sarah Walker Gallery in Castletownbere in West Cork, Ireland. Born in Dublin, Sarah has lived and worked in West Cork since 1990. Her work has been shown nationally and internationally, with regular solo shows in Cork and Dublin over the course of her career.
In conversation with Beth for Sonnets and Dirty Dishes, Sarah shares the no-nonsense attitude to creativity that has kept her level headed and busy in a career that spans three decades and counting.
In this section we ask artists to talk about what started them down the road they are on – how did it begin? On Sonnets and Dirty Dishes, we want to explore what motivated people to take the leap from dreaming, to doing. We ask: Can you tell us what drives you to do what you do?
Sarah: “It was really easy for me to decide what to do. I went straight from school to art college at sixteen and when I finished college I went to live in Japan for a couple of years. I exhibited there and did an artist’s residency. Very shortly after returning I was offered a solo show in Dublin. I got state support until I was paid for the sales from that show and from then on I was pretty much able to support myself and my family from my work.
I’ve always treated it like a full time job, never in any other way. And like any job, it involves a lot of admin work. It’s not just about creativity. I’ve always done the admin work necessary to be able to sell. Setting up the gallery was part of that; it helped me to survive through the last recession. I had been dying to create a space like the gallery. I suppose that’s the architecture background coming out – I’ve always been interested in spaces.* Building the gallery cost me a lot of money too though – but I’m able to make enough that it has made sense. I work really hard; but then– don’t most people work really hard at their jobs?
*Sarah’s father was renowned Irish architect Robin Walker.
In this section we ask artists to talk about their workspaces, tools, and resources they need. We ask what their work day looks like. We also ask them to respond personally to the Sylvia Plath quote that gives this project its title: ‘I would live a life of conflict, of juggling children, sonnets, love and dirty dishes.’
Bothar Bui is a very unusual house that my father designed in 1970, which is divided up between six buildings in a mix of traditional and contemporary styles. It’s on the Beara Peninsula in West Cork, and my family used it during school holidays. For the rest of the year they would invite artists to work there. Michael Mulcahy worked there for a number of winters, and Eilis O’Connell, and a number of other artists. One of the buildings we always called the studio, although it was mainly used as a living room.
Thirty years ago, after my father died, I moved to Bothar Bui with my boyfriend at the time, intending to stay a couple months. I basically never left. I lived in the house for ten years and worked in the studio. So that was a pretty good start to have; the studio in Bothar Bui.
Now my studio is in my gallery in Castletownbere. I love my studio, and I love the times when the gallery is quiet or closed and I have the place to myself. The studio is separate from the public space of the gallery, but still it can be disruptive. I invite clients into the studio occasionally but mostly I try hard to keep it to myself, that’s not always possible with the music events etc that go on in the gallery. I have made adjustments and put measures in place, like the bar area, and creating a space for storing the equipment needed for the gigs, and that has helped to keep my space to myself. I’m not complaining – in many ways this is a bed I’ve made for myself, and overall I love it. Compared to working from home with children around, I have a glorious situation.
During the Covid 19 lockdown I’m working in Bothar Bui again, and it has been heaven. I love the opportunity to paint uninterrupted. I would ultimately like to have my studio space separate from the gallery.
“I get to work by ten in the morning and work through to six, then home. As well as the studio, I have a desk upstairs in the gallery which is where I do the admin work. I have big spurts of painting, mostly during the quiet winter months. That’s not to say I’m not painting all summer too.
A couple of years ago I started doing tapestry work. I design the tapestries and they’re made in Galway. It’s a project I’ve always had in mind but it really happened because I was showing with the Oliver Sears Gallery in Dublin. He really liked the idea of the tapestries. They’re very expensive to make, so without Oliver’s support to start with, I wouldn’t have been able to do this work.
In the beginning, the factory made a tapestry sample from a painting I had done, and I really hated it. But I knew they had done tapestries for Pat Scott and Louis Le Brocquy. It was an entirely new form for me, so I had to go there and see the whole process in action, learn how it worked so I could get what I wanted. It costs a fortune so I was very nervous to watch the work as it progressed. The tapestry work involves a lot of time on the road as well, driving back and forth to Galway. But that’s just part of life, living this far South; and I do love driving – I love being alone and listening to music.
“The Sylvia Plath quote does resonate with me, but I think it would resonate with any working mother, whether she worked in the bank or was an artist. I think that balancing act is something that most mothers know and I don’t think it matters if you’re working full time or not. I’ve been the main earner in our household, but also been the main organiser of everything. My husband will happily do the shopping, for example, but I’m the one who notices that it needs to be done and writes the list. It’s not so much doing what needs to be done; it’s the extra thinking that working mothers have to do. But I really do think that’s changing. When I look at my son and his girlfriend, they’ve been together about four years now, and they have this lovely equality in their relationship.
So certainly I have always had to do that balancing act, but it would have been the same for me in any other job. And I coped with it in the same way as if it were any other job – from the very start I always had crèche or childminders, or an au pair, and then school. It cost a fortune but it meant I could work so I could afford it.
BEING IN THE WORLD:
Publication, performance, recording, exhibiting. In this section we ask: how important is it to you that your work exists in a public space? Why do you think this is? And can you tell us about the time and effort you give to getting your work out in the world?
I do think it’s important to me to show my work publicly. I think even if I was working on private commissions all the time and everyone was happy with the work and I was making enough money; I think I still would have that need (although I’m not sure need is the right word) for people to see my work. Certainly I love having shows. It’s also partly why I’ve always done solo shows outside my own gallery, like in the Oliver Sears Gallery, or for years I showed with the Hallward in Dublin and the Fenton in Cork.
In my own gallery I’ll often have my work hanging, but I’ve never had a solo show and publicised it as such. But that’s something I might consider more seriously in the future.
When it comes to the balance between painting and doing the admin work, it’s probably about 50/50. I’d love to not have to do the admin work. Lately in the gallery I have someone else there, usually in the summer months I’ll have an intern or someone working in the gallery so I can be in the studio.
Having a good website; having your work visible – that all really helps.
BEING IN OURSELVES:
Many creative people speak of periods of self doubt or impostor syndrome. It seems that choosing to persist with our creative projects takes great courage at times. In this section we ask: How has self doubt affected you, if at all? What have you done to bring yourself through difficult times and allow yourself to persist? What has helped you?
Sometimes you are working away and you feel that the work is going really well and you’re really happy; but the next day you come back and it’s shite. That’s normal; it’s a normal part of the job. And it can happen the other way around too – where you are really struggling, where it feels like it’s not working at all. This is like the question I get asked a lot – how do you know when a piece is finished? There are times when I just don’t know. I have projects that might be in the studio for years and when I finally look back at them I think, actually that’s good; there’s a poignancy in the piece. It might have been something I had dismissed as being too naive, but then it turns out that is what’s precious about the piece.
Everybody doubts the work that they’re doing. It’s very much an ongoing balance – feeling you’re great; then feeling you’re crap. Luckily for me there has always been enough urgency about survival that it has kept me working. And I always have work to do, whether working towards an exhibition or on a commission; so I’ve never been in a situation where I could sit back and wallow in self doubt.
I think in the bigger picture it’s very important not to take yourself too seriously. Always do your best; always question your work – but don’t think of yourself as some magnificent great artist. Just do your job, like anybody else.