Sam Wootton is an incredible young artist whose work consists of an interesting fusion of contemporary and classical elements. Last year he debuted his work in his first public exhibition, ’Art and (H) Aktivism,’ in central London. This year he has been focusing on developing his skills as an artist, as well as becoming involved in the HIM + HIS project which endeavors to aim attention at issues regarding men's mental health.
1. Are there any influences you draw from when you start a piece?
Usually, all my pieces stem from multidisciplinary directions, I often look at musicians, other artists, and fashion. A lot of it is aesthetic, I draw from colour palettes and hues if they’re similar or contrasting. Then I build the composition around the colour and subject. The composition itself tends to come last for me. The past few paintings that I have done have centered around musicians because after I have heard particular songs I become really invested in the characters behind the music. I feel that representation of music has been lost to history, in the 16th-century art was an important medium for recording events, particularly for that of people of importance. I feel like this has been lost, therefore I am trying to reclaim it, and bring it back. I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from Caravaggio the 17th-century Italian painter, who pioneered the chiaroscuro technique which is the use of dramatic lighting from above with a dark back background. He has been an influence my entire life but recently I have been using him in relation to an artist called Kehinde Wiley. Wiley has been pioneering a movement that has been associating these renaissance artistic values to people of colour. To dominating and overtaking over space from something that is completely whitewashed to a place of reclamation. I suppose that my style is usually classical, whilst my subject is mostly contemporary. A piece that I have been working on at the moment is based around the social controversy of the artist J HUS.
2. How did you get involved with the HIM + HIS project?
Helene is actually a friend, and she reached out to me off the back of one of my paintings (it was a recreation of a Kehinde Wiley painting). She said that she loved it, and that she was curating this project regarding men's mental health. It also focuses on the role of art for social change, something that I have always been a big advocate for. I also trusted her completely with creative direction, so overall I felt like this project was perfect for me. I did a piece called ‘Icarus’ which focussed on the family dynamic of the prodigal son coming up and being affected by his father, and how that can manifest toxically through a rather insular, household space. The father has a dominating presence of the father over the son. I feel like it wasn’t very nuanced or in-depth, I wrote a short piece alongside it, it was more to shed light on how these mental health issues can stem from traditional, nuclear families.
3. What has been your favourite piece to create thus far?
My all-time favourite piece is actually my most recent painting entitled, ‘On Waterloo Bridge.’ It was quite a personal piece for me to make. It now feels like I am coming into my own as an artist, I’m formulating and creating my own work. It also felt very close to home, in the past, I have kept myself and my art separate, but with this piece I brought the two together as it was about a personal experience that I had on this bridge. I witnessed a man commit suicide. I decided to turn this experience into an act of reclamation, but also an act of representation for him. The result, it turned out just how I wanted to visually. The time I spent on it (30-40 hours) reflected the cathartic process I needed. It was like going to therapy every time I worked on it. It was difficult, but it felt necessary to tell that story. I have been in contact with the Dragon Cafe in South London who works as a mental health advocation space, as well as a place for social change regarding art. They are going to exhibit the piece there.
4. How did it feel showcasing your work in your first exhibition?
It was a crazy experience! Art for myself is a very intense, personal process. So when it is placed in a gallery space it becomes performative I guess, which is really strange. In a sense being stood in that space, it brought me closer to my art. It was a very important formative stage for me going forward. It made me realize that people care about what I am producing, help me develop contacts.
5. Has it been hard to cultivate connections?
It is generally around gravitation. As an artist, you tend to naturally gravitate towards a certain crowd of people. A lot has come from my work with fashion, as people who share an interest in that world are fundamentally creatives. Equally, they are very expressive in terms of art, so often they can appreciate my art too. Instagram plays a very important role, some people get in touch with me through that about commissions, etc. I recently designed some tattoos for a musician called Etta Bond, she contacted me through Instagram. This was a really cool experience as obviously art can be quite temporal. Having your art on someone's body (especially someone in the public eye) is baffling because it becomes something that is permanent. London as a place as well, you can never look down on it. There is an inspiration around every corner, and there is always someone you can turn to and draw from.
6. What response do you aspire to evoke from your work?
This is a question in of itself is one that I tended to be against in the phrasing of. I don really want to elicit any kind of reaction. I class myself as an aestheticist first and foremost. I think the question is loaded with a lot of ideas about arts meaning and its social purpose, which I am an advocate for, but I am also a big advocate for looking at a piece of art and saying, shit! That looks pretty as hell. My most recent piece (On Waterloo Bridge) obviously differs from my usual work as I wanted people to feel a sense of sorrow and sadness, which equated to that of what I had felt during that personal experience. You can throw the rules out of the window and you can view art however you would like. I feel that art has a lot of stigmas in that people tend to approach it with a need to feel something. You don’t have to, I sometimes go to galleries just to soak it in.
7. How have you developed your skills as an artist?
Something that signifies my growth as an artist is colour theory. Before I had never really grasped it. In a lot of my earlier pieces, especially where the subject had a darker skin tone, the work was very vapid and surface level. I would only use one hue and adjust the brightness. It would work but it would be a very 2-dimensional effect. Now I use more complementary tones and elements. Its made me had to delve deeper and change how I perceive people. Now I will look at people and be like, that face is blue or red. A lot of the time people don’t realize the tonal variations our face can have. There was a female artist in the 50’s who devised a simple technique of looking through a small piece of cardboard to see how colours interact. It’s interesting because everywhere is essentially a canvas if you just deconstruct it correctly.
8. Are you motivated by the current socio-political environment?
Recently it has been men's mental health, but I have also been following the story of J HUS. I feel a lot of people don’t necessarily understand, they are very quick to judge and vilify him. Which I can understand because he was carrying a knife, and knife crime is obviously a very serious problem in London. However people don’t quite grasp that it is not entirely his fault, it is a systemic issue that needs to be tackled from the bottom. These are children that feel the need to carry a knife. In JHUS’s situation, he is a public figure in Westfield. He knows people and has problems in the past, so he feels the need to protect himself. It is not a simple matter, it is a lot more complicated. You need to look beyond the surface level.
9. Are you involved in any other creative endeavours?
I have a small styling portfolio and I am trying to get into fashion. I have done modeling for a while, and recently I am going into fashion photography. Alongside this, I am trying to curate a selection of interviews and portfolios with my friends who are into music and artistic expression. The plan is to pitch these to magazines, to try and capture the youth culture that, I feel, is rather undocumented. I delved into music for a bit last year, I released a mixtape and that was thrown up at the Camden Roundhouse. I do really want to go back to that. All my creative endeavors stem from the community and meeting people, the stories off the back of that.
10. Where do you see your future as an artist going?
I’ve always said that I wanted to see my work in the national gallery, but now I am not so sure about that. I haven’t really thought about it pragmatically. Maybe just having a space where my work fits. I have been scheming about a potential plan, that as a city we come together and paint underneath the bridges. There is one in particular that I came across that reminded me of a 16th-century church, the way that the beams interacted with the structure. Anyways, I thought it would be cool because then the homeless could see it too. After all, art is meant to be for everyone.
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