Sylwia Narbutt, is a visual artist working in painting, drawing and photography. She received her MFA from the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw in 2004, and has lived and worked in London since 2006. She has been painting since she was a child: “my granny told me that the sky is painted by artists who had passed away so I wanted to become one.” Sylwia currently has a work in ‘A Generous Space’ exhibition at Hastings Contemporary and is participating in the 3rd Floor, Stockwell Road Open Studios in Brixton on the 10th and 11th of December. She will be taking over @interim_arts Instagram from 29th November - 3rd December.
How would you describe your work?
In my work I often use organic themes to explore what's hidden, misunderstood or repressed. The brittle textures and monumental figures of dead trees, reflect on the fragility of life. I am looking into forms that are somehow changed, transformed from their original self. I’m interested in added meaning, by time, by place, through their history or by a change of context.
Red is a very prominent colour in your work; it reminds me of this line in one of Zadie Smith's essays in ‘Intimations’ where she says the colour red is “an ideal form and essential part of the universe”. When did red become a lead colour?
It started in lockdown while listening to the Great Women Artists podcast by Katy Hessel. I’m 43 and I recently had this realisation while listening to the podcast; that I was always taught by men while studying in Poland. In art college all the departments that were informative to my practice - drawing, painting, sculpture - were male dominated. And, so what? I recently realised how much that male gaze influenced the art I was making and my perception of it. With this revelation suddenly came freedom and a deeper understanding of who I am. There was this twisted idea of what artists should be or shouldn’t be, when I was at school.
Can you talk more about this switch in your work?
I remember when I was applying for a Painting programme at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, and brought my portfolio for a review, one of the reviewers said “hide those, never show those again.” He was referring to drawings of my sister’s baby, my niece. I had hundreds of sketches of her because we were living together at the time. And he said “never show babies, cute animals or flowers in your work because you’ll never get into art school, this is to feminine. We will think that your heart's not in it.” So, I threw most of these drawings away, now I'm pissed off, I wish I kept them. I learnt that being a woman was a huge disadvantage and there were qualities in me that’s best to hide. I hope a lot has changed since then.
So that’s the background of how I arrived at red. I decided to embrace being a woman artist. I restricted my palette to reds, pinks and oranges – these remind me of make up colours, like blush or lipsticks. Womanly colours. This restriction turned out to be very freeing.
Considering the history of women artists, how has the content of your work changed?
In the ‘Dresses’ series, I pushed myself to use a restricted colour scheme of pink and oranges. It was hard but it shifted something in me. The scale of my work changed as well. In lockdown, I didn’t feel like painting big canvases, so I did little drawings. ‘Landscape sketchbook’ series started when we were only allowed to go out for an hour. I made these drawings from photographs and from memories - places I wished to be in rather than where I was at the time. I thought, fuck it, I can use colour pencils like kids do, it’s fine. I will always paint and go back to larger canvases, but having this freedom, making work that fits in a book and can be carried in my handbag is great - it doesn’t always have to be a struggle. The thing I made peace with recently, is that being drawn to what is understood to be womanly subjects, objects and textures is fine. The same goes for the tools I’m using – coloured pencils, fragile papers.
You’ve been working with these colours for a while, since lockdown - will you be staying with this throughout your current body of work?
Yes, I think I still have a lot to say within these colours. Red is loaded with symbolism and meaning, it is also an emergency colour. We are living in constant emergency – climate change, pandemic, colonialism, fascists sticking their heads out all over the world. The alerting colour scheme is very fitting. My paintings are inspired by the beauty of nature, but also feeling the stink of the waste water, pumped into the oceans. Nature is beautiful, we love this landscape but something is very wrong.
Tell us about a piece you are currently working on.
I’ve been working on the last of a series of three large paintings ‘Frolics with the Ancients’, touching on the same themes. I’m using motifs of dead trees again, which have appeared in my drawings before. There are some figures that still haunt me and I’m not quite finished with them. They keep coming back.
Your works of nature are eerie but also resemble textured fabrics - linking them with the dresses in your other pieces. What sources do you turn to for inspiration when you are creatively stuck?
I’m a runner. I’m constantly inspired by what our bodies are able to do. I spend lots of hours on my feet – running or walking, observing. When I feel stuck; I go for a run. The most amazing experiences were runs done at night time in Richmond Park or Wimbledon Common. It feels like playing hide and seek with deer, popping up and waiting for me to chase them. It can be a little scary, but also mind altering, to enter their world, to encounter nature differently. Your sense of perspective is altered. My brain goes wild before settling in, senses enter a different mode. You notice the textures and depth of colours differently at night. Finding yourself tangled in the undergrowth changes your perception of texture. Scratched, lost and only a human.
Glimpse into Sylwia's practice through her video of her artistic practice and landscape sketches here