Sadie Lee is an award winning British figurative painter. Her work became instantly recognisable after her friend entered the painting she’d done of the two of them into the BP Travel Award in 1992 without her knowledge. The painting was used on the publicity posters displayed at every London Underground station and the print instantly sold out. On the back of this Sadie Lee was offered a solo show at the Manchester Art Gallery. Despite this painting being the first time she’d even put paint on canvas, Lee agreed to produce fifteen more paintings for the show at the Manchester Art Gallery. The rest, as they say, is history. Or should that be herstory?
[Warning, contains explicit images]
Exhibitions have included A Dying Art: Ladies of Burlesque, a series of paintings of aged Burlesque stars; And Then He Was A She, portraits of Holly Woodlawn, known for her part in Andy Warhol’s Factory films and Holly in the Lou Reed song, Walk on the Wild Side. Lee is currently working on a painting for a group exhibition about Christine Keeler and part of the group show Threesome, at The Gallery, Liverpool, curated by Anna McNay.
Sadie Lee is resident artist for Queer Perspectives at the National Portrait Gallery, a quarterly free event where guests who identify as LBGTQ are invited to share their take on the gallery collection. The event is a funny, subversive look at the art collection. And isn’t recorded in any way, so if you’re not there, that’s it!
WIA: What are you doing today?
SL: Usually something. I find it hard to have time off and relax. I’ve got a lot of identities, I’m a mum, an artist, freelance lecturer, teacher. I’m generally in the middle of something and rushing from one thing to the next.
WIA: Tell us about your creative process.
SL: I tend to paint actual people who sit for me, although I did have a dabble using found imagery a couple of years ago, but for the most part, I tend to see somebody and think they would be great in a painting. Then I sit on that idea for about ten years! There’s usually a narrative, and it will take me a little while to come up with what I want to do with them.
I tend to work with performers, if possible. There’s a dramatic element to what I do a lot of the time and they understand if I’m directing them I’m trying to get a sense of a certain imagery. They’re not as uptight about what I do with their face. I don’t intend to make someone look less attractive than they are. It might be that I’ll exaggerate something. I use a light that isn’t pleasant or pleasing. Performers understand they are playing a part.
WIA: Describe where you do most of your creative work.
SL: I lost my beloved studio, in the Chocolate Factory in Wood Green, at the end of 2016. I’d been there for nineteen years. It’s the story that’s sweeping the country – the people that owned the building decided they could get more money for it, so they kicked out the artists, did it up and offered it back for four times as much for a fraction of the space. So that was the end of that. I’m now sharing a studio with a friend in Finsbury Park who is a painter.
That’s where I physically paint, but a lot of the paintings come about from thinking. I generally have a good idea of what I want to do in my head, and the painting is the purging of that idea. Certain things happen when you’re painting but a lot of the thought processes are already done, that’s the main work. So that’s in the shower, on the bus, having seen somebody, painting in my head. And then getting it out on canvas, as and when.
WIA: What’s the most exciting project you’ve worked on?
SL: Every new project! I get really fired up by creating something that didn’t exist before, and then it’s out there in the world.
I’ve had some really lucky fantastic experiences which are going to stay with me all my life. I painted Holly Woodlawn, the Warhol superstar, who was, I guess, the world’s most famous drag queen. She’s in the song Walk on the Wild Side.
Holly was in her sixties when I met her. She was a very private person, and we worked on a series of paintings in her apartment in Los Angeles. We went for some pretty candid pictures, which were really brave. Her generosity in allowing me in and sharing everything really affected me. That was an amazing experience. She died at the end of 2015.
A Dying Art: Ladies of Burlesque series was quite wonderful as well. I won the BP Travel Award and it enabled me to go to the Exotic World Burlesque Museum in California’s Mojave Desert where I painted former Burlesque Stars from the 1940’s–1960’s, now elderly and retired, in the clothes from their performing days. I think there’s a lot of pressure on women as they get older. I wanted to celebrate who they were.
WIA: What made you decide to become an artist?
SL: It happened almost by default. The decision to become a painter, kind of, found me. The BP Award was quite a high profile publicity campaign, and when Manchester City Gallery offered me the show, I didn’t have time to think about what I was doing.
I do ask myself sometimes why I am a painter. I use lots of layers, so you build this thing up, then you get rid of what you’ve done before. It does feel quite soul destroying sometimes. This repetitive erasing of what you’ve done. I can’t not do it. It just feels like that’s the most natural way for me to express myself.
There’s a moment in the middle of a painting, when you’re blocking it in for ages, and it’s messy and muddy, and then at some point, something clicks. You stand back, and it’s there. There’s this presence and suddenly it’s turned into something else that’s outside of you. It’s the most magical feeling. I don’t know whether that’s a feeling you get from anything else.
There’s something about making something out of smears of coloured paste where at some point it turns into something else and it lives. I still get a thrill from that.
WIA: What are you currently working on?
SL: I’ve just finished Threesome [at The Gallery, Liverpool to 4 Dec, Threesome was developed with Fred Mann and Tim Hutchinson, together with curator Anna McNay and exhibited at New Art Projects, London earlier this year.]
A project I was invited to get involved with before I started on Threesome is with curator Fion Wilson. She invited 13 women to each respond to Christine Keeler. I’m making an image of Keeler based on the famous Lewis Morley photo-shoot chair using images the paparazzi took of her when she was out shopping. Horrible covert images they published under headlines like, “You’ll never guess who this horrible fat old woman is, she was once considered the most beautiful women in the world, and look what’s happened to her…” It was a really horrible, negative article in a tabloid. I want to use those images in that positive celebratory image. I’m still devising the concept, but that’s what it’s based on.
I think that happens to women a lot. Growing old and gaining weight is a crime for a lot of women who have been described just by their hair colour, “a blonde”. I want to make a point about that and think about the way that the press vilifies women for getting old. So that will be an exciting project. There’s some great artists involved as well.
WIA: Do you listen to music while you work, and if so, what’s your soundtrack?
SL: Yes. I’m not good at painting in silence. I’m very 70’s. I’m just nostalgic full-stop. I think painting is kind of nostalgic, actually, by the time you put the paint on the brush, the moment has gone.
When I look at the paintings, I can remember the music that was playing in the background. I like a lot of old fashioned music. While I’m painting I like music that’s quite mellow, a lot of female vocal, but not exclusively.
Music has a massive impact on me. I like David Bowie. A lot of the poses that I’ve done reference David Bowie, Pin Ups was from the David Bowie album and the pose that I got everyone to go into was from the Aladdin Sane album. Holly is someone that came through music. I watched Gypsy at a very young age with my mum, and the burlesque series came from that.
Music finds its way in. It’s always in the back of my mind.
WIA: What are the key themes in your work?
SL: Sexuality. Aging. Vulnerability. Defiance.
WIA: What would you like people to notice in your work?
SL: I’d like them to notice what’s behind the façade and to have some kind of emotional response.
WIA: What attracts you to the mediums you work in?
SL: I think there’s a certain look I go for. My first painting was called Erect and although I think it’s still recognizable as my work, it has gone through a few changes.
I suppose I’m adapting my style depending on what each piece requires. Sometimes I’ll be a bit more gestural and simple, and other times I’ll go into quite tight detail. I’m experimenting with the medium in a way. I don’t feel like I’ve just got one thing that I do, it’s still evolving. I like that about paint. It’s always new. Every time you do it, it’s going to behave differently. That’s what draws me to it.
I use oil, I like Liquin I don’t like too much gestural brush stroke to be visible, I tend to polish it and smooth it out. I like it to look like you’re not quite sure which era it’s from. A lot of my influences are from the 1930’s so there’s a lot of green. I don’t use a lot of very garish colours, there’s green underpaint which you can see in the skin tones and there’s a kind of flatness in the thin layers that again reference that era. I try to get them to look so you’re not quite sure if they’re vintage. They don’t look too contemporary.
I work from photographs because it takes me about three to four weeks to paint a medium size painting. There’s layers of underpainting involved. When someone comes to the studio, you’re looking at the very outside of them, but in terms of painting, what’s underneath is the grounding, the working out, the drawing, putting down the base layers, darts, building it up. So it doesn’t actually look a realistic likeness until quite a late stage. I tend to take photographs so I can do a lot of that blocking in and thinking without them sitting there. If possible I’ll get them to come in again at the end and try to get an essence of them from life, but that’s not always possible. Sometimes I’ll do projects and the sitters don’t live in this country, or I might have to do the whole thing from photographs.
For the Holly paintings I chose the black background as I was in her apartment. I didn’t want to paint her apartment over and over again, but also it’s more theatrical. There’s two images of her where she’s in a white dress, looking quite made up, with a wig, and then a kind of partner portrait where she’s just in her pants with a walking frame.
They’re very big, seven by six foot, larger than life size. The black background acts as a kind of reference to religious iconography of Adam and Eve. Using this single colour background references the diptych. There’s the impact of scale as well, so the figures are quite vulnerable. When you stand in front of it, the angle of it, you feel like you’re sliding towards her a little bit.
WIA: What equipment could you not do without?
SL: Glasses! I can’t see a thing without them now. And actually the longer I spend doing seventeen hour days the stronger my prescription is becoming! Making a painting: I’ve got an easel that I use, and I find it quite helpful to crank it up and down so I can get to the bit I need to be at. I wish I had a window. I don’t have a window at the moment. I need daylight bulbs. I used to make paintings with these funny yellow Tungsten strip lights. On the day it was being taken outside to the van I’d see it in daylight for the first time and I’d be ‘oh my god!’. It would look so different from what I was expecting.
WIA: Who or what inspires you?
SL: Everything inspires me. I have my eyes open all the time. I’m drawn to people.
A lot of people who paint people need to work with someone they know really well. They need to build up some kind of relationship with them, and build up a sense of their personality. I don’t need that. I really like working with people that I don’t know because what I’m doing is projecting something onto them anyway. I like the awkwardness of somebody you don’t know very well. The tension makes for a more interesting image as far as I’m concerned. So if it’s someone I do know well, I generally do something really awful to unsettle them. Like suddenly make them be in a bra or something. I like there to be a tingling in the air, that makes you return to it. They are not comfortable images. That’s what makes it interesting for me. Strangers and strangeness.
WIA: How does gender affect your work?
SL: I think about gender a lot and my work is very much around the representation of gender and people’s relationship to gender.
I’ve started to identify as queer. When you talk about lesbian and gay and bisexual people, what you’re talking about is the people they have sex with, the kind of sex that you have. So it’s almost about taking it away from that individual person, it’s just about sex. I think queer is about your identity and your politics which is one of the reasons I think it’s a useful term.
I try to raise these issues within my work. I’m not trying to give people a hard or fast answer, I’m just opening up the debate.
WIA: What’s your favourite gallery, or place to see or experience art?
SL: Every time I go to the Wallace Collection, my jaw hits the floor. It’s the campest place. The wallpaper is just exceptional. It always makes me feel like I’m not supposed to be there. I feel like a roadie from Slade stomping around!
In terms of art, I love everything. I try to go to as many places as possible. We’re lucky that there are so many galleries that we can go to. The journey to the gallery and the people I see on the tube inspires me as much as what’s in it.
There’s things that I love that have inspired me that I’ll never see. The portrait of Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix has been at the basis of so many of my paintings but I’ve never seen the actual painting.
There’s a really brilliant piece of public art that I prefer to anything I’ve seen in a museum. Outside the Foundling Museum (originally an institution established in the 18th Century to look after abandoned children) Tracey Emin has made a sculpture of a child’s mitten, which is placed on top of the railings. You know when a child has lost a glove, and it’s put on top of the railings so that people can find it easily? I thought that was such a poignant piece of art. There’s some lovely things in the Foundling Museum. That really affected me.
WIA: If you could own one piece of art, what would it be and why?
SL: I have a difficult relationship with the idea of ownership. Art as a commodity.
I think when you own art you’ve removed it from other people being able to see it. I don’t really need to own a piece. I’d like to have something that I could look at everyday, but it’s a kind of nepotistic creation that you can own it, it’s yours and you possess it. I don’t really know if I like that idea.
I‘d like to be able to go and see certain things every day. I went to see American Gothic by Grant Wood in the show at the Royal Academy last summer and looked at it solidly for probably about forty-five minutes because I’d only ever seen it in books. Sometimes when you see things that you know so well, they’re smaller or bigger than you expect them to be and it throws you a bit. It was kind of what I expected. To see the surface of the paint and be able to stand to one side of it and just see the tiny little brush strokes, the blending, the slight change of thought process, to see that it was going to be there, and then it goes there. It was absolutely astonishing to look at the surface of it. Reproductions are only as good as the photograph that’s been taken of it. It’s nothing like standing in front of it. So, I’d like to be able to visit that every day. But I don’t need to own it!
WIA: If you could collaborate with one artist, from any time, who would it be, and why?
SL: I think most of my paintings are collaborative pieces. Usually I’ll talk to people and we’ll put something together. Sometimes I’ll project something on to them, but they’re very much involved in the process. The image with Ursula Martinez feels like a collaboration, because I know her work really well and I wanted something to reference what she does how she uses her body in her performance.
I’ve been subverting other peoples’ works for a while, I don’t always do that, but every now and then I’ll return to it. So that piece references Velazquez’ The Rokeby Venus, but also The Origin of the World by Courbet. It’s like a mash up of those two images, but it’s also based on Ursula. The first time I ever saw her perform, she was dressed in a Spanish costume, singing Guantanamera, but she was actually singing ‘wank on a mirror’ and this painting is a fusion of all those ideas. So I think of that as a collaboration.
Group shows are all about collaborations. I’m currently involved in the exhibition Threesome which was at New Art Projects and is now at The Gallery, Liverpool. If I wasn’t involved in it, I’d go and see it. It feels like there’s definitely something happening. There’s an energy. It’s provocative. I go away with my head full of questions.
WIA: Is there an artist, movement or collective you’d like to see re-evaluated, or a contemporary artist who is underrated?
SL: Women in general. At the National Portrait Gallery I do talks and guided tours and I always try to fit in as many women artists as possible. There’s so many women who are actually really successful in their lifetime, or had a huge prolific body of work, but no one’s ever heard of them now because they’re not included in general collections of painters throughout history. While the gallery or museum might own works by women, they might not put them on the wall. Institutions need to look at their collections and make them representative.
I think things are getting better for women but there’s still a very small number of women who do everything, it’s the woman box ticked. Hopefully that’s changing. I’ve been selected for the BP award show six times. You enter anonymously, and as a result, it’s very evenly divided. I think not taking gender into consideration and judging it on the work, women seem to do quite well. I don’t know how that’s reflected in the prizes, because at that point the identity of the artist is known, so it would be quite interesting to see how many of the prize winners are women. How much of that is deliberate or subliminal, I don’t know. But when you get open submission competitions it’s quite evenly balanced.
WIA: What’s your favourite colour?
SL: Black. I know it’s not really a colour. It’s an absence of colour. It goes with everything!