When Sofia Mitsola applies paint to her canvases, she invents a language. Mitsola learns to communicate between maker and audience through each stroke, taking influence not from other artists, but from authorship. Today Sofia Mitsola talks to WIA about literature’s connection to the visual arts, her interest in Greek mythology and how she overcomes those unpleasant but universal moments when inspiration is blocked.
Sofia Mitsola was selected, along with Appau Jnr Boakye-Yiadom and Kitty Clark for the Jerwood Solo Presentations, 2019. Mitsola presented new work in a solo show at Jerwood Space, London when she was selected for the high quality of her work.
[Image credit: Sofia Mitsola by Hydar Dewachi © Hydar Dewachi]
WIA: WHAT ARE YOU DOING TODAY?
Sofia Mitsola: I will go to the studio and prepare a few new canvases. I always like to dedicate one day to stretching and priming, so that I have all my canvases ready for when I need them.
WIA: TELL US ABOUT YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS.
SM: I work a lot on paper, making drawings with pencil and charcoal. In these, I start to form ideas, some of which will later become paintings. I work on small and big paintings, but I feel that the large ones often work better as they allow me to play with life-size or larger-than-life figures.
I usually start my big works by applying multiple layers of washes onto the canvas, using turpentine to dilute the oil paints. I then try to figure out the composition and how I want to place my figures in the painting. I like my characters to occupy a large amount of space on the canvas, almost touching the edges, or stretching out from it. As the washes take a couple of days to dry completely, I have enough time to think of the next steps, which are applying thicker paint and making decisions about the colours and composition. I think a lot about “when is it time to stop?” and “when is it enough?” Sometimes, I try to work with the least I can, trying to have a more reduced palette and a singular form, and sometimes I am adding forms, colours, elements, trying to work with more. It really depends on what I am looking for each time I start something new.
WIA: DESCRIBE WHERE YOU DO MOST OF YOUR CREATIVE WORK.
SM: The making happens in the studio where I spend most of my time during the day and try to be in as often as I can. When I am feeling too worn out or a bit stuck, I find it helpful to go to the British Museum or the National Gallery, look at art and think about painting. I always keep a small sketchbook with me for notes and small drawings that I make in the museum, which sometimes give me ideas or solutions.
WIA: WHAT’S THE MOST EXCITING PROJECT YOU’VE WORKED ON?
SM: It was a collaborative project called the White Wall, which was supported by Winsor & Newton and Liquitex. I worked with artists Ahae Kim and Jane Yang to complete a mural of approximately 3 metres high by 7 metres wide in front of the Winsor & Newton headquarters in London. Having to work as a team made us leave something of our own practices behind and trying a few new things in order to come with a consistent image. This was something that I had never done before and turned out to be really enjoyable and liberating. I loved working in such a big scale and being outside of the studio.
WIA: WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO BECOME AN ARTIST?
SM: I just knew I wanted to make paintings.
WIA: WHAT ARE YOU CURRENTLY WORKING ON?
SM: I am working on some very small works with watercolour, making notes and getting a few ideas together.
WIA: DO YOU LISTEN TO MUSIC WHILE YOU WORK, AND IF SO, WHAT’S YOUR SOUNDTRACK?
SM: I work without any music, but sometimes I like to have a movie or an audiobook playing. One that I listen to quite often is Nabokov’s Lolita, narrated by Jeremy Irons.
WIA: WHAT ARE THE KEY THEMES IN YOUR WORK?
SM: For a long time I have decided to work without the figure in order to concentrate on the place, time and atmosphere of the paintings. Recently I have brought the figure back, using it as my main subject of investigation. Some of my key themes are the nude, the female body and mythological creatures like sphinxes and sirens.
WIA: WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE PEOPLE TO NOTICE IN YOUR WORK?
SM: I like it when people notice the geometry, the confrontation, the power and the control. For me the figures’s direct looking towards the viewer is an important element of the works, and they are only activated when the viewer stands before them and takes the time to look back. I am thinking of ways to form a relationship between the viewer and the painting. In my mind the protagonists are inviting the viewer to participate in a flirtatious game of looking that they are in control and have power. The viewer enters their intimate spaces, moments and in a way needs to play by the rules that they have set.
WIA: WHAT ATTRACTS YOU TO THE MEDIUM YOU WORK IN?
SM: I find painting a fascinating medium. I love its history, its flatness, its ability to shift and its relationship with time. Sometimes in video art and installation, the viewers need to give time to see the work and decide whether they want to spend more time with it. But with painting I feel that one can instantly decide whether the work attracts them or not as it is all there in front of them. And so there are many ways of viewing a painting. From simply glancing at it to spending minutes in front of it.
WIA: WHAT EQUIPMENT COULD YOU NOT DO WITHOUT?
SM: Good lighting.
WIA: WHO OR WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
SM: Literature has been one of the main sources of inspiration for me. Some of my favourite novels are Nabokov’s Lolita, Laughter in the Dark, The Eye. I love how he uses the language to create beautiful, almost magical environments and then how he makes a destruction of this. I like the humour, the hope, the cynicism. I think a lot of the way he composes a novel and how he tries to create a relationship with the viewer.
I try to think of ways of translating these ideas in the language of painting: which I could keep and which to leave behind in order to construct my own language.
WIA: HOW DOES GENDER AFFECT YOUR WORK?
SM: I have a very intuitional approach to it. I feel that I enjoy making life-size or larger-than-life figures because I can relate to them, I can see them in a way as if they were my own body. While I am painting my characters, I try to become them, like playing a role, whereas while I am making the final decisions, I have to step away from them and have a critical position. To try and look at it as the viewer from a “distance” and see what the image does.
WIA: WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE GALLERY OR PLACE TO SEE OR EXPERIENCE ART?
SM: I love experiencing art where the works are at their natural “habitat.” My favourite place is Delos in Greece. Delos is an ancient island which was said to be the birthplace of god Apollo and goddess Artemis, and therefore is sacred. Until this day, no person is allowed to spend the night, give birth, or die there. Visitors arrive by boat in the morning and have to leave by the evening. There, one can see ancient ruins of the house of Cleopatra, Hercule’s cave, sculptures and mosaics exactly where they used to be. There is also a small museum where some original and smaller works are safely kept.
WIA: IF YOU COULD OWN ONE PIECE OF ART, WHAT WOULD IT BE, AND WHY?
SM: The caryatid at the British Museum.
WIA: IF YOU COULD COLLABORATE WITH ONE ARTIST, FROM ANY TIME, WHO WOULD IT BE, AND WHY?
SM: Stanley Kubrick while he was filming A Clockwork Orange.
WIA: IS THERE AN ARTIST, MOVEMENT OR COLLECTIVE YOU’D LIKE TO SEE RE-EVALUATED OR A CONTEMPORARY ARTIST WHO IS UNDERRATED?
SM: Paula Modersohn-Becker, one of my favourite painters.
WIA: WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE COLOUR?
Edited by Elena K. Cruz