SP with Mask

Self Portrait with Mask 2001
acrylic on canvas
152 x 115cms





City 2

City #2 2006
acrylic on linen
137 x 122 cms
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Artists Mother

The Artist's Mother 2012
acylic on canvas
151 x 106 cms
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Brett Weymark

Brett Weymark 2011
acrylic on canvas
152 x 122 cms
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AN INTUITIVE PROCESS - Janis Lander interviews Sally Robinson

The College Voice, Volume 10, Issue 1 - Winter 2012

Sally Robinson is an artist and designer whose work is represented in private and public collections in Australia and overseas. For the first twenty years of her creative life, Sally Robinson produced screenprints depicting the life and landscapes of Australia and Antarctica. She then returned to her first love, painting, using stencils to create a dynamic, pixellated surface texture in her portrait and abstract subjects. Sally has been involved with COFA in its previous incarnations: she completed her Diploma of Art at the original National Art School, which then was renamed The Alexander Mackie College, which then became the City Art Institute and finally The College of Fine Arts (COFA). After completing her 4-year Diploma of Art at the National Art School, Sally was later employed as a lecturer in Art for 12 years at Alexander Mackie College/City Art Institute.

This interview was conducted at Sally Robinson's studio and Gallery in Macquarie Street in the City.

Janis Lander is an artist and a PhD candidate in the School of Art Education at COFA.


Janis Lander: I am enjoying these abstract works on the wall, from your recent exhibition  - they are so mathematical and precise - you play with the perspective and the spatial depth, and you tease the eye all the time, because it can never follow a linear progression. It's fascinating to look into the works, they seem to be so controlled and yet there is such a playful movement in them.

Sally Robinson: I like the play of colour and line and strong texture. I started out my artistic career as a screen printer and when you are making screen prints you have to be very methodical because you build up the images in layers, one upon the other, so you have to have in your head what you are going to achieve when you first begin. And I like working like that, I am a methodical person by nature, so when I paint my abstracts or my portraits I work the same way, I build them up in layers, starting off in flat colour and then putting in the detail, the shapes with stencils. Sometimes I use found objects, and sometimes I get them laser cut. They are all plastic because I work with acrylics because they dry faster. There's a little company in Camperdown that cut them to size.

JL: I guess you'd have to wipe them - your colours are so clean, that's one thing I really admire in this style - all the colour gradations in the stencil marks are so accurate and clean and beautifully organised.

SR: Well I get several sets made so I don't have to keep wiping them. These paintings are fun to make.

JL: They are fun to look at too. The spatial depth in the work is created by the interplay of coloured forms from the stencils, but there is a very strong structural form underneath. Do you do any of that under drawing free hand?

SR: There is free hand in the broad outline, but I start off with a photographic image in the computer which I manipulate to simplify and work out my colours and composition and then I transfer that rough computer sketch onto the canvas. Then I start building it up.

JL: This portrait of your mother is mesmerising - it really draws you in. The eyes are very engaging and direct, and there is humour in the expression. I was noticing the top of the head is not as detailed as the rest and it is in another colour - what is that significance?

SR: Well that's the loss of hair from chemotherapy treatment - and I didn't want to overplay it, I wanted it to be more abstract, because that's not what she is - she is down here in the face. The other is the disease.

JL: Yes, I can see the separation of the two facets in the image, herself and the disease. And also your relationship with your mother is in the portrait. It's amazing how you can put those layers of emotion in a painting…

SR: Yes, even when you're not trying.

JL: So are you pleased with this painting?

SR: I can't really tell at this point. I don't relax about an artwork until I put it away for a while and then I come back to it.

JL: I think that's normal. When a painting's finished, you know it's finished, and yet it's unsatisfying.

SR: I think it's because when you look at it you see the struggle in it, and you can't see it with fresh eyes. You need some time and space before you can think it's not too bad. In a portrait there are two aspects to be achieved - you have to get a likeness - I mean, if you are painting Bob Hawke and you make him look like …

JL: Fred Astaire…

SR: Yes, Fred Astaire -  then you've failed, even if it's a very nice painting. So there's that aspect. But then you want to say something more that the physical appearance. But I find often that happens unconsciously, intuitively.

JL: I agree with that, you cannot totally rationalise the process, and when you do that you end up with a rather stilted work. There's got be room to move in different directions while you're working, and you can analyse it afterwards, that's fine, but while you're doing it -

SR: - yes, you just have to let it happen.

JL: And this portrait of Brett Weymark, the conductor of the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs -  what is the significance of the words over the surface?

SR: Brett very much loves both the words and the music. He told me that Hymn to Saint Cecilia is his favourite choral piece of all, the marrying of the words and the music are magical. So it's not only the music by Benjamin Britten but also the poem "Three Songs for St Cecilia's Day" by W H Auden, which are so beautiful, and the words incorporated into my painting are those of the third 'song'.

JL: The strongest yellows are in the letters, not in the face - for me, those occasional yellow accents are like musical notes dancing in the space around him, like an extension of his thoughts into the canvas… was that your intention?

SR: Yes, I didn't want the writing to look even all over the surface of the work, the music has highs and lows…and the different colours in the words relate to different notes, different tones…

JL: I haven't noticed anyone else doing work quite like this - it's unique I think. Everyone made a big fuss of the stencil artist selected as a finalist in the Archibald Prize this year, but your works have been selected in the Archibald Prize several times, and you have been doing stencil works for years. I was a bit puzzled by that….

SR: Yes, I've been working with stencils in painting for about fifteen years. People know my work. Well, we love to enter these competitions because if you are selected, your work gets so much exposure. But at the same time you can't let it affect you if you don't get hung, because it's a bit of a lottery in the end. Whoever on the day likes your particular work. You can't let it affect what you do. I'm very happy just to do what I want to do and if it gets someone's attention that's wonderful, and if it doesn't I'll keep doing it anyway.

JL: Although in terms of earning a living, artists often have to take jobs to pay bills.

SR: I do design work. Because I've always loved computers and I work with computers in making my paintings as well, I'm very confident using desktop publishing programs, so I do desktop publishing to help pay bills.

JL: So then you have always done design work at different levels since you graduated from COFA - although it was not called COFA back then.

SR: No, I studied at the old National Art School, which then became Alexander Mackie College, then City Art Institute and finally COFA.

JL: Well that's an interesting bit of history - because the current "National Art School" used to be called East Sydney Technical College when I was doing my undergraduate degree, and then I guess the name was not being used any more, so East Sydney Tech became The National Art School, and the original National Art School ended up as COFA. And COFA is going through another big change at the moment, with the massive building program. It will become a state-of-the-art Art School with some beautiful working spaces.

SR: Well I always think the students have it easy these days - I suppose everyone thinks that, but when I was a student I think we had to work harder. It was a 4-year Diploma in Art. We had 36 hours of classroom teaching each week, and we had to learn all sorts of practices. We learnt panting and drawing, and we learnt everything from stretching canvasses to making our own paints - grinding pigments with oil; or mixing tempera with egg yolk. There's an emphasis on 'self expression' these days. We had a course called Medium, Methods and Materials that covered a broad spectrum of basic techniques. I think it's very important to learn all the different types of art methods. You think at the time  - why do I have to learn this, will I ever use sculpture methods in my own practice? but somehow it informs your practice.

JL: I strongly agree - even a general understanding of the history of art methods and practices gives you so many options. Apart from my research degree in the School of Art Education I did my Electives at COFA in the Printmaking department, and print making is totally process driven. In that struggle with the materials, there are so many unforseen developments in the images. I believe that that level of involvement with the materials enriches art practice. And after you finished your Diploma, you worked from 1974-1983 at the Australian Museum as a designer. That must have been really interesting.

SR: I travelled all over Australia. Fascinating trips to wild places that most tourists never get to see, and my screen prints captured those places. And also during that time I was lecturing part time at Alexander Mackie. Then after ten years I left the Museum and I was a lecturer for 5 years at the City Art Institute, as it was then called. And then I returned to painting, which was my first love, but I incorporated the stencil technique I employed in screenprinting.

JL: I'm just remembering that the New Guinea carving on the wall behind you was in one of your self-portraits.

SR: Yes, the mask was a gift when I left Museum. I used it in the background of the portrait to reflect one half of the face, which becomes quite mask-like - with the texture it looks a bit primitive, like a mask.

JL: I just assumed you were implying that we all have primal elements in our personalities that we deal with even though they are difficult to rationalise.

SR: Well, like we were saying before, you intuitively describe emotions in a portrait - even if you're not analysing it, it somehow happens that you pick up on emotional aspects and incorporate them.

Dr Janis Lander © 2012
School of Art History and Theory
College of Fine Arts
University of New South Wales