Saturday, November 24, 2007

Art Space Talk: Sylvia Sleigh

Sylvia Sleigh is considered by many to be a living legend of the art world. Her work has graced the pages of important art publications and can be found in several college text books. Sylvia inspired a generation of artists by making some of the first major cracks in the 'glass ceiling' of the art world. Sylvia explains that her paintings stress the equality of men and women-- they portray man and woman as thoughtful and intelligent by capturing a sense of dignity and humanism. These works emphasize love and joy.

Sylvia made her mark in the 1970s when she painted a series of works reversing stereotypical artistic themes involving nude figures. Sylvia's paintings depicted naked men in poses usually associated with women. Some of these paintings directly alluded to existing works, such as her gender-reversed version of Ingres's The Turkish Bath-- the reclining man in her version is her husband, Laurence Alloway. Philip Golub Reclining alludes similarly to the Rokeby Venus by Velazquez. However, other works equalize the roles of men and women, such as the 1976 Concert Champetre, in which all of the figures are nude, unlike its similarly composed namesake by Titian, in which only the women are nude.

Situation Group Portrait by Sylvia Sleigh

Brian Sherwin: Sylvia, can you tell our readers about your early years? Can you recall any experiences from your childhood that influenced your decision to pursue art as an adult? Did any of your family members influence you?

Sylvia Sleigh: My mother, Katherine Miller, commonly known as Kitty, has been a tremendous influence on me all my life. She created a beautiful bed sitting room in a large room at the top of my Grandmother’s house with fascinating books of European paintings & fine art magazines with beautiful color illustrations. (The color illustrations were unusual at this time, because of the expense – so, this was even more precious.) She read me French fairy tales and the Iliad and The Odyssey. She was also a great story teller.

My mother went to South Africa when I was nine and came back five years later. Prior to her departure to South Africa, mother sold all the books and furniture in large room. She left me with a kind and loving governess, Frances Simmonds, a clergyman’s daughter who taught me water colors. We lived in Hove in Sussex, England. And in those days the country was only walking distance away. We were close to the The Downs, so we picked wild flowers and painted them when we came home. Unfortunately she did not stay very long as grandma sent her away. She often sent people away when I was fond of them.

Soon after my mother returned from Africa she went to live in the extreme southeast corner of France -Les Alpes Maritimes. In a small walled town called Vence in the mountains.Vence is famous for being home to artists, sculptors and painters, including Matisse, who painted my half sister. There I painted my first landscapes. My mother gave me my first box of oil paints when I was 14 years old with a palate, canvas and brushes. The first thing that I painted was from my imagination, the head of a young woman with long brown hair in tears. There I painted my first landscapes in watercolors and oils.

Just before I went to Brighton School of Art when I was just 17, my school friend Frances Kirkhope and I took some lessons from an elderly RA (Royal Academician) who was a talented portrait painter and when we went to France to stay with mother we painted portraits of each other (on different canvas) reclining in evening dresses. Which I was very pleased with at the time. On another occasion I painted a portrait of my step father (head and shoulders) Joseph Canceda.
Maureen Conner and Paul Rosano: Venus and Mars by Sylvia Sleigh

BS: Sylvia, I've read that you were still living in Europe during WWII. How did those years impact you as a person and as an artist?

SS: I was not in Europe during the war. I was in Brighton, England. At the age of 23 I had a Shop, I made hats, coats and dresses. I moved in-land during the war. So, there was no real impact. I just could not do anything. I moved back to Brighton a few months later as we realized that England would not be invaded and we would be secure. I lived in a beautiful coast guard cottage. I did not reopen my shop. I did paint during this time.

I married my first husband Michael Greenwood in November 1941 and reluctantly I moved to London with him. I met Michael while I attended school at Brighton School of Art. Back in London, if there was an air raid warning I would put on my tin hat and with one of my neighbors, we kept watch in the streets for the "doodle bug" or the Vergeltungswaffe, The V-1, German guided missile.

Lawrence Alloway with Bowtie by Sylvia Sleigh

BS: Sylvia, why did you decide to move to the States? Did you feel any sort of isolation upon arriving? Can you recall any of your first experiences in the United States? How did that influence you as an artist?

SS: I did not really decide to move to the States. Lawrence Alloway, my husband, was offered a job teaching Modern Art history at Bennington College, Vermont. As he was badly in need of work he was delighted and honored to go. He was offered a year and had always wanted to go. He had his wish in 1958 he had a Foreign Leader Grant and for a month traveled all over the states and visited Bennington because Clement Greenberg told him Betty Parsons was driving to Bennington the next day where there was a show of Barnet Newman.

When he arrived he met the chairmen of the Art Department, Gene Gossens and the faculty. We had met Clement Greenberg in England and he came to see us when he arrived. As the visit was only a school year. I did not mind. I had not wanted to come to America. I asked Lawrence to be sure to come from home in a year. I was very lonely at first as Lawrence was teaching or in his office most of the day and I did not know anyone. But I did do a lot of painting. It had a beautiful landscape. I soon got to know people by painting portraits of the art faculty. We also were friendly with the drama faculty as one of the other new members was as new as we were. He was the playwright in residence.

By the time the year was up I was very happy in the States and did not want to come home. The art scene was particularly exciting and we were especially friendly with Barnet Newman and Alex Lieberman who were encouraging and interested in my work. I felt very stimulated and eager to do large paintings! I even got some useful advice from Clement Greenburg!

The Turkish Bath by Sylvia Sleigh

BS: Sylvia, in the 1970s you painted a series of works that reversed stereotypical artistic themes by featuring naked mean in poses that are traditionally associated with women. Some directly alluded to existing works, such as your gender-reversed version of Ingres's The Turkish Bath. Some of your other works, such as Concert Champetre, equalize the roles of men and women by displaying the entire figures nude. I'm certain that you have been asked countless times about the motive behind these works-- however, can you recall anything about them that you may not have shared before?

SS: Although I think that through the Ages in most countries women have been treated rather badly it is important not to hate men – they are here to stay! Throughout my career I have found many kind and helpful men, including my second husband. I think we need to explain our position. I asked Lawrence when we were courting if he thought I am inferior to the most stupid and unpleasant men you can think of you ought not be with me.

BS: As you know, the art world has been faced with gender related issues. At one time the art world was very male-dominated. However, it would seem that the art world has been more equal than ever before in recent years. Would you agree with that statement? Or do feel that there is more that needs to be done to even the playing field, so to speak? What changes have you noticed? What changes still need to be made?

SS: I do think things have improved for women in general there are many more women in Government, in law and corporate jobs, but its very difficult in the art world for women to find a gallery.
Philip Golub Reclining by Sylvia Sleigh

BS: Sylvia, I've read that when you were an art student you were told that you had no talent by an instructor. Obviously you have a great deal of talent-- having received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Do you have any words of encouragement for art students who are degraded by their instructors or peers? Perhaps you have some words of wisdom for art students in general?

SS: I can only say that one has to be very single minded, if not obstinate and think that just doing the work is important though one does really need some encouragement. However one usually has something one needs, to express which gives one great satisfaction and there is a pleasure of knowing other artists.

BS: Sylvia, you mentioned that it is difficult in the art world for women to find a gallery. Do you think this will change in the near future? In your opinion, what steps can men and women take together to improve upon this?

SS: Although I think many men can be censored for their bad attitude and bad treatment of women. I have found a number of men understanding and helpful. I think we should explain to them our many difficulties and try to help them to understand that equality would really be helpful to them too. A real partnership would strengthen both genders and save men the trouble of trying to be superior. They need to feel secure then they would not feel threatened. Mother and teachers could help there.
Annunciation by Sylvia Sleigh

BS: Sylvia, what is your view on the art star mentality that seems to have taken over the art world-- young artists earning thousands of dollars for their work straight out of art school with little to no reputation to warrant that price? Many of these artists are driven into obscurity after their moment of instant fame has passed. In regards to the business side of art... is this practice damaging to the art world as a whole? Should young artists be wary of instant success?

SS: Some things in the 60s were similar to today’s situation, but on a much smaller scale. I am sure the galleries love to have 50% of the large sums of money the students earn. I hope some are female. Any artist having instant success should enjoy it! Remembering at the same time that the situation is so momentary it is not to be depended on.
A.I.R Group Portrait by Sylvia Sleigh

BS: Sylvia, when all is said and done... what do you hope that future generations gain from your art?

SS: A friend of mine asked me to say in two words what my work was about and was very Surprised when I said, "Love and Joy". I have always felt so strongly that there are so many wonderful things to enjoy we could all have a happy and satisfying life. But of course with global warming and the horrible political scene who knows. In 2003 I decided that I needed a motto well mottoes are usually in Latin which gives them Grandeur & prestige. So, I chose a line from an old time popular song "Remember you’re the one who can fill the world with sunshine." A kind friend translated it into Latin: "Tene memoria tu es quisdam quie mundum cum luce solis compiere potes."
You can learn more about Sylvia Sleigh by visiting her website-- Information about Sylvia can also be found on the I-20 Gallery website-- A huge thanks goes to Douglas John for helping during the interview process. You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin


Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this! Sylvia is one of the greats and it is amazing that she is still productive in her 90s! I've seen some work that she did in 2004 and was very impressed.

Anonymous said...

Bravo! This was a real treat.

Anonymous said...

Sylvia .....thank you for posting and sharing your wonderful life.
Peace be with you...
Ruth Olivar Millan

Anonymous said...

is feminism kind of like stuckism?