For Sarah Stitt, 36, work is therapy. She had a miscarriage in 1994 and coped with her bereavement by painting a series of pregnant women, some with angels above. A year later, she became pregnant. But just five days after the birth, she was back in her studio, “hormonally insane” and painting to prevent herself going mad.
She first “found salvation in art” when she was at St Martins , aged 19. “I drank and drugged excessively,” recalls Stitt. “My rebellious youth ended with a nervous breakdown and painting was the only thing that helped me.” In 1993, she suffered a second breakdown. “I was severely depressed, suicidal and confronting the demons of my past.” So she “paid with paintings” for inpatient treatment in a therapy clinic on the Greek island of Skiathos.
These days Stitt appears more cheerful. But her work has changed enormously. Gone are the narrative portraits - from the career-kickstarting commission of Earl Spencer to the more recent ones of Mad Cows director Sara Sugarman , author Alice Thomas Ellis, painter Sarah Raphael and actor Dudley Sutton.
Instead she focuses on urban landscapes, particularly ones which are atmospheric in their absence of people. “I grew bored of doing people. They’re too self-conscious.” The turning point came when she went to Manhattan for the first time in 1990 and spent the entire trip with her head pointed upwards and her neck cricked, looking at buildings.
In her third solo show at Long & Ryle, Stitt exhibits images of the beaches and street life of Southern California and Britain. From Grand Central Station and the suburban Del Mar beach to Battersea Power Station and Chelsea Wharf, she explores British and American culture through its architecture, signs and symbols. (“In America you spend your time in the car reading adverts.”)
She paints surreal canvases lit by strong cinematic light, with deep shadows and vivid colours framed by the sky. Her work is flat - “I’m not a painterly painter who uses blobs of paint” - and she’s influenced by Edward Hopper, Sironi and Piero della Francesca.
Stitt doesn’t think she fits into the contemporary arts scene. “I’m not a modern impressionist type or a Brit pack installation artist. But I think painting will become popular again.” Her oils cost from £400 to £3000 and she’s already collected by Ben Elton, Frederick Raphael and This Life writer, Amy Jenkins. Barclays, Citi Bank and the Bank of America have also invested in her, which means she’s becoming bankable. Soon she won’t be living in a West London council flat.
Sarah Stitt is at Long & Ryle 4 John Islip Street London SW1P 4PX
CHILD ON BEACH
This “just happens to be” a portrait of the artist’s daughter, Grace. “But it could be anyone,” explains Stitt. “I depersonalised the image to make it universal.” Stitt wanted simply to capture a fleeting moment - in this instance, late afternoon with its massive shadows and Grace absorbed in thoughts of the precious twig she has discovered. “I wanted to encapsulate the lack of self-consciousness of children. I like painting children because they’re natural.” With its weird light and the shapes of the shadows, it is almost an abstract painting. “There’s nothing to remind you that it’s a beach except the bit of yellow and sea at the top.” The image is one of hundreds that Stitt has done of five-year-old Grace. She has been “doing a kind of 7 Up” of her child, painting and sketching her every few weeks since birth to provide a visual diary of her development. “I don’t try to sell many pictures of Grace,” she says maternally. “I do them mostly for myself as a record.”
From California to Kensal Road is the title of Stitt’s exhibition, because she’s drawn to the inner city areas of California, New York and London. But she thinks the cultures meet in Canelot Studios in Kensal Road, London - just a paintbrush’s throw from Stitt’s own studio. “California is on the other side of the world from West 10,” says Stitt. “But you go down Kensal Road and it’s pure America.” Canelot Studios, an erstwhile chocolate factory, fascinates her. “Its vivid colour and strong architectural form dominate the road.” She has painted it on 15 occasions, at different times and angles. “Sadly I’ve never been asked inside.” Detractors ask how she can paint something so ugly. But when Stitt talks about the building, she endows it with human qualities. “It has a life of its own and exudes character.” Perhaps this is why her transition from portraiture to urban landscapes came so easily?
L.A ICECREAM PARLOUR
Stitt spends her summers in Los Angeles staying in the “archetypal Hollywood pad” of Craig Ferguson, writer of the whimsical British comedy Saving Grace, painting the local beaches and buildings. “I’ve grown fond of the unusual landscape of L.A,” says Stitt. “The domination of cars and absence of people, the wonderful mixture of shapes and vibrant colours and the billboards and street signs that you’re bombarded with.” As with many of her cityscapes, she took liberties with similitude in L.A Icecream Parlour: she altered colours and added and omitted details from what she saw, to harmonise the composition. “I took out a car, put in a yellow taxi, changed the lettering on the adverts and added extra road to simplify the image.” The painting also provides an insight into American culture. “In contrast to the London pictures, cars take the place of people.”