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Michael St. Clair Considered Landscapes

June 29, 2020

I recently came across the art of Michael St. Clair and love his wonderful connections to the land sea and sky.

Michael studied Fine Art Printmaking at the University of Humberside and worked for several years in graphic design before retraining as an art psychotherapist in 2010. As well as helping others express themselves through art making, he is keen to pursue a career as an artist himself creating images which are partly metaphorical and partly autobiographical.  I caught up with him to find out a little more about his processes and ideas.

How did you first get interested in art and what does it mean to have a drawing talent / access to art for you ?
I can’t really remember how I first got interested in art – I know I always enjoyed it as a child and can remember drawings I loved doing at school which my teachers would often comment on. I don’t come from a particularly arty family and just gradually fell into it as being the thing I enjoyed doing the most from school.  What art means to me is quite tough to put into words. I know there is something inside me that has to create (or feels neglected if I don’t) and working as an art psychotherapist, I do believe that art has a great capacity for facilitating ‘healing’. I think there’s something about visual communication as opposed to verbal that I just really relate to. I think art can be a profound way to communicate some things that are very difficult to put into words. I struggle a lot with anxiety and fear and know that art making is good for my own mental health and helps me feel calmer. I’ve also noticed during this crazy and horrific pandemic how important looking at beauty and beautiful things (like art) is for me.

When you begin a new piece or series of artworks, how do you prepare your ideas and subject matter ?
It a bit of a jumble really. I don’t do a lot of planning and work in quite a spontaneous and instinctive way, which means my paintings develop as I make them, so there’s a lot of trial and error. I rarely know what the finished painting will look like when I begin. Having said that, I’m almost always inspired by something visual and that can be quite a small thing, an experience, colour, shape etc. but enough to start. I like the finished image to have some authenticity to the original idea but I might be the only one who can see it. The work can get quite tight and fussy if I try to stick too closely to it, so I’m always telling myself “its a painting not a photograph” and then try to let it work itself out.
You describe your work as ‘partly autobiographical ‘ can you tell me a little more about this ? 
As I was just saying, my work is based on my responses to what I encounter in my life. I’m not thinking too much about conveying a particular statement but more sharing my experience.

Your earlier work was more figurative and I love the transition into landscapes involving seagulls and the intertwining of the two shapes and forms within the painting itself.  Is this style an amalgam of different drawings or perhaps an emotional reaction to what’s in front of you, or maybe a bit of both ? Lol
Thanks. I think I used to be more concerned with narrative and since everything revolves around me (!) I used figures to do that, thinking about metaphor and symbolism. There’s something simpler about what I’m doing now which I enjoy and find more freeing. Responding to something visual just seems more direct. I never really know what to say about style. I’m generally trying to simplify and distill. I like to play with perspective and reference cubism and modernism.

Do you prefer to sketch from real life or from photographs or even from imagined landscapes as I’m wondering if your work is a mix of the three?
If at all possible I’ll try to do some kind of drawing on location. i don’t paint ‘en plein air’ much as I feel it makes me want to be too realistic. Its like I need a bit of a gap from what I see to making the work, almost to fit myself in the middle. I do use photos for reference but again, try not to copy them. My work does change a lot in its creation, I spend a lot of time looking and trying to work out what ‘makes sense’ emotionally and visually. A friend recently said my work was all about composition, which strangely, I’d never thought about but felt pleased that someone had recognised, especially after the hours I spend agonising over it! I did work as a graphic designer, so think I got used to spending lots of time fitting things in spaces. As you said it’s a mix of what was observed and what fits with the painting, if that makes sense?
I try to draw from observation as much as I can, almost every day if possible and love ‘urban sketching’. I helped set up the Urban Sketchers Tyne and Wear group and love taking part in sketch crawls. My drawing in that capacity is quite different to my paintings and I see it like practicing scales on an instrument. I make a point of getting to work early for my therapist job so I can draw from my car because I know it makes such a difference to me – I’ve been drawing the same car park for five years!
What’s your favourite medium to work in and why ? 
I find drawing much easier and more natural than painting. My Fine Art degree was in printmaking which I feel is somehow closer to drawing than painting. I paint in acrylics on canvas board for convenience and I like how I can scratch and sand the surface to get some direct marks. I feel like I’m still learning how to paint which is probably a good thing.

How important is it to always have a sketchbook to hand ?
I always have two kinds of sketch book on the go, one for urban sketching and one for painting ideas etc. I always think I should use my sketchbooks more but mainly just jot down ideas and try out different ways to draw things. Its surprising how many things come from it and I think there’s something less formal about a sketchbook that frees me up to be more experimental.

Did you retrain as an art Psychotherapist to have another career (as living on an artists wages can be a challenging option, however good you are) Or is the mind and it’s imaginings also a large part of the person you are ?
I had been working for a long time in graphic design and got fed up with looking at a computer all day and wanted a change. I thought a career in art therapy would be a way to work with art and people and (foolishly) a more steady income than being an artist. There aren’t many jobs around actually and it can be quite tough work. I wasn’t painting much at the time either and thought it would be like going back to art college and a way to kick start my own art making. As it turned out, it wasn’t anything like art college and is actually quite a different way of thinking about art, but I did eventually get back to painting. There’s probably something about my personality that kind of fits with being a therapist, I’m good at listening (and not very good at talking!) but at the same time I often wrestle with it and would love to make art full time instead. I do find the fact that people tell me very personal things a real privilege and I’m endlessly surprised and inspired by the things people make. It’s definitely an interesting job.

How do you see your work developing in the future ? Are there places you would like to sell it, larger scales and still ideas to create ? 
Er, I think I just want to do more and get better at it! I’d like to streamline my making process a little bit and be more organised maybe. I’m often drawn to abstraction and also wonder how I would deal with sculpture. I think it’s interesting to think how my work would cross into different media I guess that includes size. I think I’m just enjoying what I’m doing and want to keep going.

Finding places to show and sell work is a bit tricky. It seems to make sense to show in the north east and north west as these are the areas I’m generally painting about but I don’t have anywhere particular in mind. I’m always open to offers!

Here’s a couple of Michael’s digital illustrations.

This is his latest work and amongst my favourites. I love the interweaving of the birds into the landscape, the colours, the perspectives and the slight flattening of the views.

Always taken in and transported by that slight aerial perspective too !

They make me sigh and feel calm at the same time, how wonderful.

Thank you Michael for appearing on my blog today, I look forward to seeing what comes next for your work. You can see more of Michael’s work over on Instagram here.  Please leave a comment to share your thoughts and feelings about Michael’s work.

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