Sarah Letovsky: Portraiture, abstraction and female narratives in the art world
Born in Toronto, Sarah Letovsky has recently finished her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Drawing and Painting at OCAD University. Strongly influenced by a background in film and literature, Sarah's work is an interesting exploration of the female narrative, as the artist approaches portraiture through diverse techniques, juxtaposing a realistic human gaze with the materiality of the paint. I invaded her studio to pick her brain on abstraction, female narratives in the art world and the importance of art collectives. Read our conversation below:
Do you remember the first time you picked up a paintbrush?
Drawing has always been my mode of expression, I’ve been drawing since I can remember. I was always the weird kid sketching at the back of the class all through school. It wasn’t until I came to OCAD that I really started getting into painting.
What would you draw as a kid?
Women. Always women. I don’t know if it’s this fascination with my own gender and experience, but you know how every time you draw or paint someone there’s a bit of you? I’ve always been interested in the portrait; I’m obsessed with faces.
It blows my mind that every single face in this world is different.
I know, right? We’re so used to seeing faces and studying them for the slightest gestures. When you’re painting a face, even the smallest change of a line or in the shape of the eye can change the whole expression. I’ve become really good at exploring these cues. It was mostly self taught because OCAD isn’t the most technical school. It’s more theory based and very conceptual.
Do you find that having boundaries put on your work makes it easier or more difficult to create?
Personally, I would have loved to have had heavier formal training. A lot of people might disagree and prefer to do what they want, but I believe that there are basic skills that you should be taught before going off in your own way. Painting is a formal exploration, you know? Every painting you do, you get better.
How long does it usually take you to complete a painting?
It can totally vary. Paintings take on a life of their own and at times they can take up to months. Sometimes I get stuck in a specific stage, and sometimes they come together in a day… those are the best paintings.
Do you find your process or finished result influenced a lot by our mood or mental state?
It has a lot to do with that for sure, and I also think it has a lot to do about how precious you make the canvas. I find that whenever I plan too much, organize a sequence and make my idea ‘precious’, I tend to get stuck on a stage and not know how to proceed from there. Then there are times where I don’t have a plan and it ends up being beautiful. I want to demonstrate a gesture, so I’m trying to work more towards spontaneity.
How is your work an exploration in paint?
I try to see if I can push the paint, push that side of reality. In my portraits, you see a face and there’s humanity behind the gaze but at the same time it’s contrasted by a play of light and texture, of flatness and depth… so you’re eye is constantly bouncing back and forth between the ‘falseness’ of the painting and the ‘reality’ of the face. I’m trying to work towards that sense of unease or uncanniness.
I find it interesting how artists tend to move away from hyperrealism and towards a different way of portraying perfection or reality.
Yes. When I look at my pieces, I’m not seeing the person or even the face for that matter… I don’t see them as portraits. For me, they break down into abstract parts of a whole. Initially, I would have my friends model for my earlier pieces, but then I found that the further I moved away from starting with a photograph, the better my work was. More free. It would still look like someone but not like anyone in particular, so it has that sense of aloofness and detachment. In being anyone, it started taking on a life of its own.
I see you’re working on various pieces at the same time.
For sure. I have a mix of commissions, pieces for myself, for shows…It’s something I picked up early. When I was in school, I would visit a lot of artist studios just to see what their practice looked like and so many of them would tell me to work on various pieces at once because it helped you improve so much. So that’s something that I’ve always tried to do, even if I have so little space (laughs).
Tell me about NEST Collective!
It started with a group of friends who kind of imported from Creatures Creating. When their space ended, the group dispersed and a lot of people came from Creatures and decided to start a new collective. It’s just a way of being able to drive each other forward. Coming to the studio, hosting collective critiques, you don’t feel like you’re creating work in a vacuum. I feel like a lot of people graduate and go work in their basement or garage and sort of isolate themselves. It’s very important to get out there and receive feedback and be in the community.
It’s easy to get stuck in your own world as an artist.
I strongly believe that it doesn’t matter how good or how outgoing you are. If you just go and make work, you’ll be successful. You just have to be in movement. If you do it over and over and over, you’ll improve. Personally, I find it really hard to talk about my work. I think about it constantly but I find it difficult to talk about because it’s very internalized.
I’m a firm believer in the power of art to create positive change. In which direction do you sense this generation of artists heading?
Artists are the canary in the coalmine. They’re the reflection of society and of a generation. It may sound like an overstatement, but it’s true. Artists represent where we are in our human evolution. It’s hard to think about a direction in general. Looking back at previous art movements, I feel like we won’t really know until after the movement has passed. There’s so much incredible work and diverse work out there that it’s hard to quantify. I also think it’s very regionalized… the taste of the local market really determines the work that comes out of it.
What do you think about Toronto ? What role is it playing in the art world?
Toronto’s really hard. We’re such a young city, even in comparison to Montreal. I don’t think we’ve really gotten there yet. I see a lot of comparison with the taste in New York, so I sense Toronto having a big interest in abstract work… but again, there’s such a small niche group of galleries and collectors and dealers and buyers in the city that their taste really dictates what happens in our small market.
I feel it’s changing, though. Established professionals are making room for emerging creatives and you have all of these independent initiatives popping up all over the city. You can sense that the support for the arts has increased.
I totally agree. That’s why I think what NEST and other collectives are doing is so important. Artists get together and are like: ‘Well, there’s no venue available so let’s just make one.’ It’s very vibrant.
As a female, do you see a different role for yourself in the art scene?
There’s definitely a gender side to it. I really think the art world is such a boy’s club, as much as we don’t want to admit it. There are some incredible female painters and curators but the mentality that male artists are better is still there. I think there’s this view that men who choose to pursue art are more committed. They’re like: ‘Well, they could have chosen anything else, so if they’re in art, this is their whole persona and their career is going to go really far.’... Whereas with women it’s more like ‘Well, she might have a family or be half-hearted.’. It’s changing, but I think there are still a lot of stereotypes that still exist around female artists.
What have you learnt about yourself through painting portraiture?
Every painting scares me and I feel like at this stage of my career, every process just makes me have an identity crisis (laughs). Art is scary. You’re putting yourself out there, you’re on your own, you’re reflecting a part of yourself and you’re putting your deepest thoughts and work and abilities out there for everybody to judge. People stop to look at your work for two seconds and then move on so it’s scary. It’s also cathartic. I really feel that I work through something when I finish a painting.
How do you know when a piece is finished? Is it a gut feeling?
It is a gut feeling and that’s something that I think I’m getting better and better at recognizing. I used to do a lot of paintings that were very ‘unfinished’ and I loved that their imperfection, the fact that they looked like studies but weren’t. I don’t like work that is too touched, too perfect, too put together. There has to be some feeling, some soul, you know? So I actually struggle with the other end and am always pushing myself to add more. I think sometimes you just know, and other times you add that one extra brushstroke and it ruins the whole piece and you hate yourself for not stopping five minutes earlier (laughs). You get better at that with time.