Against the backdrop of the California fires and the re-ignition of the metaphorical fires of the Black Lives Matter movement in America and around the world, Amber Snearl sat down with painter Sharon Virtue to discuss her work as a Community Artist.
"I’ve always had the ability to create my own reality, and so that has been the basis of everything that I do."
Born in England to a white Irish mother and a black Jamaican father, Virtue now resides in Oakland, California. Although known for her paintings and murals, Virtue's artistic path has by no means been straightforward. Despite initially deciding to study Film at university in Sheffield, Virtue was always able to inject her love of art into everything that she did. "I started making sets for the films I was making. I would come up with these completely abstract and bizarre stories. I would make all the sets, and costumes, and music, and I think I actually won a competition for one of the pieces that I made." After finishing her art degree, Virtue moved to London to study dance for two years. Describing her current work she told Snearl: "I have a painting studio where I do all my 2D stuff and I have a little station where I do screen printing and collage work too. I also have a computer in an office space where I do textile design. I’m part of a community ceramics studio".
Over the summer of 2020, Virtue was down on the streets of Oakland creating murals as part of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Sharon Virtue in front of her mural, photo credit: Harvey Castro
How has it been working on the murals in such a socially charged environment?
I’ve gotten to know the community here because of these projects. What happened in this scenario was that I felt like it was part of my civic duty. Because I am a community artist, I’m always working on charged issues with people. I did a mural with a group of homeless people before I left England which was really eye opening. I’ve worked in an orphanage and in a refugee centre. All of my work is socially charged, the only difference is that I’m now living in Oakland. You’re in the creative process and as soon as you put a paintbrush in somebody’s hand, the whole conversation is seen through the lens of the creative process. People are more open to speaking their mind, to sharing stories and asking questions. To me that process is so much more accessible for having conversations.
When you’re involving others in your work, is there a consistent message across your pieces?
What’s most integral to my work is colour, and patterns and joy. Taking it a little bit more into the abstract rather than specifically addressing an issue. Themes for me are women and stories of women’s lives and mysticism, because I’m really into tarot, and magic as well as mythology.
"If we had a world where people had to paint their opinions rather than speak them, the world would be a very different place."
Mural by Sharon Virtue, photo by Harvey Castro
Specifically right now, what role do you think your art has in society? How do you feel like this year’s events have changed or added to your work ethic?
In the beginning of the pandemic because I have a studio I was really focussed and got so much done. I’m a horrible procrastinator. As time has gone on, and with the fires starting I’m sort of interspersed with these really manic moments. Having other creative people around me is really important to motivate me to get into the studio. One of the things that I find really helps me is this thing called the Five Second Rule. By the time that you get to one you’re doing the thing that you were thinking about. It’s something that I heard on a little self-help podcast. If you haven’t started by the time that it’s up, you’re probably not going to do it.
Overall, what do you feel has been an influential experience that you’ve had?
Travel always does that for me. When I do travel it’s one of the things that is inspirational and influential. The other thing that goes in hand with travel is artist residences. Having that very focused and committed time to a specific project helps to expand my mind around a specific theme. The residences that I’ve done in my life have helped me to create a road map with my work.
Is there a place that you’ve travelled to that really inspired you that you would like to return to?
I would love to go back to Russia. I went there when I was training to be a dancer in London. We did a trip to Moscow and Saint Petersburg; it was snowing and cold. All those dark depressing movies that you see about Russia, it looked like that. But at the same time, I didn’t know that there was this really great European era where they built all these pink and blue buildings. The architecture was really stunning. You could go to see the ballet or go to see the national circus which only cost 2 dollars. I know that it has changed now because I went before the Iron Curtain came up, but I would like to go back in the summer.
I would also love to go back to Australia. I fell in love with the nature and the culture of the Aborigine people there. It was very magical and mystical. Australia is really varied because it’s a huge continent. The middle is really dry and is very sacred to the Aborigine people. But they also have tropical rain forests on the coasts. Of course, they have this amazing ocean where the Great Barrier Reef is. Melbourne is very much like California, as well as Sydney. They’re very cosmopolitan, but they’re also very colonial in a way. Anywhere that the British went and left their mark, you can believe that there is an unconscious level of racism that pervades the culture. Not to discourage anyone from going, but it’s good to know what you’re getting into. If you can connect with the Aborigine community there, it’s good. They’re pretty elusive, much like the Native Americans.
How do you feel like your practice has changed overtime?
Painting has always been at the core of everything that I do. I would say that I have become more focussed and developed a specific vocabulary. When people see my work, they can recognise it a little more. Also, working on a series has been helpful too. I don’t use sketchbooks. I normally have an idea and then work it onto the canvas, but I’m trying to do that more now.
Close up shot of a mural by Sharon Virtue, photo by Harvey Castro
What do you feel is the strongest memory of your childhood, and how do you feel you’ve connected that to your process?
My strongest memories from childhood….one of the strongest that I remember is falling off a bicycle or falling down the stairs. But I also remember long English summer days. Since England is further north, we can have daylight up till 9:30 and it can still be warm. I remember spending a lot of time outside in nature. Dreamy days sleeping underneath the trees on the grass. That’s where I developed my love of nature. From those summer days.
What is a good piece of advice that you were given?
I had a friend who let me use his studio when I first came to California. He said to me that it was something that his teacher had said: 'paint and it will come', which just means keep working. You don’t have to have a reason or a theme. Have the discipline to just go and work even if you don’t have a reason to be doing it.
What would you say is memorable about people’s reaction to your work?
When I’m doing the community projects, seeing people come alive when you pass them a paintbrush and ask them to participate. Giving people the permission to shine.
Name three people that you would like to work with.
I would like to work with Kara Walker. There’s another artist who’s moved to Amsterdam and she did this project about black culture and this series about hair. I can’t remember her name, but I would like to work with her. The last person I would say is Kerry James Marshall.
'There is Enough for Everybody' by Sharon Virtue
What is Your favourite artwork of your own?
I’d have to say that it’s There Is Enough for Everybody. That painting really was born out of the idea of scarcity where we live in this world where we are scared that there isn’t enough. That painting represents the joy and abundance in life that we have and stands as a reminder for that.
What superpower do you wish you had?
My superpower would be to restore the balance of nature and to make the people in power wake up.
What is your inspiration?
Nature is my inspiration because it’s the source of life and the reason why we are here.
Transcribed by Nathania Maynard.
Original Interview by Amber Snearl.