Sharon Leahy-Clark: Me, Myself and… the Other

A strange magic haunts the work of PAPER artist Sharon Leahy-Clark, whose images and sculptures seem more like windows into some other, dreamlike realm. Nothing conforms to our usual sense of people or place and yet there is something oddly familiar lurking there, which resonates deeply. Here she explains some of the ideas and influences that have shaped her practice. 

How did you arrive at your current way of working and where did your interest in the self, the unconscious and the uncanny begin?

I’ve always had an interest in what it means to be ‘us’ as human beings, even as a child. Before studying Fine Art (at Middlesex University and then the Royal College of Art), I obtained an undergraduate degree in Sociology from the University of North London. The course provided an introduction to various philosophical and psychological theories, several of which had a big impact on me and continue to influence my practice today. This may not be in an obvious way, but they are definitely there in the background.

I see my practice as an extension of who I am as a person. I think and act quickly and intuitively, and am drawn to touch anything that I’m curious about. These qualities are very much reflected in my work, which I make in the way that comes most naturally – by hand, following my instincts.

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Eternal Dreamer, oil, acrylic, ink and watercolour on paper (2017)

I understand you are interested in the inherent, poetic qualities of the materials you use. Could you expand upon this and the role they play?   

I like to use a variety of different materials and not only work with paper but also paint on silk, sew and make installations with clay and glass. With everything that I make, I allow the poetic qualities of the materials to be shown. Natural accidents such as drips, fingerprints and bubbles (in the clay and glass) are all left visible. I don’t try to erase anything: any accidental marks are incorporated. Each piece is like a poem in itself – poetry allows for the awkward, the colloquial and the silent, and embraces these as qualities.

Can you describe the typical journey or process involved in making a piece?

I think about the things that I eventually draw, paint and make all the time. Any reference could be an inspiration: a sound, a voice, music, dance, a reading, a colour, a feeling, a smell, a memory… I am constantly making sketches, and scribbling words and lists on whatever’s to hand, and these act as my (anarchic) plans. So, although when I actually come to make a piece I work quickly and intuitively, behind this is a whole period of earlier development. I’ve often gone back to a sketch I made a few years before as it happens to be right for an idea that I am working on at the time. Every piece I make is wrought from my gut, and a challenge! I carry on working on it until the next one starts to ‘appear’ in my mind. That’s my cue; my intuition telling me to step away.

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Blood Horse (Burdened), watercolour on handmade paper (2017)

What can we expect to find in your upcoming exhibition, Not Afraid of the Dark, at PAPER?

The show is all about my reflections upon what lies beyond this life, hence the title. Within it, I reference fairy tales, folklore and religion (I was brought up a Catholic) alongside ideas of a primal, universal ‘understanding’ of the irrational (fear of the dark, death, monsters, the devil). Together these different elements provide us with a concept of the ‘self’ that is constructed in contrast to that which is ascribed to the Other.

Underlying the show, however, is also a questioning of the principal of a unified ‘self’, ‘me’ or an ‘I’. In place of this, I suggest that the ‘I’ is also made up of the Other. The Other does not exist outside of us: it is us. As such, Not Afraid of the Dark attempts to step beyond the traditional psychological interpretations of the stories, tales and myths that have been passed down through time and provide a new understanding of ourselves.

Where do the titles of your pieces come from?

Usually poems and song lyrics, sometimes quotes. Music is absolutely fundamental to my being. I’m plugged in most of the time and listen to absolutely anything: classical, hip hop, old punk, dance music, soul…. At the moment I’m particularly into soukous – a popular kind of dance music which derives from the Congo Basin.

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Janus, watercolour on handmade paper (2016)

What will you be working on once the PAPER show is over? Are there any new shows or ideas on the horizon? 

I will also be exhibiting a cross-section of my work as part of a group show titled Between Things at the Minories Galleries in Colchester, running from 15 April to 10 June. It will be a chance to see some of my watercolours on paper and silk, my sewing/drawings and clay installations together in one place. All welcome! In terms of new horizons, I’ve just bought some beautiful fine Japanese papers and am enjoying experimenting with these and watercolour.

Not Afraid of the Dark opens at PAPER on 8 April and runs until 13 May.

Sharon Leahy-Clark has exhibited her work both nationally and internationally (including in Japan, Hong Kong and Berlin) and been the recipient of several awards, including the Helen Chadwick Memorial Prize. Her work is held in several public and private collections.

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