“My earliest memories of drawing are of making a friend laugh by drawing breasts,” reveals artist Sara Anstis. Her ethereal soft pastel pictures, drawn onto paper and walls, merge mythic imagery and symbolism with female experience, bodihood and sexuality.
Sara’s artistic education has taken her far from the “small idyllic island in Canada,” Salt Spring, where she grew up. Having attended art school at Concordia University in Montreal, where she also studied sociology, Sara moved to Gothenburg for an MFA at the Valand Academy, and then to London, where she completed the postgraduate drawing program at the Royal Drawing School, taking time off in between her studies to work on personal projects and make money.
Speaking of how her distinctive style evolved, with its tumescent curves, vivid colours and hazy, bruise-like shadows, Sara tells us: “At Concordia, I felt most comfortable in the drawing studio. I worked solely with charcoal on paper in a very detailed manner during my undergrad and for about three years after that. So for seven years I refused to use colour. Then a switch slowly and painfully flipped and colour rushed in, starting with green. I also eventually let go of the detailed line work that I had forced myself to do, and also the idea that the amount of discernible labour justifies the art object. The women in my current drawings are maybe the murderers of all those little lines.”
The predominant concepts that Sara’s works embody are, in her words: “Gendered subjectivity, Eros, humour, colour, personal mythologies, misunderstandings and anthropomorphisms.” These themes are woven together in the pictures among a plethora of otherworldly elements – surreal landscapes, strange creatures and plants – by which Sara’s figures lay claim to female erotic desire, taking unconstrained delight in their bodies, each other and their environments, at a remove from heteronormative and patriarchal societal conditions. As Sara describes them: “My images – I waver between calling them drawings and soft pastel paintings – are populated by mainly female figures. I get to know them gradually and they end up shamelessly doing whatever they want within their landscapes. Sometimes they are interacting with companion species, or, as in a recent series, they are accompanied by unknown protean beings.”
Sara’s artistic influences are eclectic and broad – she lists Carol Rama, Semiha Berksoy, Stanley Spencer, the Chicago Imagists, Milton Avery, Miriam Cahn, Britta Marakatt-Labba and the Assyrian stone reliefs depicting the royal Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal. Drawing on these visual references, her creative process is one that takes place as a kind of prolonged imaginative inhabitation of the fantastical realm that breeds the stories and mythologies played out in her work. She tells us: “I imagine situations and make fast drawings. I think while I draw and this usually means I don’t have a specific image in mind before starting something new. When I start a new pastel drawing I scribble on the paper and rub pigment into it to make it a less precious object. This scribbling and rubbing makes a beautiful image in itself, and I tell myself that one day I’ll leave that abstraction as is – but that’s probably a lie. I am too in love with aiming gazes and fleshing out bodies.”
With fish decorating their hair, hands full of seaweed and caressing the tentacles of eel and snake-like creatures that loop between their legs and around their waists, the women in Sara’s images consummate a deep and mystical connection between female subjectivity, sexuality and nature.