Sarah Thornton-Smith: Curiosity propels creativity

From her childhood in Singapore to high school and university in Perth, Sarah Thornton-Smith has felt propelled to make art. Driven be a curiosity to explore colour, shape and shadow. Working primarily with paper cut pieces that are folded and painted, Sarah creates visual meditations with pattern, rhythm and balance.

Michelle Saleeba: Describe how you came to start making art.

Sarah Thornton-Smith: My parents introduced a musical education in our early years; in my case the piano. I practised diligently but after struggling to pass my first grade of piano, my music teacher told my mother I should attempt at something different. Art was introduced and it has become a preoccupation since. Art quickly became my favourite subject for all my schooling years; the art room a refuge for my awkward growing years as a teenager. By the time I entered university, I was certain I would always have art in one way or another in my life. University laid the foundation for a serious look into creating and doing art as a profession whether as a designer or an artist, the lines always blurring between the two professions. Following a continuous thread in my life, creating art has given me a chance to catch a glimpse into the truth of life and beauty.

Leaf portrait by Sarah Thornton Smith donation for Army Art
Leaf portrait: Summer

MS: Have there been any formative experiences, or lessons along the way that have impacted on your art making?

STS: In my first year of high school I was fortunate to be invited into a special art streamed school in Singapore where I was one of about 60 students selected from all primary school students. There, it was my first experience to the talents of gifted fellow artists. Being immersed in an environment where various art forms were investigated opened my eyes to the proclivities of new and explorative art practices.

Then under tutelage of a wonderful art teacher in my high school here in Perth, I learned that hard work and maintaining a healthy sense of curiosity would open doors into a future with art making.

My university years laid my foundation for a lifelong fascination to colour and its myriad of properties.

MS: Describe your current art practice.

STS: For awhile now I have been curious about the apertures formed when I cut into paper, preoccupied with the emerging shadows, the positive and negative spaces between the cuts and folds and how they lay a foundation for colours to interact, change, transmogrify, connect and allude to memories or experiences remembered.

I have also been looking at patterns and rhythm present in nature. My photographic documentation and watercolour field studies support this exploration.

Tapestry Sarah Thornton Smith paper sculpture for Army Art

MS: Tell us about your choice of medium?

STS: Primarily I work with paper as the base structure with the cuts and folds.

When I’m in front of a sheet of paper, its purity touches me. A single sheet is perfect, smooth, with impeccable edges. Paper may seem simple, but what you can create makes it excessively complex. Working with the material inspires something magical.

~ Mademoiselle Maurice

Gouache is then painted in various hues and tones to create ‘colour waves’ where I manipulate the gradation of hues. Due to its flat or matt appearance, gouache provides a saturated perception of the hue which can provide a basis for easy exploration into the properties of colour.

MS: What does a typical day of creative work look like for you?

In order to be creative, you have to know how to prepare to be creative.

~Twyla Tharp

STS: Starting with the practise of meditation, a cup of matcha and headphones full of music, I can lean into a day full of creative pursuits. Being a creative also means tackling all the business side of the profession so writing out a list of things to do on Sunday nights is really important for a week to start right.

Interstice paper sculpture by Sarah Thornton-Smith for Army Art

MS: Who or what are the strongest influences on your art?

STS: Howard Taylor was introduced to me by my university lecturer Paul Green-Armytage and both remain influential today in the way I create and see the world around me. Phillippa Nikulinsky, who I was fortunate to have as a teacher gave me an insight into a lifetime practice of looking into nature and learning a little more about the landscape I live in.

MS: What do you aim to say through your art? Are there any consistent themes or stories in your work?

STS: My primary focus has always been colour and its myriad of attributes. I see and use colour to capture life’s beautiful offerings. My work stems from observing nature directly with field study drawings and illustrations. Influenced by the rhythmic beats of music and inspired by narrative words, my ideas allow me to play with colour intuitively. Notions of how colour reverberates in the Australian landscape, one is able to dip into a memory, experience or recollection that highlights a connection.

MS: What’s essential to you being able to produce art?

STS: Music plays a strong part in ensuring I get into a headspace that leads to making art. Good materials on hand in a suitable environment can certainly help the creative juice flowing. But a sense of curiosity is the one ingredient that opens up the doors to creativity. And why shouldn’t we be intrigued by a little bit of mystery every now and again?

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvellous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day.”

~ Albert Einstein

MS: What role do you see artists have in society?

STS: Artists are creative beings seeing the world with imagination and curiosity as their lifelong guides. This allows for a fresh and unique outlook into problems and solutions. Artists have the ability to highlight experiences and provide for a chance at connectivity in a world racing ahead.

Interweave paper sculpture by Sarah Thornton Smith for Army Art

MS: Do you have any exciting news to share about your art practice?

STS: One of 72 pieces out of nearly 300 entries, Tapestry was recently selected to exhibit in the Mid West Art Prize 2019. I am truly humbled.

MS: What’s the most memorable response you’ve had to your artwork?

STS: I sold my exhibited piece at the Bassendean Art Awards and the lady who bought it sent me a message telling me how much she loved it and where she hung it in the house. The joy she describes my art piece gave her and family makes me feel humbled to have been able to create something that opens a connection.

MS: Where do you seek inspiration?

STS: There are many writers who fuel my imagination and provide me with a foundation to live a creative life. Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Big Magic”, Twyla Tharp’s “The Creative Habit”, Brene Brown’s “The Gift of Imperfection”, Victoria Alexander’s “Colour, a Journey” are a few books I return to again and again.

I enjoy listening to different genres of music, always open to multi layered, multi cultured and suffused sounds.

MS: What is something most people don’t know about you?

STS: I have an interest in languages. I can speak and write a smidge of Malay, German and Japanese. I used to play the euphonium in my teenage years, playing in the Royal Air Force Brass Band. I also have a hearing loss in both ears which means I may miss what you say but when I hear, I will listen carefully. According to my audiologist, I lip read, maybe not well but I do!

Artist Sarah Thornton Smith
Sarah Thornton-Smith in her studio

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