Seeking beauty within the realms of science, astronomy and microscopy, Sarah Duncan’s masterful etchings and painstaking drawings also capture a poignant and precise moment in our lifetime. Spanning challenging terrains and vast skies, we were excited to catch up with the Bristol-based artist and delve further beyond what first meets the eye…
Hi Sarah, it’s lovely to come visit you in your studio. Thank you for having us! Who or what is your biggest influence on your work / approach?
I find inspiration from nature, my surroundings and the cyclical patterns of our planet. The Earth is constantly changing. Natural cycles balance and regulate Earth and its atmosphere. Human activities can cause changes to these natural cycles. I am strongly influenced by this. I also think a lot of my work comes out of spending much time in the water, swimming and surfing. The water is calming, uplifting and so precious. It would be wrong not to mention some of my favourite artists at the point though, Vija Celmins, Caroline Corbasson and Katie Paterson. (Unintentional that they are all women!)
Do you come from a family of artists?
My family are not artists per se. But they are all very creative, my father spends free time gardening, bee keeping and is pretty nifty in the woodwork department! My mother knits, sews and enjoys creating amazing patchwork quilts. My Dad is a retired science teacher and I can remember many happy childhood weekends, making potions, minor explosions and crazy experiments, I think this switching on my hunger for scientific knowledge and exploration.
Yes, that hunger for exploration and scientific knowledge really shines through in your work and has taken you to some of the vastest terrains across the globe, most notably your residencies in Finland, Iceland and Arizona. How have these landscapes shaped the landscape of your work?
One of my first bodies of work came out of a residency which I did in 2014, when I went to Kitt Peak Observatory in Arizona. I was doing my MA in Printmaking and in one of the modules in second year we had to do a professional practise. I’d always wanted to go and spend time in an observatory, so I wrote to five of the biggest ones and two wrote back and said yes. One of them was in the Atacama Desert in Chile, but that was going to be quite tricky to get to, so the one I chose was in Arizona in the Sonoran Desert.
It was self-lead and I was affiliated with an astronomer there, and he just let me do what I wanted. You weren’t allowed any light, so you couldn’t have any playback on your camera. I would set up lots of time-lapses, setting my camera to take a photo every 5-10 minutes of what looks like the stars moving, but which is actually the world.
Was it during your MA that you were first interested in astronomy? What was your work like before that?
Yes, well I had always been interested in it but that was the first time that I had some subject matter to work from. When I started my MA, I hadn’t really printed before so the first part was getting the skillset and trying to work out the processes. It was etching and lithography that I loved the most. I also did quite a lot of work with white, trying to find little bits of colour in white things.
So you did the process side of things first and then the subject matter. How did they then inform the other? Did you find that the process really lent itself to the subject matter?
In Arizona I would draw and take photographs. I was there for two or three weeks so I came back with a bulk of material that I could work from.
One of the most mind-blowing moments that I really loved was when one of the astronomers asked me if I’d seen the supernova in one of the galaxies, which is when a star comes to the end of its life and explodes. He was explaining how it would get bigger for a couple of weeks and then turn into a red dwarf before disappearing, but it had happened 65 million years ago and had taken that long to reach the earth. That suddenly put everything into perspective about what we were looking at through the telescope, what we could see with our naked eye.
In contrast to the complete darkness you experienced in the depths of the desert, your next residency transported you to the ice-white plains of Iceland, where you were based in Reykajavik and spent some time travelling around. Could you tell us about your relationship with this landscape?
So in February 2017, after my MA, I won a residency in Iceland because I was really interested in the glacial, volcanic landscape. ‘Isjakanum’ is one of the pieces of work that came from that.
Vatnajökull is the largest glacier in Iceland. There is a glacial lake at the head of the glacier called Jökulsárlón. The lake formed after the glacier started receding from the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. The lake has grown at varying rates because of melting of the glaciers. The size of the lake has increased fourfold since the 1970s. Huge icebergs travel down through this glacial lake out into an estuary where they wash out into the sea still as icebergs, but then come back and wash up all over the beaches. The beach is black with volcanic sand and the icebergs don’t look real, they look like crazy sculptures. The locals nickname it Diamond Beach.
Some of them were the size of my studio, and once they had been washed up a few times they had an amazing glassy finish. Some of the glacial colours, even though my photos were in black and white, were incredible – turquoises and blue. Some of them were quite bubbly, and it comes back to the same idea of looking into the past that I experienced at the observatory in Arizona, the air that was trapped during the Ice Age coming back in these forms, melting and going back into the sea – a cyclical process.
Yes, that’s interesting. We’ve talked about colour a lot but most of your work is in monochrome. Are you looking at exploring colour at some point?
The etching process does tend to lead itself to a monochrome palette. Although it possible to print my etchings with colour, I feel they would lose power and emotion. Although you wouldn’t guess it by looking around my studio, I do actually really love colour and sometimes I just have to get it out there! Screenprint is a great medium for this, and I recently I enjoyed printing some striking coloured moons for Art Car Boot Fair’s first ever Christmas Wrap Party with yourselves!
And then we have your scenes of water masses?
I guess that has always been there. It’s not from a particular time, I just love to swim and was brought up by the sea. There is something about the sea that is calming, but dangerous at the same time. I think there are always elements of the sea or water that feed themselves into my work. I actually did that drawing of the sea “Vindur” during my time in Finland, and I think it was because I missed it so much! I was surrounded by trees and snow, and then I found myself drawing the sea, despite not being anywhere near it.
What made you decide to choose drawing rather than printing during your residency in Finland?
It was purely down to the equipment that I knew I would have when I was there. There wouldn’t have been any way that I could have done etching, but I could have prepared a screen for screen printing before I left. I toyed with the idea of printing onto the ice but it felt a bit gimmicky, it’s not really what I do so I decided to forget printing and just use what I could.
Is drawing something you used to do a lot of before printing?
Yes, it’s usually the starting point anyway. For a lot of the etchings, there are drawings that go with them in sketchbooks and usually not as a finished piece. I didn’t really think that these would be finished pieces, but I think because of how time consuming they were I thought they can’t just be sketches.
It’s all dot work? What I find interesting with that and your other work is the idea of looking though a lens or a screen that you can pixelate?
It was -27 degrees when I arrived, and so my ideas of sketching outside just weren’t going to happen as you couldn’t take your gloves off for long enough. I was actually working from photographs which I took and then printed out onto the little black and white printer that we had, and they were just white – white trees, white snow, white lakes. I wished I had brought black paper so I could be drawing the white, and then working with dots happened organically. I ended up pixelating the pictures and looking through a magnifying glass trying to work it out. My first couple of attempts weren’t very successful, but they became more successful.
Do you think there was a connection between spending a prolonged period of time in this isolated landscape and the time-consuming nature of the work you had set yourself?
Yes, definitely. I also think for me here in Bristol, my working day is quite short. I work 9am – 3pm and there I was working until 11pm at night. It just felt so free that I could carry on and there wasn’t any rush. It actually became quite meditative, to the point that I couldn’t stop!
Yes, in that way it must have brought a lot to your work. What is it you achieve through this process than you wouldn’t from other drawing approaches?
The nature of the work means that I have to work on small sections at a time, often covering the bits I have already drawn, the image is stripped down to its most basic form of tone and shape. It is only when the piece is complete can I finally experience the drawing as a whole. The action of having to stand away from the drawing to re-focus has a certain serendipity, it draws comparisons with taking a step back and looking at our world. This process works for certain subject matters but not all.
What part of your overall process is the most enjoyable? The ideas or the physical aspect?
Ooh that’s tricky, I love it all! I guess the best bit of the etching process is inking up, wiping and printing the plate. Here you have a certain about of control over how much ink gets left on the plate, yet also a hint of surprise! It always feels like there is an element of alchemy involved at this stage. Having said this, I also really enjoy actually making the plate. They become quite beautiful objects in themselves. Equally, I’m loving drawing and rekindling my love for drawing as a meditative process.
And a process you could take anywhere, to any landscape… Do you have any particular projects or residencies on the horizon?
I have started a few drawings of the moon, not sure its a good idea to work on two at once but I am using the same technique with the dots but using graphite. They grow pretty slowly so might still be a few months until they are finished.
I am also planning an Artist Residency in the Atacama Desert in Chile. This will be an opportunity for me to research and develop my artistic & creative practices in one of the driest environments on our planet. This otherworldly region closer resembles the surface of Mars than Earth. The desert will offer optimal conditions for astronomical observations and preserve ancient archaeology beneath the sands. Within the dry landscape lives an unbelievably diverse and rich ecosystem that remains due to the knowledge of indigenous groups who fight to protect the area from exploitative, water-intensive extraction and mining.
This will give me time and space for personal and professional growth, the freedom to learn and experiment creatively, gather and find new inspiration in a remote, vast place far from structural or institutional frameworks and limitations. I haven't fully planned my time there yet, but have nurturing ideas of somehow ‘drawing with the sun’ I am thinking of burning lines or dots into paper using lenses and magnifying glasses. I also have an idea to use dust and sand within my work. I will defiantly take my large format pinhole camera, and plenty of paper and ink! There will be a certain amount of planning before I go but also the nature of the place with take over, which is one of the really inspiring reasons for me to travel.
What are your aspirations in the future, as an artist?
I don’t usually think I want to be this, or I want to be that. I just love what I’m doing and I learn things about myself and my process every day. One of my good friends who isn’t an artist once said to me, ‘Do you ever just think what are you going to do next?’ and I think I’ve got what I want to do stacked up three times over! It’s more about having to reign myself in a bit. I did get a piece into the Royal Academy though, which is very exciting.
What do you hope people will get out of your work? What messages are you hoping to communicate?
I always have this thing when I’ve done a piece and it’s finished and I’ve learned. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, then it goes in the drawer. And it’s quite strange because I do want people to see them but not because I want to show off, but because I want other people to feel what I’ve felt.
My practice is not obviously engaged with worldly issues, working directly to transform the global scale of climate change into a human narrative. But more to have it subtly resonate within my work.
I think from being in Iceland, and always, it’s not been about when is climate change happening – it’s happening. I don’t want to be harping on about climate change, but I do want people to appreciate our world. The starting point for my work in Finland was wondering how I could capture the “dark” within so much whiteness. By using small amounts of dark, I want it to be apparent that I am focusing on the positive rather than the negative. I hope with my prints and drawings people will appreciate the beauty of our planet, and more than saying this is what we stand to lose I’m saying this is what we’ve got, I hope we don’t ruin it.