Interview | Sarah Winkler

Smoke Signals

We talk to artist Sarah Winkler about her work and newest project, Smoke Signals; a series of environmental works concerned with wildfires.


What drew you towards being a landscape painter? 

It’s what I care most passionately about. I sense how alive and relaxed I feel outdoors, walking through landscapes. My love of nature comes from my parents. I was born in the industrial city of Manchester, UK, but my childhood memories of the place are all woodland and wild moors. We had dogs and were always taking long walks through parks, past waterways, over fields. It was instilled in me at a young age to see and appreciate the beauty and fragility of nature even within the confines of a major city with every convenience at your fingertips. This symbiotic relationship we have with landscape also came to light when my family relocated to Africa for three years. I learned there how dependent a tribal nation living off nature’s bounty needs a healthy eco system for its survival. I now live in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and still walk daily through big landscapes. It’s a part of my DNA. 


My first encounter with a landscape painter was as a teen on a school trip to the Tate Britain. I stumbled into the Turner wing and was mesmerized by his luscious, swirling oils and watercolors of mystical landscapes. There was a longing for something pure and wild within them that fascinated me. I knew at that moment I wanted to be an artist. 


I’ve done some kind of art making all my life, but at University, I studied Geology as well as art and was amazed to learn that the Earth is not a static place. That landscapes have changed dramatically over the eons. The idea that scenery can change slowly and sometimes suddenly is what holds my attention today as a landscape painter. 

Has witnessing the changing climate affected your relationship with the landscapes you paint? 

I’ve seen big changes in familiar landscapes. I’ve lived out West in the USA for over two decades. The landscape is noticeably dryer and hotter in the summers, receives less snow pack in the winters, has an increase in tree forest deaths due to Pine Beatle Kill and battles large scale Wildfires annually. This leads to landslides and soil erosion which drastically changes the eco systems of landscapes. But, as with all moments of destruction, there is rejuvenation. New forests grow, rivers shift course and coastlines adapt. I’m trying to stay positive as I witness the changes to places that I cherish. I do see a shift coming in my artwork as it relates to these altered landscapes.


My artwork has always focused on the geological narrative of landscapes – revealing the process of their creation and changes over time. I’ve just begun Smoke Signals, a new series of environmental works focusing on massive Wildfires. I’m documenting and revealing “Sudden Geology” – Instant and unpredictable changes to our landscape as our Earth adapts to current climate change stressors. 

How important do you feel it is to capture a landscape experiencing change? Do you find yourself depicting a specific moment or the entire progression of change?

I think it’s incredibly interesting to look at old paintings of landscapes. For example: look at a John Constable and get a glimpse into what pastoral England looked like before industrialization, globalization and the M1. It’s the same in the Western US. I can imagine the great wild landscapes of the West through the eyes and paintbrush of Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt. Today it’s hard to experience any of those views without some reminder of contemporary life. So, to be a documentarian of your time can be of great value to future curious generations. 


At this point in my work, I’m focused on a specific moment of change – how the wildfires are reshaping the last wild landscapes of the West. What that looks like and the process of transformation from one state to another. I’ll be getting close to the fires in the summer of 2019 so I can collect actual cinders and ash from the sites to crush into a material to use in forthcoming works. 


Your use of colour and texture is truly unique. Could you talk a bit about the decisions behind these arrangements?  

I developed a signature set of abstract textures to use in my collages and paintings that are based on fifteen geological patterns found in mountain and desert landscape formations. I arrange these textures within scenes of heightened luminosity and saturated color palettes to suggest familiar vignettes found in the landscape. My color choices come so naturally to me that I’ve no idea how to describe it – other than it is born from nature’s design and natural seasonal or atmospheric palette. 


I enjoy the visual juxtaposition of sophisticated abstracted marks and painterly tonal moments within the confines of hard edges surrounded by negative space. I work with a technique called “Equivocal Space” a layering process of elements to fool the eye into seeing great depth when there isn’t any. You see it used in medieval painting and some cubist works. A way to journey the eye through space where every detail is important. I’m not a subscriber to the notion that there should be only one focal point in a painting or a landscape. Everything is interesting to me. 

You have talked about the relationship between artists’ materials and the Earth. How do your materials connect to the land? 

All artists’ materials at one point came from the Earth, and many of our colored pigments still do. I often incorporate crushed mineral and rock like marble dust, mica flake and iron oxide into my paintings to deepen that connection to the land and to create moments of discovery in the work. I source crushed rocks and minerals from mining companies and amateur prospectors. It’s really neat to give an artist’s talk at the gallery and hear a gasp or two when I’m describing a painting like Pike’s Peak and say “this painting is in acrylic with gold mica flake and 1.8 billion year old Pikes Peak Pink Granite”.


What part do you believe creativity plays within the fight against climate change?

The creative arts can offer a glimpse into what makes this amazing Earth unique and increase an awareness of the beauty and fragility of the one and only home we have. As the population increases, we need to become a more awake species and conscious of our impact on the natural world and all its creatures that rely on a healthy eco-system to survive. Artists and their creative output can be part of that empathetic and emotional language that connects people to environmental issues.


Creatives can also use their innate abilities as visionaries, innovators and change makers to inspire solutions within the design, science and tech sectors. Artists really do think outside the box and have the ability to imagine products and solutions that don’t yet exist. Pair one with an engineer, fashion or industrial designer and you might just change the future. 


Sarah Winkler is a British-born, Colorado based painter and collage artist. She studied Art and Earth Science at William Paterson University and combines both subjects in her landscape and environmental based artwork. Winkler exhibits in the USA in galleries and Art Fairs. Her work was recently showcased at the LA Art Fair and Art Aspen in 2018 coinciding with a major solo show “Luminous Mountainous” in Denver at K Contemporary. 

Her first environmental show was at Thoreau Center for Sustainability in San Francisco where Winkler created in relief paintings the cycle of a diminishing coral reef habitat. She is currently working towards her second environmental exhibition of work “Smoke Signals” scheduled for April 2020 at K Contemporary gallery in Denver. The exhibit coincides with the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day. 

Her works have appeared in publications such as Scientific American, Dwell, Alpine Modern, Mountain Living, CREATE!, The Jealous Curator and New American Paintings. 

Instagram: @sarahwinklerart

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