In the studio with Sophie Vallance Cantor.

Words by

Alex Leav

In the studio with Sophie Vallance Cantor.

What does a normal day at the studio look like for you? 

Every day that I turn up to the studio to work is a little bit different. Building a practice has been such a process of discovery, of trial and error, growth, and getting to know myself. I have discovered that treating it like a 9-5 doesn’t work for me at all, I feel boxed in and creatively dry. So I just try to cultivate honesty, curiosity, and dedication when I turn up to work, and I take breaks away when I don’t feel it's right to be making. In a practical sense, I split my studio time between drawing and thinking, stretching and priming, and painting. 

'PRESSURE'S RISING III', 152x152cm, Oil on Canvas

Can you talk a little bit about your process? Do you make preparatory sketches or drawings, or do you go straight to the canvas? 

These days I always make drawings first. I often make lots of drawings in quick succession, to start forming compositions for an idea. Sometimes I'll sit on an idea for a painting for weeks or months if I haven’t quite figured out the right way to get the composition nailed down with a drawing, or sometimes it happens really quickly and naturally and it makes sense without much thought. I have really fallen in love with drawing over the past year and a half, it wasn’t something I focused much attention on in my practice before but I feel like through the process of rediscovering drawing, looking and figuring things out my paintings have really moved forward and gained so much more depth. I don’t draw in a traditional bound sketchbook but I have a big square pad of paper which I draw on and immediately rip the paper out of. The walls (and floor!) of my studio are usually covered with loose drawings. 

'MAIREAD', 127x127cm, Oil on Canvas

Your color palette is so rich – deep reds, blues, and yellow ochres. What informs the color choices you make? 

Sometimes I feel like a sponge for references, particularly colour references, and I collect them from everywhere - screenshotting films on my laptop, instagram posts, photos I take on the street, and this tiny amazing book called ‘A Dictionary of Colour Combinations’. Colour is something I’ve chosen to cultivate and put more time and effort into, and it's something I used to be lazier about which would ultimately lead to frustration when I needed to reassess what was happening in a painting. My partner Douglas Cantor is also a painter and I’ve learned so much from his bold colour choices within his own work, and his uncanny knack to make colours that shouldn’t work together look amazing.

I love how you incorporate language and text into your paintings. Is writing (whether it be journaling, essaying, etc.) at all part of your artistic practice? 

I draw a lot of inspiration from writing, usually in the form of little sentences and snippets. I collect ideas for paintings like this by noting down phrases when I hear them while going about life - from music, conversation, reading, or eavesdropping. It’s happened to me often that I’ll hear a song that I've listened to so many times before and a certain phrase will jump out at me as if I was listening for the first time. Almost as if it was waiting for me to be ready to hear it. I like the duality of words and painting, sometimes the simplicity of one phrase can sum up the feeling, depth and complexity of a whole painting, and I find that fascinating. 

'I HEARD SOMEBODY WHISTLE', 152x152cm, Oil on Canvas

Your self-portraits are beautifully honest and playful, and it seems like one is never the same as another. You represent yourself in various ways. I’m curious what creating a self-portrait means to you? 

Self-portraits are really important to my practice, in the short-term moment they were each made, and as a longer-term tracker of movement and growth. I’ve spoken before about my practice being an antidote to the struggles of moving through the real world with Autism, so my paintings have become a world of my own where the viewer is invited to observe but not partake. I love the non-linear aspect of the self-portrait, bodies, shapes, hairstyles, moods, and emotions ebb and flow from painting to painting, creating a complex and full embodiment of me as a person. I love how when viewed next to one another they appear as if in conversation with each other, maybe even talking about the person viewing them. 

I’m interested in your relationship to the contemporary art world. Your painting “Naina’s Art World Shit List” presents a figure (you, presumably) holding a long, handwritten list of grievances about the art world. This white scroll-like list extends beyond the canvas, implying that it indeed goes on (and on). Bullet points include “auctions after 3 yrs,” “discounts for billionaires,” and “phone calls that could be emails.” The piece is a sassy and timely exposé. Would you consider yourself to be critical of the ideologies and power structures of the art world? If so, what does it mean for you to show your work in spaces within it? 

‘Naina’s Art World Shit List’ was really fun to bring to life. I actually have a real list in real life! I’ve had a lot of conversations with other artists about the shitty behaviour that goes on in the art world, so I would say I am strongly critical, but I try to approach the subject with humour and be realistic and not naive, as well as open to the possibility of change. I think that often for things to change, engaging as opposed to opting out is necessary, so showing work is something I don’t shy away from. However, it is especially rewarding to show work with galleries/ individuals who are trying to shift and upturn the status quo that has existed for so long, and there are galleries who I would politely (!) decline showing with again due to past experience. 

Who are your artist heroes or biggest influences?

My biggest artist heroes are not always painters, I have a fascination with people who really embody being artists, they live it, they breathe it, they take up the fight. I think that the essence of why these artists make their work is what sticks with me, and what stuck with them no matter what the external circumstances. I have a love for Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, and their union through art and shared life experiences, something which I often feel strongly mirrored with my partner Douglas Cantor and the process of discovering we’ve been through together to find out what kind of artists we are. 

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