With shows in New York and London, and her pieces fetching five-figure sums, Cork artist Sarah Dwyer is on the up, despite the best efforts of the virus and a wayward truck, writes Ellie O’Byrne.
No artist wants to hear that a truck has smashed into one of their paintings, but this is exactly what happened to Cork-born painter Sarah Dwyer.
The London-based abstract expressionist painter was preparing for an exhibition in New York titled Tink, last autumn, when she got a call from the gallery staff.
“They said, ‘There’s been this accident and there are two huge holes in your painting,’” Dwyer says.
“A FedEx truck had driven through a crate in a storage area. It was the main painting in my show. I just thought, ‘are you kidding me?!”
But the resulting repair job turned into a creative pursuit of its own for the artist and it’s helped precipitate her down a new pathway.
After 15 years as a successful painter, she is now exhibiting her first collection of sculptural work.
“I used linen and cold wax to fix the painting and I absolutely loved it,” Dwyer says. “I thought, if I had more time, I’d sew onto this. A lot of my work is about mistakes and re-working and re-editing anyway.
“Historically, I would have worked on paintings for months and months and there’d be 30 layers of paint on them,” she says.
“I just thought, I’m going to cut up some paintings and see what happens. So I’ve cut up a lot of paintings with a jigsaw and made collage and sculptures from them.”
Dwyer was born in Cloghroe, Co Cork, and went to secondary school in St Aloysius girl’s school. But at 15, during the recession of the 1980s, Dwyer’s parents moved to the UK, first to London and then to Manchester.
Dwyer attended third level at York University, where she did a degree in Environment and Economics.
A Fine Art degree was not on the cards: the young graduate moved to Paris, where she worked for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
At 30, she changed career, returning to education for a Master’s in Painting from London’s Royal College of Art in 2004.
Her large, bold canvases, abstract but frequently containing references to the human form, have become sought-after acquisitions in the intervening years, both with major collectors and domestic private collectors.
Her last Irish show, in 2011, sold out. At Tink, works with a price tag of $30,000 for some of the largest paintings on canvas, down to $3,000 for smaller drawings on paper, sold, she says, “very well.”
“There’s a strong collector-base in the States that have bought the work over the last 15 years,” Dwyer says. “I’ve been very lucky to have been acquired by some really good collectors of Ab-Ex painting.
“It’s cyclical; sometimes people are into that kind of work and sometimes they’re not, but I’ve been really lucky with the gallery I work with here in London and in New York.”
As she was developing her fine art career, Dwyer supplemented her income with a part-time job that involved moving in esteemed literary circles: she was personal assistant to TS Eliot’s widow, Valerie, for 11 years.
“She owned Faber as a majority shareholder and would have awarded the TS Eliot prize on an annual basis and would have entertained a lot of the poets on a regular basis,” Dwyer says.
“I loved it: I got hang out with all the different writers that were part of Faber.
“Once, I found myself sitting between Seamus Heaney and Jeremy Irons, with Daniel Day Lewis sitting across from me, at a dinner after the poetry hour in the British Library. I thought to myself, ‘Jesus, which one do I look at?’”
Her time in the world of publishing has left Dwyer with an enduring love of word-play, frequently evident in her exhibition titles: ‘Tink’, she explains, is a verb used in knitting, to describe undoing stitches one at a time in order to correct a mistake.
Her first ever exhibition in New York, in 2015, was called Sunk Under, a nod to a line in Seamus Heaney’s Bogland.
Before last year’s truck incident, Dwyer had also undergone another monumental change in her life that upended her worldview: she became a mother in 2018.
“When I had a baby, I just had to re-think everything,” she says. “You have a fresh outlook on life when you have a child.
“I had 15 years of painting and loads of shows, on this kind of wheel.
"I think now is the time to stick my neck out a bit. If you don’t take a risk, you can get to a point where you can get a bit bored of your own work.
"I think that happens to all of us, no matter what industry you work in.”
Granted a residency at Unit 1 Gallery and Workshop in Notting Hill, Dwyer found herself able to nine-to-five in a far larger space than her home studio, where she usually works on her paintings.
She turned her attention to sculpture and the resulting pieces form her new show, he title of the which is Sew Rib Black Chat.
“I wanted to create a three-way conversation between painting, drawing and sculpture,” she says.
“I’ve been looking at sculpture for 15-20 years. My paintings are very sculptural anyway: an object, in space.
“I was talking to some sculptor friends of mine and they said, ‘just go for it, you’ve been talking about making sculpture for 15 years; you’ve no excuse.’
Working away from her home studio, she says, liberated her to work more quickly as well as to experiment with different materials.
Working with materials including plaster-based Modroc, triple-ply cardboard, armature wire and ripped linen, Dwyer has produced a series of sculptures that echo the aesthetic of her paintings, and even incorporate pieces of her earlier paintings, cut up with a jigsaw.
“There’s a sculptural material called Jesmonite that’s like a liquid stone that sets in 10-15 minutes.
"I’ve been painting with it, to make these stone tablets. I’ve been painting triple-ply cardboard and Modroc with it, so it becomes like stone.”
Unfortunately, the virus crisis has meant that the physical launch of Dwyer’s show has been postponed for now, but the adaptable Cork woman has set up a virtual tour of the exhibition through the gallery’s website.