Warmth, Whimsy and Meaningful Design

by Kathryn Manis
January 2019

Sarah Sheffield is an artist and painter with strong personal and professional connections to Wrightsville Beach. Her parents-in-law were the original owners at The Islander condominiums in the early 1970s.

"I've spent many wonderful hours walking the beach from north to south," Sheffield explains. "Now I collect local shells and wrap them in copper wire for pendants. For several years I participated in the Wrightsville Beach Museum of History plein air events and painted landmarks like Roberts Grocery. I especially like sketching and painting water or marsh scenes along the sound. My husband and I sometimes anchor our boat in quiet places to photograph and sketch, looking from the water toward the land."

Though Sheffield is at home in southeastern North Carolina, she has lived in many places and thrived in a wide range of positions -- from running a graphic design business to completing freelance calligraphy and working in arts administration. This diversity of experience and enthusiasm for constant evolution is reflected in her artwork. While she works most frequently with oil paints and metals, Sheffield's repertoire is varied and dynamic.

Sheffield often works in series, focusing on one piece at a time, and exploring a wide breadth of subject matter. This is partly due to the relationship she sees between education and art-making. As she puts it, "I've never been able to restrict myself to one subject matter or theme because, for me, painting is a way to explore and connect with the world. When I draw or paint something, I understand it better."

Several of the pieces from Sheffield's "Home and Hearth" series are composed of oil paint on copper sheets. Utilizing metals as a surface for painted compositions is one of many ways that she integrates the two materials, while also experimenting with inks, patinas, torch heat, etching and wire wrapping. An interest she acquired early in life has motivated these practices.

"I fell in love with copper as a child when my mother gave me a copper necklace," Sheffield explains. "I first started painting oils on copper when I learned that old masters used it as a surface. I liked its smoothness and how it imparted a warm undertone. From painting on it, I progressed to etching drawings on it."

This warming undertone is leveraged to intimate and vibrant affect in pieces like "Bed Time." "The Original Nook" features an interior domestic scene and a cozy reading corner. Flanked by a filled bookshelf and a short side table, both in a reddish mahogany wood shade, the absent reader's royal blue easy chair is bathed in bright light from two small lamps. A book has been placed spine up on the seat of the overstuffed chair, suggesting that the room's resident has recently walked away. Sheffield applied the oil paint in several layers. Traces of the artist's brush are richly evident in the details of the room's door, the surfaces of wooden furniture and accents throughout the small room, and the lovingly worn fabric of the central chair.

Sheffield adds beeswax to all her oil paints, which she says makes them appear translucent, stiffer and more matte. This also gives her more freedom with layering. To prevent future cracking, many artists working with oil paints must layer paint fat to lean -- meaning paints with higher ratios of oil to pigment must be layered on top of those with lower ones. This creates a more flexible painted surface, which is better able to withstand the tests of time. By adding beeswax to her colors and painting on more durable surfaces like copper and panel, Sheffield creates works whose quality and integrity last longer than average.

Sheffield is a member of the American Impressionist Society and describes her work as always toeing the line between abstract and impressionistic.

My philosophy has always been to paint the best me, not like someone else -- to let myself emerge," she says. "What emerged is still emerging, it seems to be more a straddling of Impressionism and Abstraction. I want to be on the borderline between Impressionism and Abstraction where a painting has abstract qualities but is clearly identifiable as representational. Honestly, I've only achieved this in my best paintings, not in all of them."

"Bed Time" showcases Sheffield's passion and talent for Impressionism and its techniques, particularly the effects of light on color variation. The scene faintly echoes the famous Vincent Van Gogh painting "Bedroom in Arles" and the artist's brushstrokes are light and loose. This piece comprises a rich color palette of warm shades, reminiscent of lush tapestry and historic royal portraiture. The 12-foot by 12-foot painting depicts a bedroom with golden yellow walls and a shockingly rich red bedspread; a pale blue, silken robe is laid carefully on top of it. The eye is drawn from the top right of the canvas to the bottom left, following the line of the bed frame as it juts into the intimate, warmly lit space. A small bedside lamp provides a light source for the scene and Sheffield skillfully layers light and dark shades of paint throughout to emphasize the play of this small lamp's rays on various surface materials.

There is a contagious sense of passion and love in the piece, as if stepping into a precious memory. And this makes sense, since Sheffield says that one of her hopes as a painter is to evoke individual memories and feelings.

"My goal is to awaken personal memories in my viewer, a memory of a happy place or vacation. Recall a favorite food or flower, remember a childhood game or party, or maybe see something in a different way," she explains.

Sheffield is a self-described "tool junkie" and this has led her to try many new techniques and experiment with creative and interesting media. She makes a wide variety of wire works as well, including sculpture, wall hangings and jewelry. Pieces like "Fancy Koi" and her historic chainmail-inspired bracelets demonstrate her facility with a wide range of techniques and her enthusiasm for constant education and growth. She recently completed an assembled metal piece titled "Midcentury Bee Groovy," a cleverly designed lamp that leverages her skills with torches, metal stamping and etching. This unique work is on display in the Cameron Art Museum's Illumination 2018 show until January 13.

In her painting practice, Sheffield incorporates both studio and plein air time, noting that painting outdoors is importantly instructive for achieving dynamic light and depth. Along with copper sheets, she paints on square Masonite wood panels which she treats with layers of gesso.

Before she begins painting, Sheffield creates what she calls "thumbnails" -- small sketches to guide her in laying the composition onto the surface. Once she's ready to compose, Sheffield applies an underpainting to the surface, the colors of which will depend on the materials used and color palette intended.

Like many painters working in impressionistic styles, Sheffield wants to avoid overworking a piece, teaching herself to stop painting just as the image has been completed.

"I like the smooth, stiff surface of panels and metal," she says. "Sometimes I under-paint the entire canvas and that decision just depends on the palette of colors I'll be using. I'll sketch in the design of the painting in dark blue or a red umber. Then I'll just start blocking in my dark and light values. I try not to overwork a painting and stop when I think I've said what I wanted to say or achieved what I wanted to achieve."

In one of her newer pieces, "Moon Over Cape Fear," Sheffield plays with mood and abstraction. The painting depicts the shockingly bright moon of the title in the top left corner of the canvas. Swirling sections of blues, greens and dark purples surround it and the moon casts golden rays into their midst. These swathes of dreamy, cool colors could depict a churning ocean or an active, cloudy night sky. The misty application of white accent paint is both the foam at the end of breaking waves and wisps on the edges of fluffy clouds. This, along with the framing of the composition, allows it to be interpreted either as the night sky or as its reflection on the water's surface.

The painting is beautiful and a bit eerie and it showcases Sheffield's talent for imbuing everyday scenes with intellectual and emotional depth and crafting a widely meaningful and relatable image. She says that simple beauty is something she looks for.

"I like finding beauty in ordinary subjects," she says. "I get excited when I find a common scene or object -- such as a storefront, a coat rack, a single tree -- has been elevated to the 'uncommon' by some act of light, atmosphere or perspective."

Sheffield has a studio and gallery space in the Brooklyn Arts District of Wilmington, where her work can be seen by appointment.

 


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