Sullivan’s Inner Wild Child
British artist Katy Sullivan’s love affair with nature started early. Born in Maracaibo, Venezuela, she spent her early years roaming the jungle and swimming in rivers to the sound of howler monkeys. She moved to England at age five where her passionate curiosity for the exquisite minutiae of the natural world extended into a keen interest in the human body. This in turn led to a medical career. She worked as a GP until the birth of a second daughter pulled her back into creating art again.
Her rekindled drawing skills eventually led her to take up the paint brush. Sullivan’s main subjects are children and nature which she endows with personal narratives. She takes painting children seriously, flawlessly capturing their likeness and personality, showing them as they are without needless formality or exaggerated sweetness.
Most of Sullivan’s work highlights the wilderness of the English Cotswolds where she lives and works. Her love for fauna and flora are obvious in the meticulous way she depicts the smallest details, granting them a loving spotlight and elevating them to the heights they deserve. She says, “I want people to look at what’s under their feet instead of the sky, the moon, and the pretty stars. There’s a magic world just waiting to be looked at and each little bit plays a part. We humans try to remove ourselves from that, that’s why I place the figure right in the middle of it.”
Blue shows a young girl slumbering the innocent, unaffected sleep of a child. The pale skin of Sullivan’s youngest daughter contrasts exquisitely against the intense blue dress, all skillfully depicted against the brightly illuminated background and its intense shadows. The three eggs beside her symbolize the three most important people in Sullivan’s life — her two daughters and husband. This piece represents the fragility of life and illustrates Sullivan’s devotion to care for those she loves and an intense desire to keep them safe.
Sullivan loves painting children — she believes children need to see paintings of themselves in art galleries and museums. She’s especially attracted to the image of the strong girl, and adds, “There aren’t enough paintings of children depicted as they see themselves — not as some pretty little princess but as a wild child, a sad child, an imaginative or pensive child. To show that it’s ok to be who you are, even if you are sad. There’s a place for that.”
Sullivan’s eldest daughter modelled for Sequins and Dolls. This composition was the serendipitous result of a long photoshoot in the fields which left both daughters tired and fed-up. Once home, Sullivan kept on taking photographs, capturing her daughter’s intense look of exasperation. This painting illustrates the tenuous and ill-defined phase between childhood and adolescence — the grown-up party dress juxtaposes the playful pattern and colors of the matryoshka doll fabric. The colors of the painstakingly painted sequins mirror delicate freckles and dark golden hair, beautifully offsetting the vivid blue eyes that staunchly stare back at the viewer.
Today, Sullivan’s daughters are 15 and 13 years old so their time is running out as models for their mother’s paintings. Both are active participants in the creative process, suggesting poses and picking out photographs for future paintings. Sullivan describes her firstborn as shy, more reserved. Despite her beauty and vivid blue eyes, this girl doesn’t care much about external appearances or posing for her mother — she wants to become an engineer in renewable energy and prefers to focus on her schoolwork. In contrast, her youngest is much more willing to be photographed. “She bosses me around during photoshoots,” says Sullivan, laughing. “I get other children to pose for me as well, but I need to know my subject to feel I can capture their personality.”
Keepers of Secrets features Sullivan’s youngest daughter wearing a crown made of feathers collected during a nature walk. Her mischievous, secretive look shows her spirited character and creates an ambiguous atmosphere. Sullivan can see the tree in the background from her studio window. “This is where the jackdaws live,” says Sullivan, “I feed them… they watch me.” The title is based on a song by English rock band Elbow, reflecting the feeling the jackdaws give Sullivan when they gather in their tree.
The birds are the keepers of our secret as they saw us where we lay
In the deepest grass of springtime in a reckless guilty haze
And they wove a sweet indifference and it settled on our skin
Till the eyes that I remembered for the last time drew me in
2011 © Elbow
Inspired by a traditional British nursery rhyme, Magpie is an important painting for Sullivan for it embodies her ideas about childrearing. She describes her younger self as a wild child, gloriously free to wander and explore and just be. Sullivan wanted her children to be wild too and is unapologetic about giving them a — what she describes as — slightly haphazard upbringing. “There needs to be a feral element to life during the time when children are still young enough not to be self-conscious.” This wonderful, intense portrait of an androgynous wistful-looking child — the golden-haired magpie flanked by silver birch — seems to beckon viewers to discover their own meaning behind its enigmatic content.
A common modern version of One for Sorrow — better known as the Magpie Song — goes like this:
One for sorrow, Two for joy,
Three for a girl, Four for a boy,
Five for silver, Six for gold,
Seven for a secret, never to be told.
Eight for a wish, Nine for a kiss,
Ten for a bird, You must not miss.
Sullivan’s striking painting entitled Fire Child depicts the type of wild child she admires, adroitly exemplified by the scratch on the young girl’s face and her confident, unaffected, defiant look. This girl is the daughter of a textile artist in Sullivan’s village, who enjoys the same kind of upbringing Sullivan’s daughters experience. The cloak was created by the model’s mother, who transformed an old Victorian skirt into a cloak that functions as a superhero cape without the flashy gaudiness. Sullivan infused this portrait with glorious life and energy, daringly contrasting the blond windswept hair and delicate skin against the dark background and black cape.
Based on Sullivan’s keen interest in biology and the ecosystem, Come be the Queen to my lost worker Bee is the sister painting of Fire Child. Sullivan is a passionate environmentalist who believes all living things form part of an important biological community of interacting organisms. Sullivan says, “Currently bees all over the world are under threat despite them being a vital life force. I want to highlight their plight in this painting.”
We see brambles in the background. In Britain, the “bramble” is the blackberry bush (Rubus fruticosus) which grows abundantly in the country side. Sullivan loves this plant — often considered a weed — because it is part of her childhood and its appearance illustrates the seasons so beautifully; starting with fresh new shoots in spring, flowers in early summer, plump purple-blue fruits in early autumn, and shrivelled brown thorny stalks during winter. These young green shoots, painted in superb detail, seem to beg for a renewed awareness for the amazing beauty Mother Nature lavishes on us and appear to represent the emerging promise and budding potential of youth.
Fire and Brimstone is one of a series of paintings with a circular theme, as if the viewer looks through a spyglass at a magnified private world. On a magnificently detailed patch of ground a young girl sleeps innocently, unperturbed and oblivious to danger. Inspired by the 1970 children’s novel Fantastic Mr. Fox by British author Roald Dahl, the girl is dressed up as Mrs. Fox. This painting protests the elite sport of fox hunting as well as the unrestrained shooting of foxes by farmers.
Sullivan is passionate about the importance of maintaining a balanced ecosystem in which foxes play a vital role, explaining, “Foxes belong in the countryside, they are beautiful creatures. Yes, they may kill a few lambs but they also keep the overpopulation of vermin in check. They aren’t the terrors that the hunting lobby is trying to make us believe.”
The details and textures in this piece are awe-inspiring — the background especially is a feast for the eye. Note the home-made fox mask and the carelessly discarded gun cartridges — Sullivan tells me these are used to shoot pheasants and are found everywhere, carelessly left behind by hunters. Among the wild primroses and grasses we find a little owl figurine symbolizing the mother-daughter bond and the sulphur yellow Brimstone butterfly whose name is believed to have originated the English word ‘butterfly’ and echoes this painting’s title.
Sullivan’s Sleeping Hare is the third painting in the circle series. Her eldest daughter, dressed up as a hare, quietly sleeps without a care in the world on a beautifully staged background carefully arranged to represent a nest. The heart and mask are home-crafted, players in Sullivan’s inner narratives that form the basis of her artwork.
Although the viewer need not know the evocative symbolism behind Sullivan’s paintings in order to admire them, she shares some personal history with me about this piece. Sullivan describes how, right before the photoshoot, she found herself confronted with a hare unexpectedly running towards her at high speed on a deserted country road. Despite its harmlessness, panic gripped her for a moment until the animal stopped just a few steps in front of her and unhurriedly trotted into the undergrowth. Sullivan feels this chance encounter was symbolic for the next phase in her life — the week after, her husband was diagnosed with cancer which to Sullivan felt like the universe was hurtling towards her at high speed.
Meanwhile, after two years Sullivan’s husband continues to keep the cancer at bay with medication and a welcome leave of absence from his excessive work schedule as a urologist. Time is precious. With a faint smile Sullivan says, “As long as the hare sleeps, everything will be fine…” She takes it one day at a time and isn’t afraid. Painting takes her mind off worries, it’s an escape she delights in and her keen interest in science and nature allows her to intellectualize a lot of what she does.
Most fascinating to know is that Sullivan learned how to paint through social media. After a friend suggested she should paint in oils if she ever wanted to make any money, she took one class painting a bowl of lemons. Not being an easy student, she gave up on art instruction and started teaching herself how to paint guided by her drawing skills and driven by the joyful feeling of pushing brushes through buttery oil paint.
Inspired by the paintings and work-in-progress photos posted on Facebook, she chased artist friends for advice — the dos and don’ts and how-tos, their know-how about materials and mediums. The incredible array of artworks and artists on Facebook opened up a whole new world. She entered her second painting into a prestigious competition and won the public choice award. From that moment forward Sullivan’s trajectory as a serious artist was inevitable. This is the first time I hear of someone learning how to paint via social media, but it simply adds to a growing list of positive upshots — such as friendships, connections, inspiration, knowledge, and support — one can gather from our global online art community.
For the time being Sullivan avoids commissions although she may start taking them in future. For now, she prefers to concentrate on pushing herself and creating something that’s uniquely hers — I think she’s there already. She has executed portrait commissions for family members who gave her full carte blanche to create her very own signature compositions — so with any luck savvy collectors will someday soon be able to appoint her to portray their children within Sullivan’s imaginative, highly detailed, whimsical settings.
Written by Lorena Kloosterboer, realist artist & author © Antwerp, Belgium.
Originally published in PoetsArtists Magazine, July 2017.