Gary Raymond interviews artist Kevin Sinnott while walking around his studio to find out more about the experience of creating work influenced and shaped by the lockdown periods. Considering his evolution, the role of intuition in artistic expression, and the interplay of content and form, Sinnott offers extensive reflection and insight into the way the pandemic impacted his artistic output over the last two years.
Gary Raymond: I want to talk mainly today about the work that you created during the lockdown. I mean, the first thing you see when you come in [to Sinnott’s studio 18] is ‘Avid Reader’. Can you talk us through the inspiration for this very striking piece? You’ve got here, a young woman curled over reading a book looking directly at the viewer, but also being embraced at the back by another woman. I’d like to think almost sisterly.
Kevin Sinnott: She’s being embraced by her partner, her partner being a woman of course, but actually there is another detail here. Those are pyjama trousers she’s got on – she’s very much locked in the house and all she wants to do is read. I had the idea for ‘Avid Reader’ from someone who was an avid reader, and I had that idea before lockdown. But then this came as a subject matter that suited the predicament so much where so many of us found ourselves having to rely on [books]. But it’s been good for the arts [and artists] funnily enough, if they work for themselves, and they don’t have to make a living somewhere else, they can lack discipline, because you know, you need a boss sometimes to crack the whip. And COVID was that boss, cracking the whip, it said, “you’ve got to stay in your studio and work”.
Gary Raymond: I think probably one of the most memorable pieces of any art to come out of early lockdown, was your painting ‘Superhero’, which depicts Spider Man around the streets of the valley’s towns. Could you tell us a little bit about this painting?
Kevin Sinnott: Well, in the first lockdown, I was very productive. The ideas were coming from the Garw Valley. Because that lockdown – people have forgotten already – but it was strictly observed. You couldn’t even collect food from takeaways. You couldn’t go out, the roads were empty, the air was pure, so clear, it was extraordinary. And all the children were kept [inside] they couldn’t even go to swing parks. And this one chap, Richard Durston, his name is – I’m sure he must be a marathon runner, he is very fit – he’s a Spiderman. He has a proper Spiderman outfit. I say proper… he can’t climb up the face of buildings. But he had this website and he would tell the parents of kids what streets he’d be running down that day. And they’d be in the windows or on their balconies with their parents watching Spiderman. Well, he’s just perfect. I had to paint him.
But he’s a diminutive figure, really. He’s always there. But I painted a series of nurses in their scrubs, too – you don’t have to do a lot to identify them as nurses when you’ve got these blue scrubs with an identity lanyard around the neck and usually white trainers. I don’t like my subject to be illustrative, I like them to be emblematic. The rest of it’s got to be a painting worth composing, worth doing.. So anyway, the thing is, it’s a superhero. So people think I’ve shallowed my work down a bit and people also thought I should have a context, or an explanation somewhere. But, the painting is still around. It’s in my other studio, my working studio, but it was up here for quite a while.
Gary Raymond: You say people criticised you for “shallowing” your work by using a superhero, but did you feel – given the context at the time – that it was more of a populist community piece of art that you were engaging in, something that children would respond to, and it wasn’t just for, if you like, the arts community?
Kevin Sinnott: I didn’t have a problem with it, but I was surprised that some people did. But I mean, then you had all these Banksy pieces – which I think quite frankly are fake – all over the place cropping up with nurses playing with superhero dolls and things. And they were far too illustrative and so they became a bit tiresome. I often think, you know when I’m talking about Banksy, that there is a kind of art now that’s for people who don’t like art. Banksy’s one. There’s quite a lot out there for people who need to get off on something – and it’s a good thing – but it’s definitely not high brow art. I’m old school, by the way!
Gary Raymond: I agree, there’s no requirement of an engagement of depth with Banksy’s art, is there? What it means is right there in front of you.
Kevin Sinnott: It’s extremely witty, and the wit is also right there in front of you on the surface. I don’t think that thing in Port Talbot is a Banksy, actually. But artists can be so bitchy about other artists.
Gary Raymond: Two things have always come across in your work. To me, one of these things is the amount of energy in your work. Did you feel any sort of new tension when you were creating lockdown work between the amount of kinetic energy you’ve got in your images and the physical restrictions that people were feeling at the time?
Kevin Sinnott: Yeah. Artists can’t always describe or be fully aware of the context in which they’re working. It’s because they appreciate the work with the surface and visual things. We almost need people who can analyse it in words, to put things in context. There is very definitely an influence from lockdown and it was more or less what you said, but I wouldn’t want to put too much detail or justify the difference between the restraint of lockdown and the freedom of creation having a kind of tension that was blossoming into something. You see, going into context just gets too complicated.
Gary Raymond: The other thing was the recurring references to a sense of community in your work, be it a distant parade on rooftops or like the painting we’re looking at now which is a sort of summer community scene of games.
Kevin Sinnott: It’s lockdown bingo, it happened quite a lot in the Garw. This idea came up on station road which is opposite my studio. You got the caller out, who’s also the first receiver on the rugby field so he’s receiving the balls. I do like the other aspect of your question, Gary, my paintings are about life. They never used to be, when I was in London they were more about art and this is another reason why this place exists – Studio 18 – it’s like paying back, if you like.
I’ve had the inspiration to paint for about 24 years since I’ve been here in the Valley and around Wales and this is about what’s outside these walls. So, there’s a little piece of detail here, I imagine things you know, I don’t need to see it. Once I’d walked past with the dogs, I didn’t need to go back and draw anyone, the demands of the composition are what pulls… I can’t explain how I do it. This idea of a lady with her foot in a bowl of water actually happened. Now whether I see it and I store it immediately in my subconscious, I don’t know, but I saw it.
Gary Raymond: I’ve been talking with people already about the first lockdown, about how the experience and the feelings of it have already been sort of forgotten and lost to the mists of time, really. It was such an intense time. But also, for a lot of people, it was a traumatic experience and the mind has kind of blocked off a lot of what was going on. If you look back, you can remember that it wasn’t just traumatic and there were bright spring days and moments of community. I mean I look at this painting and think about some of the things that were revived in lockdown that have been lost in general – and that’s what your work is capturing that we may forget happened.
Kevin Sinnott: Yeah, when I did them, I had the feeling that none of them were ever going to sell because people wouldn’t want to really be reminded of the traumatic aspect of it, you know, sleepless nights, hyper anxieties, but somebody said, give them 10-20 years, and they’ll be remembered and then the paintings will be valued. I don’t know. It’s interesting. I suppose I’m agreeing with you that initially they’re going to be forgotten but then they will come back and be remembered, lockdowns will be remembered. And of course we don’t know if it’s really all over yet, because there’s COVID all over the world and I don’t think many of the rich countries have bothered to ensure that the vaccine rollouts have been as effective in the developing world.
Gary Raymond: Maybe I’m asking you to think a little bit too much about something that is intuitive to you, but do you find that your lockdown paintings have a lot more feet on the ground than your pre-lockdown paintings?
Kevin Sinnott: I was looking at this [pre-lockdown painting] today, because I painted it about 2012 or something, but it’s almost like it could be called COVID-19. It could be despairing. You know, that we’re in the lap of the gods or our destiny is no longer entirely our own. A lot of these paintings that are flying about were based on a trampoline in our garden that is not there anymore. My son was quite good, but I had these kids come to me – well, I say kids, but they were all teenagers and they were into the French thing, parkour, where they run and jump and somersault off walls – and they wanted to know if they could come up my hill and use the trampoline. I said yes, go ahead. I regretted it immediately and Sue was not very happy, we missed the whole summer. But they were good. I mean, they were doing twisty somersaults and all sorts of things. So, a lot of these [paintings] have a lot of this element of weightlessness to the figures. I suppose I’ve always had that to a certain extent.
Gary Raymond: Can you tell us a little bit about your working process? Did it change at all? Or did you have a process where you were locked in the studio every day, as it was anyway, and it was the outside world that was kind of adjusting, whereas your working practice was not touched upon too much? Or was there a real shift in how you approached your work?
Kevin Sinnott: I think there must have been, which would explain the productivity. There were two main lockdown periods. The big exhibition that is only just coming down now from London was entirely the second lockdown. I stretched 10 big linen canvases before the Christmas of the second lockdown. So they were there in my other studio waiting to be painted. And then they were non-stop. I was painting non-stop on these 10 big canvases. Yeah, that was a period of introspection as it made me go through my drawing books. I quarried my drawing books, and I don’t think I would have done that otherwise. I kept on being surprised at what I had done and hadn’t made enough. So it was kind of intensifying, I think the lockdowns, both of them, were reflective.
Gary Raymond: Why do you think that was? What was it that brought you back to those notebooks and sketchbooks?
Kevin Sinnott: Well, it might have been something as simple as my age. I might have been reflective for those two years. Anyway, because I’m in my early 70s now – 74 – you begin to realise that a decade is nothing, you know, the last decade was like yesterday, so the next decade is going to be tomorrow. So tomorrow I’ll be 84. So the thing is, you do start to reflect far more, and that’s the interesting thing about lockdown as well, it made you contemplate mortality.
Gary Raymond: Did that contemplation, rather than just reflecting, did it release something in you that was hyper productive? I mean, I’ve spoken to a lot of artists, a lot of writers, who find themselves, particularly in the first lockdown, just shutting down, having a kind of block and they were unable to really process what was going on, but you had the opposite.
Kevin Sinnott: Well, it was the opposite, but there were two edges to it as well because there was another neurosis, I suppose, about overproduction. You know, the more you do, the more is left behind for somebody else to manage. So, there was a kind of reflection. I’m still struggling with this one, actually, that I should be managing myself better, which means not painting quite so much. But I don’t know really, you should try and turn things to the positive rather than, you know, shutting down like you said. I found the second lockdown – even though I painted these big canvases – more of a struggle psychologically. I suppose it’s because the second lockdown was more about the winter, whereas the first lockdown was a warm spring. So, there was a streak of pessimism about the second lockdown, I don’t know why. I don’t know why the first lockdown, for me anyway, had this sort of defiant joyfulness about it, which I know sounds crazy.
Gary Raymond: That defiant joyfulness is captured in your work, there was definitely a characteristic that was available to sell.
Kevin Sinnott: Yes. It’s interesting, isn’t it? There’s nothing really joyous about the world at the moment. So, I don’t know when you can tackle it by being defiantly joyful again. How can you do that? I don’t know.
Gary Raymond: But there’s something in there that is indelibly linked to community, rather than the individual. And even though we were being forced and asked to step back and become isolated, the moments of joy that you capture are moments when we came together during those times.
Kevin Sinnott: Yes. Well, that’s good, it’s my intention. I can’t completely claim that somebody else is doing it, I’m doing it, I’m doing these things, but there is kind of something else going on in the way I work. I work in a way where I don’t know initially what I’m doing. So, it’s quite haphazard, almost to the extent to be abstract, and then I respond and make some sort of order out of the chaotic marks that are going on. I’ve been working like that since about 1982, so they always began with these, what I call my improvisations, and sometimes they were wildly varied because each improvisation was suggesting something else. As the years have gone by, I must admit that it’s narrowing and it’s narrowing towards simple human relationships with joy or desire or wanting. So, I used to be frustrated by the fact that you couldn’t recognise my work as belonging to a certain style, therefore belonging to a certain artist, whereas now people come up to me and they say, ‘Oh, I saw something and I knew straight away, that’s a Sinnott’. That is just not what I thought would ever happen. You know, it used to frustrate me because everybody can recognise a Picasso or Van Gogh, and I wished I could settle on a style.
Gary Raymond: But this happens to all important artists. It’s about evolution and coming to a point where you find your voice, I suppose, and these [paintings] to me look like part of this journey, rather than the work of a different artist.
Kevin Sinnott: That’s good. It’s a different medium, you know? There was this master printer, Hugh Stoneman, who wanted to work with me in the very early 90s. He died not long after the addition was completed so his wife was handed the gallery. So they just completely dropped off the radar. And now they’ve come back from nostalgia, but it’s a different medium, and it was a way I used to work in the 70s, with flat areas of colour design and so, without doing too much prompting, I found that I was working in that way again, I was walking down the streets again. But I’m glad people can still see that it’s me because my work was so different up until about 1982.
Gary Raymond: You had a moment in 1982, didn’t you, where you had a specific work or set of works that were a pointed evolution. You could say in evolutionary terms it was a point where you kind of moved out of the water and came onto land, and you haven’t really looked back.
Kevin Sinnott: Yeah, it was medium. I started to paint in oils and I discovered what I could do. I could do it before but it felt a bit random, it would be left haphazard before, whereas I found that I could just continue working in oils. I very rarely abandon an oil painting now. I might abandon it in a way where I get my electric sander and sand it all down, but an old oil painting, extremely old, is one of the best surfaces, I find, to paint over.
Gary Raymond: So, a recreation of one of your most famous paintings, ‘Running Away with the Hairdresser’ was actually given to an overflow hospital, I assume to brighten the place up a little bit. Tell us a little bit about how that came about.
Kevin Sinnott: I think the museum must have asked my permission, I mean they didn’t need to, and a call went out to the public to choose their favourite paintings or something like that, I wasn’t involved at all in the choosing, but it is good because it is bigger than the usual print, and it was a sort of substantial piece.
Gary Raymond: It must have been nice to be chosen, especially in a public vote like that.
Kevin Sinnott: Oh yes, very nice. But sometimes, I feel like I’m a soap opera actor, you know, like on Coronation Street, who always wanted to do something more serious. But it still gives me a lot. Of course, it’s a very important painting for me. It was the big breakthrough when it was on show in Flowers Gallery in London. It was painted in lower Llangynwyd somewhere in Maesteg. People could actually recognise the street corner that it is on. That means a lot to people to connect with just a little corner or an alleyway or something that they recognise. I’ve had emails from people in Australia saying, “Oh, I was born in that room”. So, yeah I was happy with the painting. I painted it in a garage in a bungalow we were renting when we first got back [to Wales]. It was a damp garage and I had to paint with the metal door open because that was the main source of light. I had a great big railway man’s overcoat on and a paraffin stove where I kept my hands warm.
Gary Raymond: I’m beginning to see this scene as a painting of yours myself now, with you in the railway coat and the paraffin stove.
Kevin Sinnott: Yes. My first big show that went to London was called ‘Paintings from Wales’. It had ‘Running Away with Hairdresser’, it had ‘Lost Romantic’, it had ‘Artist in Retreat’. It’s actually quite moving now to think about it. I came back to Wales of course, because of the bloody recession. Lawson was the Conservative Chancellor at the time and his only weapon, it seems, was to put interest rates up. So, house mortgages went up like 16%, it was absolutely extraordinary. You had young professionals who just bought houses in negative equity and unlike lots of recessions, that recession hit the art world, and it hit it bad. So, I came back to Wales because I wanted to convert a chapel, which is where I am now. For about three years I was painting in this garage and they were all paintings about walking in the Darran Valley in the rain, and that became ‘Artist in Retreat’.
The other interesting thing about all of my paintings since I got back to Wales is a strong thread of autobiography, and I never realised it. People had to tell me that ‘Artist in Retreat’ is an artist walking over the hills, the storm weather is building, you can see the sky, and he’s hunched over with an easel and the artist is free… I just got back from London and somebody had to tell me “that’s you then, Kev”.
Gary Raymond: But as you say, sometimes you need someone to tell you that. I think about when I talk with students about writing and how important it is to have, you know, a workshop environment where you have other writers who read your work and give you some feedback on how it’s going and where it’s going, because sometimes you’re so narrowly in the middle of a piece of work that it takes somebody with fresh eyes to come in and give you perspective on exactly what it is you’re doing.
Kevin Sinnott: It’s sometimes even one of the grandkids who come in with fresh eyes, and also young eyes, perhaps. Susie, my wife, used to be a very good critic because she was very honest, you know. Things like “Oh, you can’t paint that, that’s awful”, and I used to think “I never criticise your cooking, Sue, so just get back to the kitchen”. But, it is so true, though. I think all creatives need that, I mean what about writers, do they need somebody to come around and look over everything?
Gary Raymond: Yeah, I think so, having those voices that give you fresh perspectives with fresh eyes. But with your work, as we’ve talked about, particularly in relation to lockdown, there’s a lot of intuition. You know, you were talking about your process to create sort of abstract shapes, and then you build on it and it becomes something more.
Kevin Sinnott: And that’s what I never used to do in the 70s. It carves out in illusionistic space, and the people are walking or talking, and the viewer can enter the painting, and that’s what happened in the early 80s. I think I must have painted in oils when I was very young in school. You’re like a magician if you can use oil paint to create an atmosphere or create a weight and a space and I can do that without having to see them.
Gary Raymond: So, it’s been two years now since the first lockdown, have you had any reflections on the work that has come out of it for you and the way that you’ve worked?
Kevin Sinnott: The thing is, I’m like a conveyor belt actually, I did manage to maintain my series of works that I was working on. It definitely affected what I was doing, but I have to draw a distinction between content and style, and it did change my content because it’s just that the content changed in order to reflect the lives people were leading. Form is the master, really. When a painting really works is when there is an enhancement taking place between the content and the form. Either the content is enhancing the form, because they’re two quite different things, or the form has been used to drive the content to make it even more powerful. I think possibly content started to gain an upper hand in lockdown, because there was so much in people’s lives that altered and people were locked up – there was something in that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can hear Gary Raymond’s audio interview with Kevin Sinnott as a part of the BBC Wales’ radio series ‘Lockdown Unlocked me’.