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Repaint History Call For Art Fund Recipient: Sara Rossberg
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Repaint History Call For Art Fund Recipient: Sara Rossberg

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We are thrilled to introduce Sara Rossberg, one of the selected recipients of the February 2021 Repaint History Call For Art Fund. 
Sara Rossberg
Image courtesy of the artist
Tell us a bit about yourself

Born in Germany in 1952, I grew up in post-war times and with a home situation that was very difficult. My mother was seriously ill ever since  was born, mostly bedridden which meant that inevitably I had to take on her roll in the family from a very young age. Looking back I didn’t have much of a childhood but to me it was normality and I never questioned it. I have always liked drawing and painting, and when I was nine I officially declared that I wanted to be an artist. By the time I went to art college in 1971, the now iconic Staedelschule in Frankfurt, Europe had been through years of student riots to force a reform of the education system. There were no classes, I was given a studio space and told to do something. In effect my career as a free artist started at this point. I could almost consider myself as self-taught as there was practically no guidance or teaching. 

Performance and installation art dominated the scene, painting had been declared dead but nonetheless I believed there were still new ways to be found in painting. To my surprise  the most unlikely person, the blood theatre artist Hermann Nitsch, was one of my greatest supporters. It became my philosophy that you should see as much as possible of all art, historic and contemporary, and then do something different, entirely personal to yourself, and that this was the only possible approach to achieving something new.

I was lucky to be awarded a prestigious scholarship, that financed me generously during my time in Frankfurt but also included a year abroad. Being a shy and generally naive person following my unusual childhood, I followed some bad advice to look for a commercial sideline to art and enrolled for a course in Paper Conservation at Camberwell School of Art and Crafts, London in 1976. This is my biggest regret in life, I hated it and after a month tried to change to a postgraduate college for painting but ti was too late, I was however allowed to cross over to the BA painting department at Camberwell. I loved England and with the help of a DAAD scholarship financing a second year at Camberwell, I stayed on and settled in London permanently after my mother died in 1978.

I have been painting continuously ever since I entered art college, my life revolves around it. Painting is who I am, what I do, regardless of success or recognition.

Sara Rossberg

Red Motion 2012, 170 x 170cm
Tell us about an encounter with art that has shaped your practice.

The two artist, although quite diverse, who first captured my imagination were Salvador Dali and Christo.

Dali was at the height of his popularity in the early 70s and I was fascinated by his intensity and the daringness of his imagination. 

Christo, apart from being mind-blowing, made great sense to me, he was in tune with my own emotional sensitivities: covering up the subject, obscuring appearance, hiding vulnerability, as I perceived it, and raising the question of what lies behind. 

I had no qualms to combine the two and ensued to produce paintings of slightly surreal, shrouded figures in imaginary spaces which soon developed further, became more reduced, incorporating another influence:

Renaissance painters like Piero della Francesco, Giotto, Mantegna etc. It was their purity of colour and abstract colour choices that captivated me. Colour became and still is an important element, an almost overriding focus compared to the figurative factor. 

Again I was also extremely interested in the intensity achieved by these artists and others like Vermeer and Van Eyck. I began to use the old master technique of layering egg tempera and oil paint which in later years developed into the way I employ acrylic mediums and pigment now which is in principle the same technique taken to the extreme.

Sara Rossberg

Image courtesy of the artist
What has your experience been in terms of mentorship and a sense of community in the art world, particularly among women artists?

Thinking about it I realised that for most of the past 5 decades of being an artist I actually experienced very little mentorship or sense of community, I was never part of any group of like-minded artists which, looking back, seems very regrettable.  At college in Frankfurt I was pretty much a solitary painter and later, once in London, I was even more of an outsider due to being a foreigner at the wrong college and I was treated as such. 

My work has always been outside any prevailing trends which I didn’t mind as I believe, being different is part of being original and should be a positive but it has inevitably left me mostly isolated. Where support from other women is concerned, in the past I had more bad than good experiences, probably as an overreaction to having a hard time competing in a male dominated business. 

Just recently however I have been amazed and very pleasantly surprised to receive attention and recognition from some new groups of people who are specifically supporting women artists. The first one to notice me was Brenda Magazine who featured and interviewed me in their Blue Issue earlier this year. It was the first time in decades that anyone had noticed my work and seemed to think highly of it. 

I am deeply impressed by and grateful to the people who are running sites like Repaint History, She Curates and Art Girl Rising, their work is very encouraging and has given me the feeling that there is support out there. The next amazing thing to happen was that Art Girl Rising chose me for their curated selection of the All She Makes inaugural issue. And most recently, being chosen by Repaint History to receive their bursary, one of three out of 600 is just unbelievable to me.

Times seem to be changing, hopefully, and after a long period of being out on my own, I now feel that my work is finally finding some resonance.

Sara Rossberg

 Red Head - One of Three Ages 2001, 170 x 170cm copy
What challenges have you faced throughout your career as an artist?

During the 80s and 90s I did quite well, I was represented internationally, I had 17 solo-shows including at Art Basel in 1986 and museum retrospectives. This allowed me to sustain myself from sales while always being frugal, working from home and saving on studio rental. After the recession of the 90s with many galleries closing, I inadvertently dropped out of the system. I hadn’t built up any useful connections and soon found that my work was totally unfashionable and gallery practices had also changed dramatically. Nowadays it is impossible to approach galleries without having existing contacts. Emails are ignored, nobody ever replies. Due to missing out on the network of an MA college at the start and also being very shy, I have had no connections in the right places to make recommendations on my behalf, curators are not aware of me to include me in group shows. It seems that once you’re out, it is difficult to get back in. Many opportunities aren’t open to me because they are limited to early career artists, or I am automatically excluded because selectors who shortlist artists for awards, residencies, etc. don’t know me.

At the moment Instagram is my only option for presenting my work but it is an inadequate platform when your work doesn’t come across online like in my case and people haven’t seen physical exhibitions. I was actually very surprised that anyone has taken an interest in me  at all because online you don’t see half of what the work actually is.

It is sometimes very disheartening when I notice people completely misreading my paintings and lumping them in with traditional realism which is in fact a million miles away from what I do. I try to overcome it by posting videos but people’s attention span on Instagram is generally very short. 

Sara Rossberg

Tree 2010,  183 x 122cm
What advice would you give to artists beginning their career?

On reflection, I think I have made every mistake in the book. I believed very naively that if you are totally committed, work hard and consistently produce substantial, original art, the work will win through. It doesn’t happen these days,- or only once you’re dead and someone swoops in and writes a thesis on you because by then you’re history, a closed book.

It’s essential to build a support system, align yourself with other artists and promote yourselves as a group, there is strength in numbers. Most of all an artist needs to cultivate a network of writers, curators, gallerists, anyone working in the art world. I don’t believe nowadays an artist can do it with their work alone. I think you also have to decide which route you want to take, whether you are happy to produce a more commercial merchandise or want to go out on a limb to look for innovation. In any case an artist should feel obsessed with making art, if you have to force yourself to go to work, you’re better off looking for a different career.

Sara Rossberg

Image courtesy of the artist
What would you change about the art world if you could?

Maybe abolish art colleges to make art less of a career and more the vocation that it should be. 

I hate the inaccessibility of the network and the narrow-mindedness. There are too many strong, commercial trends that are dominating the art market to the exclusion of others. Some trends are so ubiquitous that the artists within these trends are almost interchangeable, indistinguishable from each other,- every gallery has 2 or 3 of them. Someone once said, there should be as many kinds of art as there are artists,- that’s what I believe.

Sara Rossberg

Event To Material 2013, 170 x 170cm
How will the Repaint History fund support your career?

Material, material and more material! I spend a awful lot of money on paint, canvas and stretchers, the fund will go a little way towards that. I might actually think of framing something for a change.

Sara Rossberg

Unrelated 2008, 183 x 122cm
Are there any new projects you are currently working on?

My one and only project is my absolute determination to find my way back in and to get my work seen again and to get people to recognise what it is really like.

At the moment I have several hundred paintings waiting to be discovered. My ultimate goal is to have a major retrospective exhibition in an institution or big gallery, similar to the shows I had at Turnpike Gallery, Leigh or the Newport Museum and Art Gallery decades ago. I would like to put myself back on the map once and for all as I am not getting any younger. 

On the other hand, where my work is concerned, I feel I have only just started, I work more than ever and I would, more than anything, like to find the right people to back me in pursuing it. There is nothing like moral support to fire an artist on.

Who are your favourite women artists right now?

Louise Bonnet and Polly Borland because they are so totally daring, kickass and different

Annegret Soltau, I regard her as one of the most significant feminist artists

Tracey Emin, she has surprised me repeatedly over the years

Antonia Showering, I like her colour sense, curious to see where she will be going from here

Ellen Gallagher for her amazing, intriguing surfaces

Anj Smith for her surreal imagination and for daring to take a long time to make a painting (glad to see I’m not the only one)

Stella Hamberg for her fascinating/disturbing intense bronzes

Jennifer Paige Cohen for her haunting weirdness

Kenturah Davis and Barbara Walker for taking drawing to an epic scale

Dana Schutz, just powerful

Historically Louise Bourgeois and Artemisia Gentileschi