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Photo.Sally at the Bluecoat, Liverpool infront of her work Sally in front of her work at the Bluecoat photo by M. Jackson

Sally Booth

Light, Lemon Curd and Making a Living

Sally Booth is currently on our Sync Intensives programme. A visual artist specialising in drawing and painting. With a BA and MA in Fine Art at Bristol and Wimbledon School of Art, Sally has exhibited her work widely across the UK including at South Bank Centre, Whitechapel Art Gallery, Sadler's Wells, Hastings Stade, Brighton Festival and the Bluecoat in Liverpool.

Sally's work has been shown internationally in Japan, and also been showcased in Singapore. She won the prestigious Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary at the Bluecoat in Liverpool (2009), and had a 3 month residency and exhibition there with support from Tate Liverpool and Shape. Since then, she has undertaken projects with English Heritage in Hastings and the National Trust on Brownsea Island.

In 2012 Sally will be working as Artist in Residence for the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships. Sally has the most desirable, engaging and accessible website for which she was rightfully awarded a Jodi in 2009. Her fascinating case study charts her artistic journey through light, shade, up close and personal.

Sally's Jodi Award win in 2009 and a link to her website
Sally as a child with a tray of tiddly winks

Up close

I can't remember when I decided to be an artist. I think I always assumed I would be, seeing myself as a visual person. It was only others who were a bit shocked.

I remember as a young child the intensity of looking. A sparkly world of colours and light. Looking up close to see what things were or how they worked. Every child has this but I guess with artists that sense of wonder never goes away. I was always short sighted and had my first eye operation at the age of 1, but from a young age I didn’t want to make a big deal of it. I sensed early that it separated me from others and made my parents over-anxious about letting me be independent.

I took to bluffing quite early. I couldn’t really see the blackboard but school didn’t feel a safe place to be honest about the extent of my real difficulties. What would they do? I certainly didn’t think they would read everything out to me and there was no large print in those days. I assumed I would be seen as a problem or be “sent away”.

Fearful of the personal consequences of confession for me, it seemed easier to just pick up what I could by listening and watching the movement of the teacher’s hand to guess what was being written rather than attract negative attention to myself (this didn’t work in Maths and French!).

Now, as an adult, I realise how ridiculous this all was. Ironically, it allowed me to develop some crucial life skills and strategies which have since stood me in very good stead. The humour, developed as a diversionary tactic and so frowned upon in class, has become a vital and important part of my character. I learnt the importance of listening really hard to retain information, and the value of being verbally articulate. I learnt to treasure and utilise fully my residual vision and found unconventional solutions to obstacles I came across. I learnt that there is more than one way to skin a cat.

Paradoxically the Art Room during this time became a haven for me, somewhere I could express myself creatively and explore the visual world at a distance that suited me. I can’t remember when I decided to be an artist, I think I always assumed I would be, seeing myself as a visual person. It was only others who were a bit shocked.

Painting. Saucepan of carrots. Sally Booth

Making it personal

Somehow, I naturally adopted a way of working that suited me, close up and personal, and celebrated the colour and floating sensory nature of my vision and the everyday.

When I got to Art School in Bristol I finally found other people like me, made lifelong friends, and felt completely at home in a visually exciting city. The act of looking and how I perceive things was and is different. Others were painting huge pink abstract expressionist canvases or making heavy duty sculptures. I wasn’t very good at welding for obvious reasons, (now the mind boggles!).

Somehow I naturally adopted a way of working that suited me, close up and personal, and celebrated the colour, floating, sensory nature of my vision and the everyday. I painted whatever was around me – the singing orange of a saucepan of carrots on an electric hob, or small, intimate pictures of the delicious light coming through a jar of marmalade or lemon curd.

Looking back at my young work now, it is the out of focus bits or colour that still stand out for me. I made use of the sensory realm – diffused light held a fascination. It was about how I saw, what I saw. It took a while for me to realise exactly how much other people do see. In a life room a tutor came up to me and said, “Why haven’t you drawn that muscle in?” I looked at him in genuine astonishment, “What muscle?”

I realised that what I saw was merely simplified shapes and positive and negative spaces. How amazing! It didn’t really seem to matter, I felt I could be true to myself and confident in what I was doing.

I see shallow space. Everything looks like shapes, so that already simplifies everything. It is difficult to draw people so outlines cut to the chase, the essence of what I’m leaving in and leaving out.

Crunch time came for me at 26. I developed a cataract and lost the sight of my good eye in 6 months flat. Very scary, I had to grow up fast. Surgery was only partly successful. Having decided I was going to be an artist, this really wasn’t very good, and most crucially, apart from not being able to read my post, the colours were all wrong and I couldn’t see where to put my pencil back on the paper to do a drawing. As seeing colour and the visual world were part of my identity, there were some difficult times wandering round Tescos in a daze, not knowing what to do about it or what was to become of me. In the end, I decided it was easier to learn how to adapt my work than to learn how to accept giving it up, so that is what I did. I changed my art materials, using thick black pen instead of pencil, and my methods, not taking the pen off the paper.

My paintings became simpler, stronger in composition and less detailed and with more movement. Finding another way of doing something was a very important lesson for me.

Photo.Sally drawing Brighton Pavilion drawing tent, Upstream. Photo Tim Norris

From till rolls to panoramas

Exploring my vision and celebrating its uniqueness has now become part of my creative practice.

The sense of precariousness has never quite left me but in some ways this can galvanise me and stir me into action.

The continuing fragility of my vision has given me a sense of drive and urgency, and an energy which I hope comes through in the work itself. I do have genuine anxiety about how to make work that is rigorous in its own way and convincing to the viewer if I cannot see well enough how something is made, and this does affect my confidence.

I have started to express this energy into working directly outside in all weathers and different locations, and have been experimenting with using unconventional, very physical materials, such as till rolls, balsa wood, tracing paper, voile and acetate. This change in direction reflects the diffuse and cloudy way I see and the wide-angle, fast moving panoramic landscapes around me.

The sight loss in my twenties made me acknowledge and see myself positively as a disabled person.

I finally started to meet other disabled people and through Disability Arts gained valuable work experience, met new friends and creative role models and started to understand about managing projects and adding up budgets. I found out very late from my collaborations with other artists that it was possible to get funding for what I was doing.

This was a revelation to me. I had no idea that someone like me could apply to the Arts Council and this in turn opened up possibilities for developing my work both in scale and in concept.

Photographic light box. Bluecoat studio windows. Sally Booth

Just doing it

After seeing me faff around Tony Heaton (then Director of Holton Lee) came in and said 'Come on Sally Just DO it'.

There are several people who have helped me build resilience along the way who are part of this reflection.

Maria Oshodi, Director of Extant is the first person that springs to mind for her ferocious intelligence, drive and determination. I met Maria when she was a young writer. She was the first visually impaired woman I had come across who was involved in the arts and there were parallels in many of our experiences, sometimes in a literal sense.

Maria ended up in my old flat and I ended up in her old job! As well as being peers, I have admired Maria for her talent and focused energy. She is a woman who gets things done, and has simply charged through barriers as if they were tissue paper. Alongside this strength, it is perhaps with Maria that I have shared not just side-splitting belly laughs over a beer and a curry, but also the most candid, challenging and honest conversations about “what it’s all really like”. Something that is to be relished and cherished.

When I left Shape in 2007 to make my way in the world as a 'proper' artist, I was invited down to Holton Lee for a residency and to prepare for a solo show.

There was something about this time and place away from London that proved to be an important turning point for developing my confidence in myself and my drawing.

I would head off across the field with just a black bin liner to sit on and a bottle of ink to draw with and make work on the spot, without worrying about whether it was contemporary enough or what people would think. For the first time in a long time, I just enjoyed the immediacy of being outdoors and making my own language of marks.

Two days before my exhibition, I found myself standing in front of 6 floor to ceiling roller blinds, which I had rather rashly specially ordered for the gallery windows, the idea being to make a large scale drawing installation for the show. I was rooted to the spot, unable and too scared to make a mark. After seeing me faff around Tony Heaton, the Director of Holton Lee at the time, came in and said 'Come on Sally, Just DO it! From then on I was away, all nerves dissipated.

Amazing what a deadline and a kick up the backside will do!

A photo of Sally working live at Upstream, Brighton Festival, photo by Moose Hazim

Access matters

It’s quite interesting that a visually impaired person has made the first accessible website. It’s simply bloody lovely! (Jodi Awards 2009 – Marcus Weisen)

This feeling of just needing to get on with it has fed into other areas of my work. I realised that where I’ve come up against barriers in work or technology, rather than moaning about it, the only thing to do is just sort it myself.

Developing my own website came out of the frustration of not being able to access other’s websites, particularly those of arts organisations and large scale museums, who you would think would have the know-how and the resources to do better. I just thought, 'I’ll do my own and make sure at least I can see it'.

From this barrier presented an opportunity, something I could push against, by trying to find an imaginative solution for myself and for others too. Being a confirmed technophobe, the only way I could approach developing my site was to treat it as an art project and see it as a creative act. As I got further into planning it, I realised I could introduce other simple accessible features that would be of use to others, such as subtitles, audio descriptions and BSL, right from the beginning, .

These I have dotted around the site and put in place as I could afford them. Initially being something of a daunting task, it has now become part of my archive and something I continue to develop.

As individual artists we may have only limited influence, but just getting it out there feels important.

Photo. Strawberry and cream punnets at Wimbledon

Learning from Sync

Being on the Sync Intensives programme has given me some valuable learning and time for self reflection.

Being on the Sync Intensives programme has given me some valuable learning and time for self-reflection. I realised that having some form of recognition and validation is of importance to me. Being an artist you have to be prepared to spend a lot of time by yourself.

This doesn’t suit everybody and it can be easy when the work doesn’t come in to lose perspective and feel you haven’t achieved anything. I don’t feel I have fully achieved what I want to yet, or fully capitalised on what I have done so far.

But, I realise at fifty-something I have a place of my own and somehow I seem to be doing what I always wanted to do. This year I am looking forward to working as Artist in Residence at Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships, drawing the spaces and unseen preparations behind the scenes before the players, public and the tubs of strawberries and cream arrive for the tournament. I am currently preparing and fundraising for a forthcoming project in Shetland. At 26 I could not have thought that it would be possible that I would still be making my own work and in such unusual places.

We never know what is around the corner or what we will achieve in the end, but that’s enough for me.


Please add a comment below.



Love this piece Sally and fantastic images (as always) - and yes there is nothing like a deadline! You write so well and thank you for continuing to share your practice, your work and your passion for life. Can't wait for whatever comes next!


Sally Taylor

Sally - you're a skilled writer too - lovely,honest piece.Great update and life story.

Inspirational to the rest of us trying to get on with the business of producing a creative lifestyle as much as a creative end product. You've found your own path.Admirable.

I too love the carrots - and the onion tent.

Sal x


Tony Heaton

Aaw Sally, look at you all tucked up in bed, so cute! - I found your piece really inspirational, you are doing what you want to do and doing it with great success. I should probably apologise for the kick up the arse JFD style of managment I employed whilst you were stood in front of those blinds with pen hovering in your hand, I am much gentler in my nudging now! - but, you did make a great and substantial work for the Faith House Gallery and I was very proud of the result, thank you.

I love the painting of carrots and need to see the original, where is it?

T x

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