Weaving Tales with Syd Bee March 22 2022
Syd Bee is an artist based in Seattle, whose oil paintings seem to exist in a lush otherworldly plane filled with enigmatic characters poised in thought. Syd takes inspiration from her life and translates her dreams, journals and poetry onto the canvas.
Tell us the journey of your creative practice, from your earliest memories to where you are now.
I was a fairly cheerful, silly child who was encouraged to explore arts and crafts at an early age. I have many happy memories as a youngster tracing over Archie comics or sewing dolls from scraps of fabric. Although I was fascinated with fairytales like many kids, I was particularly drawn to darker stories and scarier characters. The Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, or the book Bony-Legs, or those pesky Cenobites from the Hellraiser films– I loved thinking about those stories, imagining the characters in real-life, and pretending I existed in those realms too. Inspired by those kinds of fantastical worlds, I wrote many dreadful stories accompanied by equally dreadful illustrations. When I was twelve I reimagined Queen Victoria as a grotesque witch and all her children as witches, and went on to make several terrible comics about it that lasted a whole summer.
I tried my best to write spooky stories, and I remember once reading one of my scary poems to a neighborhood kid (it was about getting lost in a vampire's house). He called it cliché. I didn't know what "cliché" meant at that time, but once I learned I stopped writing out stories. Then, one day, I came across the book Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg and it blew my mind. Here was a book that featured incredible drawings to go along with large, complex stories...however, the stories were mysteriously lost to time (as the title suggests), so all that remained were these few images. Over the years, I developed an aptitude for painting and drawing, and so those became the main vehicles for my own weird story-telling. I often think back on that book for allowing me to feel that stand-alone images could be stories all by themselves, and I'm still obsessed.
We are so excited for your upcoming solo show at Outré Gallery! Can you tell us the concept behind the body of work created for the show.
Thank you, I'm also very excited for this show! I originally began mapping out concepts around the Autumn of 2019. At that time, I was starting to heal from a very intense breakup and relocation. Many of the pieces for this show revolve around grief and the passage of time. Eventually, I needed to scrap some ideas and start over on others, since so much time would eventually come to pass and I wasn't in the same place emotionally or psychologically as I was when the project began. While there is still plenty of melancholy in the work, there are also stories of freedom, protection, and reflection.
Walk us through your creative process, from inception to canvas. You often rely on dreams, journalling and poetry as inspiration for your work. How do you translate these elements into reality? And is your painting process time intensive.
I've never been good with keeping a sketchbook, or drafting thumbnails. I do have a sketchbook, but it's mostly filled with words or fragmented sentences for ideas. When I'm sluggish with ideas, I'll pull out scraps of paper with random phrases or words from a container filled with them. Reading those words will conjure endless images in my mind. So I don't like thumbnails or sketching for brainstorming, because that's only one idea, drawing it out makes it real, and it's all I can think of when I see it. For that reason, I love poetry. It can be very freeing to let your mind wander along as words here and there act like little breadcrumbs toward a larger overall picture. I'm very selective with the poetry I read, though.
Once a few ideas are written down, I'll meditate on them for a while and if, after some time has passed, they still excite me, then I'll draw something up. I'll hunt around for images if need be, or take my photos, or build my own little sets to get close to the feeling. Then I commit an image to canvas/panel/etc. Or later sand it off and start over, which has happened many times. The process does take a while but mainly because I have a full time day job, so only my nights and weekends are free for art making.
Your emotive characters seem suspended in time amidst unearthly surroundings. What themes do you tend to explore in your work? Do you take inspiration from your own life?
Yes, and I can't help it. I use a lot of loose symbolism and personal metaphors in an attempt to explain some ideas. In life, I generally gravitate towards more somber, haunting, or absurd things, so that also tends to be the kind of territory my work lives in. And the ideas I have for artwork are really just feelings, questions, or statements that I'm fascinated by. I know that my feelings aren't unique, so it's always wonderful when someone somewhere looks at what I've made and feels something too.
Your figures are impeccably dressed with elegantly coiffed hair, wearing flowing garments with delicate details. Where do you get the inspiration for your stylish aesthetic?
Sometimes I want a dramatic presentation for an idea, and painting a costumed figure is a fairly straightforward way to get that across. I think fashion in general is such an fascinating method people have learned to communicate with each other, so why not use it?
Where do you get inspiration for your surreal colour palettes? Do the colours signify specific things and do you instinctively reach for the same colours?
It comes down to whatever feels right, optically. There have certainly been years where I explored particular colors with an inexplicable intensity, and then it sort of became expected that I would continue to do that. It did feel right at the time. Now something else feels right and that's what I reach for.
There is a magical and enigmatic mysticism in your works. What is your favourite content to consume to fuel that intrigue?
I love following whatever the "interest of the week" is, as I call it. I get engrossed easily and dive in as far as possible until feeling satisfied. For example, a few years ago I watched The Knick and all I could think about was early surgical equipment and hospital uniforms. I created my painting Morta shortly after and read Nurses, Witches and Midwives by Barbara Ehrenreich, and that led me to reading American Witches by Susan Fair, which then lead me to Susan Musgrave's book of poetry called Songs of the Sea-Witch... or another year when I watched The Terror and then became fascinated with the shipwrecks that have occurred near where I live, which lead me to reading about the Lupatia shipwreck off the Oregon coast, and that story was so amazing I created a painting based on it. Or, last week when I was interested in...
You have said that your artwork helps you make sense of 'the harsh strangeness of life'. How has the unprecedented strangeness of the pandemic affected you and your art practice these past two years?
Frankly, it turned everything upside down. When the pandemic hit, I found myself in a position where a sudden career change, in terms of my day job, was absolutely necessary. I devoted myself to that, and my art practice all but stopped as a result. I took time to re-evaluate what art making meant to me, and why it is important that I still do it.
Tell us about your workspace/studio/nook and how it has evolved over the years.
My current workspace is technically a living room. But I don't invite people over, so there is no couch and there is no tv. There is no place to entertain guests. Instead, I spend my free time working at the easel there, and that makes me happy.
What routines and rituals do you need in place to create art?
I have only one requirement: snacks and tea at the ready. That way I don't wander into the kitchen on my hundredth "break".
What has been a defining moment for you?
This is a difficult question to answer, since everything up till now has had an impact one way or the other. Once I've lived a bit more life, I'll be better equipped to tell you!
Thank you for your time, Syd. We can't wait to see your show!