Sidonie’s life and experience have taught her—and she will say she was more influenced by her surroundings than from her classical training—to look for the subtle variations in things. How often does an individual reflect on the confluence of perceptions and influences that makes up the totality of their experience? For some, it is easier to see the world in black and white, where everything has a very clear definition. Yet, Sidonie’s work is never directly representational. She is much more interested in leaving an impression that has its basis in her experiments and explorations. Her perspective suggests that with a bit of distance, a greater fullness of lived experience comes into focus.
In German there are two distinct words for experience. Erlebnis suggests the kind of immediate experience that we have all of the time and cannot get away from. Yet, it is a more isolated and fragmented sort of experience. Erfahrung, on the other hand, refers to a more cumulative and full kind of experience, one that is historically and socially effected. Since the advent of industry, we tend more and more to privilege erlebnis, while valuing erfahrung less and less. The trouble with this is it’s the latter kind of experience which renders itself both communicable and transmissible.
Although Sidonie speaks with a British accent rather than German, the richness and fullness of her work seem to lay testimony to the necessity of this particular distinction with regard to experience. When I sat down to interview Sidonie, her warmth and ease of communication coaxed me towards the back of my chair as I settled in for a few of the many stories that inspire the craft that has been a lifetime in the making.
You come from a remarkable historical background. You were born in Germany in 1932, one year before Hitler came to power, and then your family immigrated to Holland and then England. Can you speak a little bit about that period in your life?
About 1933, on the front door of our house, somebody had put in excrement Raus Juden, which means “Out Jews.” And so literally with the writing on the wall we went to Holland because my father had a sister living in London. Neither the Americans nor the British would allow German Jewish refugees into the country. It was really awful. So my aunt provided an affidavit for us to get into London. My aunt was also one of the founders of the Kindertransport, which helped Jewish children escape extermination. We waited in Holland nine months for the affidavit to go through. I was very young. My father had brought a Jewish nurse and a Jewish maid just to get them out, but the British wouldn’t allow them in because they weren’t part of the family. So they got sent back to Germany—and you know what happened to them.
My father had been a lawyer in Berlin and had a quite high-end clientele. In Germany they practiced Roman law, and so he could not practice being a lawyer in England. Besides, he wasn’t British. You had to be British. So he was literally up against the wall, no money, nothing to make. These were very difficult times.
What happened when the war broke out?
I was seven when the war broke out. We were evacuated from London during the Blitz—but without our parents. Every child had to leave London. They organized it by you going through your school, if you were school age already. You were bussed out to various places in the country, and you know, altruistic people would take a child in. I was moved around from place to place before being reunited with my family. I remember being so hungry that I’d go out into the field and pick and eat dirty carrots that were being grown—I couldn’t wash them. It wasn’t pleasant. And when you’re that age, time is extended. Things seem to last for forever.
After making it through this very difficult period, you ultimately would end up going to school at St. Martins School of Art and Central School of Arts and Crafts in London to pursue the arts.
Right, well I went to South Hampstead High School, then I went to school in New York, then I came back to London and went to St. Martins. After a year there I went to the Central School of Arts and Crafts, which was a unique arts school because at that time it had very well known, very famous artists who were teaching there. The two schools have amalgamated since I’ve been here. It’s now called St. Martins Central, and it’s quite a prestigious school in England. But my father pulled me out of art school in my last year and said, “You’re never going to make a living as an artist. You’re going to go to secretarial school”—which I hated. I think I lasted six months in a job. I went to teach at a very posh preschool near Hyde Park.
How did you end up meeting your husband?
I met Gordon at a party, just when he came down from Cambridge. He’s from the north of England, from Yorkshire. He was a medical student, and we got married while he was still a medical student.
Then I got pregnant right away, had two other children after that, and my whole art career, I mean anything that had to do with art just stopped. And then we came to the States.
You came here in the 60s, right?
Yes, we came from ’62 to ’63 for one year because my husband was doing research, and then we came back again in November of ’65. I was in my thirties when we came. And so eventually, after a ten-year hiatus raising my kids, I got back into art.
One of the things people don’t understand is that in the years when I was in England, nobody had any money. This was post-war England. Nobody had discretionary funds to buy art, so being an artist was really impractical. When I came here and suddenly people started buying my work, I couldn’t believe it. That was a big morale booster actually. I was finally able to become an artist when I came here.
In what ways did the formal training you received help to shape your artistic style and in what ways did you deviate from that training?
I found that when I had a teacher I would try too hard to paint in the way they wanted me to. I always found that very stifling. I would say that my training is really by osmosis rather than by being surrounded by other people influencing me. It’s not specific. For instance, I’ve been so influenced by the subtlety of English painting, or the greyness one sees in English painting. The stuff from my generation certainly doesn’t have the kind of bright colors that you get in this country and in South America. I was horrified when I saw those kinds of colors. But in terms of direct influence, it’s not something I can specifically say.
I think because of my personality I tend not to follow rules. I remember that a teacher in high school had written in one of my school reports, “She disobeys the rules and quietly goes her own way” (laughs). In retrospect, when you think about it, that’s exactly what artists should do. Otherwise, how can you ever be innovative or think that’s important? And that’s what’s motivated all my artistic life—“What will happen if I do such and such?” and experimenting. It’s not any specific recipe so-to-speak.
How would you characterize your painting? I know sometimes you incorporate mixed media.
What motivates me is experimenting, and in terms of subject matter I’m always trying something different. So I’m very eclectic but I’ll do a whole series when I get on to a subject, from figurative to abstract to just various things. Then I’ll get to the end of what I want to say at that particular period and move on. Later, I’ll come back to particular subjects. And hopefully, I adapt.
Which themes and subjects draw you back again and again?
Well certainly the landscape. Then of course one gets influenced by whatever art trends are going. One of the things that I was very influenced by, in the mid to late seventies, was a movement called Pattern and Decoration. Many years ago there was a show at the Portland Art Museum called the “Warp and Weft of Islam,” and it was Oriental carpets basically. I did a huge series lasting two or three years using Oriental rug themes, and I think that’s when I first became known locally. I once counted up how many I’d done. I’ve done way over a hundred and everything sold. I’m in some public art collections in Washington and Oregon and various places. In fact, the courthouse here had a huge one on the wall that was there for a long time.
Would you say overall you have an impressionistic style?
Probably, yes. Probably that. I’m not interested in being highly representational and photographic. Why replicate absolutely? Because, you know, photography has done that. What’s interesting is even though I use different subject matter people who know my work will recognize my style. There’s a calligraphic hand that you have that people recognize, a way of using paint, a way of painting. And probably color. I’m very interested in color. I often do abstracted landscapes. That’s another way of putting it, where, you’re right, it’s the impression of the landscape rather than the specific.
What is it about the Northwest that reflects or inspires your desire to experiment and engage with such a variety of subjects and themes?
I would probably do that wherever I was. Maybe it’s because I’ve got a butterfly mind and I get bored—and that shows in the work immediately. If I’m engaged in what I’m doing, I know people can feel that. And the thrill of people responding, not necessarily to what I’m saying, but they’ve responded to something, that’s an immediate kind of gratification so-to-speak. But it doesn’t always happen. It’s very important for artists to go and look at work because subconsciously/consciously that’s what keeps them au courant [in the current]. As an artist you need to grow and evolve.
The other thing that I’ve said before about coming here from London is the geography just blew me away—and it’s unending. My youngest son went to Camp Hancock, which is John Day country. That’s desert, you know. The geography just changes, and it’s like being in a different country. I was overwhelmed by it. The first time I went I did some sketching, but they weren’t very good because it was so new. I needed to go there a few times. The Willamette Valley is… I mean it’s not like England, but it’s more like England than there. So this is the other fascinating thing about this country, and I think particularly in Oregon.
What kinds of challenges do artists in Portland face?
One problem—and this isn’t just in the art world—sales are very difficult in Portland for a variety of reasons. One could go into a whole lot of reasons. It’s very hard for galleries and it’s very hard for artists. But that’s the art world.
I was in a show called Industry & Art: “Celebrating the Worker” that was at Swan Island a few months ago. It was put on by Vigor Industrial, one of the biggest shipbuilding and ship repair facilities in the country, and Gunderson’s, which makes freight/railcars. These are very important industries, so everybody came. Sam Adams was there. RACC was the jury for it. I had a large painting that was a representational piece, a figurative work, and Gunderson’s actually bought it. It was a worker working at his craft. If they hadn’t bought it I don’t know who would have bought this work. I was pleased that it sold because that’s the difficulty here. It’s a small market.
Another little beef I have is when you don’t get any recompense for the work you’re doing. There are a lot of places that want donations—complete donations. And artists get hit up all the time. You know, even though you’re sympathetic to what they’re trying to do, they still need to respect the artist.
What have you currently or recently been working on?
I’ve just done a whole series of landscapes of Iceland. Iceland’s very interesting because there are so few trees there. Geologically it’s fascinating.
That one [she points to a specific painting] was part of a series I did at Zidell Marine. It’s called Weathered Shed Wall. I live on South Waterfront, and Zidell Marine is right next door. They’re the ones that make the barges. They had this shed there that was really just falling to pieces. It had so many patches on it. I’ve also got another one of a welder that I sent to the Industry & Art show, and three others.
How would you explain your use of color?
Basically I’m a colorist. To me color is instinctive. It’s something you’re born with. You can do theory and all that, but I’ve never done a class on color. It’s just innate and it comes out. I was recently in a show that was just black and white. Because I love color, it was a really hard job to keep to just that.
You have also referred to your influence coming from England where the colors are much more muted and there is a lot of grey.
The thing is, even though it’s muted—and subtle is the word I use, everything is pretty subtle—that doesn’t mean there’s no color at all. It’s very much like the grey you’re looking at if you look at the buildings out here from where I’m sitting, in the distance [looking out from her studio window]. If it were in bright sunlight, my eye is not used to that. It’s not part of my DNA. I really don’t like colors that are not in some way mixed or shaded—I don’t want a pure green or blue. I find that very harsh and very coarse, and basically very amateur. I really can’t answer that question when it’s instinctive. I’m trying to think of another discipline where you could have an equivalent… I do try to vary what I do and it’s not just one palette. I’ve done works that have very little color and then I’ve done bright things. Maybe there’s an analogy with every discipline that some things come naturally and easily to people. I’m an instinctive person. I paint instinctively, I speak instinctively—probably everything I do is instinctive. And I’m not conventional in any way.