Interview with Sophia Lyons, local artist

Interview with Sophia Lyons, local artist

Sophia is an artist based in South East London. I met Sophia while walking in my local park, where she has a studio. Beckenham Place Mansion is set within 200 acres of parkland and ancient woodland, so it's no wonder much of Sophia's work is inspired by this mix of natural and urban environments.

June's Procrastination Paper theme was 'Grow', which I thought was a nice excuse to ask Sophia some questions about her stunning artwork, and how she got the moniker 'Master of the Undergrowth'... 


The Artwork I’ve seen from you has always been very large. Do you always work at such scale for your final pieces? Are you someone that keeps a sketch book?
I prefer a large canvas but have an assortment of sizes ready to hand. Everything I paint is from an emotion, how I feel, or tapping into my memory. For me a larger canvas gives freedom to express.
I rarely paint anything in a literal way, I use big brushes and make marks to suggest form or space. So while I take many photographs I never reference them in my paintings, the act of taking photographs just helps to plant imagery in my memory. So painting from a current state of mind does sometimes call for a smaller canvas.
Like everyone, there are days when I don’t feel like having many hours on my feet (a large canvas requires a lot of physical energy!) and sometimes it is really nice to huddle in with a small canvas and smaller brushes. Saying that, I was asked recently to provide work on postcards for an International Women's Day charity. I tried but discovered that couldn’t go THAT small and opted to cut up a large painting and donated postcard sections of it instead! It was a lovely surprise to find this so effective and all my pieces sold at the auction. I plan to actually develop this idea for another project.
I don’t keep a sketchbook. I think (and this maybe unwise) I don’t want to waste a minute of my creative energy not painting to canvas. Pencil/pen and paper do not excite me at all, I have tried it many times because I’ve felt I should do what everyone says artists should do, but I’m past thinking like that now and the only time I sketch is when all other options are unavailable.
Your painting the Majors Garden was exhibited at the 2020 RA Summer exhibition! How was your experience visiting your artwork in situ during the pandemic?
It was a pretty amazing experience. After spending most of the pandemic up to this point fully isolating, I was so excited. I had to abandon the fear of heading into London and being amongst people again. The RA made it all very Covid safe. Such a crazy situation though.
My story was covered in the BBC2 documentary about the RA Summer Exhibition, there was a camera crew following me into the gallery while I was chatting to TV Art and Culture Presenter, Brenda McManus.
I was also very lucky to meet David Remfry, the artist and judge who selected my piece for his gallery. He was so complimentary and encouraging about my work. It’s moments like these that can give you real confidence and affirmation that you’re doing ok. Something I was very appreciative of at this stage in my development as an artist.
How long have you had a studio at Beckenham Place Mansion? It must feel so special to work in a park you have known all your life.
This is my fourth year at the Mansion. I am so very lucky to have that studio. The Mansion was still locked up and desolate when I stumbled on a small postcard sign on the cafe door saying ‘studio space becoming available’… I ran home and applied! I got an interview but didn’t get a space, although I was told it was a close run thing. I was absolutely gutted. A few weeks later I found out that someone had dropped out and I was next in line. Within days I found myself working alongside a collection of hugely talented creative people and being part of something really special.
I understand that at some point the building will undergo lottery funded refurb and I have no idea what will happen after that. In the meantime I’ve been totally embracing having a workspace that’s at the heart of my past and present inspiration from walking through those 200 acres of parkland. When I was young it was my adventure playground. The ancient woodlands in particular and down by the river.
The Mansion has really grown over the last four years, becoming a creative hub and centre for the all the surrounding community with all sorts of events, classes, clubs, markets etc. It’s so great to be a part of that buzz. One of my favourite things is having Open Studio events and private views when I can open the doors to my studio and let people come and see what I and fellow Mansion artists do up there. Hopefully we’ll be able to resume doing that soon!
Tell us something about your sidekick Buckley!
Buckley completes the picture for me. He enjoys his walks so much. Every dog owner will identify with that moment when you look out of the window and you think it looks uninvitingly cold and windy out there... perhaps you’ll skip venturing out today. But you don’t - that face tells you it’s not so bad out there. Of course, he’s always right. Whatever the weather when you’re amongst nature you will always find little gems everywhere…. if you look. 
Buckley has adapted to this lifestyle so perfectly. When he knows we’re in for a studio day he settles down after his walk and some food and lets me get on. He reminds me when it’s lunch and tea time of course but he’s just happy to have me nearby and the feeling is mutual.
How long does an average canvas take you from start to finish?
That can vary immensely based on size and detail. Sometimes a painting pours out of me easily onto the canvas and I can complete a large piece in two or three days if I stick at it. I work for at least six hours a day when I’m painting. But sometimes a piece can become a huge puzzle and can take weeks. Getting it to balance with colour or mass, or finding that reason for its creation. I always have to have a hero within in my work…. whether that be an area light that draws the viewer in, an intricate part which creates loads of interest or perhaps a darkness luring you in. Small pieces can take just as along as a large piece. Sometimes that makes for a dilemma when pricing work actually.
Who first gave you the name 'Master of the Undergrowth' and what does that title mean to you?
Oh that was Brenda McManus or perhaps the BBC Producer, John O’Rourke who visited my Studio at the Mansion. I think it’s meant as ‘known for’ rather than high acclamation but it was nice to hear and made me chuckle.
What, if anything, do you like to listen to while you paint?
I love painting to music. I prefer to paint in silence in the mornings but come late afternoon or if painting into the evening I always turn to playlists and particularly like painting to film scores or film playlists. I love music creatives such Hans Zimmer, Elliot Goldenthal, Diplo, Oli Som, Labrinth. I also love random Latin, Spanish and Mexican music. I have made a huge playlist too which is often my go-to. It includes John Grant, Massive Attack, Air, J Cole, Frank Ocean, Temple Grounds, Nick Mulvey, Dire Straits, Sia, Carole King…The list goes on... it’s eclectic! 
Visit Sophia's website to learn more about her or buy her work. Follow her on Instagram for insights into her process, glimpses of ancient woodland, info on Open Studios at the Mansion and of course Buckley goodness content.
Buy the Grow issue of the Procrastination Paper here.

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