Artist Series II with Sarah Poland

For the second of our artist series, we are very happy to be talking to Scottish artist (who lives in Wales), Sarah Poland.

Sarah draws upon natural elements and materials, meditation and transformation for her work. She has always been particularly drawn to Northern and landscapes on the edge, always seeking to live within these spaces. The presence of landscape and being in it is a source of her work and her recent paintings. We asked Sarah to exchange her canvas for our knickers. We are looking forward to sharing her results.

Sarah we were delighted you took up the challenge of making a pair of our GMD knickers uniquely your own.  Is that the first time you have dyed your clothing?

It isn't, as a 20 something I would transform and dye my clothes using Dylon machine dyes. But during the first pandemic lockdown  I started exploring natural dyes. I'm a painter but I have a degree in fashion design and a Masters in fine art, my solo exhibition this year will include a natural dyed and painted mini collection.

Tell us about the process,  what you did with them and how you feel about the result?

It's exciting to be asked to collaborate on this project. Since 2021 I have been developing a dye bed in my garden. I harvested coreopsis flowers most days all summer and dried them to be used when I was ready. I haven't used coreopsis before so it was exciting to discover a new colour. For my art work, I usually make a big dye bath in an old cast iron bath with a fire underneath and dye about 6 metres of canvas. The knickers went in a large stainless steel pan with some smaller pieces of fabric and hundreds of dried coreopsis flowers.

Once dyed and dried  I painted on two different modifiers. Bicarbonate of soda and separately iron. Where there is just bicarb, the colour will gradually fade with washing but where it meets the iron it will last longer. So for now, there are 4 colours and it will evolve to 3. It’s pretty cool considering I only used one dye colour.

You live in a special place, in a nomadic studio within an ancient oak woodland. It sounds very romantic. How did you find it and why is its position so crucial for inspiring your work?

Ah yes, the Nomadic Studio. I'm no longer in it, I out grew it with my family and needed somewhere larger again to work in too. It has become our spare room for now.

It started when I lived in West Cornwall. I was there for 10 years and before leaving, I let go of my large studio and bought an old removals lorry. With some help, I converted it into a live-in space with a 2m sq studio space in the back half. I wanted to travel and to be able to work. I had p.v. panels, a wood burner, full size kitchen sink, lights, a cold tap, a camping cooker, oven and a laptop. Completely off-grid but not digital free, the laptop was essential for keeping in touch with galleries and friends, cataloguing work and research. I also had a cat-flap - my travel companions were my cat and dog, they would argue over the front 2 passenger seats when we travelled! I also borrowed a mini etching press, clamped it to the studio table and made a series of drypoint etchings. It was amazing, I had a large skylight over the studio and could open the barn doors at the back which revealed a 2m sq window to shield me from the weather which could also be opened. Like you say, it was romantic, but I'd say it was equally tough.

My first journey was back up to the Scottish Highlands where I'm from. Heading South, I then landed in an 80 acre ancient oak woodland in West Wales where my then boyfriend, now husband, had gone to teach himself timber-framing. His friends' Dad owned it. This stop-off was really crucial to where my practice is now and we ended up staying for 5 years. So there was a timber framer and a blacksmith who were literally using the woodland for their materials and I realised that I also wanted to do this. I wanted to make work 'of the woodland' and not just about it or depicting it. One day, the owners' son casually mentioned that ink could be made using oak galls and that was it, I was all over the internet looking up the history and recipes for making the ink. It is nick-named 'ink of kings, poets and monks'. It doesn't get more romantic that that really! This was in 2011, I've been exploring and pushing the limits of oak gall ink since - a veritable chemistry lab in my studio.

Can you tell us about oak gall ink, why you love it and how we can make it?

Oak gall ink in indelible, it doesn't fade like most other plant colours and it can't be washed off like most other inks. The black is so rich and velvety. There are many colours which last a reasonable length of time but oak gall ink holds a special quality.

Oak galls or oak apples, are created by the oak tree in a genetic reaction to protect itself from the gall wasp which lays it's eggs on a twig or a leaf. The tree surrounds the egg with a marble-sized apple-coloured ball. It starts hard and green and ripens to a blush red and yellow. Once ripe, the larva eats it's way out leaving a little hole and flies off - you can tell if the larva has flown because of the hole. These 'apples' then harden and dry to a brown colour which can be smashed into a powder to use.

From the outside it's a pretty basic chemistry. The galls are very high in tannic and gallo tannic acids, tannins basically, like in red wine. When you mix tannins with iron salts and water it created an ink. If you've ever left an axe in an oak chopping log for example, after some rain and oxidation (air) there will be a black mark around it, that is the ink. The oak galls contain even more tannins than the wood.

I love the whole process, the collecting, the chemistry, creating my own materials, the non-toxic qualities of it and it's history is pretty interesting too, for example, the Magna Carta was written using it as well as surviving manuscripts from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci even used it! You can buy the stuff but it's very expensive, those little galls are hard won. If you'd like to make your own there are many free recipes on the internet. You can start by searching out those oak galls and some rusty nails.

Do you work with other natural colour/mediums? If so, what is your favourite and how do you use it?

In 2020 I started to broaden my palette by foraging locally for botanical colour and using kitchen scraps such as onion skins. In 2021 I created a dye bed and started growing colour that I couldn't forage for easily. For obvious reasons, I like to use the more permanent colours in my art works - there are so many colours out there but some can fade very quickly. It was then that I started not to just use ink but to dye the canvas first. Dyeing large lengths of canvas then naturally led to making clothes again.

I do like using native plants and stories always deepen our connection to the colours. For example, woad blue and weld yellow was used in Robin Hoods time to make Lincoln green. It's nice to see colours in their own environment. I've got a thing about pink and yellow together - there are so many yellows, I like weld and gorse, and madder root makes pink. You'll see this in my exhibition and collection.

I love this description from your website,my recent paintings are also about breathing, about what we yearn for and the space in our head created when being caught off guard by something and it takes us away from our physical reality for a moment”. I get the sense you have to spiritually prepare yourself before starting a piece of work. Can you tell us how you do this and what your rituals are?

Well, I think that there really isn't a difference between art and life. Everything I do feeds into my art and if it doesn't, I don't tend to prioritise it. Having said that, my influences are varied and range from, walking, dance and circus, literature, wild swimming, surfing, writing, music, the list goes on.

Since having children my studio has become a quiet still place and I started a meditation practice in May 2021 which has really fed into my work. I have in many ways turned my painting practice on it's head and have committed to a new way of working. It is slower, whiter, calmer, has more space and uses natural materials. It all sounds a bit dreamy but I still work incredibly intensively and have a ritual of taking a good strong coffee into the studio with me.

My current routine involves meditating for up to 2 hours most mornings, I alternate the school drop off with my husband and then enter the space. I like the idea that coffee connects me to other creatives and intellectuals, a kind of tuning in. I have been inspired by coffee culture, particularly of the Beat Generation and also in Europe.

I have a night ritual too. In phases, on a full moon, I take my camera and go for a night walk, photographing the moon and making drawings. 

I like to work on a body of work as a whole and work on many pieces at once, solo exhibitions are my favourite because it is an opportunity to show a whole project. Once I'm working on this I don't look at other peoples work as it can be a distraction. I often start by making lots of work on paper all the same size and I write. By the time I've finished, I have all of the titles ready and just have to allocate them to the right pieces. There is a kind of holistic quality to the process.

You can find Sarah @sarahpolandstudio and

Sarah's solo exhibition Silence - The Messenger and The Metaphor  at  Elysium Gallery, Swansea opens on 20th May 2023. The exhibition continues until 1st July.

Thank you Sarah for being part of this project.



February 13, 2023 — Primrose Matheson