Rated by GQ Magazine as one of the ‘15 best artists working today’, and ahead of a solo exhibition at Hancock Gallery later this year, we took the time to chat with SJ Fuerst from her studio in Gozo, Malt
Tell us about your studio.
I live in Gozo in an old Maltese farmhouse and my studio is upstairs. It has a skylight, wonderfully tall ceilings, and quite a few inflatable animals to keep me company!
What’s your background?
I have an idyllic and classic American background, growing up in the suburbs of Connecticut complete with white picket fence. I began taking art classes at Parsons New School in NYC, and then did two years of undergrad at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. I moved to Europe to complete my art training in classical ateliers, first in Florence and then London.
How do you find motivation?
Like most artists, I’ve just always had the compulsion to create things. I’m happiest when I’m painting or working on ideas for new paintings. I’m lucky in that the motivation has always been there, although I do get some bad painting days that can be very discouraging. I find looking at books of painters I admire, like John Singer Sargent or William-Adolphe Bouguereau, help me work through the frustrating times and resolve any issues I’m having with a piece.
What drives your work?
Happiness, plus too much sugar and caffeine!
If you could choose one song from one album to reflect your work, what would it be, and why?
I love ‘Old Skin’ by Olafur Arnalds. I think the chorus, ‘In these hands I’ll hide, while this world collides’, sums up what it feels like to be an artist.
You often draw inspiration from life models, is that a fun process?
Yes, I love working with my models. I spend a long time developing the idea behind each painting, and I carefully design and select each element that goes into them. I’ve usually had the image in mind for months before I’m able to actually start working on the piece, so it’s wonderful to finally see it come to life with the model. The women bring so much of their own personality and elegance to what is usually a pretty funny set up.
Your paintings seem to merge a cute playfulness with a crisp chicness, talk us through your painting process.
My paintings begin by finding a toy or costume that speaks to me, and then I take my time designing the most interesting way to use that element in a painting. I’m drawn to things that don’t take themselves too seriously, which is why I love inflatables so much. The toys and costumes are my personality coming through, but the figure brings the air of chicness. That’s the fantastic thing about working with fashion models - they have the amazing ability to inject beauty and confidence into even the most ridiculous situation, and that pulls the whole image together.
Would you say there is a sense of contradiction or friction in your work?
Yes, I try to strike an interesting balance of moods in each painting. Life is fascinating because it’s full of fun things, serious things, beautiful things, and some dark things. I want my work to reflect this. Without the right mix of these elements a painting feels empty and one-dimensional, but when you find that balance you can create something really captivating.
How big is your inflatable collection right now?
Right now I have 115 inflatables, my favourites are the life-size animals.
Other than White, which three colours could you not do without?
It has to be the classic primary colours, simply because they are the most versatile. I’d say cadmium red, cadmium yellow, and cobalt blue.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Trust your gut; the worst enemy of success is self-doubt.
Who inspires you?
I find fashion photographers, particularly Tim Walker, to be very inspiring.
If you could own one piece of artwork what would it be?
I would love to own Madame X by John Singer Sargent.
Alongside yourself, who would be in your ideal group exhibition (from any period of time)… and what’s the title?
Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, and KAWS, and it would be called Toy Box.
What are you currently working on, and what’s next?
Right now I’m working on a painting of a great white shark causing the famous splash in Hockney’s pool. I love A Bigger Splash, it’s the runner up for which single piece of art I would like to own. Up next is a painting I’m really excited to start, it features a giant inflatable laughing emoji.