‘Art leads to presence, and presence leads to art.’
Shui-Lyn White – Artists Feature – VAA Member of the Month June 2022
Artist, Shui-Lyn White, sits down with us at the VAA to discuss her creative process and approaching life with a Zen philosophy.
I was born in Ibadan, Nigeria, to an English Father and Chinese Mother, Shui-Lyn White uses her art to explore themes of presence and absence. Guided by her mindful philosophy White’s creative process is a journey into the self.
What does a typical day in your life look like?
This is hard one because my days tend to be subject to flow.
Flow is critical to my creative process, the detours and evolutions in each day provide energy and insight, flashes of inspiration and strange contingencies. That being said, I do have some foundational practices. This includes how I prepare for creation and artistic activity.
Firstly, I start my mornings slowly. The time spent waking up is where my ideas ebb and flow, rise and float, swirl and foment. It’s where I return to images or thoughts that I’ve been mulling on, sometimes for weeks or months. I might start working in my head on an image from scratch or review a work that needs something I haven’t quite figured out just yet.
Following this mindful period, I then move on to meditation, and then yoga before having a shower and journaling. It’s a gradual rite of passage into the day, and onto the studio. I usually get to the studio in the afternoon. Typically, I like to print in the afternoon. After the day has passed through me leaving a trail of flotsam and jetsam, of scattered lines and shapes, some words from a half-remembered poem, snatches from a song. I love the way a line leads into a journey. One that can never be quite anticipated. This is to step into the unknown, to catch a glimpse of a world beneath the world.
Can you provide some insight into your creative process?
If I get ideas, I note them briefly. If I see an image, I’ll work with it and then discard it. I plan as little as possible, to keep everything fresh until the moment I start on a plate. I have a list in my head of certain tools, colours, shapes and textures. However, the most important thing for me to bring to the ‘canvas’ is emotion – vibrational energy through presence.
My printing process begins with that early morning spark of inspiration I mentioned earlier. I nurture this energy and turn it into the first gestural marks that I place on my printing plate. The marks on the plate evolve and, in many ways, I evolve with them.
After I transfer the print onto paper using a press, I sometimes use a plate several times. I rework the marks, adding, and subtracting. I do this to extract different images; that every run of the press produces a unique work.
After the plate is washed and I wait until the paper is dry to begin the final stage of the process. Some works take months even years to ‘finish’ – it’s a slow journey. However, this is a practice in presence and clarity. Over time I have come to focus more and more on monotype printing to arrive at one unique work. The reasons for this are threefold: firstly, working on a plate gives me a constantly evolving textural and gestural language, allowing for diverse mark-making. Secondly, I love the magic that happens when using a press to transfer the ink from the plate to the paper. Thirdly, the process reflects my sense of how life is; a transfer of reality to memory and the gap in between. What remains after the plate is washed of ink is the final image pressed onto paper…a memory of what was.
Do you have a guiding outlook?
The enduring influence on my way of approaching life is Zen philosophy. I am half Chinese, half English, and born in Nigeria. Growing up I discovered that I didn’t belong to a culture or a nation, and in time belonging didn’t make sense to me. However, through Zen, I discovered connection and presence. In the East, making art is a practice of awareness. This outlook inspired the Zen traditions of calligraphy, the Japanese tea ceremony, and the Taoist landscapes. I approach each work from this point of view, as a practice in presence. For me, art and presence are inseparable. Art leads to presence, and presence leads to art. This all works with the subjects of inquiry that play a huge part in my work – presence and absence.
What does it mean to be present? How do we remain present in the face of absence? The role memory, and forgetting, play in how we become who we are and how we form our sense of self.
Do you have any obstacles in your career?
Building a career and being a professional requires a different skill set for creating artwork. It’s taken me time to identify and learn the professional skills, and to do the career work. I am aware that I still need to make more time to develop skills such as time management, doing all the administration that a career requires – networking, thinking wider in terms of merchandising, maintaining a website, social media, and finding new niches beyond the obvious gallery-exhibition system. My greatest obstacle is that I’d rather spend time creating that managing my career, but I am learning that both can work well together.
It’s not an either-or.
I grew up with two sayings stuck to the wall above my bed: fiat lux and carpe diem. Both proved good at steering me in the right direction. I didn’t know quite how important their message was until I was involved in a car accident. After I left the hospital, I asked myself what I would have regretted not doing with my life had I died. So, I focused my life on becoming an artist.
Here, two pieces of advice proved invaluable. Churchill: ‘a pudding must have a theme’. Woody Allen: ‘just show up’. In the journey of becoming an artist, there are many detours, and many ideas of what art should be, what kind of art one should be making and why. In the end, I’ve learnt to show up no matter what. In the noise surrounding art, the theme took longer to define. But it emerged. Presence. That’s the advice: show up, be present. Both sound simple but as anyone who has ever tried, showing up and being present is a lifetime’s practice. As is art. Carpe diem. Fiat lux. Seize the day. Make light. Show up. This is what it takes to be an artist and a human being.
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
At this stage, I am most proud of exhibiting work created in the Vortex collaboration in Venice during the Biennale. Being a part of this is a huge and somewhat surreal moment for me. But what makes it even more special is that the works come from an intense and searingly honest place of collaboration – two very different artists working in challenging ways to harmonize as one voice. It’s a journey I am proud of because it has challenged me profoundly, and pushed me out of my comfort zone as an artist and personally, and has forced me to grow and expand my horizons. But it is also about living my truth, and what I have come to believe is a profoundly important philosophical approach to living – collaboration is a way forward that humankind needs to grasp if we are to continue on this planet.
The other project I am proud of is Infinity to the Power of Women. Art may not necessarily stop wars or prevent evil from flourishing, but I believe art can make a difference in the world by raising awareness, opening windows onto what has been overlooked, and drawing attention to what needs to be addressed. Celebrating the women of South Africa is part of a larger restoration of women in the history of humankind. There are so many forgotten voices, it feels only right to start getting them to be heard again. And of course, the highlight is the two-month residency in Paris at La Cité International des Artes in 2021. It gave me a time to immerse myself in the art that I haven’t had for many years and to build a solid foundation for my work to expand and grow for this stage of my journey in art and in life. It felt like a re-evaluation and an evolution all at the same time.
Finally, what would you say to the artist you were a year ago?
My advice to the artist I was a year ago? Don’t wait so long to follow your instincts. Don’t wait for life to push you to create the work that you love. And don’t ever worry whether people will like it or not. These are things I knew, but the past year has taught me the truth about them. From a wild and crazy place, I arrived in my own voice with something to say. I think that is the most important journey an artist can take.