Artist Sarah MacGregor will be at the Reclaim the Frame screening of Portrait of a Lady on Fire at the Exeter Phoenix. She’ll be on hand to draw a one-minute portrait before the screening and giving advice on portraits after the screening. We got in touch to ask more and probe beyond the surface…
D&CFilm: How did you get involved with the Reclaim the Frame screening of Portrait of a Lady on Fire?
Sarah MacGregor: Birds Eye View organise the Reclaim the Frame screenings, focusing on engaging people with films made by women. They were looking for someone to do a workshop as part of this event and I used to do live portraits at art fairs and events, I also used to work at Exeter Phoenix, so the film programmer Claire put me in touch.
D&CFilm: Can you tell us a bit about your art practise?
Sarah MacGregor: I try to use my work to respond to my environment and wider contemporary culture, often drawing on film, music, and literature. My latest project was an installation inspired by Victorian short story The Yellow Wallpaper, thinking about the history (and present) of women in domestic spaces. For this I created wallpaper, ceramics, zines, animation and a nightgown – I’m not great at sticking to a single medium.
D&CFilm: You’ll be starting the evening with one-minute portraits – how do people respond to having their portrait drawn? And what’s it like for the artist?
Sarah MacGregor: It varies. People are not always comfortable with being drawn. Something about being looked at can be unsettling, so I have to try and make people comfortable. It’s an interesting process. Usually by the end they are happy or excited about it. Even though the portraits I do are quick and simple (i.e. not oil paintings), I think being represented gives people a sense of value.
D&CFilm: One debate around Portrait of a Lady on Fire is that the film is challenging the notion of the male gaze. Does more need to be done to encourage different ways of looking?
Sarah MacGregor: A Portrait of a Lady on Fire really considers what it means to look and be looked at – what a more equal gaze could mean, what it means to have one’s gaze returned. It’s great to have events which encourage discussion and different ways of thinking about film and representation. We should consider whose vision we are presented with the most, as in which films are getting funding and distribution and why. More and more organisations and film programmers – particularly within arts organisations and independent cinemas – are now pushing for diverse representation, but I don’t think the mainstream has caught up.
Representation in cinema still has a long way to go. Over the past few years it seems like there have been more queer films than ever, including quite a few which are mainstream and have a wide release, which is great. However, lesbian films in particular are often made by men, and this means the films do not necessarily reflect people’s actual lives, and in some cases they’re just a few steps away from porn made for and by men. Things are definitely progressing but we shouldn’t assume that all representation is good representation.
D&CFilm: What role does an artist / filmmaker have in society?
Sarah MacGregor: Ideally to introduce people to different perspectives, and give them an awareness of and empathy for the experiences of others.
D&CFilm: After the screening, you’ll be holding an informal portrait workshop. What are the key things to consider when creating a portrait?
Sarah MacGregor: For me, it’s primarily about capturing a likeness, using a fun colour scheme, and having a good quality of line. I think it should also be fun. People are often held back by thinking they can’t draw or their work isn’t good enough, but everyone has their own style and a lot of great artists aren’t technically skilled in drawing. It shouldn’t matter. Drawing or making art can be enjoyable even if it’s something you just do for yourself.
D&CFilm: Can you tell something about people by looking at them, and is your approach informed by the interaction you have with the people in and around your portrait making?
Sarah MacGregor: I guess people express their identities through their appearance, but more than that: when drawing somebody for a while you really feel their emotional state. I think this is part of what can make people uncomfortable – as if they might give too much away. They are responding to the experience of being drawn, and I think that interaction does inform how the portrait turns out.
D&CFilm: As an artist, how much of yourself is in a portrait?
Sarah MacGregor: I’m not sure, but you definitely bring yourself – your perspectives and experiences – to everything you do even if it’s not conscious.
D&CFilm: Where can we find out more about your work?
Sarah MacGregor One day I’ll have a real website, but for now instagram.com/srhgrg
D&CFilm: Thank you Sarah!
The Reclaim the Frame screening of Portrait of a Lady on Fire is at the Exeter Phoenix on Friday, March 13. Check out the time and book your tickets