All hail Sadie Lee – London-based figurative painter, lecturer and winner of our inaugural Queer Britain Madame F Award 2021. Known for her realistic images of real people, her work is a commentary on the representation of women in art, gender, identity, sexuality and the ageing body.
We spoke with Sadie about entering the Queer Britain Madame F Award, how art has always been a constant in her life, and why painting is the perfect medium for complex, multi-layered stories.
Was art something you discovered, or was it always there?
“I think it was always there. I was drawing before I could write! For everything that I did at school, whatever the subject, I’d always do like a fantastic doodle, like a drawing of a frog, and then a little bit of writing – just three lines. I ended up going to art school because it was all I’d ever wanted to do, and I hated it. I really didn’t get on with the tutors or the style. Maybe I chose the wrong one, but I left pretty soon after I’d started.
“But I think if art’s in you, then it finds a way out. And I ended up sort of painting five years after I’d left art school because I couldn’t not do it. I think it will always find its way out of you if it’s in there.”
“It’s basically just coloured paste that you’re just pushing around with a brush. It’s just mucking about with liquid, right? But eventually, you scrape it together and you push it into such a shape that affects people when they look at it, and that’s something magical. I still get a thrill when I see that person I’ve painted ‘arrive’ in the painting, in a kind of “Oh, it’s you!” way. It’s quite a wonderful feeling.”
Describe your creative process
“When I’m making a painting, there are lots of stages, so for quite a long time, it looks like quite a mess. It doesn’t really look like what it’s going to look like for a while. What you see when you look at things in a gallery is the very top layer, but there’s all sorts going on underneath that you can’t see. For me, when I’m working on it, I’ll step back and at some point, I just feel that there’s a presence, and it feels like they’re looking at me as much as I’m looking at them. That’s when I feel it’s tipping into something else.”
How do you approach a new project?
“I work from photographs, so I take lots of photographs because people don’t have the time to sit for me for three months while I paint them. But the paintings don’t look like a single photograph. From the reference photographs, I make a drawing. It’s stylized and a little bit exaggerated, so although it looks like the person, it’s kind of almost a slight caricature of them because it’s based on a lot of different photographs.”
What do you want your pictures to say?
“I think if you work from a place of integrity and honesty, you’re just making work about how you feel about things.
“I didn’t set out to make art for the LGBTQIA+ community – that’s just what I have ended up doing. But I think all I’ve done is make work about my own life and the people that I know and the people I meet. I think it’s about showing the way people present themselves and what you see on the outside versus what probably is going on on the inside. I’m interested in whoever the person is, whatever their sexuality.
“That’s always what I’ve been interested in, that defiance and resolution and resilience, but the underlying struggle that it takes to present that. It’s about the eye contact, and that’s something that I use a lot in my work because I want the person in the painting to feel empowered, and that they’re giving you permission to look so that it’s not as if you’re getting a sneaky glimpse of someone who doesn’t know that you’re there. They know you’re there. And they’re taking you on.”
What made you enter the Queer Britain Madame F Award 2021?
“It’s important that there is a space for people to go and to feel that their voices are being centred, like Queer Britain. That had a lot to do with it. My work is about representation and visibility, and somewhat challenging social norms and expectations, so it felt like a natural fit.
“The work I do is more about a relationship than it is about trying to make any lofty claims or statements. When I’m documenting what it’s like to be in the company of a person, then anything that happens as a result of that in wider terms is kind of secondary. It’s important, but it’s kind of it’s about them and me initially.
“I had just had the painting [of David Hoyle] photographed professionally, and I thought that it would maybe be of interest.”
Were you surprised that you had won an award?
“I think I found out just before Christmas. I was scrolling through Instagram, and I saw a post that I’d been tagged in saying that I’d won. I was absolutely shocked! It was a really big and lovely surprise.”
What do you want your winning piece to convey to onlookers?
“David is a fascinating and quite a complex person. He’s a performer, so people know him as somebody who’s very entertaining. But his shows can be quite difficult as an audience member because they have a degree of truth which is actually quite uncomfortable for a lot of people. You find yourself laughing, and then you’re wincing or recoiling almost within one sentence.
“One of the things that he always says in his shows is “If makeup makes you more beautiful, then the more makeup you put on, the more beautiful you become.” But actually, the more makeup he puts on, the more it becomes like a mask and borders on being deliberately grotesque. I guess I wanted to get underneath the mask a little bit with this piece.”
Sadie’s prize-winning portrait of David Hoyle is now on display at the Queer Britain Museum in King’s Cross, London.
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