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Distance Delivery Mentor Profile: Sophie Saunders

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No matter where you live in the world, you can study The Learning Connexion's New Zealand Creativity programmes through distance delivery. Distance delivery means you will learn to draw, paint, design and create from the comfort of your own home and receive one-on-one tutoring from one of our dedicated and experienced mentors, all of whom are practicing artists.

Studying from home gives you the flexibility to maintain your current lifestyle without the pressure of travel to and from campus, or keeping to school timetables. Communication with your mentor can be through Skype, phone, email or written feedback – whatever suits your needs.

Sophie Saunders has been a distance delivery mentor at The Learning Connexion since 2004 and works from her home in Waikanae on the Kapiti Coast. She is an accomplished painter who exhibits regularly and is a recipient of the Rita Angus Residency as well as a finalist in numerous art awards. We sat down to talk to her about her art, The Learning Connexion and teaching.

Devotional Impressions

Hi Sophie. What kind of student does distance delivery learning suit?

I’ve found that it works best for people who have some sort of existing art practice, or have a strong urge to make their own work and get serious about it. They also need to be prepared to knuckle down and work quietly at home, knowing they always have someone they can touch base with.

Many of my students are a bit older and are really going for it because they missed out on pursuing their creativity earlier on. Some of them are unbelievably driven. They want you to provide honest feedback and advice. It’s often about the student-mentor dialogue and having someone to bounce ideas off.

Although I mainly work with painters and 2D practitioners, if someone has an open attitude and is really into what they are doing, that’s the most important thing. It doesn’t have to be a particular subject matter or medium; genuineness is what interests me the most.

What’s the most important advice you give students?

There’s a quote by Joseph Campbell - “Follow your bliss and doors will open where there were no doors before.” I’m very much a believer in that, and I’ve seen it in my own life. What I do say to quite a lot of people is just go with your gut feeling, and if you are doing what really is right for you, it will work out.

How do you provide feedback to students?

Generally, I do written feedback in the form of PowerPoint, however I am open to working with people’s individual learning styles. I have a couple of students who like to talk on the phone, or visit me in person for a chat about their work and then I’ll write up bullet points of what we talk about and send them a few resources if that’s needed. With the written feedback I always say to students, ‘Email me after you’ve digested it and we will make a time to have a chat on the phone.’ I make sure that they know that I am available to talk about anything in more depth that has come up in the feedback. The idea is to make the communication as clear as possible. It’s very much a two way process; the more I get to know the student, the more I can understand what sort of feedback will be helpful to them.

You have a Master of Fine Arts. How has your own art evolved since your student years?

When I first went to art school (Elam School of Fine Arts) I started off doing very figurative work. It was the time of the New Romantic movement. I was really into that as well as Futurism and German Neo-Expressionism. But after a couple of years, one day I found myself covering up half of one of my paintings with various tones of just one colour, and I rather liked it. So then I covered up the other side and I ended up with just these two areas of colour, and I thought – this is it. I switched to oils, and they completely took me over. I’ve never painted with anything other than oil or gouache since.

So my work went totally abstract when I was about 20. And it’s never gone back really, except for a brief period where I made large collages based on my experiences living in Japan.

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Why are you an artist?

On a fundamental level, it’s because I have to. I have to for my sense of well-being. And it’s part of my work on myself, which also includes meditation and reflection on things. I don’t have any choice. I’m just not the same person if I don’t.

I was also lucky to have creative parents (a potter and a viola player) who encouraged my desire to be an artist. My mother used to say, “You kids are real individuals – just be yourselves”. And we did believe it, because she said it with such force. Both my parents were very supportive of everything creative that we did. That provided a very firm foundation and a deep belief that no matter what, I could do it.

What artists inspire you?

I was very taken by the ideas of early abstraction and the philosophical ideas that went along with that. Artists like Mondrian, Kandinsky, and Paul Klee. The idea of eliminating all that is non-essential, and getting to the nitty gritty. I’ve always been huge fan of Abstract Expressionism. That whole idea of making a genuine mark when you are painting, and being in the moment, and the work coming out of the work. As Ad Reinhardt said “Whatever I do has come from doing and relates only to what is done.”

I’m inspired by artists whose work is a method of understanding, a passage for them to get to the centre of themselves. It’s partly why I’m an abstract painter too. People who in their artwork have wanted to get to the bottom of why they were alive, and possibly also want to express a sense of the transcendent in some way.

How is this reflected in your own work?

My paintings at the moment are pretty minimalist abstraction. I didn’t set out to be a minimalist, and I love paint; but putting colours next to each other is really what I’m on about, in order to achieve a sense of resonance and also getting light into colour. And finding just the right shape or combination of shapes to do that, for that particular colour.

Probably what I intend the paintings to be is some kind of object of contemplation. I guess I intend them to be a centering device for people to feel peaceful when they look at them. Or to help them to return to a good sense of themselves. A few years ago I realised that I am making the paintings I want to see on my own walls. When they work, they talk back to me about their meaning.

What’s the most rewarding part of being a mentor?

It’s having that discussion with students about what is meaningful to them and seeing people really start to unfold their own creative process in a genuine way that is right for them. It’s a privilege to see people walking on their own path and to be allowed to observe how their unique style develops. Hopefully I can provide background support in that process, be a sort of touchstone.

What do you like about The Learning Connexion?

I love TLC’s down to earth unconventional nature. The fact that students are valued and celebrated as individuals who are encouraged to dig deep and follow their own paths rather than to regurgitate some fad; to be lions rather than sheep! This is right in line with my own teaching philosophy and philosophy of life!

The Seer and the Seen diptychoil on board 2016. Collection Wellington City Council

You can see more of Sophie's work on her website

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