Katie Sollohub is a Sussex based artist who is interested in documenting and recording the places she lives and works in through drawings, paintings, performance, photography and poetry. Katie’s work explores the narrative components surrounding objects, memories, interior and exterior spaces, brought to life with her spectacular use of colour and detail. 

In 2014 she was awarded an Arts Council England grant to fund her year long residence at JMW Turner’s House in Twickenham, which has since been restored and opened to the public in 2017. Connections with the area and the subject have continued since then, with a major project at Strawberry Hill House and a residency in Tuscany culminating in a solo exhibition “Eternal Sunshine” in Twickenham 2017, and an exciting opportunity to make new work at West Horsley Place.

In April 2020 Katie won first prize in the Derwent Drawing Prize. The judges selected her drawing of the Blue Bedchamber at Strawberry Hill House from over 4000 entries. The exhibitions would have been in London and then Paris, and will hopefully be rescheduled for 2021. Katie has been visiting West Horsley Place since 2017 finding inspiration for her own practise, she has also led two art workshops here. Operations Manager Clare Clinton talked to Katie about her experience at West Horsley Place. 

CC- How did you first come across WHP?

KS- I first heard of West Horsley Place whilst making work in other historic buildings around the Twickenham area, including Strawberry Hill House, Pope’s Grotto and Turner’s House (where I was artist in residence in 2014-15). My fascination with interior spaces, and especially old houses, has lead me to gain quite a reputation as an artist, being invited to draw and paint in situ, gaining access to them almost as if I were a guest, or a ghost, able to spend time exploring, responding, making new work. As soon as news about Bamber Gascoigne inheriting this house was out, people started sending me links to articles on the internet about it, knowing it would be right up my street - photos of shuttered rooms, ivy growing through windows, tales of treasure found in drawers - I was hooked before I even saw the place! I was lucky enough to have personal contacts who knew Bamber, in particular Angela Kidner who is a Trustee. I could not visit straight away, as the house needed to be carefully unpacked and assessed - which must have been a huge task! 

CC- What were your first impressions/feelings about the place?

KS- It was, as you can imagine, love at first sight. But more than the appearance of the place, from the magnificent brick facade to the fading details within, was the feel of it. The places I had worked in previously had either been lived in domestic spaces, or, the uninhabited spaces of historic homes in various states of repair. West Horsley had that mixture of being both lived in and of absence, a sense of a well worn, loved space that had accidentally fallen into neglect. It evoked a real feeling of time passing, an excitement, a tangible sensation of life and people having just left. With childlike fascination I could explore, find hiding spaces, secret doors to open, hats and coats left in cupboards to dress up in. I found sofas draped in worn warm fabrics, saggy chairs to sink into, a library full of books, and the old kitchen with its double height Tudor window, a walled garden outside, overgrown, reminds me of The Secret Garden by Frances Hogson Burnett, one of my favourite childhood books.

CC- Others I've spoken to have made that connection to The Secret Garden too. There really is that feeling of stumbling upon a secret jewel about this place. Is that what made you want to work here?

KS- Being an artist is much like being a child. Driven by curiosity, having the privilege to be left alone in this space, it is my first instinct to explore, and then draw and write about what I see, how I feel. I use all my senses, not just the visual, to absorb the sense of a place. Eyes reach out like tentacles to touch everything I can see, while my hands holds charcoal to the paper, and so the process unfolds, and a drawing emerges. At West Horsley, the huge scale of some of the rooms enhances the childlike feeling, making me feel small, both physically, and in terms of time - a mere dot in the history of this place. From this state of awe, I was enthralled and enchanted, and simply loved every minute I spent in the house, wandering from room to room, often just sitting and daydreaming, finding pockets of sun to warm me up on chilly days.

CC- What is like to work in the building and grounds?

KS- Despite the cold (which was intense that first winter I came- I found myself going outside to warm up!), it was always a joy, if sometimes a little overwhelming. I am used to the cold - old houses and studios are often cold and I came prepared in a thermal boiler suit. But the scale of the house and grounds was new - to have access to nearly every room in the beginning, before repairs had started, meant I could sometimes get lost in wondering where to start. I have learnt, through previous projects, to follow my instinct, to trust that I will find the right place, by letting myself take time to settle in. At first I would walk around with a tiny sketchbook, drawing as  a form of note taking, taking a line for a walk. Some days, the observations were in written form, pages of notes, things I had noticed, thoughts and associations that came to me as I looked. I still have plenty of notes like this to work from, to inspire new work, beyond the observational. Once I had a few chosen ‘favourite’ spots, I set to drawing on a larger scale - drawing in charcoal being my first choice of materials at the beginning of a project. I was drawn in particular to the red drawing room, maybe for the warmth of colour and for the sun coming though the windows. I have also made drawings in the adjacent ‘minstrel's gallery’ [the Geraldine Room], focussing on a larger than life arm chair, enjoying the complex pattern on the upholstery, and in the white room on the same floor, an empty space lit by one chandelier. Other drawings have led me to one of the bedrooms, the Geraldine room I think, or perhaps it is called the grey bedroom?

CC- I think you mean the Blue Bedroom-

KS- Ah yes. And of course, I had to draw the outside of the house, in all its faded glory. I had so many ideas of different to ways to explore the place through drawing, painting and more - unrolling huge scrolls of paper across the floor, recording space and time over several visits; making a series of tiny watercolour studies of specific details, a tear in the curtain, a pattern on the wall, a corner of furniture, and leaving them like hidden treasure for others to find; using word and voice to record movement and thoughts of a roaming artist, ghostlike traces of memory.

CC- Does your practice change with the environment you are working in?

KS- Absolutely. My work is all about place, and each place I work in has its own character, a change in light, mood atmosphere, that affects the way I feel. Whilst an element of my practice will often remain the same, using drawing as a starting point, the writing side of things opens up a new space for me to explore, beyond the visual, and I have notebooks of ideas from various places as yet to be manifested into pieces of work. I enjoy a dreamlike way of working that means each environment can influence a project, almost by osmosis, letting it seep into the process. For example, in Pope’s Grotto I mourned the loss of view, choosing to paint the River Thames by memory in the darkness of the grotto, from where the river can no longer be seen. In Turner’s House I became obsessed with the sky outside the window, the one thing unchanged since Turner’s time, apart from the aeroplanes flying constantly overhead. In Strawberry Hill House I was interested in the narrative flow of the house, as it was designed by Horace Walpole to be a felt experience to be walked through, from dark to light. Here at West Horsley I feel the work has barely begun - but even the initial drawings and notes have really focussed on the lived in feel of the place, the chair once sat in, the made bed waiting for night, the card table where a game has just finished, or is about to begin, fabrics frayed by touch, piles of magazines and books from different eras, layers of time.

CC- As well as developing your own practice you have also led workshops at WHP, what is it like sharing this place with others and guiding their exploration here?

KS- It is always a joy to share my enthusiasm for a place with others, and by leading a practical workshop it enables others to get in touch with their own way of seeing, their own senses, and find a personal response. Rather than technique, my workshops will focus on a process such as charcoal drawing that encourages a sensory approach - looking through drawing, letting the eye explore the space, the hand to draw. I like to encourage a freedom from rules to explore a sense of being in a place, not just onlooking, playing with perspective, using multi-viewpoints, layering charcoal, so the drawing itself has a history and marks leave traces. I also use meditation in my workshops, as I find it essential now in my own practice - a tool by which I can settle in a space, really feel it, and respond by whatever means, focusing on process rather than outcome. This can be liberating for me in my work, so it is rewarding to find it equally so for others.

CC- Your work spans more than just visual arts, you've mentioned, words, poetry, meditation and and elements of mindfulness. How does art cross boundaries and foster wellbeing?

KS-As mentioned above, both mindful meditation and writing, play an important part in my own creative process. The more I practice, the more essential they become, the boundaries between them and the visual side of my practice dissolve. It is all one and the same and the pressure to achieve lessens. What could be better for wellbeing than this. So for example, here I am at West Horsley place-if I am no longer “an artist” but simply me, I am free to really open up to my feelings, which often leads me to a childlike state of being, free from expectations. As children, we are not labelled artist, writer, poet, dancer, musician - but we might draw, write, play with words, dance, sing. If mindful meditation can keep bringing me to the present, aware of my surroundings, through my senses, what I see, hear, touch, smell, taste, then I am closer to this childlike state of awe and wonder. My work feels more intuitive, more heartfelt, more curious, more playful, risky even. It is not all about sitting in silence! It is about noticing the world around me, being present to what is there, but also present and aware of my own feelings so I can daydream and work with spontaneity and improvisation. Recently I have been using dance to explore this process, finding Open Floor movement encourages me to trust my decisions, to move with freedom - something instantly transferable to the act of drawing and painting - a series of movements and decisions across a surface, like a dance, footsteps on the floor. I use dance, meditation, words and song to keep my practice fluid, unfixed, and free. This is fundamental to my wellbeing, as a human, not just as an artist.

CC-One of your mantras is living life as a creative journey- what does this mean?

KS- I think much of what I said above answers this question too. Instead of seeing myself as ‘artist’, ‘teacher’ or ‘mother’, as 3 distinct and isolated roles, in constant conflict with each other, I find the boundaries have dissolved. If I don’t have time in my studio, I notice how I move about my home with an artist’s eye, clothes on bedroom floor become a pile of colour and shape to paint. I try and paint something in my home, a tiny watercolour, every day, like a diary. Moving around my kitchen putting things away feels like the process of drawing, placing things here, because it feels right, everything finding its place, only to be moved again next time you need a plate. Does that make sense? As a teacher, I have to draw on my own art practice and often, the teaching feeds back into my own work. It is an extension of a private conversation between me and my work, opening up to include those I am teaching. Back in my studio,  I am stuck with my work, I have learnt to move my body, take a walk, dance, or sing. By taking away the boundaries between roles, the world opens up to being one creative space, where anything might happen. Again, finding childlike wonder at everything.

CC- If you could own any artwork in the world, what would it be?

KS- It would have to be a Bonnard painting. It is not often I am so moved by the beauty of a painting and the tangible gentleness (at least as I perceive it) of an artist, as I am in front of a Bonnard. Even a photograph of him with his sausage dog can make me cry. It would be hard to choose one, but if I could have 3? One interior, one garden, one self portrait. I think I would be in heaven.

CC- Thanks for sharing your experience with us Katie. We look forward to welcoming you back to WHP soon.