Here at Space Artworks we are delighted to be exhibiting the work of Edinburgh based artist Samuel Robin Spark from the 6th to the 29th of April. Before setting up the exhibition we were given the opportunity to visit Robin in his home and discuss the forthcoming show. The conversation was long and involved, ranging inspiringly across a breadth of topics. In this post we present some of the highlights of our discussion.
Samuel Robin Spark was born in 1938 in Zimbabwe and moved to Edinburgh at the age of seven. Despite being creatively inclined from an early age, he did not become an artist until later in life, enrolling in the Edinburgh College of Art in 1983 with the help and encouragement of his friend Udi Merioz.
Since graduation, Spark’s work has been exhibited worldwide, with pieces travelling as far as Israel, America and Argentina. The idea of exhibiting in Space Artworks was formed when visiting the exhibition of fellow artist and colleague Fraser Wood. An avid collector of art, he chose to buy a piece and on delivery fell into conversation with Sarah about the possibility of holding an exhibition of his own at the gallery. Sarah was stunned to realise the vast quantity of work Robin has completed in his late-starting artistic life. The exhibition that results features selected highlights of this extensive body of work.
Despite having exhibited so widely, this exhibit is in Robin’s own words ‘a new venture for me’. Unlike previous shows, ‘Samuel Robin Spark: A Choice Selection of His Work’ concentrates primarily on Robin’s purely abstract pieces. Past works have attempted to abstract concrete real life objects and memories, but the pieces exhibited here are not intended to provoke any specific reaction or tie into definitive themes. Sometimes, Spark believes, it is better to simply experience one’s personal emotions and reactions to a piece, free of any attempts at direction:
‘[The work is] purely abstract. I like to think of it as shapes, colours and proportion, of shapes and colours juxtaposing and that it should give various feelings. It’s like meditating – people will have a look at it…It’s not always a good idea to look at a painting, an abstract and try to relate it to human experiences in the real world.’
The varied and spontaneous reactions Robin hopes to provoke reflects his own process of painting these works. The pieces are never planned out, and rarely amended or edited. Even colours and shapes are not decided ahead of time. This way of working takes effort both physical and psychological, but produces spectacular results.
‘I am more spontaneous. I think, you know how they say, “let your fingers do the walking”. One colour or one work leads to another and then you think, is that right? I tend not to change things, I’ve seen artists change things a lot, I tend not to change it but to go on. But it’s quite a laborious effort, it’s not all that easy at all’
Many of his works, including some featured in the show, are made in the ‘impasto’ style, a labour intensive way of working that involves applying thick paint then using fingers and a scalpel to move it around, creating an almost sculptural, relief-like effect.
These abstract pieces in this exhibition can seem removed from Robin’s earlier figurative work. Yet links can be made between the pieces. Once realised these point to the later paintings developing out of ways of working explored in the earlier pictures. Robin himself notes that ‘even when I was doing figurative work it was never photographic realism, though I admire that as well. That wasn’t me. There was always a lot of expressiveness in the work’. Stylistically this expressiveness can be seen to have matured first into the abstraction of objects and ideas, and then into the pure abstracts seen in Space Artworks.
Thematically the pieces may seem more distinct, with some earlier works quite clearly Jewish in theme for example Sucot Tubernacle. However, spontaneous methods of working are at play here too. Whilst Robin admires the theoretically dense and intricately planned out work of Jewish artists such as R. B. Kitaj, whose piece If Not, Not he discusses in some detail on his website, his own Jewish work is not planned out in this manner.
This does not mean it has not been thoroughly researched. Rather, Spark prefers to imbue himself in Jewish history, literature and painting prior and separate to the creative process, allowing it to come out in an unconscious, unplanned and organic manner whilst painting. Themes, Robin says are not planned out. Instead, ‘I just have a slight vision and it alters as time goes on’. This way of working can be seen to have reached a pinnacle in the later abstract pieces, where all plans are abandoned and spontaneous vision the only guiding voice.
Jewish culture has been important to Spark throughout his life and informed his vision as an artist since his time at art school. When in conversation we discussed the many authors and artists that have enhanced Spark’s life, a list ranging from authors such as Saul Bellow and Isaac Bashevis Singer to the artist Marc Chagall. Attending the Edinburgh College of Art slightly later than most helped Robin realise his artistic vision with an intensity and purity that may have evaded a younger artist. We were curious to hear what effects being a mature student might have had on Robin’s progression as an artist, and asked if he thought this had made a difference:
‘I think it might have. When I went to art college I found a lot of people were technically very much better than I was but then I thought, well, they’re not Jews, they’re not interested in Judaism. I’ll bring my own particular brand out. And it worked. But I might not have done that if I had been younger, I might have tried to follow the crowd and done the same as they did.’
As an older artist, Spark was imbued with a level of self-knowledge and confidence, which allowed him to see past other student’s works, and focus on his own ideas and passions.
‘I had a vision to want to do and I knew that technically I couldn’t beat them but expressively, and visions, I had, that I could make my own mark.’
Other aspects of Spark’s early life have also played a part in the construction of his unique vision. Many of his works, particularly the abstracts shown in this exhibition, feature vibrant and exuberant colours and shapes. When reflecting on his early life in Zimbabwe, Spark noted the influence African patterns and colours have had on his painting:
‘I like to harken back to Africa. Some of the work is of Africa. I left at seven years of age.’
Robin’s maternal grandmother also had a strong interest in colour and shape, whilst his grandfather was an engineer skilled in drawing. Even when no longer living in Africa then, Spark still had a wealth of creative influence, which can be seen as important to his eventual artistic self-discovery.
Spark’s progression as an artist has also been shaped meaningfully by the human connections and friendships he has made over a lifetime. His fascination with and affection towards people and their stories is apparent in the deep humanity of his work as much as his general conversational style. Much of our discussion ended up being an equal exchange of stories and ideas – with him playing the part of the interviewer as much as we did! It quickly became apparent why he has made such an impression on so many individuals, with cherished friendships playing an important part in his life and career as an artist. Udi Merioz, Archie Stewart and Yosl Bergner are just some of the figures Robin reflected on as crucial to his personal and artistic development. Without the encouragement of friends such as these we might never have had the fortune of enjoying the work of Samuel Robin Spark. The importance of friendship to his work seems entirely fitting for an artist of such kindness and generosity. We look forward to experiencing and sharing his art in the Space Artworks gallery.
To find out more about Samuel Robin Spark, and read some of his fascinating articles on Jewish art and culture, visit his website
- Zoe Hay, April 2016