Interview with Sophie Shaw

Treatments: What We Find and What We Bring opens on 10th October at Electro Studio Project Space. Benji Thomas talks with artist Sophie Shaw, who breaks down her process and thinking behind the work, her own unique artistic journey and her hopes for the exhibition.

18 Glass Plate Negatives – Treatments: What We Find

Could you tell me how the idea for the work in this exhibition came about? It looks like an intriguing project.
Thanks! In a sense it started when I found the negatives. I was in an antique shop with my sister, mostly waiting for her to finish looking around, came across this box of glass plates and started holding them up to the light. They really drew me in. I saw a tree (my last project was based on trees) and a house that reminded me a little of my grandparents’ house. I really didn’t want to buy them because I assumed they’d just end up in a drawer. But I did, and when I got them home I kept getting more and more pulled into the detail and the sheer oddness of them – the project just emerged from there.

So really this happened by chance! Would it be apt to say that curiosity is a driving force for your practice?
Yeah, I’d say so. I like to start down a road without knowing where it’s going. With painting I found that once I let go of any expectations around what a work might end up like, everything started clicking into place, it becomes more about the process than the outcome. And with the plates themselves it’s hard to dig into them if you have any attachment to, or fear around, what you might find out. Particularly given that at first glance they looked quite Germanic and 1930s, which immediately puts them in a very emotive context.

That’s interesting how you apply a historical context. You describe the exhibition as a “meditation on the elusive nature of the past”, you also have an MA in Art History. Do you think that has an impact on the way you approach art practice?
I think it does. I loved studying and got a lot out of it, but ended up with a really intellectual approach to art. For a while I focused on collage and would use this as an exercise to set things up to tell a particular story and then disrupt that or complicate it somewhere else. Then over time as I got further away from academia, more immediate and intuitive stuff started getting in and that’s been a really enjoyable process. For this project I’ve relied on my research training to an extent, and it’s been useful, but I’ve also enjoyed making some indulgent leaps of imagination with them in parallel.

You use the word intuition, I think you mention that on your website too, referring to the works themselves. Could you paint a picture (pun aside) of how you approached the physical making of the works in the exhibition?
So there are two sides to this project: ‘What We Find’ and ‘What We Bring’. ‘What We Find’ is the digging into the slides themselves, trying to access the moments they capture in a sense. This is partly through expert opinion and partly through trying to bring out as much detail from the slides as possible. I’ve been working with scans of the slides and, with the help of the marvellous St Leonards-based photographer Alex Brattel, I developed contact prints which revealed some new information as well. This will end up as a kind of installation in the space.

‘What We Bring’ is a series of paintings, most of which I made by projecting the slides onto board and tracing them in monochrome, and then building in colour and texture by feel. I’ve also made a smaller set of paintings at various points during the project when I just haven’t been able to make sense of what I’ve been looking at.

Interior, down stairs, 2019
(Oil on board) – Treatments: What We Bring

So there are lot of parts coming together and a lot of work by the sound of it. What’s the main thing you want your exhibition to put across?
I think mostly I want people to get absorbed in it. The whole thing is a little obsessive and I’d love it if people experience that sense of getting sucked into the mystery.

For me the early 30s is such an interesting time because of the catastrophic nature of what happened next, and in Germany in particular, the horror of it all. It makes it hard to see anything from that time outside of that context. I think we might be in another such period now and I think that’s why I’ve found this so compelling, but that’s not something I’m actively trying to communicate through the work.

That sort of obsessiveness is quite timely at the moment, a lot of people turning to new pursuits during the pandemic. Have recent circumstances made their mark on your work somehow? Do you have any advice to give to an artist struggling in these times?
Actually, the building blocks of this show came together last year, when the atmosphere of dread was more vague and unspecific than it is now. The work I’ve been doing during the pandemic has been almost entirely abstract, which I think may be about immediate processing, being too close to things to make sense of them but needing to get something out.

I don’t feel like I’m in any position to give advice. I think an outcome of the pandemic is that we have to confront the fact that not one of us can predict the future. But while things are hard and likely to get harder, cracks are forming in the status quo, so new ways of working and surviving might emerge. I think we’re all just putting one foot in front of the other at the moment and keeping our eyes open.

Treatments: What We Find and What We Bring is open from 10th-11th October, please go to for information on tickets/entry and COVID-19 guidelines.

You can also find more of the artist’s work at

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