Sarah Richards, the artist whose haunting picture of Aberfan appears on the cover of Black River, talks to Martin Shipton, Chief Reporter of the Western Mail.
“I was born in Cardiff. My parents were both art teachers. My father was interested in painting; my mother not so much. When my father retired in 1982 he took to painting full time, and I watched him. It was probably always in my blood. I wasn’t given books as a child – I was given pencils and pieces of paper. So I had an abusive childhood… I’m joking… but I wish I’d read more!
“I liked art in school and painted and drew as a child. After A levels I decided to study architecture; it sounded like a good career prospect. My father said: ‘Don’t study Fine Art, you’ll end up a bloody teacher!’ So I went and studied Architecture for six months. It didn’t work out, I was too young, and there was just too much work to do at that tender age. So I gave up, worked for a while in admin jobs, and went back to study Fine Art in Aberystwyth the following year.
“I spent three years there, specialising in printmaking. I made etchings, of the Rhondda actually, of the Valleys and the remains of the coal tips, the narrow streets of terraced houses. I liked the subject. I liked the darkness and the architectural shapes of the streets winding, the houses with the hills behind and the telegraph poles and wires. There were lots of graphic things going on – no lush green landscape with pretty hills and dales. I liked the grit, the sadness, the blackness, and I wanted that in the work. My tutor suggested I look at the work of George Chapman [a London-born artist who first visited Rhondda in 1953], who had painted the Valleys extensively. I was immediately taken by Chapman’s painting and interviewed him as part of my dissertation. From this point I continued to make etchings of the Valleys which later featured in my major degree project.
“Having graduated, and remembering my father’s words, I resisted the teaching option and went off to London to seek fame and fortune. I ended up working for Pearl and Dean Advertising, doing graphics, and later for TV AM, doing more graphics. It was very menial really, just pushing buttons in a darkened ‘graphics’ studio. I spent more than four years in London, which I absolutely loved, and then took the opportunity to go to Japan, where I spent two years teaching English. It was a great experience. I carried on practising art to an extent, in my own way, drawing from the window of my apartment, taking photographs and so on.
“After two years in Japan I came back to Cardiff, and finally succumbed to the allure of a secure job via teacher training… I studied for a PGCE and learnt to be a teacher, in art and design, as that was my main subject. I got a job in a Cardiff comprehensive. It wasn’t pleasant – I went grey. I subsequently did some supply work, went even greyer. Enough was enough. I went back to Aberystwyth to study for an MA, this time concentrating on painting, and came back to Cardiff and taught in UWIC [University of Wales Institute, Cardiff – now Cardiff Metropolitan University] in the evenings, teaching adults painting, for about 10 years.
“During that period I started properly painting for myself. I suppose it was inevitable, having grown up with paintings all around me, and with my father in the background. He’s been a great mentor for the past 15 years, appraising my work and being very encouraging. He’s still alive and still painting – he’s 94.
“The great thing about the Aberfan project is Louise’s faith in me, which was a very good starting point. I began researching the subject by looking at images of the disaster and reading the eye-witness accounts, the newspaper reports and so on. I knew this was something that would require time and absorption, I couldn’t just knock it out.
I spent a week or so reading about it, thinking about it, and sleeping on it. It was enough to absorb how I felt about the tragedy, and I had determined that I wasn’t going to put pencil to paper until I felt ready. It was probably more like two weeks from getting the go-ahead from Louise, to starting the first piece. I didn’t know what was going to happen, or what was going to come out. Actually, I felt quite nervous about it…
“The first thing that came out was this:
And not surprisingly it ended up pretty much being the piece. In a way that’s the essence: what comes out first is your gut feeling. You might skirt around it and try other things, and I thought maybe I should do something a bit happier, a bit child-like.
I was thinking about the children and their impressions of their village, and wondering how they would have depicted it if they’d been asked to draw it, or felt inspired to draw it. I imagined they would have had positive feelings about it and would have depicted it in a positive light. However, I felt overall that a ‘happy’ image wasn’t going to work. It wasn’t going to do what it needed to do, because of the gravity of the subject. So I abandoned the idea and tried another one, which turned out to be basically along the lines of the first piece.
I thought I was going to do a piece on white; black on white, and then I realised very quickly – as you can see I haven’t finished it – I got to this point and thought, ‘What are you doing? You need to be doing this on a black [back]ground’. And I love painting on black: I cover the canvas with black primer and then paint out of the black. Everything registers in a completely different way when painting on a dark ground, and I thought with this subject, this was what I needed to do. I got straight to it and stretched a canvas and primed it black. I started the first oil. I thought, ‘Yes, OK, I’m on the way now. I know what I need to do’.
And I thought that was going to be it, but it wasn’t quite right. The next morning I did another one with a few minor adjustments, and I felt reasonably happy with it.”
The painting which appears on the cover of the book was inspired by a photograph. Richards said: “The photograph had a lot of emotional impact, but compositionally and as a piece of design, it didn’t quite work. So I left out the figures that were in the original photograph, but put one solitary figure in the centre; I squashed things a bit, pushed everything about a bit, made some things smaller, some things bigger, stretched things, so that the piece worked dynamically. And that’s something I do all the time – it makes it a Sarah Richards piece – it makes it more me! I want it to rock and flow, be exciting visually, as well as having an emotional impact.”
Asked about the solitary figure she added to her painting, Richards said: “Most of my work is void of figures. But there had to be somebody in there, bewildered, sad and questioning. It might be a miner or a rescuer. He started out looking a bit cartoon-like, with a round face. It was actually my partner Wayne who said I should try to make him look a bit more serious. I hope I’ve managed it. He’s not in great detail, but he’s there. He’s in the centre of the picture, he’s bewildered, he’s stunned. I think he needs to be there. I hope that viewers will come across this little figure, and wonder ‘what’s that about?’ I hope it will register with people. I was trying to suggest that the figure’s bewilderment might reflect the bewilderment of everybody.
“My nephew Joe is writing a piece of music on the same subject. With a piece of music that’s 15 minutes long there is more scope to change mood throughout the piece, and I think he is succeeding in doing this. But with a visual piece , it pretty much happens in one moment. You look at it and that’s it. With music there is time, you can go from one place to another. I felt my piece had to reflect sadness in an obvious way.
“It’s the first time I’ve done a book cover. I feel very flattered, to start with, being asked to make a piece of work for a book cover. I think the subject is important. It’s close to my heart, although I haven’t obviously gone into the detail that Louise has about it. I can remember going through Aberfan as a child. My sister wrote her thesis on the disaster when she was studying for her law degree. She was twenty, I was ten, and she took me through Aberfan. I can remember her telling me about the disaster and being absolutely stunned that all those children died.”