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Behind the print: "When We Could Touch"

Sally McKay captures fleeting moments and the moving figure in her flowing, dynamic prints, often working from her sketches made watching dance rehearsals. During the pandemic, Sally has been experimenting with different processes to bring spontaneity to her prints inspired by her drawings from the past. She talks about her evolving practice as her featured artist show – and our Greenwich Printmakers gallery – reopens after lockdown.

"When We Could Touch", monoprint by Sally McKay

You’ve been working on a new style of print recently. How has your practice changed?

The monoprints I’m making now are all from sketches pre-2020. Previously, I would work from drawings made live during dance rehearsals and improvisations – quick, spontaneous, intimate. These would form the basis of my etchings, capturing fleeting movements through the intaglio process using sugar lift, aquatint and spitbite.

Although I’ve been invited to join and draw Zoom rehearsals, I haven’t felt inspired to take the sketches made from the screen further, so I’m working from older drawings.

I’ve changed my process from etching to monoprinting, which feels like an appropriate personal response to the pandemic: immediate, spontaneous, somatic, nothing laboured, of the moment, but also reflective, a way of breathing life back into moments from the past.

Sally printing her etching "Communion"

Why did you decide to make your “When We Could Touch” series?

I began by looking at images I’d made of two figures in physical contact. The absence of touch has been such a huge and damaging side effect of this virus.

For the first version of “When We Could Touch”, I returned to a favourite charcoal drawing made 15 years ago during a rehearsal with Candoco Dance Company.

I’ve made several versions since, each from a different drawing pre-2020. I work with the sketch next to me. Each monoprint is a ‘first take’ and unique. The challenge to retain spontaneity and flow is still there – that’s always been my challenge.

"We Are Miles Apart", monoprint by Sally McKay

How do you capture movement in dance rehearsals when it’s happening so quickly?

I immerse myself in the performance and almost participate through the action of drawing: I allow the drawing to unfold and flow, work very fast, stay sharp and alert. Be aware of everything, movement, rhythm, light, shadow, tension and release.

"I Will Spin Gold From Straw", etching by Sally McKay

What’s your history with dance? You studied Fine Art and Dance at Goldsmiths, didn’t you?

Yes, I was at Goldsmiths in the 1980s. It was alive with creativity. Art, dance and drama students often collaborated on wild and extraordinary projects, so it has always felt right for me to collaborate with other creatives. At that time, Laban was next door to Goldsmiths in an old church, and we shared dance tutors. The incredible Gill Clarke taught me throughout my three years. I still practice one of her warm-ups and hear the counts from her calm voice in my head as I move. Printmaking became increasingly important to me – my tutor Howard Jeffs encouraged me to extend my studies, and I stayed on after graduating taking a post-grad diploma to concentrate on this medium. After leaving Goldsmiths, I worked commercially for 15 years as a senior designer and art editor in film and publishing. I would go to sculpture classes to work with clay in the evenings because I missed the tactile process. Eventually I took my MA Fine Art at City & Guilds of London Art School and I began to work with dance and physical theatre companies, responding to the movement through live drawings and life-size wire sculpture.

Do you dance yourself?

Only in the kitchen.

"The Lost Hour", monoprint by Sally McKay

How have your residencies with different dance companies influenced your work?

The residencies have made a huge difference to my practice. Nothing beats being in the dance studio every day, watching and recording their creative process through drawing, and then taking the drawings back to my studio and working them up into paintings, sculpture or printmaking. I am missing live drawing.

"Escape the City", etching by Sally McKay

Printmaking and dance seem very different things, but they’re both visual art forms. Do you see connections and crossovers between them?

Yes, of course. Both require commitment, perseverance, patience, collaboration, acceptance of your shortcomings and getting over mistakes, and finding your personal rhythm and flow.

Do you listen to music when you’re drawing or working on prints? Does it affect your drawings?

I don’t re-draw or alter the drawings back in the studio. They are made live. Sometimes there is music during rehearsals, sometimes just counts and the choreographer talking the dancers through it – it depends what stage of the devising the piece has reached.

Music sometimes comes back to me and I hear it in my head if I look at images of them dancing, like Steve Blake’s powerful music for “Flesh and Blood”, choreographed by Lea Anderson, with The Cholmondeleys and The Featherstonehaughs, who I used to regularly draw.

But, no, to be honest, I often work in silence. The music is on when I am framing and cycling.

"Sinfonietta", monoprint by Sally McKay

You’ve also sketched boxers. What was that like? Was it different to drawing dancers, or quite similar?

It was fabulous. Again, it’s live drawing that I’d like to repeat, but I don’t know when that will be. I felt quite lost drawing the boxers to begin with. I couldn’t understand the weight shifts and movement. Every move felt unexpected and took me by surprise. That was until fellow Greenwich Printmaker Ruairi Fallon McGuigan, who had done boxing training, spent time slowly taking me through the moves, explaining why they moved and shifted as they did. Then it all started to make sense and my drawings began to work – I think.

One of Sally's sketches of boxers training
"Boxers Training", monoprint by Sally McKay

A lot of your work is about the figure in motion. What is it that particularly fascinates you about that?

Everything is in motion – that is fundamental to life. Even when we are still, our bodies are pulsing with life. I’d like to think my work encourages energy. In “Alone Not Lonely”, the recent monoprints of an isolated woman I’ve been making over lockdown, she is still, but she is on the edge of movement. She is caught in a moment of stillness. The following monoprints are her moving/dancing/finding her way in her isolation.

"Alone Not Lonely", monoprint by Sally McKay
"Reboot", monoprint by Sally McKay
"Alone Not Lonely II", monoprint by Sally McKay

You also make sculptures. Do you see that as quite separate to your printmaking? What makes you decide to make an idea in one form or another?

Sally's sculpture of her daughter Gaby

The drawing, sculpture, printmaking and painting are interconnected, but although the different processes all grow from the same live animated drawings, I tend to work on them at different times and places. The sculpture has become very personal. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been working on small pieces in wax at home, as opposed to the life-size and bigger figurative wire work that I was doing a while back.

The monoprints also feel personal and are usually made in the evenings after my colleagues have left the print studio. I am taking some of the monoprints through to etchings and have found a way to work that is true to my practice.

Sally’s featured artist show runs from April 12-25 at the Greenwich Printmakers gallery, alongside our new exhibition of our members’ work. Her prints are available in the gallery all year round. For more information, see her website and her artist’s page.


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