THE strength of Sarah Hutton's drawings and paintings strikes the eye immediately. The powerful marks, out of which their imagery emerges, are made and experienced vigorously. They are heartfelt. They are direct. There is a dark, elated urgency in them.
The moorland around Haworth, Yorkshire, where this English artist was brought up and still chooses to live and work, is in her bones. She describes herself as "besotted" with these windswept stretches of high ground, with their coarse grass, heather, bilberries, sheep, and outcropping rocks.
She is not the only one to feel there is something primal - untamed by humans - hanging in the atmosphere of these Yorkshire moors. There is a vastness here deceptively at odds with the densely populated towns and cities only short miles away. This apparently remote landscape is exhilarating to those who love it. And rather disturbing to those who don't.
"It's part of me, very much so ... I do a lot of walking. I'm constantly on the moors," Hutton says. She takes drawing equipment. The "very primitive" drawings she makes "on site" are the source for her work in the studio. These source drawings can be very quick. But there are certain ones that have the greatest meaning and use for her, and even if they were made in seconds, they contain a lifetime's potential. Though they may be spare, rough, or abstract, they grasp at essentials. Describing one of thes e drawings she says: "When I did that I was part of the wind, frankly...."
She also tells how she walked throughout an entire day over a wide area, drawing constantly. About 50 line drawings came out of it. "I was dizzy with it."
Back in the studio, she may bring color into such drawings. Or she may produce new work from them, adhering "pretty strictly" to the drawings for reference. "But sometimes that's difficult because it can restrict the development. Other times I just need to glance at the drawing a tiny bit, and the other [new work] gets even more exciting than the original drawing, and I go on and on and on."
There is, of course, no recipe or formula. "In some ways I have very little say as to what goes on, I'm afraid," adding, "though that's a terrible admission!"
No doubt some artists would be truly loath to allow such a degree of unknowing. But Hutton is working in the vein of what used to be called "Romanticism." The 20th-century developments of this have more often been called "expressionism." It takes all kinds of shapes, but at its root there usually lies a notion of the artist finding passage through to forces more potent than himself or herself. In its more extreme forms, an artist is achieving a state of exultation that can be so strong that the objective
world seems transformed by emotion or vision. In Hutton's case, it seems to be that she can say, "This is it!" just at the point where inner feelings come into coincidence with outer observation. It is a sense of recognition.
On the moors one evening in 1985, she saw four sheep, Suffolk tups. "The effect upon seeing them," she wrote later, "was magical; there was nothing else in the world, there was me and there were them. They were important; they represented a reality so strange... . They kindled a reaction that nothing else could.... In them I found a strength and a simplicity and so basic an acceptance of life that I was desperate to capture and understand." She returned the next morning to find and draw these sheep.
This was a tremendously revealing event for her, because it ended a two-year period of struggle after she left Central School, an art college in London. During this time, she was working, but only glimpses of what she knew she could express were coming out. She destroyed the work as unsatisfactory.
At Central, Hutton particularly valued the life-drawing class conducted by British artist Cecil Collins (though she never joined the rather cultish following he attracted). She learned that the number of hours put into a drawing did not really matter. It was more a question of "letting go" of "certain restrictions that you put on yourself in the technical things." She concluded from this that "the emotions you deal with are ... very similar. There's a marrying of liberations."
While at the college she developed a keen interest in American painting, particularly in such artists as Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis. Her own work was abstract at the time, but she would go home to Yorkshire on weekends and bring back drawings to base her college work on. A great fascination to her then were the drystone walls, the "enclosures." "Especially in the winter when you get the snow," she says, "they're so black and they really describe the landscape.... And then they start petering ou t as you get wilder and wilder onto the moors." Her fierce black lines have something of these walls in them, and something, in their self-sufficient energies, of Abstract Expressionism.
While in college, Hutton went for a semester to Syracuse University in New York. She remembers London's Central School being stuffy in its attitude to Abstract Expressionism - to modern American art in general. But for her this brief experience in upstate New York was a liberation. It helped her realize what she describes as "a whole other vocabulary to express your feelings, feelings that are basically so abstract that you don't even think that it's possible to express them."
In her two years in the "wilderness" after college, though, it might have been abstraction itself that was the problem. She resolved her difficulties when she at last discovered a meeting place between the freedoms of expressive abstraction and the landscape she loved. It seems that the sheep were a crucial breakthrough in this respect. She produced large numbers of sheep drawings and paintings - as well as bold individualistic prints.
The drawing "Puddles on Moorland Path" was another breakthrough to successful work. It was this drawing, done directly from observation, that she says "introduced" her, after a time working only in black and white, "back to the importance of color.... As I made those furiously simple blue lines with the crayon, I could have cried with both joy and frustration at the happiness of the discovery and the stupidity of my blindness. These lines represented years of hard work and opened up many more to come."
Passion mingles with Yorkshire grittiness in this artist's work. She is willing to admit that the association of her home village of Haworth with that extraordinary Bronte family cannot be ignored in understanding her own love of the place. Emily Bronte (in 1836) wrote of the landscape which for her, too, was as much inner as outer:
Shining and lowering and swelling and dying,
Changing forever from midnight to noon;
Roaring like thunder, like soft music sighing,
Shadows on shadows advancing and flying,
Lightning-bright flashes the deep gloom defying,
Coming as swiftly and fading as soon.
Her sister Charlotte wrote of Emily's poems: "I thought them condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine. To my ear they had also a peculiar music - wild, melancholy, and elevating."
It just happened that the first seven years of Sarah Hutton's childhood were spent living in the parsonage where the Brontes formerly lived. Sarah's mother, a Bronte scholar, was curator of the museum that the parsonage had become. She remembers her mother forever quoting the Brontes. Emily's novel "Wuthering Heights," as well as the "peculiar music" of her poems, clearly mean a great deal to this painter.
After the family left the parsonage, her mother ran a bookshop nearby in Haworth. So her daughter's association with the area continued. Although this town has long been a tourist mecca and has sprouted the usual tacky range of memento shops and an overuse of the word "Bronte" to advertise itself, Sarah Hutton believes that "the very soul of Haworth is as much there as it ever has been. It's marvelous." The authenticity of her art, in its recognition of something unique to this particular place, touches universal feelings.