INSPIRED BY THE SEA
I’m instantly impressed when I step inside Sandra Steele’s Harbour 39 Art Studio. The walls are adorned with modern art, or, to give it its correct name, Contemporary Abstract Fluid Art.
My eyes are drawn to a seahorse, before floating to the crest of a wave and then lingering on what looks very much like the shore of Maidens Beach. I’m sensing there’s a definite theme…
“A lot of my paintings, people see water in them,” Sandra tells me. “Living by the sea inspires me… water, shapes, colour.”
The paintings are, however, open to interpretation.
“People see different things. Your eyes are set up so your brain can make sense of images. That’s what abstract art is. When you look at it, it’s just shapes and colours. Your eyes are saying to your brain ‘what’s the picture?’ and it will come up with something. That’s what I like about it. I can see something in it one day, and the next day I’ll see something else.”
If I look at the same painting, I’ll probably see something else entirely. This is confirmed when Sandra shows me her ‘herring’ picture and I see a peacock! Whatever it is, it’s a stunning work of art and I ask how she creates such eye-catching paintings.
“It’s a fine balance. You’ve got to get thick paint and turn it into fluid. You’ve got to hold the pigments together… it’s like a chemical process. You rely on different chemical reactions with fluid art.”
Looking at her work space, I presume she also relies on other, more basic items…
“You need water, obviously, and I use binders, heavy gel gloss, pouring mediums. I’ve even used house paint! What you’re wanting to do is manipulate the paint. You’re trying to work a composition but also manipulate fluid and keep it where you want it to be.”
So striking is her art, I find it hard to believe she’s entirely self-taught. But I’m even more surprised when she tells me why it took her so long to turn her hobby into a career.
“My favourite subject at high school was art. I had an art teacher called Mr. Reid, the best teacher I ever had. He said to me ‘In all the years I’ve been teaching, I’ve never had a student with your skill set’. He spent lots of time going through everything… and then I was kicked out of school.”
“My year mistress hated me,” Sandra says, recalling her time at Eastwood High School. “It was a classic case of a teacher picking on a pupil, she just wanted me out. Mr. Reid was fighting my corner. He got me an application for Glasgow School of Art but it was reliant on me staying at school to get my higher and, well, I was asked to leave.”
I instantly feel sorry for the young Sandra who, at 16 years old, had no option but to forget her dream of going to art school, and became an apprentice hairdresser instead. She remained in hairdressing until the age of 21 when she trained to become an air stewardess.
“I flew with Air 2000 but I had to give up because I got a visible scar from skin cancer.”
That’s twice she’s stunned me into silence. I expect her to tell me she was self-conscious of her newly acquired scar but that wasn’t the case at all.
“We had to wear our hair up and you could clearly see my scar. Things were very different back then. It was very strict… you had to wear red lipstick. If you had a visible scar at your interview you wouldn’t have got the job.”
As unfair as it was, she admits she had already grown tired of her cabin crew role and moved into sales at the age of 24.
“Then, when I got into my early thirties, I started painting again… landscapes, portraits, things like that.”
It was when she moved to the harbour village of Maidens in 2021 that she began to take it more seriously, posting pictures of her work on social media.
“I can’t believe how many paintings I’ve sold,” she says. “I’ve sold paintings to people in Switzerland, Vienna, Puerto Rico… it’s crazy! The first time someone said ‘I’d like to buy your painting’ I thought they were kidding me on!”
She shows me her very first painting, a small canvas which, although it’s on display, is almost hidden behind a free-standing radiator.
“I remember at the time being so pleased with it, but I look at it now and I think it’s awful! But that’s where it started. I did that on the kitchen table.”
She might not be particularly enamoured with it, but she admits she’ll never sell it. Not only is it a reminder of where it all started, it’s also confirmation of how far she has come.
I can’t help but think that her old teacher, Mr. Reid, would be very proud of her, especially as she now teaches art to others.
“I’m on the committee for Maidens Arts and Crafts Group, I take a turn in teaching the class.”
As my eyes wander, once again, over the many paintings on display, I’m mesmerised by the colours, shapes and patterns she has created.
“There are lots of different ways to do it,” she confirms. “You can swipe it, spin it or tilt it, or pour out of the cup. I use canvas but I also use board as well.”
She has also used old records to make clocks, and has made beautiful items of jewellery. Not forgetting the giant splashback that she has in her own bathroom!
“What this style of painting is really good for is interior design. If someone’s got a modern house, or even a seaside house, it’s really good for interior design… giant, abstract art… it seems to be what people are getting into.”
It’s certainly unique. It’s also, by her own admission, expensive.
“This art is expensive, there’s no getting away from it. You need to use the top paints. You can’t use cheap paints because you need those pigments to hold together. If you use cheap paint it will just fail.”
That said, you can buy a small canvas for as little as £20. Larger works of art cost up to £700. The seahorse that I spotted when I first arrived is £900, due to the amount of work involved in creating the specific design. Still, as Sandra points out, it’s far less than you would pay if you were buying similar art in London.
“I think art should be affordable,” she declares. “I think a lot of artists charge too much, they have nice paintings but people can’t afford to buy them. As long as I’m covering my materials and my time, I’m happy. I’m not doing it to make a fortune, I’m doing it because I love it.”
Her favourite creation was a commission, a horse in copper, green and brown. Most of her paintings, though, take on a life of their own.
“That’s what I love about it. I can only take it so far and then they decide what they’re going to be.”
You can contact Sandra through Facebook (Harbour 39 Art) or Instagram (@sass0025).