Presented at Edel Assanti in London, M Street on White (14 September–28 October 2023) debuts eight paintings by Washington D.C.-based Expressionist Sylvia Snowden.
On the eve of the opening, the gallery hosted a conversation between Snowden and Laura Smith, Director of Collection and Exhibitions at The Hepworth Wakefield.
They discussed the profound support Snowden received from her parents, the impact of Black teachers at Howard University, and why she prefers the term 'Expressionism' when speaking of her work.
Tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up, what were your parents like?
I started painting when I was four years old. My mother gave me and my brother paint.
And we painted, you know, kept on through the encouragement of my parents. My parents, Dr. George W. and Mrs. Jessie B. Snowden, were the best parents in the world. They were very encouraging and extremely supportive. They supported me after I had children. They still bought paint.
You know, my father asked me in the 11th grade who I wanted to be, and I said an artist. He said: I don't know about making money there, you know. And he understood better than I, but he grew to understand what that was all about. He became very much aware of what I wanted to do, and my mother became aware of my use of colour, because she was very much interested in colour.
My mother was a person who enjoyed colour, who enjoyed art in our house. Well, back in the fifties it was a house that was full of colour. Today people wouldn't think that's a lot of colour, but then that was a lot of colour, and we had a lot of prints by famous artists. She was particularly fond of Picasso's blue period.
How was Howard University? What was it like at the time you studied there?
I graduated with BA and MA degrees from Howard University, Washington, D.C., in 1965.
Howard University undoubtedly had the best African American teachers in the country: James Porter, Lois Mailou Jones, James Wells, and David C. Driskell. Those people knew their craft, understood their craft, and they taught the students their craft. They taught with an emphasis on how to present yourself, how to be real to art.
They put art into your head, and they let you know if you were not a person who was desirable in the art field, so not everybody graduated from Howard University. Lois Jones got me my first teaching job at Delaware State College and James Porter recommended me for a scholarship at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1964. I went there and then 50 years later I went back, and it changed somewhat, but I enjoyed it both times.
Can you tell us how you found the house in Washington, D.C., and what the house means to you?
I had two children and we decided that we were going to live in Washington, D.C., because my parents lived there, and I was divorced then. I needed my parents; my children needed my parents. So, I had to find a house that was large enough to support my children and my practice as a painter. And I did. It was on M Street, Northwest, and that's where I still live.
The neighbourhood when I moved there was all Black. There was one white man when I moved there. We lived on a block that had 86 different residences, and those houses were built for wealthy white people who escaped to the suburbs. And the people who bought the houses turned them into rooming houses, so there were many people who rented there. Now it's gone. It's all white now, except us.
But the people who lived there when you first moved in are the people that we see in these paintings, right?
These paintings have names to them. I used the names of the people who lived on M Street. They have nothing to do with these particular people. They're just means of identification. These paintings are about all of us. About human beings, about our struggle in life, about our understanding that we are from the earth, and we will go back to the earth, and that is no matter what race you are, what sex you are, what gender. That's what these paintings are really about—about all of us.
In these particular paintings I was very much interested in understanding and exhibiting my skill as far as understanding the proportion of the figure to the Masonite. I was very much interested in the shapes that the negative space occupies so that they become just as interesting to me as the shapes of the figures. It was a test for me.
I've been painting for a long time, and I set myself up for exhibiting what I can do with space, what I can accomplish. For this particular series, the negative space interferes with the figure. You see the figure point blank and you only have to deal with the figure. You don't have to deal with anything in the negative space.
I like the tactile texture and I make use of tactile texture: impasto paint, thick paint, and the paint is getting thicker. I enjoy the feel of paint.
Nearly all the time you paint lone figures. Could you talk about that?
It is my interest in the individual. The individual that represents all of us as to what we experience as human beings. I'm interested in painting from a larger scale about what happens to all of us.
How did the people on M Street respond to the paintings?
Everybody on M Street knew I was a painter. I had no relationship with the people on M Street. I had no relationship other than saying hello or good day. There was a difference in background, so there was nothing really to say. But my kids played with everybody.
And so when the trucks would come in front of my house and the people would see the paintings with their names on the backs of them, they would say: Oh here I am! And I really do wish that I had a film of that because I believe that people should be represented no matter what their background is. So, I was proud of that.
Can we talk a bit about your process? Do you do preparatory sketches?
No. I am a figurative painter, so I understand the figure. I understand what it looks like, I understand the anatomy of it. I understand how I want to control it in order to get an emotion across, so there is no need for me to make sketches.
And you mention that all these paintings are on Masonite and you also use oil and acrylic and oil pastel.
I'm an oil painter, but my children could not stand the odour of turpentine. I went to Australia for a year-long residency at the University of Sydney in 1975, and if I painted in oil, it would have taken forever for the paintings to dry, and I couldn't get them back here. So, I had to learn acrylic for these two reasons.
Acrylic and oil paints are two different things completely: oil paint is natural – of the earth – and you can paint into it, you can work into it; acrylic is plastic, and it dries fast, it has no odour, and you can do some things in it, but nobody can work into it like you can with oil paint. Therefore, in certain areas I use oil pastel to make up for the fact that I can't work into acrylic.
How do you make your decisions with colour?
It's something I have learned to express myself with, something within me. And I make use of a lot of red. Red is for me, you know—life.
I paint in series just like one writes a book. You have different chapters in the book, so with my paintings, one painting represents a chapter. And so, I go on, and when I'm finished writing that series, then the series ends, and I rest for a while, and I start another. I paint all the time.
I wanted to ask you about Abstract Expressionism because your work is often talked about in relation to that movement.
Abstract Expressionism was popular at one point. Abstract Expressionism is subdivided into three areas: action painting, structural painting, and symbolic.
So, my painting is more closely associated with Structural Abstract Expressionism, which is based on the structure of the human being. If you have to talk about it that way, I prefer to use just plain Expressionism: where I'm painting about the insides of people, where I am painting about the fact that we have one common goal and that is to make it through this life.
I'm placing a lot of emphasis on fingers and on hands, because we all use our hands as expressions, we all use our hands as punctuation marks. Some of us do it more than others. Words are large and somebody else's expression, and we're making them ours. But our hands come right from the head to the heart, right up to the fingers. So that's our own expression.
That leads really nicely into the last question I wanted to ask. I read something that you said that was really beautiful. I thought about how in Western culture, because it's younger than other cultures, we haven't married thought and feeling. I see that as what you're doing in your work; you're bringing those things together.
I try, I truly try.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Main image: Exhibition view: Sylvia Snowden, M Street on White, Edel Assanti, London (14 September–28 October 2023). © Sylvia Snowden. Courtesy Edel Assanti. Photo: Andy Keate.