A project to document & immortalise the power and brilliance of women when we come together to share, support & create.
“As an artist, life can be pretty insular, standing in your studio all day, immersing oneself fully in the push and pull of the paint to coax the figure into being”
– Sally Whelan 2015 – journal entry
“For me, painting people is about connection and vulnerability, as much from the artist as well as from the sitter. It is a conversation between two people, with paint as the lens thru which it is viewed.”
– Sally Whelan 2017 – journal entry
The Goddess Sittings project began in late 2018 with British artist Sally Whelan looking for new models to paint.
For the previous 4 years Sally’s figurative and portrait practice had developed a “model focused narrative”. Sally would hand the control of the sitting over to the model to decide how they wished to share their story. This might be expressing a particular feeling they had, or a life experience they were working through, which would then guide the flow of the sitting. This way of working would allow Sally a glimpse of what the final paintings might start to look like.
During this period she mainly worked with models she knew and had an established level of trust and rapport with. The sittings involved movement, conversation, many different poses, sketches, photoshoots, and capturing moments using video.
“It seemed natural to work in this way. I didn’t know it at the time, but an unconscious separation had occurred between the personal connections I had with the model, and how I viewed their aesthetic. This allowed me to focus solely on capturing the physical persona. To observe them; like a birdwatcher. I found that by using photographs in conjunction with other media to capture their mannerisms throughout the sitting, I was able build a diverse library of reference that I would use to create paintings that looked and, most importantly, felt like the sitter”
This introduced a dynamic nature to her work and “shook up the form of a traditional, more static “sitting”” in which a model is asked to sit in one position for hours on end.
As this process was developing and although working well, Sally began to recognise a nagging feeling that things were getting “all too comfortable”, too safe and too known.
“I wanted (as the artist) to be put in the same shoes as someone who had never posed nude before, in front of a person they’d never even met. Nervous, scared, excited, awkward, curious, liberated and inspired. I was confident that this would pave the way to a fresh, more dynamic and ultimately more honest narrative within my work, and also within myself”
So she turned to Instagram, and put out a call:
‘As of Jan 2019 I will be looking for models to be part of my new works. All ages, genders, sizes and shapes and in any part of the world. If this strikes a chord with you, if it is something you are keen, or curious, or terrified but also tempted to discuss, if you would like to share your story, please do get in touch’ - Nov 4, 2018
She was unsure if anyone would reply, or if she had simply opened the flood gates to a tyranny of sexual harassment (which, no doubt, would have sparked a very different body of work)
“I was blown away by the messages I received. All were from women, all different ages, very different characters and backgrounds, and all breathtakingly honest, upfront and spellbindingly interesting. They all shared this common thread of “Yes, I’m scared, yes, I’m nervous, but fuck it, this sounds like fun!” One lady put it beautifully: “To be captured as we are, to be remembered, to see ourselves as another sees us”. My heart skipped as I read their words. What I recognised in these women was the desire to join me in leaping whole heartedly into the unknown. For the first time in a long time, I felt a connection with my fellow sisters. I felt heard”
For the past 6 months Sally has met regularly on a one to one basis with these women, who she now refers to as “The Goddesses’” and is creating a series of figurative oil paintings about them.
“The sitting part of the process has evolved beautifully from my previous experience working with models. I am learning so much with every shoot we do, and the work that is coming from us is electric!”
Now, the connection and trust, the eagle eyed artist and the Goddess sitter hold the space together in order for each other to soar. Each woman becomes powerfully present, willing, aware, and vulnerable at the very same moment. This creates an explosive encyclopaedia of energies, connections, shared experiences and physical reference from which the paintings are born.
“Because these are new people to me, I cannot pretend to know anything about them previous to the sitting. It’s brilliant, and it’s at a pace that feels appropriate to the model, yet certainly ends up placing all involved far from our comfort zones! It’s becoming almost impossible to separate creation from inspiration, sitter from artist, storyteller from story told. There is so much emotion, feeling and bucket loads of character in each painting, which I know is being channelled directly from the experiences I am creating with these women. It feels fantastically overwhelming and truly collaborative”
The sittings have also inspired The Goddesses’to create their own work in response. Some are writing poetry, some are digging out their sketchbooks, and other are taking the conversation into their own circle of friends, family and colleagues.
“I feel like this is an ever growing conversation, and a really important one to be having at this point in time. Women coming together, to share, support, create, and be seen, really seen, thru the eyes of another woman, a fellow sister, a fellow Goddess. This isn’t just “an artist looking to shake up her practice” anymore, this is women’s work!”
Sally has been invited out to America by one of her Goddess sitters, Jenna Gonzalez, on a month long artist residency. Jenna heard the call and she and Sally struck up a conversation about the project
“Jenna clicked with the idea straight away. She is so enthusiastic and has loads of brilliant ideas of how we can continue
the project during my stay here in Connecticut, by reaching out to other women, artists and creatives to inspire and
encourage them to do the same.”
During her stay in Connecticut, Sally will be looking to meet and work with more Goddesses’ who will
become the subject of many more of her paintings both in the US and on her return to the UK.
If you feel called to be part of the project or to discuss the process further please do get in touch:
Thoughts from The Goddesses …....
What drew you to respond to the Instagram call out?
"I’ve followed Sally (on Instagram) for a little while and I love her work. With each painting I have always admired the models featured, for having the confidence to be captured in a really natural yet unconventional way. When I saw the call out I initially hesitated, but you only live once...and so I got in touch. However, it took me a long time to take it any further than that. As much as I wanted to do it, something held me back. Whatever it was, I’m so glad that I eventually overcame that. It’s been nothing but a positive experience as a novice in this (life modelling) world."
What was the experience of being photographed naked for the first time like?
"On the day of the sitting I had a huge emotional wobble. An hour of tears/stage fright/demons from the past seemed to sit on my shoulder. I almost convinced myself that I couldn’t do it. But Sally reassured me that I was under no pressure to do anything at all and that was so calming. We had met up a few weeks earlier for coffee (our first meeting, in person) and that was really helpful as I felt she really listened to my story and understood me. It was great to get to know her influences too, and how she works, so that there were no surprises on the day. Although initially strange to take my clothes off I never felt uncomfortable and it was great to do it in stages. After a while my inhibition (which was secretly HUGE) disappeared and I just went with it. Time flew and conversation flowed. It was wonderful to just share a space."
"I really appreciated the time we spent together afterwards too, to talk and to ‘come down’ if that makes sense. Afterwards, I cried again but happy tears. It felt like a relief, that I’d overcome and let go of something huge (I am still figuring out what that is), just overwhelmingly empowered. For that alone I’m hugely thankful."
How do you feel about being part of a project like this?
"My sitting was on International Womens Day, which felt so incredibly appropriate and powerful. To be able to revel in and explore in something entirely female. To share a connection with Sally as an incredible artist and to hear and to appreciate her story. To be so outside of my own comfort zone and hopefully be seen for who I really am inside. To accept who I am on the outside too.... it’s been incredibly healing. Finally, to have this invisible link with the incredible women involved in the project is a beautiful thing. All so different but linked by Sally with this common thread. To be captured as we are, to be remembered, to see ourselves as another sees us."
"Thank you so very very much Sal" x
-Goddess in Dorset, UK 2019
Peel away the layers
And let me reveal
The parts of me I keep hidden
Let me stand naked in front of you
Fully exposed and see the reflection you view
Let me gain insight other than my mirror
Into how I am seen, warts, scars, wrinkles and lines
All of these map and define a life of 50 years
Breathing and feeling and being….simply me
-Goddess in Southampton, UK 2019
Images featured on this page are examples of Sallys preparatory works as she gets to know her sitter.They range from acrylic, charcoal, chalk, and pen on paper.
"I stopped in at the studio of the undoubted talent of the ever-smiling figurative Sally Whelan aka ‘Painter Sally’.
Sally previously worked as a Make-up and Prosthetics Artist on various TV series, so has an amazing ability to interpret and reproduce human skin tones. Using acrylics to work up sketches, her larger paintings are in oils, and I imagine it must be the range of pigments available that allows her such an endless range of skin-like shades.
Sally produces work that turns my head and opens my eyes. I think it’s her representations of women, completely unadulterated, unassuming, yet so powerful and bold which I love. Being from a large family of females, seeing women shown in this way is so refreshing and empowering. I was never a great painter myself, so to see this level of control and artistry is, for me, very hard to fathom! In her own words, as a self-taught oil painter, perhaps it’s her lack of inbuilt ‘institutionalised rules’ that gives Sally the freedom to convey humans in such realistic and emotional forms."
-Tom Hull Photographic Artist - Portrait of Frome Project 2019
(image courtesey of Tom Hull)