Exploring Emotions and Change Through Art: an Interview with Sara Melly
In this interview, we delve into the mind and motivations of Sara Melly, gaining insights into the psychology of her art, the evolution of her creative path, and her unwavering commitment to sparking awareness and action. Join us as we explore the intricate interplay of emotions and change within the canvas of her artistic journey.
Formerly a clinical psychologist, UK-based artist Sara Melly explores through her art individual and collective contemporary concerns, seamlessly bridging the gap between figurative representation and conceptual expression.
When examining Melly's paintings, we are struck by the emotionally charged scenarios where the realist human figures, mostly children, are immersed in an environment of dark undertones and critical analysis. Informed by her background in clinical psychology, Melly's art offers viewers a glimpse into the depths of the human psyche while also confronting the pressing challenges of today's world.
Sara's work is driven by a powerful mission: to create deep emotional bonds with her audience and ignite profound transformations. Through her unique approach, she aims to touch hearts and minds, fueling inspiration that leads to meaningful change. Having made significant life changes, leaving behind established careers within the UK's NHS and Ministry of Defence, she now dedicates her talents to both art and climate activism. The pressing nature of the climate crisis greatly influences her artistic process, guiding her brushstrokes and inspiring her creative decisions.
To begin, can you give us an overview of your practice and background?
I’m a painter primarily and my work is figurative and narrative. I was a clinical psychologist for many years, working in the NHS and in the MOD, and I then decided to retrain as an artist. I am really interested in using painting to prompt a reaction in the viewer, exploring our emotionality, but also, increasingly, using my work as a “call to arms”. Obviously, I don’t mean literally taking up arms, but I would like my painting to prompt people to act in relation to the unfolding climate crisis in whatever way they can.
How does your background in clinical psychology influence the themes and concepts you explore in your art?
As a clinical psychologist, I worked with people in various states of distress: people whose lives were altered by the experience of trauma or by crises of loneliness, depression or profound anxiety. My motivation has always been to connect, to try to find what is real and meaningful in order to help people come to terms with what it means to be human, to be a part of a society in which there is love and kindness, but also hate and ignorance. This remains true as I have transitioned to making art. The themes that I explore include human vulnerability, isolation, social and interpersonal conflict and war and our reactions to the unfolding climate crisis.
Can you discuss the various techniques and mediums you employ, such as print, paint, drawing, and digital collage, and how they contribute to the visual impact of your pieces?
When I trained in painting I opted for quite a traditional art school where I learned to paint in oils. However, as I have established my own practice, I have expanded my use of different ways to make images which includes utilising printing, photography, drawing and digital collage as well as painting. We are surrounded by different forms of visual imagery and I want to explore the use of these different media. My work is contemporary, made about contemporary societal issues, so it makes sense to use contemporary techniques as well as the traditional painting techniques which have been used through the ages. I hope that combining different media adds to the interest and the intrigue of the work. Occasionally it’s hard to tell where the photographic image ends and the drawing or painting begins. At other times the combination of handmade imagery with photography emphasises the disconnect between our human vulnerability and the landscapes we have constructed around ourselves.
Can you tell us the particularities of the submitted work, Not Everyone is Alone All of the Time?
The work ‘Not Everyone Is Alone All Of The Time’ is about intimacy and connection, which, amazingly, can exist even in the context of war, turmoil and destruction. To connect with other people is, obviously, vital. To love and be loved is to find meaning, and to know that life is meaningful is crucial as we face today’s convergence of simultaneous crises. The ruined setting of this tentative embrace is representative of the world today in which so much of our society is broken.
In what ways do your artistic creations address the urgent climate crisis? How do you portray the emotions and responses associated with this pressing issue?
The urgency of the climate crisis is something I find terrifying and which I struggle to address with my work. It is increasingly obvious that action is needed and our government, in the UK, is behaving dishonestly and criminally in pursuing policies which promote the continued use of fossil fuels. People are being encouraged to believe they should carry on ‘business as usual’ when, actually, we urgently need to embrace change and move to renewable energy sources. My paintings include some of the effects of extreme weather events, but I also paint about the feelings I have in response to the crisis and the inadequacy of the government's actions to date. So I sometimes paint about fear and numbness; sometimes I paint adults alongside children to address the issue of inter-generational responsibility and how we are letting down our own children and future generations.
Your artwork often depicts individuals, including children, in settings that evoke a sense of unease or threat. Could you elaborate on the symbolism behind these choices and the ideas you aim to convey through them?
I often paint figures in settings which evoke a sense of unease because we should feel uneasy about the state of the world. As a climate advocate, I believe that we are in danger if we don’t act urgently to address the climate crisis. We are in danger of betraying future generations if we don’t act to remedy the damage we have wrought by causing the heating of the planet. The children in my paintings represent both the huge potential of humanity and our vulnerability. Childhood is such a crucial time when we are formed by our lived experiences yet we have little control over the course of those experiences. Childhood can also be a metaphor for all of us facing the situation to feel the effects of climate change yet having a limited ability to do anything to prevent the unfolding crisis.
How do you strike a balance between capturing the beauty of humanity and the world while introducing elements of apprehension into your art? What effect do you intend to achieve with this juxtaposition?
I live in a state of apprehension about the state of society and our failure to address the climate crisis so it is natural for that to be reflected in my paintings. However, I am not giving up, the earth is wondrous and beautiful and it is very much worth protecting! I also recognise that humanity has tremendous potential and we are capable of amazing feats of engineering and ingenuity so I want my work to reflect all of these facts. My aim is to try to reflect the beauty and fragility of humanity and the world as well as the danger it is in. This is done in the hope that people will be motivated to cherish and protect what we have and think carefully about our impacts on one another, on life and on the planet.
How do you hope art can contribute to raising awareness and fostering positive change regarding the societal, political, and environmental issues you explore?
I am really still trying to figure out what the best way is of making art which will prompt or contribute to the societal, political and environmental changes we need. If my work contributes to conversations around these issues and this, in turn, helps us to act, then I will be pleased. All I can do is try!
Can you tell us about your involvement with the Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil?
I became involved in taking direct action after sitting back and watching for too long. I watched for a long time, trusting, like many people do, that our government would have to act responsibly, but, to my horror, they just lied and backed the profiteers rather than taking the actions needed to avert disaster. I then watched as brave people, young and old from Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil, put their lives on the line, to call for change. Instead of being listened to, I watched as they were arrested, vilified and imprisoned for telling the truth. Finally, at the start of 2023, I realised that I could not leave it to others: that I was part of the problem if I, too, did not use the little power I possess, to push as hard as I can for change. So first I joined Extinction Rebellion and began to take part in local awareness raising about climate-related issues, such as the pollution of our rivers by the water companies. However, I realised that to address the central and crucial issue of our continued reliance on burning fossil fuels, more was needed. The UK government is continuing to licence new oil, gas and coal projects with the full knowledge that this will push global temperatures beyond the agreed target limit of 1.5˚C. We now know that breaching 1.5˚C will be a death sentence for our children and for whole countries and regions of the world. So, like hundreds of other ordinary people, I have joined the Just Stop Oil campaign of civil resistance against new oil and gas. Specifically, I took part in over twenty-five slow marches on the roads of London causing disruption to the daily life of London in order to put pressure on the government to rethink these disastrous and murderous policies.
Lastly, what message would you like to leave our readers?
I urge everyone to take the climate crisis seriously and to act in whatever way they can to help avert this potentially existential threat. Use your vote, use your voice, and use your purchasing power to favour policies and products which will limit the harm to the planet, the atmosphere and the environment. Art, life, and people can all be beautiful, but we need to stop exploiting and start valuing what we have.
Know more about the artist here.
Contemplating Motherhood by Sara Melly. Image courtesy of Sara Melly.
I am a former clinical psychologist, now a painter and visual artist, living and working in the UK. My paintings are figurative and narrative, informed by observation, but departing from realism to convey concepts and emotions in relation to contemporary political and social issues and the climate crisis. Technically I often combine print, paint, drawing and digital collage in a variety of ways.
My work has two related aims: to connect with an audience emotionally; and to nudge people towards making change. Over the last few years I have made significant changes myself by leaving a very ‘establishment’ career in the UK NHS (National Health Service) and MoD (Ministry of Defence), to, now, making art and being involved in climate activism.
The climate catastrophe is unfolding around us, and I am dismayed and angered at the indifference and wilful negligence shown by politicians the world over and, particularly now, in the UK. My paintings are influenced by my former career in that they are deeply psychological, but increasingly they also deal with our reactions to the climate crisis. The paintings are often of children or adults in environments which evoke disquiet or menace.
I aim to try to capture some of the beauty of humanity and the world around us, whilst also introducing elements of foreboding. The significance of including images of children is twofold: they represent the best of humanity, and their presence reflects a concern about the future and whether the current generations are betraying coming generations by not taking effective action to stop the climate crisis.
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