“Bodies, people, their stories, their skin, the hidden shades and depths, from the inside out, a fabric that is always changing. Never predictable, always challenging and something I feel compelled to depict." - Sally Whelan
"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 550 Gallery by Artistic Director and, importantly, 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 here 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: