Sylvia paints on canvases large enough to propose an environment for the viewer to contemplate. The work is founded on an experience, however momentary, of an actual place. She is not a landscape painter in a traditional sense but concurs with the Scottish painter William Crozier (1930-2011) who explained: “Landscape is not the subject; it is the vehicle through which I can express intangible things. Things which have no narrative. Loss, memory – all can be done through the language of landscape.”
Her youthful desire to attend art college was denied. Instead, she had a university education and earned an MA degree in art from Northwestern University. At Mary Baldwin University she taught painting, drawing and art history until she resigned in 1974 to emigrate to Britain. In the US and in Britain her work has been included in exhibitions at major museums and galleries: the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, in London at the Camden Arts Centre and the Fabian Carlsson Gallery, and in Edinburgh at the RSA.
Her first exhibition in Orkney, ‘A Place in the Land’, was originated by the Pier Arts Centre and toured nationally. A third solo exhibition at the Orkney Museum is forthcoming. To accompany it she is writing an essay to explain, if not justify, its title: “An Unappropriated World”.
The transformative processes involved in painting and in writing seem distinct to Sylvia. Yet ‘Night Walk’ is both a painting and a prose work (Two Ravens Press, 2008). ‘Tissue’ (New Writing Scotland, 2015) was prompted by reading an essay by WG Sebald, an intensely visual writer. His description of first landing in Manchester (in The Emigrants) is congruent with a painting Sylvia had done several years earlier. Her yet-to-be completed memoir Peripheral Vision suggests both a link and her take on the world.
Featured image: Sylvia Hays, After Midnight, June (detail)