I met with Sophie Hurst in a cosy little teashop in Shenyang. That day I was feeling rather under the weather, having to deal with a cold I’d had for a couple of days. I coughed all through our chat and onto her iPad on which she was showing me some of her work. Sophie remained really charming considering the circumstances and at one point even told me “to go for it” while I was loudly trying to free up my nostrils.
Sophie explains that as a child she was often told not to overthink. This made her into a silent little girl and somewhat of an outsider while in school. I am guessing from then on her thoughts just carried on inside her head, without the outside world giving her a chance to ventilate them all. Perhaps that was the reason she started painting, as a way of giving a voice to her thoughts and feelings.
She shows me one of her works and proudly tells me she sold it to a woman who had suffered a grave accident just a few years ago. The woman bought the painting as she felt it expressed the way she had been suffering at that particular time in her life. The aquarelle shows the outline of a human torso, a big hole punched out right at the centre. A smaller figure, its head slightly tilted towards the ground, stands entirely independent were it not for some thin strings holding it back, the delicate threads turning into restraining chains. It is obvious why the woman identified with it so strongly. Sophie explains that she got a “high” when she sold the aquarelle. “This is the reason I paint”, she says, “to connect with others”. She also explains it is hard for her to deal with the financial side of her profession. “How can you put a price on your own work?”, she comments. She is right. How can you put a price on that moment when you connect with another human being through the work of your own hands? That magical moment is priceless.
Towards the end of our meeting she shows me a project she finished just a couple of months ago. It is based on a story about the loss of a loved one and is titled The Seven Valleys1. Sophie started illustrating the story about twelve years ago, while in England, dealing with postpartum depression. Now, after so many years, she has finally painted the last few illustrations to complete the story. It ends happily as the main character of the Seven Valleys is finally reunited with his longed for beloved. The moral of the story is that life sometimes puts you through some tough times but, in the end, when you glance back over your shoulder, you see that everything happens for a reason: hardships can occasionally be blessings in disguise.
It is interesting that Sophie has finished this project here, in Shenyang. The first illustrations for the story, painted twelve years ago in England, were rather grey. Just a couple of lines: the sense of loneliness, frustration and sadness is overwhelming. Fast-forward to the paintings finished just a few months ago in China and the difference is like night and day. These are colourful, almost spring-like, tender paintings about love and reunion. About relief and happiness. About coming full circle. I guess Sophie expresses it so well because it is exactly how she is feeling right now. An English artist coming full circle in the forgotten city of Shenyang, who would have thought it.
Sophie Hurst is an artist who does not thrive on repetition and she says so herself. The things around her, the events that occur unexpectedly within her everyday life, inspire her. During our conversation, she encourages me to speak my mind and asks me about my Ph.D. research. After some time, she whips out her little notebook and starts taking notes. We laugh as I mention she will end up writing the article about me. Yet the gesture says so much about her. Her blue eyes seem to scan the world with curiosity. They look attentively at the people she meets and seem to really understand them, giving them a chance to speak their mind. Maybe being cut off as a child has made her an individual who does exactly the opposite. She encourages people to reflect upon themselves and is willing to think with you. She is an attentive listener and we happily chat on for two hours. Yet, after speaking with her I have a nagging feeling I have just scratched the surface of it all. I am quite sure I let her speak as much as she wanted during our meeting, yet somehow I know she only said so much.
This feeling is somewhat confirmed by her latest project that consists of drawing the “invisibles” among us. Their silhouettes are not outlined by using paint or pencil but are punched out by a line of consecutive little holes. When it is dark and a light source shines through from behind, the contour of a human being becomes visible and can be clearly distinguished among the anonymous, grey figures in the background.
It seems to be a recurrent theme within this artist’s oeuvre: to be the outsider, to feel even invisible sometimes, to be part of society or not, to connect or not being able to. It is representative of Sophie Hurst: the quiet little girl who grew up to become an artist in the most populated country in the world. Even though as a fair-haired, blue-eyed foreigner she will always remain somewhat of an outsider to the Chinese society, as an artist she is unmistakably the insider to it all.
1 Baha'u'llah, The Seven Valleys, p. 13