The Hedda Sterne Project #1

I am doing something I’ve never tried before. I am in the studio surrounded by the usual painting paraphernalia. Half finished boards drying on the floor, paintings in various stages of emerging. Colour and possibility everywhere. I love it in here. Especially on mornings like this – bright, cold, a mist of condensation on the roof windows with a whole spectrum of yellow leaves stuck to them. I lit the fire, made coffee and now I am writing at the desk newly covered in papers and written notes.

I never write in the studio – it is a messy painting space. But today is different…I have broken the mould and it feels quite liberating. Like all the best breakthroughs it happened by accident. My computer is broken and, seeing as it is a pen and paper moment, I can write anywhere (computers are banned from my studio for their own good!). As I look around me it is evident just how much of an impact Hedda Sterne is having on me… in so many ways. Not least taking up a pen to write in the studio.

Studio 2022

I was awarded an Arts Council England grant earlier this year which is funding a period of research and development. My proposal was to explore the limits of my own painting practice by researching Hedda Sterne. I laid out several lines of enquiry and set to work. These blog posts are about that exploration; they will make more sense if read in order.

Hedda Sterne (1910 -2011) was a painter who spent most of her life in New York. Born in Bucharest, Romania in 1910, from a Jewish family, she narrowly escaped Nazi Europe as a young woman, managing to get a passage to New York in 1941. She created an extensive and diverse body of work which intersected with some of the most important art movements of the twentieth century.

Photo – Hedda Sterne in her studio c.1950. Image, Gjon Mili.

Hedda Sterne In Her Studio

An active member of the New York School she was exhibited by Peggy Guggenheim and regularly showed work with the legendary gallerist Betty Parsons. Associated with the surrealist movement in her younger days and with the Abstract Expressionists for a time her work reflects ‘a progressive approach to art-making that places her ahead of her time’.

She studied philosophy and art history as a young woman, was fluent in four languages and extremely well read even before she went to Paris to study art. Training in a discipline shapes the way you think and ultimately the way you view life. I think that early grounding in philosophy underpinned her approach to painting. She would spend the next 80 years exploring the complex interplay between art and consciousness, constantly questioning and pushing ever outwards whilst digging deeper into her internal world.

To read her ‘studio notes’ is always thought provoking, often enlightening and I spent the first few weeks doing exactly that. Reading all the catalogues and digitised material I could find, alongside interviews, articles and reviews. It’s fair to say I can feel my brain expanding!

One or two of Hedda Sterne’s studio notes here:

‘It seems that there is nothing so obscure that cannot be illuminated by a flash of vision’

‘A word is materialisation’

‘I get enormous pleasure out of very small contrasts. I don’t know to what extent it is an emotional experience or an intellectual pleasure…’

Thomas Traherne’s words spring to mind. He wrote, ‘As nothing is more easy than to think, so nothing is more difficult than to think well’.

Hedda’s painting practice evolved hand in hand with ‘thinking well’.

Notes 2 21

I am still absorbing and mulling over much of her writing and have developed various new studio habits in response. One is pinning quotes, notes, lines from poems or snippets of conversation to the studio wall. Another is writing as part of my painting process. I have long been a person that writes all manner of ‘ notes to self ‘- on my phone, backs of receipts, envelopes, train tickets. (I often have to pull over when I’m driving to scribble down ideas and thoughts). Hedda Sterne seemed to do exactly the same thing, often on post-it notes. Many of them are archived and I have been reading those that are digitised. A wonderful conversation with Shaina Larrivee at the Hedda Sterne Foundation in New York confirmed that there are many many more. She explained that Hedda had the habit of collecting them into manila envelopes once in a while…I would so love to spend time reading those…next stop New York hopefully.


For now, I am poring over the Archives of American Art. Her writing is fast, fluid and at times illegible. Sometimes it is clear and such a thrill when her words emerge in front of me. Her sketchbooks are similarly full of words, written colour notes and observations alongside drawings and composition ideas. I have been allowing her process to inform my thinking and studio practice. It is a bit like a dialogue with her across time. I can almost hear her offering advice from the studio chair, or suspect she would be raising an eyebrow at a misplaced colour or a bad line.

In practical terms all of this means trying out new materials, techniques and ways of working. The process is still evolving. I had thought to write about it from the start, but I needed to learn about this extraordinary woman and absorb her thoughts before I began. I now find myself in November and with a pile of notes and an extensive bibliography of related reading, and it’s hard to know where to start- so I came to the studio…with a pen and paper. This is the place to start. I will be writing a series of blogposts about my Hedda Sterne project as it unfolds, along with some longer pieces of writing specifically about her work and themes and questions which arise along the way.

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On The Easel
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