Restoration through Nature

Each year Aesthetica selects an undergraduate student from York St John University for its Fine Arts Graduate Prize. The recipient for 2016, Harriet Sutcliffe, impressed judges with her contemplative video piece, Uncertainty (2016). Addressing a range of psychological and physical states, the work uses intimate filmmaking to highlight the restorative power of nature’s aesthetics. Based in York, Sutcliffe’s practice explores themes of endurance and recognises the importance of taking the time to heal. We speak to the recent Fine Art graduate about the inspiration behind her projects and find out about her plans for the future.

A: Your graduate piece, Uncertainty, explores the power of distraction and remembrance through the moving image. What inspired you to create this work and also to use the medium of film?
HS: Uncertainty captures the place between life and death, and more specifically references my mother’s journey dealing with both cancer and loss. The film is very honest; cancer is extremely debilitating, and everyday the media, the body and society remind those affected of their illness. Uncertainty shades these constant worries, highlights the importance of taking time to heal and shows the world’s beautiful finer details. As humans we can experience so much more than just survival: we can realise aesthetic beauty in the world, and we can take pleasure in being and in turn find positivity.

A: As a recent student at York St John University, what will you take with you from your three years of studying on the Fine Art course? How do you hope to continue and expand your practice beyond university?
HS: University has equipped me with many skills, aiding my transition from a student into a confident artist. In fact, it is only in the last two years of university that I have worked with film. I would love to carry on with experimental film full-time; art lives within me and I will endeavour to create. For myself, the creative process has been a coping strategy and is something I will always engage with. Uncertainty illustrates the healing power of nature’s aesthetics, and my own healing comes from taking pleasure in creating something beautiful, whether that be visually or conceptually. Expanding my practice, I would like to work with people whose stories I have little or no knowledge of beforehand. It would be interesting to see how this would affect my emotional response and its translation through film.

A: Much of your practice reflects on themes of mental health and psychological endurance. Why are these ideas important to you, and what message do you seek to offer audiences?
HS: Having always held a deep interest in how the mind copes, my portfolio of work has tried somewhat to place an unknowing person into a state of understanding. I suppose its that feeling of when you realise how much bigger the world is. There is a German word that perfectly describes this: ‘sonder’, meaning everyone has a story. Through my work I congratulate endurance, recognise what the subject has been through and with that show them my support. My message would be that a little recognition can go a long way, and in creating art I am paralleling that of talking about an issue. In turn, this process releases pressure and allows the world to engage with the harder facts of life.

A: Your work focuses on the delicate subtleties of its subjects and surroundings. What draws you to this gentle, and at times abstract, style of filmmaking?
HS: The key theme behind Uncertainty is the act of taking time to heal, along with a recognition of the beauty that surrounds us and a simple need to capture it. Taking a momentary break from the everyday to really see the world in all its aesthetic detail, acts as a meditative tool and enables us to heal. The idea of ridding ourselves of the thoughts and responsibilities that engulf us to instead just look, accept and recover plays a major role in the development of my work.

A: You were recently selected as the recipient of the Aesthetica & York St John Fine Arts Graduate Prize, as well as the Eleanor Worthington Prize in 2015. What does this recognition mean to you?
HS: There is no end to what these prizes have meant to me: confidence, pride, happiness, to name just a few. In consulting largely emotional routes throughout my practice, I have positioned myself within my work. My own feelings, empathy and understanding shape the emotional and aesthetic outcome. This recognition rewards my work with purpose. It’s easy to feel small in this world, but these awards show that people are interested in seeing the lives of others, have a willingness to understand and support, and in turn create a community.

See more of Harriet Sutcliffe’s work:

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1. Stills from Uncertainty (2016).