Art can be many things; comforting, challenging, beautiful etc. Sally Hewett’s art is uncensored in the furthest sense of the word. Her choice to make 3D pieces focused around the body is helping to challenge damaging taboos and expectations surrounding things like pubic hair and stretch marks. The up-front subject matter and delicate craftsmanship creates a beautiful juxtaposition that really caught my eye. For me, creating such bold pieces requires a certain confidence, so I talked to Sally about her motivations and how her work has impacted on her own relationship with her body.
What made you choose the female body as the subject matter for your art?
I’ve always found bodies intriguing. Even as a child I was fascinated by other people’s bodies: by the fat, the thin, the spotty, the freckled, the old, the hairy. And my own body both interested and alarmed me. I suppose I concentrate more on female bodies than male bodies because I have a female body. I like how a body distributes its fat reserves – the more fat a body has the more inventive ways it has of storing it. I like how bodies show their history – how particular occasions leave their mark on the body – stretch marks, scars, spots, lumps and bumps – the body as a documentary. I’m also interested in how people choose to change their bodies either by diet, exercise, tattoos, piercing, or by more radical surgical procedure – changes made as a result of a conscious and planned decision – the body as a novel.
Some of your pieces deal with things that are often seen as taboo by the media like stretch marks, plastic surgery and pubic hair, how do you feel about the way the media portrays bodies and beauty?
The media is often criticized for doctoring images of women so as to supposedly enhance the image. I suppose what I find a bit depressing about this is that it tends to make everyone look similar. It doesn’t actually make anyone look more beautiful, it just makes them more standardised. Bodies are not all the same. They all have their own particularities and peculiarities. That’s what’s delightful about them. I’m not suggesting that, say, stretch marks are more beautiful than a smooth flat belly, but I am saying that stretch marks have their own sort of beauty – it’s not standard, but it is beautiful. The theory is that the more we see air-brushed perfect images of women the more we see real bodies as inadequate. I’m not sure what anyone else thinks but I often think the airbrushing is so badly done that it makes the subject look a bit peculiar rather than beautiful. Similarly with plastic surgery – some of the breast implants I have seen (and I haven’t seen many in the flesh) don’t look like any breast that ever grew on woman – they look like breast implants. I’m generalizing here and I recognize that plastic surgeons do extraordinary and wonderful work repairing and transforming damaged or deformed bodies and faces but that is not someone choosing to change their body so as to look like someone else.
Since creating the pieces, would you say your relationship with your body has changed?
I hadn’t really thought about it until this moment! It’s a difficult question to answer. I think when I started making the work I was investigating things I had seen (including on my own body) which are usually considered ugly or disgusting but which I found fascinating. Cellulite for example, is it ugly? Or hairiness? I have to confess that I found them more fascinating on other people’s bodies than on my own! I’m not sure that my relationship with my body has changed very radically – I’m probably still as neurotic as the next person about my own body! But I think what the pieces may have helped me to do is look at all bodies in a different, perhaps more objective, way.
If you could choose one message for people to take from your art, what would it be?
I really don’t have a message. In making the things I do I’m investigating the idea of beauty, disgust etc., I’ve been exhibiting for a long time now and the first time I exhibited the work and was able to watch how people responded to it I was surprised and delighted. What I like is for people to see what I make and respond to it. If that’s a positive response, like reaching out to touch, giggling, crying, laughing out loud, spinning round in delight, then that’s wonderful. If it’s negative like asking what I think I’m doing, telling me I should be ashamed, telling me what I make is ‘pure unadulterated filth’ then that also is a response. I prefer that to indifference. I suppose if there is a message it’s that if you look long and hard enough all bodies can have something about them that is attractive, fascinating and possibly beautiful. And possibly that all bodies, however beautiful they might be, have things about them that are less than attractive.
Why do you think that the body has almost become a shameful thing?
Huge question! I don’t think the body being seen as a shameful thing is new – menstruation has for centuries been seen as unclean and shameful by may cultures. And many religions see the body, or at least bodily functions, as shameful. But maybe in the 21st century the reasons for the shame have changed. I think to some extent the shame is a side effect of the emphasis on the body beautiful – the perfect body – and our obsession with how we look. Our bodies are not only expected to look perfect, but also to smell perfect and to move perfectly. If we fail in any of these we feel shame.
What’s your favourite thing about the human body?
I don’t really have a favourite thing. It’s more that I like particular things about particular bodies. I knew a girl when I was at school who had jutting top teeth which rested on her bottom lip and a very prominent upper lip. I thought that was just lovely and wanted my lips to be like that – to the point where I would suck my top lip until it swelled up. I’m not sure that she was as fond of her lip as I was, but it was a lovely thing. So I suppose I would say that I like the unusual or the non-standard body.
Is there a motivation behind your art?
Not a motivation in the sense that I have some sort of social good that I want to achieve by creating the work. I am motivated by things I see and love and when people look at my work and ‘get’ what it is about I find it a joy.
Find Sally Hewett-
By Lucy Harbron