Rachel Sharpe on Her Paintings, Finding Equilibrium & More

by Rubén Palma
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Rachel Sharpe is a Los Angeles based painter born in Seattle, Washington. She danced ballet professionally at the age of eleven and studied philosophy at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Her detailed oil paintings often feature dramatic chiaroscuro lighting and cropped in compositions with an emphasis on corporeal and tactile textural elements. 

Bio courtesy of de boer gallery.

Hi Rachel thank you for sitting down with me. Here we go! First question. How does a regular day look like for you in Los Angeles?

Of course, thank you for having me. A regular day – I wake up early, make myself coffee and I paint in my apartment so typically I’ll get straight to it. The rest of the day varies. I almost always say hi to my neighbor’s dog Lola. I’m lightly allergic to dogs but we understand each other. 

Being that you’re originally from Seattle, what brought you to LA?

During the pandemic I moved back to Seattle from Philadelphia but I never planned to stay permanently. I started figuring out what to do next and LA was a total stab in the dark. My plan was to give myself a year to adjust and then apply to graduate school programs for psychology but I got really into painting instead. 

Assuming that everybody draws when they’re kids, do you remember when you started to paint and when did you start to take it seriously?

As a kid I had a lot of creative freedom thanks to my mom. I grew up in a house which was partially a century old cabin that my family built out. My mom did a lot to construct and repair the place and there was always a hands-on project going on at home. We would make stained glass windows, pottery, clay figurines, clothes, the list goes on and I was constantly drawing. But when I was 9 I started dancing for a ballet company and it was so demanding that I lost interest in other things. Fast forward to around age 20 I bought a really cheap oil paint kit and tried to teach myself. For a few months I painted portraits. I never showed anyone and I threw the paintings in the garbage. I didn’t really try to paint again for another decade, shortly after moving to LA a couple years ago. I’ve been taking it seriously ever since. 

So what made you pick up a brush and start painting again? 

Coming out of the pandemic I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I was in a new city, living alone, selling vintage clothes from home and picking up odd jobs. I didn’t feel grounded and then I got covid my first winter here which was even more isolating. I had been gifted some how-to painting books and picked one up one day. When I moved I had brought with me a few random art supplies – I think I had one brush to start and was using paper to paint on. Once I got some more supplies it began consuming all my time pretty quickly. 

Alright. I’m curious about the various realistic scenes in your paintings. Are they something you have experienced or how do you come up with them?

My work is influenced a lot by what I’m reading but also my experiences especially with dance and with death. I focused a lot on a book called Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil for my most recent paintings. One idea from the book is about equilibrium being a sort of unattainable perfection and also the gateway to reality. Something that we can only briefly get close to before ascending or descending in a different direction. I think about this alot. In ballet, finding equilibrium is very important. Learning choreography, you have to alternate between understanding a still moment and putting that moment into motion. When I’m coming up with an image to paint I think a lot about this balance of isolation and movement and how it translates in reality. 

While we’re on the subject, what makes everyday things like meat, eggs or razers worthy of gracing one of your canvases?

I think ordinary things can be really cool. I read a book called Jealousy by Robert Grillet years back. In it he fixates on a centipede and tells a story about it over and over, painfully describing different angles of an event. It made me think a lot about detaching a single thing from a narrative, something you wouldn’t typically pick apart. I also just grab things out of my fridge to use for paintings. Or with the razor, that came from a night over the holidays. My friend and I were at my parents house playing with fimo clay and we both got really into sculpting horses. He was using a razor and I thought the way he was using his hands was really interesting so I snapped a photo. 

The dramatic chiaroscuro lighting in your paintings, is a recurring thing. What is it about that look that resonated so well with you?

I’ve always been most drawn to baroque art and classical realism. I love how theatrical chiaroscuro is. And realistic paintings to me are the most fun to figure out. 

Ok, so your current exhibition at de boer gallery is titles “Epidermal Dress”. What’s the story behind that name? 

The work for the exhibition has a lot to do with physical reality and the body and I was thinking about the literal barrier between the internal and external. In most of the paintings there is an interaction between inanimate things, skin and flesh. For instance in my painting Lamb, these things would be a cow hide, a hand, and a lamb shank. The epidermis has these layers, dead skin, living skin and underneath, flesh. Simone Weil describes our exterior or what we show either voluntarily or not, as a garment which keeps us from true reality. In this sense I’m thinking of skin as a type of garment or mask.

de boer gallery

How would you describe a perfect day? 

I’m comfortable leaning into my routine and having a quiet day. But I always feel good when I go to sleep physically exhausted and the best days I’ve had are always pretty chaotic and maximalist. A perfect day is probably something in-between that and my normal routine. 

Who’s your favorite artist(s) and why?

I used to really enjoy drawing sculptures and Bernini is definitely my favorite sculptor. For painters, Caravaggio and Goya. I also love Frida Kahlo. I’m often drawn to an artist for their life story. 

Alright Rachel. This question I always ask at the end of the interview. What’s your favorite movie(s) and why?

Woman in the Dunes, Kwaidon, The Shining, Stranger than Paradise, Solaris, Picnic at Hanging Rock – those are some favorites. I think I can call them that because I will actually rewatch them, which I normally won’t do with other movies. These are all sort of quiet and without constant dialog. I’m part Japanese on my mom’s side and Japanese film has a big place in my heart.

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