Shirking Your Responsibilities

Sarah Cameron is a multi-award winning painter and photographer with an MFA from the Slade School of Fine Art and a BFA from Edinburgh College of Art. At the time the pieces for this website were painted, she was working in oils on representations of the human-nature relationship. She was particularly interested in the perceived boundary between human beings and nature, Romantic tropes around nature, and the feminine sublime.

The painting Shirking Your Responsibilities depicts the artist’s cottage in Greece, which she obtained as a tumbled-down, ruined shepherd’s hut, full of sheep and goat dung, and which she rebuilt from scratch using traditional, often reused, and in large part scavenged local materials. In the foreground is a ruined olive press, also on the property, which has since had a roof added and forms an enormous, occasionally snake-infested studio. I’ve spent several months at this cottage over the years, and wrote parts of my MA and PhD theses there. The picture shows a yukka tree overgrowing its pot, against the wall of the house; last time I was there, we dug it out to prevent it splitting the ceramic.

Strangely for a depiction of Greece, this is a winter landscape – in fact there is occasionally snow even in this southern part of the country. Things grow fast on the island, and arriving at the cottage always requires a day or two of work to reclaim it from the plants and creatures that move in as soon as human beings move out. In the painting, the surrounding nature is indistinct and seems to be in motion, oozing forward, growing over the property, which is also shown in semi-ruined form, deteriorating back into the landscape, or (re-)emerging from it.

In the centre of the picture, a human figure works on the ruin, reclaiming it from the overgrowth and the effects of time and weather. The figure is painted as a silhouette or shadow, a dark hole in the landscape. This echoes another painting from the same period in Sarah’s work: Friedrich’s Mountain, Botched Romance. In this piece, too, the human element (a collapsing house/shelter) in an otherwise natural landscape appears as a “hole” in the painting: a blank white patch of unpainted canvas. The nearly-black figure in Shirking Your Responsibilities can also be seen as a hole or intrusion, a blank space in an otherwise fecund landscape. The human is in the environment, working on it, but also an incursion, a break.

While presenting the human being as a shadow or emptiness in nature, the painting also suggests continuity between the human and its environment. The organic lines and melting, running areas of snow/paint merge the building and the surrounding plants and hillside, suggesting that the formation of human habitation is a process, part of an emergence from and return to nature. The cottage has been built, ruined and rebuilt; it must be continually maintained to prevent it disintegrating. The use of traditional local materials for the construction of the cottage and its depiction in the painting as embedded in its environment also indicate that it is not so much a space taken or taken back from nature, but a habitation for human beings within nature. It is a living space built from its natural environment and negotiated with the proliferating life around it.

The title, Shirking Your Responsibilities, likely refers most literally to the common perception of the production of art as well as the painstaking work of building by hand in an age of industrial construction techniques as non-serious, non-productive and self-indulgent pursuits. But together with the sense of time-induced change presented in the painting, the title also suggests a hiatus: the idea of taking a pause to experience life as a being embedded in the world; a break in the usual everyday pursuits in which we’re usually absorbed.

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