They couldn’t be from more different backgrounds, but the art being produced by Sharon Farrelly and Santhanha Nguyen is drawn from their unusual awareness of suicide.
The two graduates from Birmingham City University’s School of Art in Margaret Street are both optimistic, fun people, bravely trying to make a path for themselves through their own artistic creativity.
Yet their works sometimes reflect the darker side of life, too.
“Suicide is painless,” went the lyrics to the theme tune to M*A*S*H in 1970, but Sharon and Santhanha know only too well that it is a decidedly mixed message.
At 43, Leamington Spa-born Sharon is a newcomer to professional art.
She grew up in Warwick and later switched careers to become a police officer with the Metropolitan Police and a prison warder who used to be on suicide watches at Wormwood Scrubs Prison.
Her art aims to reinvent the golden age of film and television in new and surprising ways.
Twenty years her junior, Santhanha Nguyen has created a painting called 13, in memory of a girl who jumped to her death from the 13th floor of a Birmingham car park.
Their new exhibitions have opened under New Art West Midlands banner, the biggest project of its kind championing new artists in England and funded by The Arts Council using Lottery money.
Trying to become a full-time Fine Art practitioner is Sharon’s fifth career move.
She started out working as a press officer for the Acid Jazz record label and then became a magazine stylist. Realising she wasn’t making a good living, she responded to adverts on impulse and became a WPc in the Met.
After four years on the streets, Sharon started working with Category A and B prisoners in Wormwood Scrubs.
Two years later she joined the probation service for two years and then decided it was time to do what she’d always wanted – to study and to make art properly.
Sharon’s creations are inspired by Hollywood and TV from the pre-celebrity age. One work is called Elvis The Pimp.
She adores films from the 1940s and 50s through to stars like Julie Christie and Paul Newman in the Sixties.
And the British TV humour of the 1970s has a special place in Sharon’s heart, too, hence paintings like Sid (James) and Babs (Barbara Windsor). “I love Les Dawson, Tommy Cooper, Dick Emery, Danny La Rue and characters such as Frank Spencer,” says Sharon.
“My work is like Les Dawson playing his piano out of key to a piece by Sergio Rachmaninoff at the Royal Albert Hall... some will get it, some won’t, but they’re spewed panoramic images of popular culture.
“I like the complexities of fine art, but love adding humour. I find life funny.” Sharon’s paintings are partly autobiographical, with her mother and late father represented by Babs and Sid, or even Fred and Wilma Flintstone.
“Being picked for New Art West Midlands is a real honour. I am really over the moon,” she says. “Becoming an artist painter is answering a lot questions I have as human being.”
“I use crayons, waxes, oils and drawings to create different types of stuff.
“I haven’t felt this excited since I was a child because it’s so difficult to do something like fine art.”
Out of her eight years of public service, she says two years inside Wormwood Scrubs was worse than four years on the streets in the Met.
“I was dealing with people who had been on the news for what they had done,” she says. “I was on C Wing with 390 prisoners and it was like I was locked up with them on my 12-hour shifts.
“You are literally in there with the prisoners. Trying to keep humanity with individuals was the reason I left in the end.
“You’d see men coming in with long jail sentences and not being able to cope and there would be a lot of drugs inside, too.
“You find out all about the base nature of human behaviour.
“I would be on suicide watch with some of them where you have to check them every 15 minutes.
“But three times men did commit suicide either by hanging themselves or, despite the nets, by jumping.
“All that experience – and all the jobs I’ve had where I’ve worked really, really long hours, you bring to the (art) table.
“That part of my life really influences my work.”
‘I was on the 37 bus once when I saw someone drop down from the 13th floor. It was draining and scary’ - Santhanha Nguyen
Minutes after meeting bright new Birmingham-born artist Santhanha Nguyen, we’re in the lift heading to the top floor of the city’s notorious Moat Lane car park.
The Digbeth building has unfortunately become well known because of the number of people who have jumped from it in recent years and it is the building and the human emotion which has surrounded it, which has caught the artist’s eye. One of her works, called simply 13, is about the exposed nature of this heavily windswept open space.
Santhanha shows me how she likes to peer over various edges.
Like a racing driver, it’s the danger which she finds stimulating.
Having graduated last summer, Santhanha has continued working while developing her fascination with urban spaces.
She’s working part time for National Express as an administrator to pay the bills and buy food as well as being a voluntary curator at the RBSA to produce exhibitions.
“It costs £250 per month to have a studio space and that’s a lot of money when you’ve got your own flat,” she says. “But I’d like to go to the Royal College of Art to do a masters.”
Santhanha adds: “My experience of life is different to Sharon, I wouldn’t say I know everything and I don’t have what she’s got.
“I’m learning every day and that’s important for new things. I am seeing things how I have seen them.
“And in 20 years’ time, I will probably see things differently to how I see them now. At times I feel confident, at other times lost. I don’t plan my day. I like to see where it takes me. I have to keep optimistic and think that I can do things.”
Santhanha paints with acrylic on board. “I like things ASAP,” she laughs.
“It took me two weeks to do the car park painting. I like to be free, throwing it on a board.
“I like the flexibility of working with different materials and colours like turquoise and blue. But I stay away from black and use browns and blues instead after I was taught that your eyes will always be drawn to it.”
One of the words she uses to describe the nature of her work is psychogeography. “It’s an actual term,” she tells me.
“It’s all about spaces and the urban environment and how it affects people’s emotions. A theme park is a very different place to a car park.
“I like to see how places affect people, that’s the weird thing about it.
“I’ve been up there to the 13th floor at Moat Lane when the sun is setting and it looks different. I was on the 37 bus once, when someone dropped down. That was draining and scary.”
Santhanha’s work is often inspired by her own photographs.
“You are trying to make people see what you can see with your own eyes,” she says. “Photography is the new painting. It’s art, but you don’t see it in that kind of light.”
Santhanha’s Vietnamese father is a sous chef, while her mum – who made up her daughter’s name only to realise it was a variation on rock band Santana with the same pronunciation – works for a catering business in town.
Her grandparents came from Jamaica, Arab Egypt, Ireland and Scotland. How does she see herself?
“I think I have Chinese eyes,” she smiles. “But I’m still a Brummie!”
Region hosts young talent
New Art West Midlands, featuring the work of young artists in the region, is at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery , The Barber Institute of Fine Arts , Grand Union , 19 Minerva Works, Fazeley Street, and Wolverhampton Art Gallery .
Other featured artists include James Birkin, who is campaigning to save modernist buildings in Coventry, and Gregory Dunn, whose pieces are inspired by the Wye Valley and the golden age of cultural tourism.
Special associated events include Waving not Drowning… Surviving as an Artist in the West Midlands (BMAG, Saturday March 8, 11am-4pm, free).