Elaine Speirs, Painter | International Women's Day
Sahara operates as a strong, female-founded business. Progressing the narrative around equality will inevitably lead to change, and we take the opportunity every International Women’s Day to show solidarity.
This year’s theme, Break the Bias, aims to educate on and encourage actively calling out gender bias, discrimination, and stereotyping. Bias, whether intentional or unconscious, makes it difficult for women to move ahead. It is not enough to recognise bias; action is required to level the playing field.
Our contribution to the conversation involves highlighting the thoughts and incredible work of women in creative fields. Hear from a painter, woodworker, potter, photographer and storyteller about how they manage, orchestrate, lead, and make vital decisions regarding their businesses. Learn about their unique journeys, insights around unconscious biases, and visions for an equal future.
A celebrated painter and creator, Elaine Speirs has a beautiful and ever-evolving body of work. Starting out life in Johannesburg, then moving to Paisley, Scotland, as a child, her experiences in and between these two places spurred an interest in the themes of fragility, contradiction, and reinvention that recur throughout her work.
Working in a creative field can often mean a non-linear career path – how did you come to work as a painter and what sparked artistic impression?
My path to becoming an artist began with the most wonderful tutor who encouraged art and creativity in all aspects and gave me a hunger for making. I want to give that back and so I teach alongside my practice in the hopes that I can ignite something as she did in me. I went on to complete my BA at Edinburgh College of Art and Masters at Slade School of Fine Art.
I always knew I wanted to be a painter. I love oil paint and how it transforms every day. It is never the same and never behaves the same way twice. I am constantly floored by its ever-changing nature.
Rose Arch and Blue Pond, oil on linen, 130cmx200cm
"As a single mother of three, having raised my children since they were little, I have become perturbed and distracted by the noise of bias, but I have accumulated strength and energy through constantly overcoming it. It informs the care and respect I have for the females I paint."
Femininity is multi-faceted and powerful. What role, if any, does femininity play in your perspective when painting?
Femininity plays a big role in my painting. You can see evidence of that through the seductive use of colour that I use. The subtle narrative in my work currently is looking at Thomas Hardy’s 19th Century portraits of female wisdom – their strengths and vulnerabilities are constantly interchanging and tangible within my work.
As a woman in the creative industry, can you speak to a time you have been on the receiving end of other peoples’ unconscious biases – perhaps you have had a positive experience you would like to share?
I would love to be able to say I have (had a positive experience), but this is a constant battle within society – there is still a stigma that is hard to define, one which excludes or frustrates direct progress within the world of creativity for women. My practice is constantly negotiating daily life. There has never been a period of complete flow and I see every day in my working environment how my male counterparts have a very structured timetable with no interruption. I want to champion equality; I want to see barriers broken. As the mother of three daughters, I want them to have the same capacity to succeed as I see in men.
Too often unconscious biases affect how we view ourselves. Have you had to overcome your own biases in order to achieve what you have either personally or professionally?
As a single mother of three, having raised my children since they were little, I have become perturbed and distracted by the noise of bias, but I have accumulated strength and energy through constantly overcoming it. It informs the care and respect I have for the females I paint. I respect and love them even more, thinking of the history we all share.
Left: Waiting, oil on linen, 165cm x 155cm | Right: Secret Garden, oil on linen, 60cm x 50cm
What action do you think women can take to support and empower each other, and what role do you think men have to play in achieving equality?
I am lucky to have around me multi-faceted, formidable, and inspiring women who enable me to be my best self, and love what I do. They help me find reassurance and safety in my studio. Men are still, on the whole, making big decisions in all areas within the arts, which drips down to our children - our future. Men must redress this imbalance and use their power for the good.
What piece of advice would you give to young women in the creative industry?
I would speak to any girl as I do to my daughters because they should strive for the best and surround themselves with supportive and loving female allies to enable them to pursue their own dreams. Our new generations are overcoming these biases and I watch proudly – they must continue to do that.
Left: Four Ladies, oil on linen, 100cm x 120cm | Right: Elaine at home in Edinburgh with her three daughters.
Have you been inspired by another woman working in the creative industry that you’d like to spotlight? If so, what qualities led you to choose them?
I have been inspired by the painter Joan Mitchell. Mitchell was one of the few female painters to gain critical and public acclaim – her work speaks to me. She was simply decades before her time, and I would have liked to talk with her about her motivation and vision. Mitchell said that she wanted her paintings “to convey the feeling of the dying sunflower” and “some of them come out like young girls, very coy...they’re very human”.
Find out more, and discover Speirs' work here.
Speirs is represented by Arusha Gallery, Edinburgh.