Interview with The Dartmoor Artist Sarah Smith

Read how a sneeze ended Sarah Smith’s career in her thirties – but led her to discover a new passion (and business) as The Dartmoor Artist.

What’s your career background?

My name is Sarah Smith and I’m a self-taught artist….however…..5,6,7,8 and jazz hands….my background is actually within Performing Arts. I lectured Musical Theatre for ten years across a variety of Colleges, both at further education and secondary level.

This career path came out of a love of jazz, dance, acting and gin (obviously not whilst teaching!)

How did your career change after having children?

After having the kids, my priorities changed. I suddenly felt the mounting workload far more. I was rushing my own children’s bedtime, so that I could mark other children’s portfolios and this didn’t sit right with me. That and the demanding pressure of physical classes.

Little did I know that the onset of back pain in the dance studio, would eventually lead to an event which would change my life and career.

A sneeze back in 2016 led to the discs in my lower spine prolapsing. A year of spinal injections, physio and then spinal surgery during Christmas 2017 led to a very difficult health spell. I couldn’t feel my legs and the pain was unbearable.

As a thirty-something active young woman, I was reduced to bedrest. Those dark bedrest days were transformed when I picked up some paintbrushes in order to add a splash of colour into my life, I coped with the recovery by painting… and I fell head over heels for it. After surgery, painting became my focus and aided the healing process both physically and mentally. 

From this, I have built a small business called ‘The Dartmoor Artist’, an art business which celebrates the Dartmoor landscape and its inhabitants. A business centred in finding a love of something new and a business that I can juggle around being mum. Had I painted before? A little. Not much.    

Where did the idea for your business come from?

I never considered that my art could become a business. It’s firstly a love. However, there was a lightbulb moment when I became more confident with what I was doing and the work just came. ‘The Dartmoor Artist’ has grown organically as I have progressed with my recovery.

Thankfully I only have to look out of the window to be inspired. Living and working on a farm, the land and creatures within this beautiful farmland are a constant source of creative inspiration are are fundamental to the work I create.

I also thought ‘why not?!’ Why not build a business from something I love? Surely it’s important to invest in the things we value, hold dear and enjoy? My mantra is ‘I can. I will’.  

How did you move from idea to actual business?

The starting point was creating a body of work. Using acrylic on card and canvas, I trialled different techniques, brush strokes, colours, pattern, texture – I played a lot!

I eventually felt like my own style was coming through and then I challenged myself to create a body of work for exhibition at a local café.

The exhibition went well and really from there, the work began to flow. Covered in paint, with brushes in my top knot, I explored how I was feeling onto canvas and it was transformative. From there, it led to more conversations and confidence, artisan markets, showcases and to a developing print range. 

What’s your USP?

I like to think my work speaks for itself. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, it’s filled to the brim with colour, fun and my love of nature.

However, I also believe that my USP is about encouraging community. Art was there for me when I felt the lowest of the lows and the transformative power of creativity is something we can all harness. I want to empower others to do the same.  

Who’s your target audience?

Creative women with a love of the natural world.

How do you spread the word about what you do? 

I have my own website which has been a great tool for selling art, but my main traffic comes from Instagram. That platform for me ticks the boxes of community and is a perfect place to show and sell pictures of my work. 

What’s been your most successful marketing strategy?

Connection is integral to success. My work is always centred on storytelling and characterisation. If we connect to something, it’s often because of a story. My work celebrates this at its core.

Each piece is named with a life quote, or a precis of character traits. I also don’t take myself too seriously! I mean, you’ve gotta love a huge deer who’s on a stag do and called Big Dave right?! 

What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?

My back still continues to take the wind out of my sails. I have good days, I have bad days and sometimes I struggle with the nerve damage in my leg. Life is a balance and for me it’s learning how to manage the bad days and listen to my body. 

And your proudest moment so far?

Having a solo exhibition on behalf of the National Trust Gallery here on the Moor was really special. Seeing my work on a gallery wall is still a ‘gulp’ moment and I cannot tell you how proud I feel when someone not only likes my work, but goes on to buy it.

I’m also hugely proud of developing workshops here on the farm to encourage others to find a love for art in a supportive, friendly community. Watch out for the 2020 programme launching soon! Wink wink!

Why is work so important to you?

I need something in my life which is creative, an outlet for how I’m feeling, a coping mechanism, a way to channel thoughts, ideas and to be able to have something that is mine, outside of my role as a wife and mother. 

Who inspires you?

My family are pretty awesome! The rock that is my husband has seen me at my best and my worst and within both he still believes in me and champions what I’m doing. To have that accountability and support is crucial. He will also tell me the truth and call me out on anything, so he’s a great sounding board!  

I’m also really blessed to have many women in my life who inspire me daily. My best friend Ella and I have one of those friendships where we always pick up where we have left off. Nearly twenty years of fun, laughter, wine filled evenings and those big life moments together, we continue to have each other’s backs (no pun intended)    

Creatively, I continue to be bowled over by Helen Bottrill from The Creative Business Network who is one amazingly talented and business savvy lady. Rebecca Bruton, Textile Artist inspires me with her incredible work and her ethos of kindness.

Rachel Smith aka The Wonky Artist is one of the women I hope to meet one day. Breaking her neck in a diving accident, creating an art business and all from what she calls her ‘rolling throne’ is astounding. 

How do you balance your work with your family?

Juggling everything is hugely difficult and I know when I haven’t had my dose of creativity because I’m grumpy! I’m lucky that my studio is a little haven where my children don’t tend to go! I structure my time painting three days a week. I try hard not to be distracted by other jobs. I also have a very supportive family. 

Often we do too much because we care. But self-care needs to shine through. 

What’s your advice for someone wanting to do something similar?

1) Self-care isn’t selfish

Allow yourself the time to do something for you. Don’t put that something off, make time and do it. Don’t let negative inner voices dissuade you from doing something new. It could change your life. I had no idea I would fall in love with art, let alone begin to make a career out of it. Try something new!  

2) Find your tribe

A community is there, ready and waiting. A likeminded creative community exists and when you find your tribe, they will always have your back and you will become cheerleaders for one another. 

It’s really easy to be your own worst critic and think ‘oh that’s not very good’. I’ve learnt to shrug those voices off. I celebrate my mistakes and revel in the opportunity of painting over the bits that didn’t work! Often it’s not the end result it’s the process.  

You can see more of Sarah’s work on her website.