Sarah Britten Art

Paintings in lipstick

Crash and Burn

August is a significant month for me. On the 31st, I turn a year older. On the 15th, I will be privileged to speak at TEDxJohannesburg. And two dates, August 2 and August 19, stand out as anniversaries of two of the most horrible days in the past four years.

August 2 was my grandfather’s birthday. I still miss him. I still feel wracked by guilt that I didn’t visit him in hospital on the Sunday that he died. I still remember how my brother James and I stood in the pew in St Michael’s and sobbed helplessly.

August 2 stands out for other reasons. It was a seminal day in the short but messy and painful trail that led to my divorce in 2009. My TEDx talk tells the story of how I started painting with lipstick, and how my ex-husband catalysed this strange moment of creation. So one of the slides I am preparing for the talk is a painting of my divorce.

I’ve been using the analogy of a plane crash for my failed marriage for years – how it trailed smoke for months before crashing and burning – but this is the first time I’ve painted it. It was inspired by a movie my father watched again and again back in the 1980s, The Right Stuff.


That billowing black cloud of smoke remained etched into my memory, and when I wanted to portray what had happened, it was to this image that I turned. This was the first version:

And this is the second – a more minimalist ┬áversion in which the smoke curves more sinuously. I agonised over which direction is should travel in – left to right, or right to left? Eventually I settled on left to right, because that is how we read, so it is the progression of time, and my divorce has cast a long shadow over these four years.

I don’t find this a negative image, funnily enough. I wanted to paint the smoke because I find it beautiful and I enjoyed expressing it in black lipstick. While I painted this, I read about the devastation in Syria, and the unimaginable scale of death and destruction is something I alluded to here as well. ┬áSo this is an ambiguous work, which draws on more than one source of inspiration, and is both awful and aesthetically pleasing.

This is a subject that draws me, and I think I will be painting more versions of it until i work it out of my system.

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