Open the door on an artist’s travels

Travelling has had an enormous impact on artist Sarah Hall Baqai and its influence on her work is obvious. There’s a sense of place in almost everything she does. The enormous papier mache bull that sits in front of the bedroom fireplace and the bust of a bullfighter sculpted from paper and wire that lives in her home studio are both inspired by working and exploring in Spain.

There is also evidence of her putting down roots. Her latest work includes a series of pieces that arise from famous York characters Dick Turpin, Guy Fawkes and Margaret Clitherow. The city is her home after she and her husband, Kareem, and son, Finn, 13, settled in the city in 2010.

This sculpture was inspired by Sarah's time in Spain

This sculpture was inspired by Sarah's time in Spain

“I met Kareem at the London College of Printing and we travelled a lot when we were younger. We spent six months in South America and then we lived in London before moving to Amsterdam,” she says. “Moving to York meant we could be closer to my parents and my sister while still having easy access to London by train.”

The family rented while searching for somewhere to buy and it took two years to find the perfect house. The Georgian property in Fulford was in need of renovation but ticked all the boxes on their wish list, thanks to its period features, garden and proximity to the city centre and good schools.

“It belonged to an old man who had lived here for 50 years and so it needed updating but I loved it as soon as I walked in. It had a good feeling and it was quirky. The location is great because I can cycle into the city centre very easily,” says Sarah, who is a familiar figure on the Fulford Road thanks to her distinctive blue bicycle, which she bought in Amsterdam.

She and Kareem are planning to move the kitchen into the dining room and turn the old kitchen into a utility room and studio. The rest of the house is almost complete and they have insulated, rewired, replumbed, repaired and redecorated to make it their own.

Jonny Hannah's prints feature heavily in the hall and on the stairway

Jonny Hannah's prints feature heavily in the hall and on the stairway

It is obvious that the property belongs to an artistic family. Kareem is Creative Leader for Taylor’s of Harrogate and Finn is a gifted artist.

The hallway is a gallery for some of their favourite pictures, some are by Sarah but most are by printmaker Jonny Hannah and bought from Hornseys in Ripon.

“I love his work as it includes typography and folk art,” she says.

The sitting room, is deliberately calm with Farrow and Ball’s Off-White walls and neutral linen curtains. Giant hogweed that Sarah pulled from a riverbank and left to dry is a focal point in one corner along with some of her sculptures.

Sarah at work in her studio, which the public will soon get a chance to see as part of the York Open Studios event.

Sarah at work in her studio, which the public will soon get a chance to see as part of the York Open Studios event.

The sofa and retro chair are from Holland and there’s homeware from Hema in Amsterdam, which is “like the Conran shop but cheaper”. She also like design classics so the dining chairs are by Arne Jacobsen and there are buys from Ikea and vintage stores.

“The house is old and a bit shabby so it suits a mix of old, found and beautifully-designed objects,” she explains.

The dresser is a recent acquisition and is perfect for holding lots of mementoes from trips abroad. There are souvenirs from Spain, Sri Lanka, Mexico, India and Japan, among other places.

The house also provides plenty of space for working from home. There is an office on the first floor and Sarah requisitioned a rear sitting room to use as a studio on the ground floor.

Sarah working on some new pieces for the York Open Studios event

Sarah working on some new pieces for the York Open Studios event

It’s where she dreams up new ideas and sets to work with paper, wire and paint. The materials and her playful subject choices helped her gain prominence early in her career.

She did an art foundation course at Harrogate College, followed by a degree at the London College of Printing. After working and travelling in Andalusia, she began experimenting with papier mache and sculptural forms inspired by the fiestas. Since then, paper, wire and folklore have been central to her work.

She and Kareen were among the first tranche of artists and makers to pioneer warehouse living in Shoreditch long before it became fashionable.

“It was great time in our lives but the area has changed a lot since then and it’s no longer affordable,” she says.

While she was there, she was discovered by Mary Portas who commissioned her to make an installation for the fashionable Voyage store. The Delicate Confections collection of underwear made from recycled doilies featured in Vogue and went on to an exhibition in Paris. Her work is now commissioned by private and commercial clients and has been exhibited in the UK, France, The Netherlands and America.

Since moving to York, she has become well-known for her exquisite willow and paper lanterns.

The sofa is from Holland and the bird sculptures are by Sarah

The sofa is from Holland and the bird sculptures are by Sarah

“They have great atmospheric qualities, which work really well in an evening outdoor setting,” says Sarah, who is now busy deconstructing hunting prints to create stylised animals on MDF boards.

Visitors to the York Open Studios event will be able to see them, along with her lanterns and sculptures, as she is opening her home studio for the event. It will see more than 100 artists and makers open their studios to the public on the weekends of April 21 to 23 and April 29 and 30.

For information on Sarah Hall Baqai’s work visit sarahhallbaqai.com. For more details on the York Open Studios visit yorkopenstudios.co.uk and for a free copy of the event programme email info@yorkopenstudios.co.uk

One of Sarah's papier mache sculptures

One of Sarah's papier mache sculptures