Interview: Sharon Dowsett

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Christabel Stewart: What attracted you to a career in make-up?

Sharon Dowsett: Since an early age I've been interested in the transforming ability of make-up. I went to a progressive primary school and was able to get away with wearing lipstick. However, my strict grammar school was not so open-minded and my excesses were confined to the weekend. My mum's green and blue creamy eyelids were inspirational and I practised [make up application] on aunts at weddings. After studying languages and working in the travel industry for some years, I swerved back to my first passion and struggled to get a foot on the professional ladder. The first opportunity arose whilst working with Laurence Olivier on a stage production called 'Time'. Listening to his 70 year old make-up artist telling tales of Vivien Leigh's 40-minute lip application in Gone With The Wind had me hooked.

Christabel Stewart: What role do you think make-up has now in fashion image making?

Sharon Dowsett: Huge! They're hand-in-hand, especially with collaborations such as trailblazer Pat McGrath and visionary designer John Galliano. The make-up artist's place in the creative team is increasingly recognised and important. It's all about teamwork - you don't stand alone in this business and would never progress without suggestions, challenges and support. The photographer, designer and stylist have ultimate control but the make-up artist's opinion and input is welcomed, vital to the balance and outcome of the image. From a commercial standpoint, fashion sells make-up and vice-versa so it's a collaboration that will continue and become increasingly powerful. Make-up lines that are make-up artist driven are the most successful.

Christabel Stewart: Can you describe your approach to developing an idea. Does it often spring from your imagination, a brief or develop in the physical application?

Sharon Dowsett: Yes to all three, and including research. In the case of 'Articles of Faith', we looked at books on anatomy, nature, tribes and religions. Nick initiated the brief and Simon directed the designs from the start. The make-up always develops in the physical application and I'm a great believer in making accidents work for you! Sometimes I don't know what I'm doing and ask my subject if they've had an interesting dream lately! It can be as simple as twisting colours from an oil painting and looking into the shadows. The process is always carried along by teamwork and I don't think you can complete such a journey alone. I love working in a collective and feed off other creatives, from illustrators to designers to other make-up artists. Usually I'm inspired directly by the world around me and have critical eyes despite my shortsightedness.

Christabel Stewart: How did this particular collaboration come about with Nick Knight and Simon Costin?

Sharon Dowsett: Way back in 1999, Simon Costin asked me to collaborate on a bejewelled face for Joop!. The following year, Simon approached 'V' magazine as to whether they would be interested in featuring a series of crystal encrusted faces. Their positive response led Simon to approach me again and he asked whether I had any suggestions regarding photographers. I believe in starting at the top, so of course I asked Nick Knight! We were working together on 10th September 2001 and I popped the question. Nick intimated that he would be interested if he could use the material for SHOWStudio and we agreed to a two-pronged project of film and stills. Then disaster hit the next day and when we met the following week to discuss the project, Nick said that he wanted the theme to be about religion.

A few months later I was introduced to filmmaker Gary Tarn who had the idea of a documentary entitled 'What do you Pray and What do you Say' so I immediately roped him in. He very graciously assisted my research and collected prayers from [people on] the street. Nick wanted to hear from real people in desperate situations, although some of the prayers are more down-to-earth and almost comic despite their poignancy. The same night I met actress Nina Young and was struck by her classic beauty, especially her ethereal eyes and the even spacing of her features. She agreed to participate and star in our project but the first application of make-up landed her in casualty! We trod very carefully thereafter...

Christabel Stewart: This project has a very strong feeling of theatre and performativity. What were your sources?

Sharon Dowsett: The project is primarily about the power of prayer. Man has always tried to get in touch with the divine and often dresses up or wears a mask to communicate with his god or gods (apart from Christianity which teaches that you can speak directly through Jesus). Most of the time there's an element of costume and ritual involved in religions to intimidate or inspire awe. I was concerned about using religious symbols when I had little knowledge so tried to study the differences between them (I couldn't find many!). Eventually the symbolism became more about nature and the elements (fish, flesh, fire, forest etc.) and less about separate beliefs. Simon was extremely instrumental in providing references and leading the make-up designs. We met on several occasions and each time progressed our ideas further. They became increasingly horrific but I wanted to keep some positivity. The tension between light and dark worked in the final images.

Christabel Stewart: Make-up has been discussed as a 'third medium'. This project takes it almost into costume. Where do you draw the line between your role and Simon's as set designer?

Sharon Dowsett: The line is very blurred! I don't think of Simon as a set designer but as an art director. He was incredibly hands-on and I would never have created the finished faces without his tremendous input. It was truly a collaboration that he incited. We were almost dressing the face so I suppose it was more costume than make-up, especially with accessories such as crystals and sequins (and tiger claws and feathers and clay and sweet wrappers...). What made application more difficult was the fact that mobility was required for the prayer recitals. My full-time assistant Andrew Gallimore spent weeks creating the main pieces with advice from skin jewellery designer J Maskrey and I received invaluable help from special effects make-up artist Tanya Noor.

Christabel Stewart: There appears to be quite a strongly defined gender distinction in the fashion world between make-up artists, which is generally the preserve of females, and hairdressing where key figures are men. What do you think about this and the role of feminity in your own practice?

Sharon Dowsett: I think women are generally more gentle and less heavy handed, although I'm enjoying the work of many male make-up artists coming up through the ranks who employ colour with a light touch. I'm not sure that it's mainly the preserve of females: Dick Page, Stefan Marais, Kevyn Aucoin, Way Bandy, Fred Farugia, Francois Nars and Tom Pecheux all spring to mind as male make-up greats. Women don't seem to be accepted so readily in the hairdressing world, which I don't understand, but perhaps they're not firm enough in their touch (or attitude!). There are probably more women than men in high street salons but they don't seem to make the leap to session work. Maybe men's opinion is more highly regarded or perhaps they're the perfect flip side to all those women make-up artists. As most male hairdressers seem to be gay I'm not sure that beauty's not entirely a feminine business.