Courtesy of Rebecca Salter

At the Royal Academy of Arts in London, an artist once shattered the glass ceiling and dared to push art’s cultural boundaries. On Oct. 9, the Yale Center for British Art invited this artist, Rebecca Salter, as part of the YCBA’s “at home: Artists in Conversation” series.

Rebecca Salter is a British artist and the first female president of the Royal Academy of Arts. YCBA’s senior research scholar and deputy director for collections Scott Wilcox hosted a public conversation with Salter. During the webinar, viewers gained intimate insights into Salter’s career and notable works.

Jane Nowosadko, the YCBA’s head of public programs, said that the online series seeks to connect the community with artists to discuss various artistic practices and perspectives.

“The ‘at home’ series was created to bring exciting and thought-provoking programs to our audiences remotely,” Nowosadko said. “We wanted to continue to offer an opportunity for our audiences to engage with the Center’s collections and programs.” 

Salter and Wilcox’s discussion began with Salter recounting her career as a painter and printmaker. Upon graduating from Bristol Polytechnic in 1977, Salter spent two years as a research student at the Kyoto City University of Arts in Japan. Here, she learned how to blend Western art techniques with traditional Japanese watercolor methods.

“Once I got down the Japanese language, I had access to a wide breadth of knowledge,” Salter said during the talk.

Studying in Japan changed how she approached painting. The techniques Salter learned shaped her abstract style and taught her how to work with different art mediums.

Salter and Wilcox discussed Salter’s architectural work called “Calligraphy of Light,” which is located in St. George’s Hospital in Tooting, London. Salter said the objective of the piece was to revitalize hospital workers and patients in creating a “light” and “welcoming” space.

When designing “Calligraphy of Light,” Salter turned to aspects of Japanese art and architecture, characterized by strips of brightly lit glass set in bamboo paneling. Throughout the work, there is a consistency of color, materials and clearly defined lines.

“The main purpose of my art is to convey certain moods and feelings that uplift viewers,” Salter said.

Since this large-scale exhibition, Salter has switched her focus to fewer, more impactful works.

To conclude the event, Salter talked about her experience as the first female president of the Royal Academy of Arts. Salter was elected in December 2019, and has since represented members of the Academy, held general assemblies and organized exhibitions showcasing London’s artistic community.

Salter said her presidency is “more of a symbolic role,” but she is honored to represent the Academy’s diverse range of students and staff members.

Besides overseeing the Academy’s operations, Salter said she has worked to create a support system for students. She noted that there is a “huge problem” with mental health within the Academy’s student cohort. To amend this, she has instituted resilience training for students. This training teaches them stress relief techniques.

Even during the pandemic, Salter hopes that members of the artistic community can connect with each other to provide support and encouragement.

Wilcox said there is much that viewers and artists can learn from Salter.

“The historical importance of her being the first woman president made it important that our audience get to meet her through the series,” Wilcox said. “She shows how an artist can be successful while still being unpretentious, encouraging to others, and just plain nice.”

The digital series has seven installments. The next event in the “at home” series is a webinar on Oct. 23 featuring New York-based artist Anthony McCall.

Cynthia Sutanto | cynthia.sutanto@yale.edu