Visual artist Victor Sloan on the influences behind his new Belfast Exposed exhibition

Following the launch of his latest exhibition world renowned visual artist Victor Sloan speaks to Sophie Clarke about his creative process, his favourite places to exhibit and teaching during the Troubles...

Visual artist Victor Sloan courtesy of Belfast Exposed
Visual artist Victor Sloan courtesy of Belfast Exposed

PORTADOWN visual artist Victor Sloan has been a prominent figure in the artworld for more than 40 years, developing a reputation for creating powerful images which display his versatility and inventiveness.

Now he has a new exhibition, Beyondwhich is currently showing at Belfast Exposed on Donegall Street as part of this year's Belfast International Arts Festival.

Spanning Sloan's entire career, it includes some of his iconic works and never before exhibited images and video pieces.

Portadown by Victor Sloan
Portadown by Victor Sloan

Sloan has always had a keen interest in art and photography, which is something he credits to his mother.

“At primary school, I discovered that I appeared to have a talent for art. I remember winning a competition for drawing and painting an easter egg when I was about seven. Then, when I began studying at the Royal School Dungannon, I won a competition for photographing a shop window. 

“My mother was a keen photographer. She always used a simple point-and-shoot film camera to photograph our many relatives.”

Drawing Offices by Victor Sloan
Drawing Offices by Victor Sloan

Over the course of his career, he has gained renown for the experimental nature of his work. Some of his visual art may start as a photograph, but through his use of dyes, paints and even ice and snow on occasion, he has created something far more conceptual.

“It's just a combination of my thought processes, methods, and materials. Photography for me was always experimenting, learning, making mistakes, and bringing together my painting techniques with my photographic processes.

“I usually know when I push my camera shutter button if an image will be good or not. I continue by applying inks, and with the aid of a magnifying glass, drawing into the negatives using needles, scalpel blades, and other sharp instruments, enlarging those images, before finally working over the prints with toners, dyes, inks, paints, and bleach.

“I sometimes worked on the images in my back garden. The pictures are held down with stones on the corners and, over periods of up to a month, I leave them there and re-work them. The random intervention by the elements is important. As I was working on my Borne Sulinowo series, we had severe snow and ice. My paint brushes and chemicals froze, producing effects I would not otherwise have achieved”, he explained.

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In addition to being an experimental artist, Sloan is also well known for using his work to comment on political, social, and cultural aspects of Northern Ireland. Many of his series have explored places such as Craigavon, Drumcree and Portadown, as well as events such as Sham Fight, Drumming and The Baron.

Belfast by Victor Sloan
Belfast by Victor Sloan

However, he believes this exhibition will be an opportunity to showcase his wider portfolio.

“Over the years there has been a tendency to focus mostly on my Northern Ireland images to the detriment of all the other work I produce. This exhibition goes some way to redress the balance.”

Prior to his success, Sloan was an art teacher for many years, teaching at Lurgan Tech at the height of the Troubles, which he describes as a violent and reactive time. 

“It certainly had its challenges," he remembers.

"The college was opposite an old factory in Kitchen Hill, Lurgan, which was a base for the army. Because of the very strict security around the army camp, it was difficult for my students to appear outside the college with cameras. Many had their cameras confiscated or film removed.

“I was teaching one evening when a missile was fired at the camp past the windows of the art rooms. Fortunately, it caused no damage. On many other occasions, the windows were shattered.

“Several of my students were then being wounded or killed. One particular student of mine was captured on his return from an evening out, tortured, and killed, but it was a mistaken identity. Another student worked as a taxi driver part-time. One night, he answered a call to pick someone up. The client ordered him to stop in the countryside and he was shot dead. 

“On another occasion, I returned to college after lunch to discover a student lying unconscious against a wall with a bad knife wound after a sectarian attack, luckily, he survived after intensive major surgery.

“This period was particularly turbulent. I think I completed some of my most ‘successful’ works then. I experienced the situation personally, reacting at the time to what was there in front of me and later reacting to the photographic negative and print.” 

Since then, he has gone on to exhibit his work throughout Europe, North America, South America and Asia and his pieces can be found in numerous private and public collections around the world.

Poland by Victor Sloan
Poland by Victor Sloan

“Germany is probably my favourite country as they appear to relate to my images and working methods," says Victor.

"My most recent showing there was the major exhibition Of people and walls – 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 2019."

Now regarded as one of Northern Ireland’s preeminent photographers of the last 25 years, when asked what advice he would give to the next generation of young artists, he tells me: “Never give up your dream, but don't expect people to come to your house looking for your work to exhibit.

“I started in the early sixties by exhibiting my work in a coffee shop in Dungannon and then in libraries. Recognition can be a long, slow process, but stick with it. Keep doing what you do, not what you think people might like.”

Beyond will be in Gallery 1 in Belfast Exposed from October 12 until December 21. Victor Sloan will also be in conversation during a special artist talk on October 26. belfastexposed.org