“Who am I today?” : Katie Sollohub’s daily post-swim portraits

© Katie Sollohub

Katie Sollohub is a painter, who swims in the sea. Or is she a sea swimmer, who paints? The distinction, like much of the recent body of work she has produced, is somewhat blurry.

Let me explain. Katie’s daily practice, for her latest series of work, is to paint a head-and-shoulders self-portrait immediately after her daily swim (all year round, rain or shine), in the bathroom of her Shoreham home, before she has changed into her everyday clothes. She uses watercolours, thinning the pigments with a mini jam-jar full of the seawater she has just swum in.

When I visit her, one cold blustery morning, 18 months into this practice, she’s already had her plunge. “I thought that I’d stop my post-swim portrait after a year,”’ she tells me, curled into an armchair, in a sitting room full of her own paintings. “But then I thought, ‘why stop?’ it’s become part of my daily routine, like cleaning my teeth. In fact, I paint the pictures in the same place as I clean my teeth: the paints sit next to my toothbrush.”

We spend over an hour together, in that cosy space, overlooking the estuary that turns the Shoreham Beach area into something of an island (seeing the tidal flow every day, she says, has a subtle but powerful effect on her). She’s a great talker; I hardly have to ask any questions.

First, she tells me the story of her swimming. She hadn’t been a natural swimmer as a kid, but she learnt to love it when she was studying for a year at University of Perugia in 1993/4, and she had a lot of time on her hands. When she came back to Brighton, to study art at Northbrook College, Worthing, she had a daily swim in the Prince Regent pool, which she kept up for seven years, perfecting her crawl technique, and a splashless butterly stroke. At the pool she met a friend, who suggested she swam in the sea, instead. So she joined a group of all-year swimmers called ‘The Water Babies’, who swim off Shoreham Beach, five minutes from her home. All this, despite a fear of straying too far from shore (“of monsters, lurking”), which she compares to vertigo.

Throughout this time, of course, she was painting, but it wasn’t until recently that the two practices converged. She had developed a reputation as a painter of interiors, in oils. Large, colourful paintings in which she “lets go of gravity” with the result that the viewer is left immersed in the setting, experiencing the room through the emotions it evokes in her, as well as through her eyes. There’s a Cubist element to them, a relaxation of formal structure: things aren’t necessarily in the places you’d expect them to be.

Covid put a halt to all that, so she merged her passions. She started painting fellow swimmers, after their dip, still on the beach, learning to work quickly, in gloves, using watercolours. She often employed her left hand as well as her right, to create a more intuitive, spontaneous feel to the portraits, the fluidity of her brushstrokes recalling the fluidity of the sea they had just emerged from. She was awarded an Arts Council grant for this project, and kept it up, three or four times a week, for six months. “I liked watching their features emerging,” she says, “from the tide of watercolours, on my paper.”

She still does such portraits, but decided to concentrate on a sister project, which she had been practicing intermittently up to then: painting herself after every swim, “still shaken up by the experience of being in the water.” She finds the experience of her daily dip life-enhancing, and it’s important to her to capture her expression and mood while she is still buzzing with the “Redy-Brek glow” engendered by her immersion in the ocean. “I’m often surprised at who looks back at me from the mirror,” she says. “She doesn’t always seem to reflect how I think I feel. I go in there thinking ‘who am I, today?’ Maybe she knows something I don’t.”

She ushers me round her home: her studio in the garden; the tiny bathroom where she paints herself; her study, where she keeps all her portraits, stacked up neatly and placed, chronologically, in boxes, the date written, carefully, on the back. She spreads out a few of the more recent ones, to show me. It’s a rather intimate moment: like looking into her soul. Some of the images are detailed, filling the square; others are brief, like visual haikus. There’s a whole spectrum of colours, and tones. She is usually still wearing her swimming cap, her goggles often perched on her head; in one she is wearing three hoods, like a rainbow halo. Though she rarely smiles, you can detect a range of emotions behind her eyes. “Sometimes the colours reflect my mood, sometimes the mood of the sea,” she says. “Sometimes they reflect the yellows and oranges of the sunset.”

Then she stacks herself back up, puts herself back into the boxes, a year’s work taking up the space of a few books on the shelf. It’s time to go. On the stairs, next to a rather sombre painting of her Russian grandmother, I ask her, as a parting shot, what she will do with the portraits. “When I start dying,” she says, as if the idea has just occurred to her, “I will immerse them, one by one, in sea water. The paint will dissolve, and I will disappear.”

Words by Alex Leith