Creative women at work: Sofie Layton an artist who gets to The Heart of the Matter

— by Alyson Walsh

3D printed hearts by Sofie Layton

It was heartening (excuse the pun) to meet Sofie Layton, an artist who is full of energy and enthusiasm. Collaborating with other artists and more recently medical professionals and patients, she likes to tell stories about social engagement through her artwork and installations. Layton’s latest exhibition The Heart of the Matter has just arrived in London; a show at the Copeland Gallery in Peckham, opens this week. With funding from the Wellcome Institute, Layton was invited to become artist in residence at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital where she developed The Heart of the Matter, together with bioengineer Giovanni Biglino and health psychologist Jo Wray. The exhibition explores the complexity of the heart through various art forms – paramount to the project is a deep engagement with hospital patients with heart conditions, and their families, ‘It’s a real privilege to work with people, to be allowed into their lives,’ Layton tells me, ‘It is really important that their stories are honoured.’

Sofie and Giovanni

‘Traditionally, artists are seen as working in isolation but the collective voice is quite an empowered position,’ adds the artist whose mother was a nurse and great grandfather Thomas ‘Tubby’ Layton was dean at Guy’s & St Thomas’ Hospital in London, ‘I always say that I’m an artist but I don’t work in normal gallery settings, the fine art world is not the world I inhabit.’ Having failed Art ‘O’ level, Layton went on to study a combined degree in Art and Drama at Nottingham Trent University, and this diversity of interests informs her work, today. ‘Coming from combined practise, I always wanted to create more performative spaces, to look at things from a different perspective. I don’t tend to go into the studio and make art for myself. It’s about people.’  

Prior to The Heart of the Matter project Layton was employed as an artist in residence at Guy’s & St Thomas’ Hospital and it was during this secondment she realised that part of the story was missing. ‘I was exploring the fragile space of care – how parents protect a sick child – when I realised that I needed to understand the science behind it. I needed to talk to scientists and clinicians, to inhabit the medical world. And that this interdisciplinary work would create a much richer voice.’ 

‘A heart put back together after surgery may be as puzzling as a Rubik’s Cube.’

Layton is convinced that this final stop on the UK tour – you may have been lucky enough to see the exhibition in Newcastle or Bristol – is not the end of The Heart of the Matter. That this is a project that will continue to grow, ‘We all have our own heart stories whether metaphorical or medical. As an artist I want to go further, to keep exploring, keep adding to this.’ She goes on to tell me about a condition called Takosubo or broken-hearted syndrome, ‘Takosubo is the word used to describe an ‘octopus pot’ in Japan (the ceramic pot that entices octopus in and then they can’t get out) and it affects people of all ages. Manifesting itself like a heart attack, it creates ballooning of the heart – this is being researched right now. The heart becomes the shape of an octopus pot.’ Having carried out a pilot workshop with a group of seven menopausal women where she ‘asked each of them to write a letter to their heart,’ Layton has plans for this programme to form the next piece in the Heart of the Matter series.

Sofie Layton running a workshop at Great Ormond Street


In the meantime, Sofie Layton has started a Master of Research degree at the Royal College of Art, ‘I feel like this is a year for me to explore. There are other people on the course who are in their early fifties, too, and it’s quite humbling. I don’t know it all, I’m still learning.’

The Heart of the Matter is on at Copeland Gallery from 1 – 11 November 2018, including a panel discussion on Weds 7 November and exhibition tours. If you’re new to Peckham, grab a coffee at Brickhouse Bakery or the Coal Rooms (the former ticket office) at Peckham Rye train station. And after the exhibition, I can highly recommend the filled flatbreads at Social, right next to the gallery.

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