Painted Words, Wordly Paint

Yes, I just made that word up. I needed it, so it had to be. Therein lies the reason for all creation–the puppet master writing life as she trips through it. It’s so much easier to recognize the stage, after you’ve already seen the play.

My first book, The Tramp, will be released tomorrow. While I’m anxious about the reception of my story, I’m buoyed by the reaction to my art. I mined a treasure trove of discarded paintings to create the book covers for all three of my books coming out this year, and the reaction to my visual work through this new book launch experience was an unexpected thrill. Years ago, I had chalked up my soul-searching, technique-perfecting hours with a paintbrush to wasted time. Paintings collect dust in my closets like the world’s most expensive Hoover (if you’re confused by this seemingly passive state of dust collection, imagine the monthly price of a Master’s certificate from Parson’s School of Design), but it seems there is life in them yet!

See them shine, their neglect blazing with graphic design recovery and life-preseving prose!

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If you’re interested in the technical part of turning a painting into a book cover, take a look at my earlier post about making the cover for The Tramp HERE.

But how did this magical thing really happen, i.e. the need to produce a book cover was already satisfied years before said book was even written? Why was that painting so perfect for a book that didn’t even exist yet? Because the soul that found the form also found the words. One moves forward and the other moves backward, but they both arrive in the center.

Here’s the first stage of the painting that became The Tramp’s book cover:

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This is a watercolor painting on paper, made by basically dripping paint randomly onto saturated watercolor paper, then smashing that onto a dry piece of Bristol board. The result is an abstract mess. Next, I used acrylic paint to isolate areas of interest and create the beginning of foreground/background, as they made sense to me visually. Why did I see this as a landscape? Why did I need it to be that? Who knows, but I’m guessing it has something to do with the part of myself that a psychologist would have a field day with.

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Then, I started doodling with an ink pen, having fun and rocking out to my favorite painting playlist. Why did I find a crumbling brick house hung with spider webs and odd little musical instruments fit for faeries, next to a bed-like structure? Why did I attempt to beautify the strangeness with half-hearted foil leaf? Again, psychologist wet dream.

I framed this painting on velvet, with little pearly pins, inside a shadow box (often used to collect and preserve important memorabilia) and hung it in a prominent place in my living room.

Since I saw this painting every day while I was writing, did the ideas that created it leach onto my book subconsciously? It’s possible, but when I’m writing the real world fades pretty dramatically for me. No, I think the symbiosis was of a different nature.

When I first started writing The Tramp, I worked backwards. I started with the climactic scene at the end, then built Shirley County and invented it’s inhabitants to make that scene happen. Sort of like the first stage of the painting, the climactic scene was given to me randomly. I didn’t even make it up, my husband did. “Hey, what about this for a good story?”

SPOILER ALERT! Here’s the climactic scene:

John flexed his knuckles and rubbed his temples, tried to clear his head. He looked around at the countryside. It was as beautiful as Candy promised when she cajoled him into walking farther along the river. Yet, the cliffs were rising steadily higher, turning the sky into a line of unearthly blue. The sides of the cliffs squeezed against them like a vice inching closed. A harvest moon illuminated the rocky layers of sandstone and limestone, casting eerie, stark shadows. The coarse clumps of granite jutting out of the canyon walls formed bizarre faces and anthropomorphic figures that seemed to watch their passage. The gutter between the two mountain ridges was becoming so tight that John could feel cold spray from the river on the other side of the tracks, to his right, and the road to their left had become a single dirt lane. Surely, they would come to the junction, where the road climbed into the mountains and the train headed through a tunnel, where the river turned and hurtled down a waterfall. They’d be forced to turn back then. How long since we’ve even seen a car pass? It was almost ten o’clock. He groaned with irritation when he read at his cell phone’s warning, “Out Of Service Area.”

“You okay, John?” Candy called back to him.

“I think it’s time to turn back.” His voice was swallowed by the sudden blare of a train whistle, echoing out of the ravine ahead.

“What?”

“Hold on a minute…” He waved her over to shelter against the rock wall on the other side of the dirt road, as far away from the train tracks as possible. A headlight streamed around a stony corner, and John could see that the rest of their group was still walking along the tracks, heedless of the approaching train. “You guys, get out of the way,” he yelled, but they couldn’t have heard him. He sat down on an outcrop and leaned his back against the stone, aware that he’d just have to wait it out.

When he looked up, he saw his friends running alongside the train.

What?

They were intent on matching its speed.

My god, what are they thinking?

John watched helplessly as Tyler leapt, making contact with an opened boxcar. He turned to haul a female form in a slinky dress up after him.

Lindsay!

John stepped into the road. “What are you doing?”

Candy raised her hands to John in question, then clapped them over her ears in pain; the train whistle sounded again, rebounding off of stone and water all around them. Metal screeched against metal. John jabbed his finger past her, pointing towards their foolish companions a few hundred yards down the tracks. She spun around in a daze and Sam shot an arm out to steady her.

John watched in horror, as Antonio sprang for the boxcar next. His foot slipped in the gravel, and he hung on with one hand for several seconds, before he lost his grip. He spun once or twice before something large and solid made impact—the next boxcar. His body was thrown backwards, and his legs crumpled under him as he fell to the earth.

And what does that scene have to do with a crumbling shack and weird little musical instruments next to a bed? Absolutely nothing! Yet, somehow those same characters appeared within the story, not as afterthoughts but as major, guiding principals. The Shack (sometimes referred to as The Palace by a certain amorous couple) will be crime scene number one by the end of the four-book series. Music (although I can’t even strum a guitar) is also a major player, rivaling my favorite art form, painting.

And so, somehow the monster that created one found the other. Or vice versa. Painting and prose unite to be…

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Like how I sprang that on you? Oh, yes. The Tramp has a musical soundtrack, because the monster has a partner! Go and throw my heart into the fire, then sift through ashes on your knees…

Listen to the theme song for The Tramp by Her Last Boyfriend, “Bound Hearts”:

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Next, in this “3X5 Art Challenge” on Facebook, I post my favorites. See the first post in this blog series here. These were my first experiments with watercolor, and although I’ll never be a purist (I throw in whatever I need to, after the watery beginnings), working with this medium has changed the way I make art forever.

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After a long period of intense study and contemplation (grad school), my brain was buzzing with the work that never could quite surface with all the scrutiny and pressure of content critiques. After graduating, I brought all the art supplies I had gathered in my Parsons studio home. My school studio had a huge picture window, right next to Union Square in the heart of Manhattan. My tiny studio apartment was in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and had a view of the apartment across the street. I sat in my little living room/dining room with two tv trays pulled up next to the couch and grabbed whatever I needed from the moving boxes, barely even thinking about it, while watching The Skeleton Key on repeat. I don’t know why The Skeleton Key. Comfort movies surface in weird ways, and after grad school, I needed comfort.

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I brought my tools together and worked quickly and intuitively, with much angst and gusto! This series of four, inspired by the famous nursery rhyme, was the result, in graphite, charcoal, ink, marker, pastel, oil pastel, watercolor, gouache, and acrylic paint, and whatever else came to hand, on leftover paper. With a head full of art theory, I said I was exploring our legends, fables, and mysteries as a society, and examining the way we understand cultural archetypes and our personal roles, in reference.

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But really, they were just super fun to make!

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Buy a print here: http://bit.ly/1zKnnCq

Evidence Of Life

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Facebook is only as cool as your friends, right? Sometimes something really good comes out of that juggernaut of social media. Today, it was me being nominated for the “3X5 Art Challenge.” For five days, I’m supposed to post three images of my own art, and then nominate another artist to join the challenge. At first, I thought it seemed like a hassle and I could’ve slapped my “friend” for nominating me to do a glorified chain letter. But only for a few minutes. Because almost immediately I started considering which art I’d like to share, and who I’d love to nominate in return. It made me look at some of my old work (that I hadn’t considered in years), think hard about what it meant to me then and now, and then wonder about connections that I’ve made with other artists along the way.

My first post was about a photo series I shot back in 2004, since the friend that nominated me loves one of them. These are a part of “Evidence of Life,” and were some of the most difficult art pieces that I’ve ever produced. The final image was a simple snapshot, but what went into each was anything but simple. I shot these photographs while was recovering (physically and mentally) from a cataclysmic car crash. I was still alive. Wasn’t I? Barely. Each photograph describes, as closely as possible, my inner self on the journey to the brink of death and back.

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Those three are what I posted on Facebook. The first one was used as cover art by a band I met shortly after producing the series, called The Break Mission. Their album, “As Much Light As It Will Take,” was excellent. I highly recommend a listen: http://bit.ly/1yUoEj6

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My husband, Bill Wathen produced the album with Jeff Knowlton at Smash Studios, close to Times Square in NYC. Fun times.

The following image was another they used, also of the same photo series, for the back cover.

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Buy a print of one here: http://bit.ly/1Ex4e8f

A Safari Of A Song

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The first book I ever published was an illustrated edition of the erotic biblical poem, Song of Solomon. At the time, it seemed like such a random thing for me to do, especially because I don’t consider myself to be at all religious. In hindsight, however, I realize it was the perfect transition from artist to author for me.

First of all, I had become accustomed to telling stories with visual imagery and was all but tongue-tied when it came to expressing myself verbally. Leave it to art school! But, as I designed illustrations for the ancient love song, I was forced to make sense of difficult language, sift through centuries of history and criticism, and finally tease out my own understanding of the text.

Secondly, I felt compelled to complete the project. Honestly, I felt called to do it, as strange as that seemed. So, even though I had never published anything in my life and I often felt stymied by technological minutia, I just stuck it out.

And in the end, I learned that I could actually publish a book. I created LayerCake Productions through that experience. From there, the sky was the limit.

What follows is the Foreword for the short book. Forgive me–it’s rather dry and scholarly, even though Song of Solomon itself is pretty smokin’.  Faced with writing about sex and the bible, though, I guess I just felt safer to stay on the prudish side.

If you’re interested in checking out the eBook, you can find it on Amazon for $0.99 by clicking here. Each image will click through to Fine Art America, where you can purchase prints.

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FOREWORD

Song of Songs of Solomon, also known as simply Song of Songs in Jewish tradition, and Song of Solomon or Canticle of Canticles to Christians, is one of the shortest and most thrilling books of The Old Testament. Believed by many to have been written by Solomon himself around 900 BCE, this beautiful poem portrays the relationship between a woman and a man, from courtship to consummation. Mostly a dialogue between two lovers, “Beloved” is the female protagonist and “Lover,” the male, with commentary from a chorus, sometimes known as Daughters of Israel, referred to as “Friends” in this World English Bible translation.

Filled with surprisingly sensual and erotic language, the song has often been interpreted by many as a parable to the relationship between God and Israel, or between Christ and the Church, or Christ and the human soul, for Christians. This ancient text is one of the most overtly mystical books of the Kabbalah, having no parallel in the whole of Hebrew literature, and many Jewish scholars have interpreted the language to be metaphorically anthropomorphic. It has also been suggested that the song is a messianic text, the lover being interpreted as the Messiah. Historically, Christian mystagogues insisted the sexual language in the song was an allegory to the soul and Christ, believing it should be reserved for only the spiritually mature and that studying it may be harmful for the novice. More recently in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI referred to Song of Songs of Solomon in terms of its apparent literal meaning, stating that erotic love and self-donating love is shown therein as two halves of true love, both giving and receiving.

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The authorship and origin of Song of Songs of Solomon has been as widely researched and debated as has its content. The first clause of the title, “which is of Solomon,” can be construed to mean that the song was either written by Solomon, or for Solomon, and evidence for both meanings exists. Most scholars note that the poem shows similarities to various forms of Ancient Near Eastern love poetry, particularly certain Sumerian erotic passages of the period. Some even suggest that the song is not a single work, but rather a collection of folk love songs from northern Palestine, the references to royalty accounted for by a wedding custom called “The King’s Week,” kept up among the Syrian peasants to the present day.

Differing interpretations and mistranslations of the original Ancient Hebrew text have abounded for centuries, and have provided a fascinating framework for religious legends and romantic myths. One of the most famous and loved mistranslations from 2:1, “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys,” helped form a major character in John Steinbeck’s, The Grapes of Wrath, “Rose of Sharon” (often called “Rosasharn”), who is depicted as fragile throughout the novel, because of her pregnancy. More recent studies have concluded that the original Ancient Hebrew phrase actually refers to the Sharon Plain on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and a flower that blooms there in late summer, not the flowering plant commonly referred to as the Rose of Sharon today.

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Another flower species mentioned in the above verse, Lily of the Valley, is a sweetly scented, yet highly poisonous, flowering plant. If ingested, even in small amounts, this deadly plant can induce abdominal pain, vomiting, and a reduced heart rate. Ironically, laboratory studies have shown the odor of the flower to attract mammal sperm in a dramatic manner, and even to imitate the role of progesterone in stimulating sperm to swim, a reaction known as the Lily of the Valley phenomenon. Even more interestingly, Christian legend also names this plant as “Our Lady’s Tears” or “Mary’s Tears,” in reference to the story that it sprang from the weeping of the Virgin Mary during the crucifixion of Jesus. The Lily of the Valley is used as a symbol of humility in religious paintings, as a sign foreshadowing Christ’s second coming and also as a reminder of the power of men to envision a better world. Scholars now believe that the original Ancient Hebrew text in Song of Songs of Solomon does not, in fact, refer to this flower; however, the mistranslation of the biblical phrase may have had influenced the development of the modern plant name. Certainly, scientific fact and religious legend are now woven together to encourage a captivating reading of the song!

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Whatever debates may rage over Song of Songs of Solomon, the beauty of the poetry and rapturous character of the dialogue is undeniable. A stunning change of pace within the larger biblical narrative, the luscious imagery drips with charisma and begs to be enjoyed on its own terms. However flawed or imprecise a translation from Ancient Hebrew to Modern English may be, I believe the spirit of the story survives, and as an artist, I allowed the poetry itself to speak to me and encourage visual form. Some passages all but scream for visual illustration, for example:

5:10 My beloved is white and ruddy.

The best among ten thousand.

5:11 His head is like the purest gold.

His hair is bushy, black as a raven.

5:12 His eyes are like doves beside the water brooks,

washed with milk, mounted like jewels.

5:13 His cheeks are like a bed of spices with towers of perfumes.

His lips are like lilies, dropping liquid myrrh.

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Also consider the plentitude of flora and fauna imagery, with their allusion to the glorious circle of life, which is of course the ultimate purpose of the act for which the urgent lovers yearn. Is it difficult to find divinity in a fragile, shivering newborn fawn, or blush at the inherent sexuality in the fleshiness of fat, juicy grapes and the flowing of milk and honey?

7:8 I said, “I will climb up into the palm tree.

I will take hold of its fruit.”

Let your breasts be like clusters of the vine

the smell of your breath like apples,

And, also:

4:5 Your two breasts are like two fawns

that are twins of a roe,

which feed among the lilies.

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The passion is obvious, the language as dripping and sweet as a lover’s words…and therein lies an illustrator’s hidden challenge—to avoid cartoonish pictures too like the effusive, flowery declarations from a cajoling, hopeful lover, giddy with lust, yet instead, uncover the authentic desire within our human hearts that make such language valid for all of us.

5:1 I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride.

I have gathered my myrrh with my spice;

I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey;

I have drunk my wine with my milk.

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I relied partially on my knowledge of historical religious imagery, practiced in artful visual representations of difficult language. For example, I found the perfect model for Beloved’s surely orgasmic expression, which I felt must have occurred during certain passages in the song, in Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Saint Teresa in Ecstasy. No dime store pop-romance imagery, this work in marble, stucco and paint is generally considered to be one of the sculptural masterpieces of the High Roman Baroque period. The sculpture illustrates a moment where divinity intrudes on an earthly body, Saint Teresa’s most famous vision being of a seraph driving the fiery point of a golden lance repeatedly through her heart, causing a transcendent spiritual-bodily pain. Bernini is often said to have carved Saint Teresa’s heavenly expression after the moment one is overcome by orgasmic climax. Reciprocally, I borrowed that scandalous legend surrounding this famous work to clarify my own perception of Beloved’s face, and I hope to encourage further insight into to the complicated nature of our understanding of Song of Songs of Solomon, in drowning her in the duplicitous Lily of the Valley, in Illustration #6.

My notes here only hint at the vast literature available to aid in understanding Song of Songs of Solomon, and I encourage readers to form his or her own interpretation on both the text and my illustrations, and to seek further knowledge, through research and contemplation, into this fascinating work of literature. I have added but a taste of the broad analysis in existence, in an excerpt from Expositor’s Bible, following this illustrated edition of Song of Songs of Solomon. Special thanks goes to Project Gutenberg, for providing this public domain literature, The World English Bible version of Song of Songs of Solomon, and Expositor’s Bible, free of charge for all.  Please consider donating to Project Gutenberg at www.gutenberg.org, for their important work in service to our cultural literary heritage.

Sarah Lange Wathen

Illustrator & Editor

Purchase my illustrated edition of Song of Songs of Solomon on Amazon, by clicking here.

Too Much Fanny?

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When I was in art school, there was no such thing as “too much nudity” in drawing class–heck in any class. We considered ourselves privileged to even have access to nude models and we used our own bodies when we didn’t, especially in homework. We were warned in beginner classes that, should we decide to use the drawing studios late at night (they were open 24/7, so we had no excuse to scrimp on homework), we shouldn’t be surprised or ashamed to find other students there in various states of undress.

College campus rape alarm bells are going off, right? I know. But I’m not kidding. Art school was different.

The thing is, all the drapery, color, and texture found in clothing is much more difficult to represent than flesh, in charcoal on paper, or paint on canvas. We sought perfection in depicting the human form, and we were encouraged to get every last detail correct. Every wart, every wrinkle. It needn’t be pretty, decidedly not. And the best way to investigate the human body in all its forms, glorious or otherwise, is in the nude.

Some models were old, some were overweight. My first wasn’t. John.

I remember my first figure drawing class vividly. We were to use nothing but charcoal and paper, but our supply list was extensive. Pressed charcoal, vine charcoal, charcoal pencils, ad nauseam. And the paper. My god is that stuff expensive. I was a good girl and brought every item on the list to class, set up my drawing station, and waited.

I had seen an older, attractive man, dressed in business slacks and a white dress shirt, talking with the instructor before class. He hadn’t appeared to be one of the other students. To my horror, that same man then walked in, dressed in a robe. He dropped his robe, and took his place in a central position–a strange, stage-like gathering of old wooden and metal school chairs, crusty drop cloths, and one or two cow skulls (for the adventurous), with spotlights pointed advantageously. Students were arranged, ringing him around the room, each with a sturdy metal easel and maybe a stool drawn over to set an art utensil box on. No sitting for us.

John was finely made, with a tattoo and a nipple ring.

As I fumbled with my materials, averting my eyes and trying to hide my blush, my instructor walked past and jammed his face into mine.

“What are you doing? Don’t waste time! Get to work! Go go go.”

He even clapped his hands together as he resumed his patrol, frightening the rest of the students out of any natural embarrassment at the sight of nudity. No, I’m going to be more honest than that. Penis. Right there. In a spotlight.

It didn’t take long for all those normal inclinations–what most people would and should feel when confronted with genitals early in the morning in a school classroom–to subside.

Penis in a spotlight? Whatever.

I remember stalling for maybe a few seconds once, while considering my next stroke, in that drawing class on another day.

“Draw, don’t think,” my instructor hollered in my face.

Then, he actually ripped my charcoal out of my hand, tore away the newsprint on which I had been working, then attacked the new page. One hand held the charcoal in a fist, chiseling out the form, while the other gripped the easel as if we were in the midst of a World Wrestling Federation live broadcast.

“Get it down and get it down NOW!”

At that particular juncture within the class schedule, the model was to move from one pose to another in 10-second intervals, and we were to draw as much as we could in a series of “gestures.”

“See? You missed it.”

The model had already moved on.

Instructor dropped the charcoal on my shoe, then banged my newsprint board with animal intensity. Growling.

Nudity was not sexual in the slightest in art school. To even have imaged so would have been the height of uncool–even worse, amateurish.

So, when I selected one of my old art school paintings as part of my cover for Wicked Lover, “too much nudity” never crossed my mind. At first. As I continue working on the imagery, adding graphics and text, I’m starting to wonder. The nude form–I think her name was Christy–is becoming something very different than what it–she–was in that painting class ten years ago. I’m not sure if the reason for my squeamishness is that I have been seeing so many book covers for romance novels or erotica that don’t show as much fanny, or if I feel guilty putting Christy on display in an international arena.

I’m still going to do it, though.

Look for the Wicked Lover in November.

(Names have been changed, to protect privacy.)

The Best Thing About Creating Imaginary Worlds?

 

While you’re writing, you get to live in that world most of your day!

 

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Candy, from The Tramp, just posted the above painting (without me in it, of course) on her Tumblr page. She says, “Lately I just feel like my mind’s in a carnival, with fireworks going off overhead, so I’m calling this one, ‘Celebration.’ This is turning out to be an awesome summer after all.”

She’s so cute and dramatic–I love her. If you’ve been following along, you’ll know exactly why she’s all excited: she’s falling in love with Sam Castle.

It’s hard not to get caught up in your own story lines and characters while writing. If it doesn’t feel real for the author, how real could it feel real for the audience anyway, right? So I hang out with imaginary friends and live in a fantasy land while writing a my books. I say roll with it (just like Meg Shannon would, from Wicked Lover).

 

From Artist To Author

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I just sent my very first full-length, 300-or-so-page manuscript off to my editor. Is it official? Am I a writer now? Or do I have to publish to be that?

Actually, I felt like it was the moment when I finished the first draft. Done, complete, the end, though to be continued… No one was there to tell it to. I got myself a four-pack of grocery store sparkling white wine beverages (not really champagne, but good enough) and I had a little private party with Candy and Luke and Sam. Those people are, of course, my fictitious characters. Yes, I drank their bubbly for them. Because I needed to celebrate in a way that no one in the real world could understand at that moment. My first book was completed. I had done it!

How did I get to that point? With hindsight, I see that it was a circuitous route, but what does hindsight mean when you’re living in it?

I was a painter. How antique and esoteric, right?

Nevermind how I got there, but I was in love with art and I was good at it. I got a Bachelor’s of Fine Art in Painting. Painting! Can you believe that? My school specialized in classical art making: painting, sculpture, drawing, printmaking…all with devoted adherence to humanistic form and technical perfection. I also did some photography, and oh did I love self-portraiture…

 

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But I did more than that…

 

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Art was fun and wonderful…then I moved to New York. I went to grad school there because everyone said I had to (and I admit, I was curious), and I ended up with a studio overlooking Union Square. How lucky was that? Well…

New York was tough. Not just because there are a million artists there, trying to make it (whatever that is), and an inundation of art (good art, bad art, everything in between), but because I was required to think too much about making art (how? why? for whom?), and that took most of the joy out of it for me. Grad school wasn’t about learning to make art, since you are expected to already know that much by the time you get there, but about learning how to make it for the right people. Selling it. That made sense, but I found a great schism between why I wanted to make art in the first place, and how I must alter it in order to make curators like me.

Not surprisingly, I wasn’t very commercially successful in New York. But, I think I made some pretty good work there, that I’m still proud of. Plenty of angst helped out…

 

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And I was able to use Parson’s extensive printmaking labs to learn some more in my extra time. Etchings, screen prints.

 

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Not long after graduating, I was back in Florida, feeling very disillusioned. Still making art, and still not making much money doing so (or even trying to, it seems). Then, two major events happened for me.

First, I had a child and began reading a copious amount of picture books and interactive eBooks for children. If you haven’t delved into this genre, I encourage anyone with a love for eye candy. Some is good, some isn’t, but when you happen upon the marvelous specimens, it can take your breath away. And as a parent, what a golden opportunity to spread around some of your own personal and deeply held parenting beliefs. Suddenly, making art meant something to me again, and I began illustrating a children’s picture book of my own, called “Liam Learns.”

 

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Second, I got a Kindle! The first Kindle that I owned would display beautiful monochromatic etchings and drawings in sleep mode, mostly classic illustrations of famous authors or clips of illustrated works like “The Book of Kells” or cathedral blueprints. I was impressed with the clarity of the imagery and excited about the idea to bring illustration back into the hands of the everyday reader.

I decided to try my hand at illustrating an eBook by choosing a work from the public domain. My first published literary work was an illustrated edition of “The Song of Solomon.”

 

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Shortly after completing that project, I decided I wanted to try writing my own material. I had been in a bad car accident in between my undergrad and graduate school degrees, which had left me with permanent physical injuries and lasting emotional baggage. I thought that writing about the experience would help in the healing process, and so I began a short memoir. The exercise not only helped my state of mind over the tragedy, but was the catalyst for my own reinvention as a new kind of artist.

I remember clearly sitting with my husband, discussing my writing, after he told me that (in a nutshell) I made pretty good art, but my writing was ten times better than my art. When I expressed alarm at giving up a career path that I had clung to for so long (it was who I was) and admitted that, though I truly didn’t even enjoy making art any longer, I felt I had to. I had already decided to be an artist.

“Does writing make you happy?” he asked.

“Yes,” was the easy answer. I hadn’t known so much joy in painting in years.

“”Well, why don’t you decide to be a writer now?”

So, that’s what I did. I put everything I had into writing my first novel, “The Tramp,” and I loved every second of it. I learned to write while I was writing, I read book after book (even some books on writing), and I started going to writer’s club events. I found I really liked writers, too. And I was finally able to put some of my painting skills to use again, in the working cover.

 

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Towards the completion of “The Tramp,” I met with an old friend that I had known since Elementary School, and we had a conversation that brought things full circle for me. When I sheepishly admitted to being in the midst of writing a novel, joking that I knew how random that must seem after all my years being devoted to visual art, she shook her head vehemently and looked confused. She had known me since I was a child and remembered my penchant for storytelling as a part of who I was at heart, and my writing a book seemed a natural step to her. In that moment, I was reminded of my roots and experienced a sort of epiphany. Was the reason art making always seemed to fall short for me that I had actually been trying to tell stories, all along?

Taking a hard look at some of my work, it suddenly seemed obvious. For example, consider my Icons series below, in which I wrote words, overlapping and intermingling until my handwriting became illegible. Then I painted intricate patterns within the jumble, finally fixing an explanatory icon on top. I was accused of being cagey; just say it! I still don’t know why I couldn’t.

 

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Perhaps I was simply using the wrong medium. An early indication came in grad school, when my professor read part of my dissertation during one of my critiques. He picked out a particular passage to help me better explain my paintings, since I was tongue-tied as usual:

 

“Possibly, my comfort with a dissolution of the boundaries between high-brow and low-brow art stems from my first experiences with art; trips to Europe with my family that always spotlighted architectural marvels, extravagant cathedrals, spooky abbeys and castles, and famed, hushed art museums. In misty courtyards, our feet slipped on moldy cobblestones that dotted shockingly green, soggy grass with gnarled skeletons of wheezing stone soaring overhead. We listened to the echoing halls of Parliament in London, while we sat in a shadowy alcove and made crayon rubbings of medieval brass tablets; the stubby cartoon men wore archaic armor and dour expressions, drowned in carved vines and symbols and letters and shields. Incense mingled with morose Latin chanting and theatrical organs in cavernous cathedrals: a thick soup of air that flowed between proud marble effigies, crusty icons with desperate faces and golden haloes, unbelievably elaborate altarpieces and twisting cupolas made of every shade of marble. I did not experience these as relics separate from the time and place in which I found them, and my memories of the art of European cities blend with memories of the people, like an uncomfortably familiar breakfast at a tiny B&B across from a German matron wolfing down sausages, or our rental car bumping down a dirt road in Scotland in search of what locals told us along the way was “Cherry Footen Castle” (Sheriff Hutton Castle), recorded by my grandma in her diary with tears of laughter.

 

“Sarah, is this what your artwork is about?” he asked.

“Well, yes,” I shrugged to his knowing expression.

Storytelling is my artwork. Writing is my passion and painting will always be part of it. I’m not sure where the journey will take me next, but I know I won’t look back.