The fine folks at Hobbs Architects in downtown Pittsboro are powering our Meet This Artist series this year. Architecture is art, and the Hobbs crew values art in our community. They join us in inviting you to take a look. Meet your very inspiring neighbors. Meet This Artist . . .
Driving down a gravel road to get to Sarah Graham as she’s chatting with fellow friend and artist, Nathalie Worthington, is the best way I can think of getting to her. I’d been down this same drive this past fall when I attended her exhibit at 123 Art Studios. The first time I laid eyes on this space, I was in awe. It is beautiful. Winding your way up to it is mystical as you see leaves twirling, dancing, and falling to the ground; homes with wood-burning stoves tucked away here and there that you think you’d seen in the mountains in some distant memory; and gargantuan branches that crook their way up, over, and around. They are reaching out to you, inviting you to come this way.
Sarah is the type of artist who makes you think. I know that I will leave with much to ponder.
After the two of us pass the wood-burning stove that is hidden among the studios, Sarah reveals that she is the fire-tender. She is responsible for loading up the stove so that the floor remains warm; there is radiant heat here. We eventually settle into her studio with hot tea she’d just made.
We Talk About Inspiration
For Sarah, inspiration starts with music–sacred choral music in particular. “I think it maybe keeps my inside moving and by moving that keeps me lighter with this art,” she says. Sarah’s paintings and music–both lead us into a magical place where our minds can wander.
“I think asking me what I like to paint is the wrong question. But there does seem to be a subject matter that turns up more often than not in my paintings. I don’t plan on it. It’s almost always nature. You will almost always find something you can identify as sky and ground in my paintings. I don’t plan it that way.”
Sarah started to notice ambiguity of form appearing early on in her painting, and now she tries for it a little more. “I love the place where, say, the side of a tree meets space to be a little more ambiguous and where land meets sky . . . and ambiguity of the basic elements: fire, water, earth, and air.” There is a sense of magic in her work where perhaps there’s an invitation into almost another dimension.
“I really aspire to be an entirely abstract painter, but I’ve kind of come to realize I’m just not an abstract painter. I love the Earth too much, and I always make everything the Earth and sky. There’s nothing wrong with that so I’ve sort of made my peace with it. I call myself an abstract landscape painter, if I have to name it.”
In a Conversation with Mystery
Sarah talks about “an appreciation for mystery and not needing to solve a mystery but wanting to sort of allow a mystery and to play with a mystery and to be in a conversation with a mystery. It’s this longing for living more in the transcendence of life than just the pragmatic, everyday details.”
“I think my strength as a painter is allowing something to come toward me from the painting and to dance with it and to have a conversation with it and not to impose myself too strongly on it–but to work with it.”
She remembers her stint as a park ranger rehabilitating animals so that they could be released again. “I feel like that’s exactly the dance I do with the paintings–recognizing there’s something wild happening and yeah I have to work with it and I have to tame it but I don’t want to put myself on it. I want it to stay wild and I want it to go out into the world and be a little spark of wildness that reminds people that these things exist–that other world, you know, that wild world.”
When She Knew She Was an Artist
“Lying on the floor, hands behind my head, listening to music and looking up at the knots in my childhood home’s pine wall.”
I can picture her as a young girl with a head full of curls lying on her back, looking up and dreaming of what those knots could be. What kind of world did she create in her mind that floated behind those knots?
Sarah lived at the beach and was fascinated by the horizon line where the sky meets the sea and how ambiguous it can be. “You know, there are moments where you can’t see where one becomes the other and other days it is absolutely clear. I loved that line and I would look at that line all the time. I was mesmerized by it.”
This interest in line and form began in the knot holes and also in the water. I share a story about sitting on the docks, squinting my eyes, and imagining the cars floating across Buster Boyd Bridge as a kid. Sarah tells me that I was dreaming into a story that was bigger than what I was seeing. “That’s art-making,” she declares. We talk about how important it is for kids to have dreaming space. She’s grateful for the dreaming space in her growing up.
I’m not surprised when I hear that teaching Waldorf was Sarah’s bridge into making art. “The Waldorf teaching woke me up artistically, and then I really kind of got tricked into becoming an artist because I took a year sabbatical, and I moved out to Portland. It was in 2009 when there were no jobs, and I wasn’t able to get a job, so I just started painting kind of for fun. The more I started painting, the more compelled I was by it,” she explains.
Back then, she would substitute teach and tutor–and then paint in her spare time. As the years progressed, she taught less and less as she became more committed to the painting.
A choir friend in Portland owned an art gallery, saw Sarah’s art, and offered her a solo show. Sarah had never shown a single piece of work, but the two of them planned Sarah’s first show for ten months later. It was moving for Sarah to see her body of work hanging for the first time, to think about what links all her paintings.
Six solo shows later, she says, “I still can’t tell you, but I think this is a really important component to having a show, to think about how all the pieces communicate. Having that person do that for me launched me. I am sold on having shows, not to sell paintings, but to bind and celebrate a set of work. It’s sort of like a parenthesis around a time period.”
“I’m working on this painting right now while we’re talking.”
Sarah loves using acrylics because she likes to be fast and is able to wash them off if it’s not working. To those who say you can’t get as good a color using them, she disagrees. “If you learn how to work with them and layer them, your colors can be just as rich.”
Sitting in her studio, surrounded by her paintings, I see she has a few in different stages. She likes it this way because each one requires a different mood, and she always likes to have something at each stage to match her mood.
“In the beginning,” she tells me, “you’re just slapping paint on.” The painting sitting on the ground, in its beginning stage, is one she needs to think on. She’d told me at the beginning of our interview that I might find her looking at that painting instead of at me. “When I’m talking to you, my mind’s busy. That’s the best time to look at something and to see patterns, so I’m working on this painting right now while we’re talking.”
Nearby, another one sits in its middle phase. She explains that this is where you have to be really courageous because you can mess up.
Sitting up on an aisle is another painting, almost ready. Toward the end, she’s more finicky. She may put it in a place where she can pass by it and see it peripherally, or she might turn it around and not look at it for two days and then see it fresh. “One little thing that the painter Jane Filer said to me once–she’s a fabulous painter–she told me a painting is finished when you love every inch.” Sarah agrees.
“There’s this weird subtle thing when you realize that it’s done.” Sarah smiles.
See Sarah’s Work
You can find Sarah and her work at stop number 37–which is located in a stable in Sanford!–this weekend as part of the Chatham Artist’s Guild’s Annual Studio Tour. In fact, both she and Beth Bale will have their work there–you don’t want to miss this one! For a sneak preview, visit the Guild’s info hub for the tour at our very own Chatham Arts Council office to see a piece from Sarah and lots of other Chatham artists, too.
“I get the sense that I’m getting ready to do something really new. I don’t know what it is yet, and that’s both daunting and exciting.” We can’t wait.
From the Artist
Full name: Sarah Kathryn Graham
- Born: Richmond, Virginia
- A favorite childhood memory: Swimming in the ocean. I grew up at the beach but never tired of swimming in the ocean.
- As a kid, my dream job would be: Marine biologist studying dolphins
- Three words that describe my art: Atmospheric, reaching, mysterious
- A happy moment: Being named “Sarah, painter of clouds” by a dear elderly friend
- I am inspired by: music, rivers, oceans, trees, mountains, weather, children
- When I am not creating art, you’ll probably find me: reading, writing, or singing
- Most people don’t know I: used to be a park ranger at Grand Canyon
- My friends say I am: calm
- The last book I read was: Americanah
- Three Chatham County places I frequent are: the Haw River, the farmer’s market, Small B&B
- Three Chatham County artists I admire are: Robin Moon, Mary York, Mike Sepelak
Sarah’s Website: http://www.downagravelroad.com/
123 Studios: http://123artstudios.com/
Chatham Artists Guild Studio Tour: http://www.chathamartistsguild.org/take-the-tour-info/