Spend a little time with Sara, and you quickly feel you've known her for a long time. Maybe because she's one of those people who seems irrepressibly up-beat and interested. Maybe it's her smile and her curiosity about all the things that are around her. She's a painter, so maybe it's her concern for physical and emotional detail. She's impulsive in her fashion sense, making it impossible to know who's going to appear at the door. She had a pair of enormous, hairy white boots -- until one evening when she stood too close to the fire. She describes herself as both a nerd and a geek -- I have no real idea what that means, but I do know she can belch loudly enough to re-arrange the furniture, and that's cool by me.
For someone with her feet so firmly on the ground, Sara gets her hair cut a lot. And shaped. And colored. Then re-cut, re-shaped and re-colored. Probably because her natural state of being is in flux. She's constantly moving forward, consciously shaping her life, avoiding the pitfalls of stagnation. She's not belligerent about it, and she doesn't wear it as a statement of worth -- it's just who she is. Which can be disconcerting to those of us who find themselves happily embracing stagnation every now and again....
I brought this up to her several times. I was getting the sense that part of what drove the flux was some need to stay protected... to use it as a coping mechanism. I had the feeling that part of her forthrightness was a learned response, and had taken more than a little work to get comfortable with. It wasn't that there was any sort of falseness about her, but rather I had the sense that somewhere along the line she had come to a point where she had to choose to be open to the people around her, and had to decide that the life around her was also of interest -- and had to teach herself how to respond to it.
This is part of what she told me:
I grew up in a constant cloud of toxic perfume: titanium, cadmium, cerulean, zinc -- the colors of my mother's palette. Years of stunted cellular growth was a small price to pay to witness her creativity, and to learn from her. I was her prized pupil. Unfortunately, she was also certified insane more then once and in more ways than one -- but unlike most infamous and crazy artists, her work was actually brilliant. And yet her brilliance as a painter was ruined by her failures as an artist. Her uncontrolled emotions kept her chained to the fringes of the art world. She lived in shifting episodes of blinding angers and paralytic fears that stopped her cold from ever functioning in or becoming a noted member of ant art world. Of course, the demons and turmoils that ruled her love and her hatred for her work made selling it an impossibility. I suppose my mother might be one of those artists to whom fame comes only after death, when her furies and paranoia are forgotten. But that won't be for a long time, I suspect -- and not at all, if she decides to destroy the few paintings she has left.
Even as a young child I believed I could be an excellent painter, just like she was. But watching how many different ways she found to insure her failures inspired me to not even try. I knew she had given me the genes and talent to make myself really good -- but I was too close at too early an age to the 'constant inpatient' to be willing to make the gamble. Early on I began to know I would not waste my days painting work that came from my heart but would never sell. And after all that I had seen and all that had been thrown at me, I was certainly not going to waste my sanity.
When my father finally won custody of me, I felt a maelstrom had been lifted from my shoulders -- but the unexpected agony of losing her was almost beyond belief. As a child will, I loved my mother completely. For years I was lost in the conflict between the relief of being rid of her and the despair of having lost her, and I stopped painting. As I grew and matured, I came to understand that my passion for color and canvas was the only true connection to my childhood and to the one person who had always been my icon and my idol. It's true my mother never was a parent to me. And yet, without the persuasion of her oils poisoning my airways, I was quite lost -- and frequently missed the chaos she lived in and the physical awareness of her hands gripping my heart.
Not until high school (ironically enough, hers and mine the same), did paint once again paste my hands and waft into my bloodstream. And it was in this very same high school that I fell in love -- not only with my painting again, but with the teacher assigned to oversee the school's literary and arts magazine. It was during the first editorial board meeting that my obsession with him burrowed its roots and started to grow. He took possession of my thoughts, became omnipresent, was never absent from me for more than a moment. He sank deeply into the fertility of my 15 year old's emotions, and grew steadily throughout freshman, sophomore, junior and senior years. It was because he was handsome and charismatic, unpredictable, and he loved words and art. He made both Hamlet and Lewis Carroll sublime to me. Maybe I should have been concerned -- but I wasn't, and he became the heart beat at the center of my life.
In senior year and as a joke, he brought us an invisible rabbit named Art to be our mascot. To the other girls who also admired him so, it was all good natured fun. But for me, Art became something much deeper, quite feminine, and we settled her permanently into my being. Nothing was ever said between this teacher and me, and we never touched except by accident. Our conversations were about school and writing and art, but his eyes spoke his words to my soul, and his smile was something that only I could understand. To someone looking in at us, all was as it should be -- but to me, looking outward, very little was balanced at all. Moving time fueled my rising passions and my hormones until a fierce compulsion and need for something both familiar and chaotic exploded. I wanted the taboo, the fantastic, the illicit.
What I got was something I had no idea I wanted: to fall back into my childhood, to return to the nightmare, but this time with me in control. Blind to what I was doing, I challenged myself to survive what to open eyes was a predestined disaster. I didn't care. I knew it was crazy, but that this time I would be brilliant. I would do something that even my mother would be proud of. I would graduate, then come back pretending I needed submissions for an arts magazine. And I did just that. First semester into college, I returned to high school and got just what I was asking for.
It was good, for a while. We were happy, for a while. And then we weren't. And it became ugly -- for a long while.
What is it that happens as time flows? Eventually the wounds stopped bleeding and the ground underneath me became more sure of itself. And the darkness that trapped me thinned enough to allow some definition to what surrounded me. It came as a surprise when the descent finally ended. I knew it was over when I took to the easel again. I kept the rabbit -- both in spite of, and because of the chaos her creator and I set loose. I started a series of self-portraits in which I was searching for myself through my reflection. I worked with a mirror, and every time I looked into it I knew I was facing my mother. But now she was the first one to blink. The success of that work let me know with absolute clarity that I am not her. Though I look a lot like her and I paint with passion and experience, I am me -- and I have chosen not to fall and not to fail.
Sometimes the rabbit tells me I am Alice, sometimes I know I am the rabbit. It doesn't matter because the rabbit is mine, and I have the tattoos to prove it. I am the tempted, and I am the temptress. At times I can also be the Mad Hatter -- bewildered and completely obscured from society's understanding. In these ways, much like my mother, I have been quite unbalanced. Unlike her, however, I have found my way back from the other side of the looking glass. I have seen Wonderland, and it is only a place to visit.
During these past few years I have developed more into a successful artist and become less a fictional character. As I have become more real I have played my fears and confusions, joys and desires out on canvas. The rabbit has come to life in my paint, and I have been able to capture her there, manipulate her to serve my needs in intriguing ways. To the casual observer, her apparent meaning may seem obvious and plain. But to me she will always be my lost innocence, and about my blind and impossible need to get that innocence back. And perhaps that is where her irony lies -- I know her experiences and suspect she may have even grown a little jaded, while outwardly she still seems unscathed and pure.
You can see the emotional complexity in Sara's work, from the hard eyed and unflinching exactness of the self-portraits to the fantastical sensibility of her most recent pieces. A journey has been made away from the mirror and into an eruption of personal release. That dark and angry face has been replaced by a hot chick riding the rabbit. Her work and her life are about survival. They are not about life and death -- but about growth and change and seeking. Not about repeating a safe formula -- but about always breaking the formula apart and re-assembling it in new ways. She is about looking at her work with fresh eyes and following change... not for it's own sake, but change for growth and a willingness for new experience.
I've worked with Sara quite a few times over the last 5 or 6 years. We did the following images in August of 2007.
Sara is, first and foremost, a talented painter. And, as you might suspect, she's always been something of a wild child. She's younger than I am, and I wonder what life would be like were I responsible for her. Mostly I'd be proud of her artistry and intellect, her character, in her forthrightness and love for adventure. What was left of me would be in a constant but mild state of anxiety over what she might cause to happen next.
Taking portraits of Sara is looking at who she is right now. There's no concern about where the images might fit in with what we've done before, or about what they mean. Instead it's a chance for her to see more parts of who she is, and for me to figure out how best to show them. What we create is a document of a specific moment in her life that she uses to talk to herself about herself. She uses the images in her artwork, and she uses them to inform her conduct -- and she uses them with clarity and style.
What I love about Sara is her fearless curiosity about who she is, and the way that curiosity allows her to be pretty much anything she wishes. In these most recent photographs she's alive with the exuberance of having cast off what's expected and with the embracing of what is not. She's alive to what happens when she frees herself, and alive to being excited, concerned, intrigued and beguiled.