Q&A with Sarah Kaufman, painter and storyteller

Trapped in a Cage or Free as a Bird   the great escape

Melissa Seymour: Hi Sarah! Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.

Sarah Kaufman: I am an artist, I paint images that look at aspects of the human experience through the lens of surreal and ethereal narratives. I take a theme (such as finding balance and strength in uncomfortable situations) and give it a story (such as an elephant trying to walk on stilts). The emotion is the same, but the presentation is different, and I think that is what makes an impact with the people who enjoy my art.

MS: How long have you been painting? What drew you to art?

SK: I have been painting since I was a little girl. My mother is an artist, so I was very lucky that painting and drawing was encouraged and nurtured in my home. For me, it is how I talk about things that are important to me. Instead of writing my stories or speaking about my thoughts, my first idea and impulse is to paint a picture.

MS: Do you have a process?

SK: The work I have been doing for the past 6 years or so has been a combination of chaos and control. I start with a blank canvas and smear, drizzle, and splatter it with texture. I use Venetian plaster and gesso mostly for this. Once it dries I seal it with lots of layers of translucent acrylic paint. I just pour it on to really glue the texture down, and in the process I build up a really rich color field on the canvas. Again, I splash and splatter it on there until it is this really energetic, chaotic, lovely mess. At this point I just stop and put all these canvases up around the studio (I usually work on several at a time) and start looking for an image to float into my mind when I look at them. When I’ve got one on the hook I start painting with oil paint. I do an under-painting to work out the elements, composition, and proportions. Then I paint in a traditional, more controlled manner to bring the story to life.

MS: What do you do when you get stuck?

SK: I just move onto another painting. I work on a painting until I see it starting to take a nose dive – when my idea isn’t forming, when I am getting too “in my head” with it, when I am losing that fresh spark of inspiration. When I get away from it, problems can start to solve themselves because I get out of my own way with them.

MS: What’s your favorite story behind a piece of art you created?

SK: Oh gosh – I have so many stories! They are truly all very important to me. Probably the most sentimental are the paintings about becoming a mom. My feelings around this experience are so rich and interesting.

But the one that stands out to me is one where someone else’s reaction was better than my story by far;

I had painted a picture of a girl riding a bicycle at night. The mud was flying out behind her, so it was clear she was really racing. The sky was purple-blue with little white stars dotting it. There was an old, 1930’s propeller plane in the sky. My idea was to capture that feeling of when I was a kid and I thought I could ride so fast I could keep up with an airplane in the sky. It is a feeling of exhilaration and naiveté that I love.

At a show, an older man was staring at the painting a long time. He told me he loved this painting about WWII. I asked him what he meant. He said that in France, when a town was being bombed with an airstrike, people would ride their bikes as fast as possible to the next town to warn them of the airstrike so they could protect themselves. His takeaway from the painting was COMPLETELY different from my narrative, but utterly logical and meaningful. It felt like I was painting his story without knowing it. How cool is that?!

This happens sometimes, where a painting is exactly what another person has experienced but I have never met them; a family situation, a mother who passed away, a life history, a philosophy or spirituality. These are my favorite experiences as an artist, when I have the privilege to really resonate with someone else.

MS: Who is your hero?

SK: Can I have more than one?

Sean Corn, Atticus Finch (fictional, but still one of my heros), Ghandi, Steve Jobs, Paul Simon, Gillian St. Clair, Tina Fey, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Charlotte Joko Beck, Freida Khalo, Tarsem, Abraham Lincoln, Alphons Mucha, Lee Bontecou, Anthony Bourdain. An incomplete list I’m sure, but these are the ones that are on my mind now.

What do they have in common? They are true to their vision and their inspiration and they are gutsy. They make their own world, often out of failure. They exhibit loads of integrity and courage, and exemplify the adage “to thy own self be true”.

For more beautiful works of art, visit Sarah’s website: http://www.sarahkaufmanart.com/