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/


Q&A with Elizabeth Zunon, artist and children’s book illustrator


Melissa Seymour: Hi Elizabeth! Thanks for speaking with us today. Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.

Elizabeth Zunon: I am a children’s book illustrator, working mostly in oil paint and collage. I love bright colors, funky patterns, and hearing stories about people and their passions. I lived in the Ivory Coast (Cote d’Ivoire), West Africa, where my Dad is from, until I was twelve years old, and many of the books I have illustrated take place in Africa.

MS: When did you know you were an artist? Did you draw as a child?

EZ: I think I always knew I was an artist- I’ve loved to draw, paint, color, create, and use my imagination ever since I was a child. I knew I was an artist maybe the first time that I drew something and felt very proud of it.

MS: How did you get involved in illustrating picture books? What do you love about them?

EZ: I studied Illustration in college at the Rhode island School of Design. After that, I submitted my portfolio to book publishers in New York, all the while attending author/illustrator conferences and events. Eventually I met my agent, who has helped me get published! I’d always loved the format of picture books, having being read to by my Mom and grandmother as a child (and loving to watch “Reading Rainbow” on TV!). I love that the images in a picture book often tell a story all on their own without the words, and the words of course tell a story, but when you use both words and images together, the depth of the story is reinforced into one complete and very unique package.

MS: What’s your favorite type of picture book? Why are you drawn to it?

EZ: My favorite type of picture book is non-fiction, because I love learning about real places and real people I might never get to experience in person.

MS: What’s your process for creating picture book illustrations? Do the characters appear in your mind or does it take some work to create them?

EZ: The characters are usually the first thing to appear in my mind when I read a manuscript. I feel if I can see them, if I can draw them, it helps me get to know them and try to put myself in their shoes. I plot out the picture book into a storyboard first, where I doodle and play around to figure out which images will go on which pages. Next, I look for reference images of certain things in the story, like clothing, houses or animals. Sometimes I take photos of myself to use as reference, posing in various situations from the story. Then, I create larger drawings, one for each page of the book, with more detail, and transfer my drawings on to the final paper I will paint them on. Finally, I break out the oil paint and get to work! Sometimes, once my paint is dry, I will add collage elements of cut paper onto the illustration.

MS: What motto do you live by?

EZ: “Don’t worry about it. Just do what you do- And do it good.”- Bill Withers

MS: Who is your hero/heroine?

EZ: Hmm… I admire many different people, artists, musicians… I would say my hero/heroine is anyone who pursues their passion.




Check out more of Elizabeth Zunon’s work here: http://lizzunon.com/