Sarah Slappey creates jungles of feet and hands, with legs and arms sprouting and twisting like vines around every corner of the composition. Her brilliant paintings feature surreal elements that will make your skin crawl while at the same time alluring you, drawing you closer into the frame. Both peculiar and beautiful, Slappey’s work takes familiar subjects like the human body and turns them into something wildly strange, something that will have you looking twice, unsure of what you might be seeing. The artist uses vivid colors in her paintings, depicting scenes with a harsh lighting, often creating an almost cinematic atmosphere, one that is full of mystery, intrigue, and wonder. Slappey’s work will fill you with a dark whimsy, one that will have you searching the canvas for answers.
Join us in conversation as Sarah Slappey shares with us her fascination with disembodied limbs, the importance of shadows in her work, and where she finds inspiration for her moody lighting.
AMM: When did you first decide to become an artist, if it was a decision? Was there a specific moment when you knew that this was the right path for you?
SS: I don’t think I ever had a choice! I grew up with a pencil or paintbrush in my hand at all times, and I was lucky to have parents who were very supportive in helping me sign up for summer programs and after school classes, and who kept a cabinet of art supplies stocked for my sisters (who are also in the arts) and me. I never really wanted to do anything more than make art, and I’m too stubborn to put my focus on anything I don’t really want to do.
AMM: Tell us about your training as an artist. Where did you hone your incredible skill in painting?
SS: I don’t have training in any particular style of painting. I have a BA in Studio Art from Wake Forest University (a liberal arts school in North Carolina) and an MFA from Hunter College. I think one’s personality can dictate what their work inevitably becomes, and I have a streak of perfectionism that has likely forced a certain aesthetic in my work.
AMM: There are elements of your work that construct an eerie and peculiar ambiance, with unnatural colors and surreal bodies. What inspires these incredibly alluring and strange features?
SS: For as long as I can remember, I’ve found myself interested in finding and recreating a feeling of beauty mixed with repulsion. The two responses are so much more related than we initially realize. The human figure seems to be the best way tap to into this current, since it’s something that is both familiar and other. I like mixing natural color and light with the artificial – the confluence strikes an uncanny chord. Our brains have to imagine a place where these paradoxes can exist together.
AMM: Many of your compositions include hands and feet often detached from a body. Can you elaborate on this characteristic? What do these limbs allude to?
SS: I use detached limbs as a way to talk about the body, rather than a body. I’m interested in how a painting can make a viewer feel something peculiar, like a sliminess or a tingle up one’s spine. I find that painting the full, resolved figure feels too much like painting a portrait of another person; there is a sense of removal or otherness between the viewer and painted figure, and the tingle disappears. Disfigured limbs decrease this distance for me; the phantom limb in a painting can be attached to nothing, something unknown, or even a viewer.
AMM: Let’s talk about your creative process. How much of each piece is envisioned beforehand and how much is developed during the process?
SS: This always changes! I’ve found making small studies on paper to be very helpful. Sometimes they’re worked out enough that I can directly translate the image on a larger surface. Other times, it’s just the general idea, color scheme, or space that becomes larger or more complex. While working, I sand, scrape, wipe, and repaint the whole time, so the image often changes until the last few moves.
AMM: There are many shadows in your work, leaving an ominous feeling with the viewer. Can you tell us about the mysterious silhouetted figure that often appears, although sometimes hard to see?
SS: Shadows are another way of referencing the body without being literal or explicit. I like that they feel ominous, strange, or otherworldly. Light is so important in creating the emotional tenor in these scenes. A single or dappled spotlight creates the feeling of stumbling upon something with a flashlight or in moonlight. The world just outside of the light remains in its own realm of darkness to carry on outside of the borders of the painting.
AMM: What part of your life most heavily influences your artwork?
SS: Films and cinematography are a big influence – I like creating a place that feels like a very soft, beautiful horror movie. Limited light sources, over-saturated color, and surreal narratives are also elements of my favorite films: Let the Right One In, The Witch, and The Shining come to mind.
Talking about studio life with friends is immensely helpful in a practical way. While it might not influence the style of my work, it really helps me get through a tough painting or mental hurdle.
AMM: Have you always worked in a large scale? What are some of the challenges that come along with painting at such a large size?
SS: The size of my work changes frequently. The small studies on paper can be 8 x 8 inches and my larger works are around 6 x 6 feet. It’s so counterintuitive, but larger works are often much easier to make. I think it has to do with the ratio of the image to my own body size. I’ve been keeping hands, limbs, and feet relatively close to life-size, so my most recent work has been in a medium size range, which is, to me, the most difficult size to work with.
AMM: Describe a typical day in working the studio for you. Do you work on your artwork full-time?
SS: I have a part-time arts administration job that allows me to work from my studio Monday through Friday. By late afternoon, I’m able to shift gears and get to work painting, sketching, and sometimes just answering emails or cleaning. I generally work 6 days a week in the studio for around 10-11 hours a day. Even if I’m just looking through art books or cleaning my palette, it feels important for me to put in the time.
AMM: I understand you were just in a two-person exhibition at SRO Gallery in Brooklyn titled Behind the Curtain. Can you tell us a bit about the exhibition and the work that was shown? Where can we find your work next?
SS: I was so thrilled to be invited by Don Doe to show with Lou Hoyer at SRO this summer. Lou’s work is so fascinating, and it was a pleasure to see how our pieces seamlessly flowed together. We’re both interested in imagined spaces, nature, and the human body.
This fall is shaping up to be a busy time! In addition to a few group shows, I have two solo shows on the calendar for November, one at my alma mater, Wake Forest University in North Carolina, and the other with Crush Curatorial in New York.
AMM: What advice can you offer artists that are still developing their voice?
SS: Don’t be afraid to destroy something. One of the most important paintings I ever made was in my first art class at Wake Forest with painter Page Laughlin. We had a few days to make a still life painting – the first assignment of the semester. I worked so hard on it. When they were completed, she asked everyone to stand in front of their painting, mix a hefty amount of black paint, and paint a huge “X” over it from corner to corner. It was so painful. But what it taught me is that if you’ve done something once, you can do it again. Don’t be afraid to wipe out, cover up, or destroy. A better painting will always be born from the ashes.
Find out more about the artist: www.sarahslappey.com
Text and interview by Christina Nafziger for ArtMaze Mag.