World perspectives and the female experience: In conversation with Sarah Thibault

For the past year, artist Sarah Thibault has been living out of a suitcase while traveling the world. Born in Minneapolis, she’s made an art of artist residencies, and to date has spent time on residence at Nes Artist Residency, Skagaströnd, Iceland; PLOP Artist Residency, London, UK; Buinho Creative Lab, Messejana, Portugal; and Lakkos Art Project, Crete, Greece (April). Next year she tells us she plans to resettle in San Francisco where she has been a resident artist of the Minnesota Street Project studios since 2016. Not surprisingly, this experience has had a profound impact on Sarah’s general outlook and her art. “My experiences over the past year have required me to re-evaluate all the habits and mental patterns that, in hindsight, had kept my world safe and small. As my physical world expanded, my connection to my internal world deepened,” she wrote in a blog post in July 2019.

Sarah’s current body of work began through the deep introspection that comes with solo travel and the need to be self-sufficient, in your power and at peace. Inspired by the words of Audre Lorde about the necessary and revolutionary importance of female self-care, Sarah’s work portrays female-identifying artists in moments of leisure and self-care. This is in response to the historical tradition of odalisque paintings in which reclining women are in service to the artist and viewers’ gaze. Instead, Sarah literally offers her own point of view, presenting herself as artist-as-subject in many of her works. In this way, we’re invited to soak with her in a bath and contemplate her bobbing toes, watch back-episodes of The Great British Bake Off on a laptop screen perched on her knees, or contemplate the contents of a disposable cup. (Here readers may wish to note that the ArtMaze website carries a teatime conversation Sarah had with Olga Pryymak in her London studio which elaborates on self-care and other themes). At once everyday and intensely personal, Sarah’s paintings and drawings meditate on the inner, quiet life that can become drowned out, if we let it. Her artwork charts a journey back to the self, to a comfortable, content and nurturing space of being.

Photo by Myleen Hollero

AMM: Hi Sarah! Can we start by asking you about your childhood and formative years? Were you raised in a creative household and what are your earliest memories of making art?

ST: Sure! Yes, I was very fortunate to have two creative parents and an extended family that supported art-making. My earliest memories of making art were of coloring and drawing – basically what I’m doing now.

AMM: Your first degree was a BA in French with Integrated Liberal Studies, but this was followed by a BFA and an MFA in Studio Art. We’d be really interested to know how and why this change of direction came about.

ST: It took some time for me to accept that being an artist was a viable career path. It was also hard to allow myself to pursue something that I was good at and enjoyed. Even though I focused my first major on French, I continued to take art classes. My drawing professor was very encouraging and played good music during class, so I felt an excitement around drawing that I didn’t for writing French papers—although I have always loved languages and French in particular.

Once I decided to make the switch, I knew I needed to leave the Midwest. When I arrived in San Francisco, I was all in. I went to art school not knowing how to stretch a canvas, but when I graduated with my BFA, my first opportunity, thanks to the artist Amy Ellingson who recommended me, was to show through the ART in Embassies program at the American Embassy in Uruguay. This success gave me momentum to keep going after school, despite many, many challenges.

*As a side note—the painting I showed for ART in Embassies was called “Bridezilla” and was inspired by a Vogue editorial spread on the Donald and Melania Trump’s wedding in 2005. Melania was on the cover, and the article headline was “American Royalty”. It seems Anna Wintour regrets that choice now.

AMM: We have read that up until 2018 you were working as an Executive Assistant in San Francisco and making art at the same time, but on a trip to Europe life was about to change rather dramatically. Can you take us through what happened and how it affected your outlook on your artistic career and how you wanted to live your life?

ST: It happened fast, but it was building up for a long time. I had worked as an assistant for about 10+ years, while working on a lot of art projects at the same time. I was burned out and I started thinking about making a career shift towards something more creative, if not making my art full time. I also wanted more of a work/life balance and travel in my life, so I booked a trip to Europe—my first trip out of North America in 10 years.

About a month before I was planned to leave, our roof started leaking and things were getting progressively worse at my job. I ended up quitting and on my last day I left on a plane for London. While in Europe, I got an email that our apartment lease was ending, so I was going to have to move out right when I got back. It was a stressful time for me, but in the end, all the people and things that caused problems for me ended up doing me a real favor. It got me out of a rut and into a life I actually enjoy.

The more I dug into a nomadic lifestyle, the more I met other people doing it too. Since last year I have met so many people who make wonderful art and live unconventional lives. It gives me the courage to take risks
with my art and to continue to listen to my inner voice, which can get overpowered when you are too busy.

Waxing Moon, oil on canvas, 72 x 60 inches

AMM: What ideas and themes are you currently exploring in your work? In what ways are they related to your autobiography?

ST: My recent series of paintings and drawings is based on photographs that I have taken while traveling. I take a lot of self-portraits since I travel solo mostly, but I also have started taking portraits of artists that I meet along the way. I started by doing a photoshoot with a group of artists at the Nes Artist Residency in Iceland. From there I wanted to see how things would evolve if I did a different shoot at every residency.

In particular I’m interested in presenting portraits of female artists in moments of leisure or in the process of self-care. Recently while I was back in California, I was walking around Lake Merritt in Oakland trying to articulate to myself why it is important to represent that—versus reclining for a nude portrait, for example. The phrase, “self-care is a revolutionary act” came to mind, although I don’t know where I had heard that. No more than 5 minutes later I saw an iteration of that phrase written on a woman’s t-shirt.

I must have seen that phrase somewhere before and had forgotten, but that synchronicity seemed important so I did more research on that idea. From there I found the writing of Audre Lorde who wrote “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

What I took away from that is when you feel comfortable in your own skin, that is when you are truly powerful—when you can listen to the stillness within. You can’t do that unless you are taking care of yourself and feeling right in your body. I think this is an important concept for everyone to internalize, but for my work I am mainly interested in the female experience because that is the one I am having in this lifetime.

AMM: We really enjoyed watching the time lapse video on Instagram of how a painting of yours is developed (from December 30th, 2018), please tell us more about your process of work?

ST: Thank you! It was fun for me to watch after the fact. I start with a cartoon of an image that I trace from a photo or a sketch, then I go in with oil paint on canvas much the way I would approach one of my drawings on paper. I make marks and do a lot of scumbling with a dry brush. My drawings are done primarily with graphite pencils, smudge sticks and tiny erasers.

AMM: Scrolling back through your Instagram feed we were very interested in how your colour palette has evolved, can you tell us more?

ST: One explanation is that I made a conscious shift away from the keyed-up, neon palette that I was using for a long time because I felt like the neons were a crutch. Who doesn’t love a good fluorescent red? I decided that blue was the opposite of that and a color I hadn’t used much so I challenged myself to use it in a series of paintings. I asked myself, what does the color blue mean? What other paintings have been inspired by blue (so many) and how could I contribute to the conversation. This shifted again when I was introduced to salt lamps and I fell in love with the warm glow. This became the inspiration for a series of paintings and has since influenced my palette. The other woo woo explanation is that I think the colors I choose to correspond in some way to my energy field or aura. I always wondered if that might be true for painters in general, or at least for myself, and then I got my aura portrait done. It matched what I was painting almost exactly. If I consider that as the source of my pull towards certain color palettes, because they match my aura, then I assume my palette will continue to shift throughout my life.

Reading in the dark, oil on canvas, 54 x 48 inches

AMM: Is it all about painting and drawing or do you work in other mediums as well?

ST: I go through phases when I also make sculpture. I love working directly with my hands—it’s more tactile which is something you miss out on when you work in 2-d. In graduate school I did a series of soft sculptures inspired by objects in antique stores—Americana, rococo clocks and vases. They were made out of aluminum foil which is the cheapest and most accessible metal I could find. I continue to work with that material because it has a nice texture and has this DIY, punk quality to it because it never fully does what you want it to.

AMM: Some of the ArtMaze team have travelled in Iceland as you have and really loved it. The saunas, pools, water and lounging around depicted in your recent drawings reminded us so much of the country and its ambience. In your travels where have you felt at your most creative?

ST: Yes it’s so lovely. I am looking forward to going back. Ironically there’s a certain level of boredom and stability that is required for me to feel creative and productive. When you are in a small town for a residency and there is nothing to do at night, making art can feel like a good release – which was the case in Iceland this spring. It can also give you the space to examine your work in a different way because you feel like you have an abundance of time on your hands.

AMM: What do you hope an observer takes away from your work?

ST: If people like looking at my paintings for more than 20 seconds, or whatever the average time is for a viewer to look at art in a museum, then I feel like I have won. If my work makes people feel seen when they look at it because they recognize something of themselves in it, then even better. If they want to go home and make art themselves, which is how I feel when I see something really good, then that is the best outcome.

AMM: How important is social media in your life as an artist and writer?

ST: I have found it to be a useful tool to reach larger audiences and stay connected with friends. But I’m also inspired by it as a medium, since it has become such a big part of our visual landscape. The tropes of Instagram, the different types of photos and self-portraits that are popular at any given moment or within a given subculture, say a lot about the desires and underlying psychology of people at the moment. I find it fascinating.

Still life (British Bake-off), oil on canvas, 97.5 x 75 inches

AMM: You were working on the series of large paintings for the exhibition Starfish in your parents’ basement while door-knocking for mid-term elections. Do politics, the environment and global issues influence your work at all and if so in what way?

ST: They do. As you mentioned I spent about 60 hours last fall canvassing for the Democrats in the Minneapolis area. I used to binge on political podcasts in the studio – which is how my Americana and rococo series came about. It was just after the recession and the US was still dealing with the financial aftermath. Obama was trying to pass healthcare through an antagonistic Congress and we were talking about the great wealth disparity in the country for the first time that I could remember. With that body of work I was interested in deflating or manipulating historical symbols of power and wealth as a way to talk about the systems as a whole.

I wouldn’t confuse my work with political activism though. I think that being an artist and living the life you want can be a political act. Much like the power of self-care, if you have a creative outlet, a way to express your voice, and are feeling good in your own skin, then no one can stop you. But after doing the hard work of door-knocking, I realized there’s no replacement for being on the ground, talking to people about issues, and making sure people get to the polls. Get to the polls!

AMM: Making art in a basement could be seen as a less than ideal creative environment even though the Starfish series of paintings is so very successful. You have written about maintaining a creative output while on the road travelling the world and staying in a variety of dwellings. Can you share some useful tips, please?

ST: Thank you! I was happy with how it turned out because it wasn’t as comfortable or well-lit as my studio. But my parents were very sweet to let me work down there. I had a very clear idea of the paintings I wanted to make before I started, which helped keep me on track.

I think if you stay focused on your vision and take small, manageable steps towards it, you can achieve a lot in less than ideal circumstances. Work within your limitations to a certain extent, but also take risks. Nothing is ever going to be perfect. If you really, truly fail, post it on Instagram and we can all have a good laugh.

AMM: You have been awarded residencies in Iceland, London, Portugal, Greece, and San Francisco. For those applying for future placements, how should one approach the application in order to ensure success?

ST: It’s a crap shoot, or at least it feels that way from your end because you never really know why you were or weren’t accepted. I still get rejected from residencies, so I wouldn’t consider myself an expert.

That said, here’s my advice. Before you start, be honest with yourself about whether you actually would be a good fit. A lot of sustaining a career as an artist in the long-run is being self-aware about what you have to offer. After that, have good documentation of your work, do your research and make a compelling argument for why you would be a good fit for a specific residency program, and don’t be afraid to highlight accomplishments.

Still Life, oil on canvas, 48 x 54 inches

AMM: We would be really interested to know how you prepare for the experience of a residency. Can you tell us more about the wonderful opportunities they provide, and maybe some of the more challenging moments?

ST: Because every residency is different, I try to do research about the facilities and the location before I go. How many people are there? What kinds of stores do they have, or not? Where can I get art supplies and how long do things take to ship there? Prepare for shipping costs if you are making big work that you can’t carry with you. Since I do a few residencies in a row, I pack light. I work mostly on paper and have done writing or murals as a way to minimize what I take home. I did make a couple of large paintings that I rolled up and shipped in a tube.

I met so many wonderful people, have eaten delicious home-cooked meals and had some really cool experiences that I wouldn’t have otherwise had at residencies. A lot of them are in small towns, so you end up living places that most people haven’t even heard of which can be really magical.

The challenges of attending artist residencies— that is the subject of a book that I am writing and too much to go into here. I’ve found that if a residency is less than 5 years old, expect at least a few surprises. I don’t think people realize how hard it is to run a residency when they first start. It’s like running an Airbnb, an art school, and being a cruise director. It’s not for everyone.

AMM: You obviously love art and have a very busy time making art and writing. In the past you have given your time as Co-Director to The Painting Salon which facilitated connections between art space, presentations and new audiences. You were also Co-Director at the Royal Nonesuch Gallery, an artist-run and event space in Oakland. How important is it for you that we all strive hard to do all we can to make art happen for all?

ST: Yes, I was so busy! I wouldn’t recommend taking on as much as I did while working a full-time job, but a lot of people do it in the Bay Area for very little reward. As you say, without it there wouldn’t be an art scene. I think if you are feeling frustrated with a lack of opportunities you should ask yourself whether you have done anything to contribute to the solution.

I fully believe that all artists should be compensated for their time, but usually we are all scraping resources together to make something happen, so I’m of the mindset that it’s better to be generous.

AMM: Why is art for all so important for the times we live in today?

ST: I think art has two purposes that are important to the fabric of society. One, the act of making art is very therapeutic whether or not the outcome is good. If people don’t have a creative outlet, that energy gets blocked, which isn’t healthy—so everyone should do something creative, even if it’s bad.

The second is the end product—the art. Art does so many things for people. It makes people feel connected to one another, it puts a spotlight on issues that are maybe hard to talk about, it can make people laugh. I certainly need a laugh these days.

AMM: We believe you are hoping to get settled back in San Francisco in 2020. What is happening in the contemporary art scene there? How difficult is it to find affordable studio space?

ST: I am, at least to make work for a show I have coming up in May. I’m not sure what studio rent prices are like because I have been subletting my studio at the Minnesota Street Project, which is a below-market-rate studio building/project/foundation that has been really supportive to a lot of artists there.

I do think that if you give to the SF art community, it will give back to you. Although because of the high cost of living, a lot of people are leaving the Bay Area—not just artists but other groups like teachers, art handlers, anyone looking to raise a family, and so on. It is a stressful place to be right now, but there are a lot people working really hard to keep the art scene alive.

Moon Music, oil on canvas, 24 x 18 inches

AMM: How do you envisage your dream studio?

ST: Good question. I have a very specific vision. My dream is to build a studio and/or house in a converted church with lots of light and high ceilings. There would also be a lofted lounge area with a kitchen, a west-facing view overlooking the surrounding landscape with a view of the sunset, and a comfortable couch for naps.

AMM: Are you still able to watch British Bake Off by the way?! We have enjoyed your travel writings and interviews but if you manage to have any downtime what do you enjoy reading and listening to?

ST: I am, but I don’t think there are any new episodes! Or am I missing out? I always make time for pop culture because it’s important to my work. Right now I love a British podcast called My Dad Wrote a Porno hosted by a son and his two friends who read a chapter of his dad’s erotic fiction every week. It’s brilliant, abjectly horrible and ridiculously funny.

I also just got done binging on Ru Paul’s Drag Race and the Queer Eye series because I love all the spiritual nuggets tucked (pun intended) between the makeovers and lipsynching. Lastly, I am watching My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend which is a genius show, and feels like actual research because it deals with a lot of current issues around gender, sexuality and representations of women in the TV and film in a smart way.

AMM: What’s next for you Sarah? Can you share details about future projects?

ST: I am going back to Iceland this fall for a residency to continue to build up my source material and prepare for a solo project I have coming up in Europe in the spring. I’m doing a lot of writing and trying to finish a book proposal about my travels—how things have evolved internally and in my art. I’m planning to go back to the States and get settled in 2020, although I’m not sure where yet. I had a recent tarot reading that said my new home town will be mountainous and dry like the moon, and will have a famous cemetery in it. I’m excited to go there, wherever it is, and start working on some new paintings.

Find out more about the artist: www.sarahthibault.com

Interview by Maria Zemtsova, text by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.

Self-portrait (feet), graphite on paper, 9 x 12 inches