Sunday, March 24, 2013

Sarah Cowan interview with Debora Alanna

Debora                 So, tell me. Tell me how you started doing this (work)?

Sarah                    How I started this?

Debora                 Yes.

Sarah                    Well, I guess a long, long time ago, about four years ago, I took a course with Wendy Welch and I discovered paper cutting. And I loved it. But then, I kinda put it away,
I did one, kind of like these shapes, but separate. I had painted them with water colours. I did kind of like a rainbow, a spectrum over one wall of the school (Vancouver Island School of Art  - aka VISA).  It was really beautiful.

And I put it away. I discovered drawing again. I was still painting. But I kept cutting paper, and things like this. When I had my studio at Xchanges, I was walking to it, I was standing on the corner of the sidewalk, and there was this wire thing, and I thought, this is really interesting. I wonder,  I bet I can do something with that. I took it to my studio and leaned it up against the wall. I had some of these cut outs, and I started  hanging them on them, and the idea just grew.

Debora                 What is your impetus behind this? What is the force that causes you to do... cut in multiples, and hanging?

Sarah                   There are so many levels to it for me. There is the... I have a bit of a sordid past.

Debora                Don’t we all?!

Sarah                   Don’t we all. I was... I have a mental illness. And sometimes some behaviours surface. Like a long time ago I used to cut myself. And so the cutting is cathartic in a way. It is also transferring something that I used to do in a very self harmful way into something I can make something beautiful with. The shape is something that... the shape comes from... well, for me, they are cells. And the importance of... the cells within our body – the importance of them all being connected... taking a sheet of paper and making one strip, from one sheet of paper is that our cells need to  communicate. They need the proper nutrients, they need water,  salt, all that stuff in order to communicate, so we work well. That is something I am really interested in. The conductivity that I don’t even know about... I don’t know how my body works. But it does. And I know that is one of the things. So taking myself outside of myself, I am putting it into a tactile form.

Debora                Your work makes me think of Wendy’s cellular pictures – that is what came to mind immediately. That was your inspiration?

Sarah                   Yeah. A couple of years ago I took out a book from the school on – photographs of the insides of us. It is just fascinating. I did a whole series of drawings on organs and right down to the micro micro . Little filaments that... it is mind boggling.  Really, it is mind boggling.

Debora                I see this work enlarged from your drawings. Because your drawings have such detail, diary, just lines. These are large, compared to your previous work.

Sarah                    It was really interesting working on a larger scale and keeping it really simple. Really simple. When I use the knife I do feel as though I am drawing. I am drawing with a knife. It is just another level.

But the other thing too is they are so ethereal. I really wanted to call this show, my part in it anyways... there is that famous book by Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Debora                 Oh, yes.

Sarah                    And, I really wanted to call this, ‘The Unbearable Heaviness of Being’, because I feel so heavy. And... I never actually really wanted to be here.

Debora                 In the studio? Or...

Sarah                    In this world.

Debora                 In this world.

Sarah.                   Yeah. My whole life, it has been a struggle for me to be here. I have used some means, I have developed some ways of coping with being here in a physical sense. And then my art just evolved. With that always at the back of my mind, that when I make art, I am here, I am present. I am safe. I am being creative, I am meditative. When I am finished a piece, I can put it up and look at and say, okay, I did that. I did that so that means I am here. Whatever that means. It is almost like... It is a real, tangible document – that I am here.
Debora                 Great. I am glad you are here.

                              You are still working on this (installation), you are still cutting and hanging?

Sarah                    Yep. Yeah, I had an idea that it would grow.

Debora                 So, it is a work in progress.

Sarah                    Yes. It is a work in progress. I just hung 6 more (strands) this morning. I noticed some of them are breaking... I don’t know what is happening to the ones that are breaking, but some of them are really short now. I am not here all the time.  I don’t mind. The way I hung it... I want people to be able to move through it, I want them to feel touched. Physically touched by it. And I want them to touch it.

Debora                 Being an installation, it is quite a departure from your paper drawings that you were doing.

Sarah                    Ya.

Debora                 Or paintings. Paintings and drawing.

Sarah                    Painting and drawing. Ya. But I always have...I don’t know if you remember my Grad exhibition at VISA.

Debora                 You were in the corner?

Sarah                    I was in the closet.

Debora                 Right! The closet.            

Sarah                    So everything comes from something that you have already done. With that installation, which incorporated drawing as well as installation... this is now pure installation.

Debora                 At Xchanges you had a show, and you were in a container as well.

Sarah                    Yes. I am really interested in the three dimensional aspect of making art, of being creative.

Debora                 Would you call this sculpture?

Sarah                    Yes. Yes. Absolutely. Ya, but you know, it is a mix. It is sculpture, it is drawing.

Debora                 That is why I am asking. I did not want to assume. Because some people would say this is a three dimensional drawing.

Sarah                    Yeah.

Debora                 I think of it as sculpture, but that is my bias.

Sarah                    I don’t really mind how people see it. What I really want... is for people... I make it because I make it, I make it because I need to, have to, or I need to complete this idea. This concept. I don’t make for anybody else. But I hang it for other people. All I really want, and this is for anything that I do, I want a response. And whether people like it or not... I would rather that they liked it, obviously, but if they don’t really like it, so long as they have some kind of an emotional response to it... and I found with this piece that that is what is happening. They come in and say, oh, it reminds me of... oh, it makes me think of...

Debora                 Can you tell me more of what they said? What it reminds them of, makes them think of, think about?

Sarah                    They feel underwater.

Debora                 Oh yes?

Sarah                    Ah... Snowflakes. Ice. Snow. Not a cold climate but a snowy place. Forest. I had a little 5 year-old just call them weeds. Often it makes them, it reminds them of a childhood thing.

Debora                 Oh yes?

Sarah                    Yes. Lots of childhood memories. There was one fellow who said it reminded him of when he lived in Quebec and he would go hunting with his grandfather, and it was so quiet. Because when he was standing in the middle of it, and there was no sound, there was no music on, nothing. He was just standing. And he felt... he said he felt as if he was standing in the snowy, snow clad trees in northern Quebec.  I like that.

Debora                 Do you have any conceptual thoughts on these besides the act of drawing or the process you are involved with? Is there anything else that you bring to it that is the context within the art making practice in the world?

Sarah                    I haven’t really thought about it that way. To me, it is more about just making the art. Having an idea, and being curious about what that would look like.

                              Before I hung the work, even, it is always at the back of my mind, this kind of thing. I don’t know what I am going to do. I have an idea. Then I try. So the week before I hung this, I was trying to figure out how I would, and what I wanted . Did I want it as a circle? Did I want it on the periphery of the room?  Did I want it all in the centre? What I find is that the work works me. I start to hang. I look at it. That doesn’t really work. So, I get back up the ladder and do it again. I think I am really an organic artist. I work to, through intuition. This piece was hard for me because even though it is very... the shapes are very organic, I knew that I had to stay within certain bounds. I couldn’t start being really extravagant with circles or ... I knew I had to stay within certain parameters. Like, four to a loop.

Debora                 It is very labour intensive. There is a lot of work here. How long did it take you, so far?

Sarah                    I don’t know. Maybe two... I think I started it mid December. Ya, mid December.

Debora                 Several months.

Sarah                    Ya. But that is okay, because a lot of my work is about labour. It is about doing something. Not because I have to or because there is going to be an outcome that I am going to get rewarded for. It is very different from being in the world and having a job. This work is made just because. Just like, you are in this world, just because you are in this world. There doesn’t need to be a reason.

Debora                 It is gorgeous.

Sarah                    For me, it is a real spiritual practice. Ya, I think it is about the spirit. In my artist statement, I say that I am an incorrigible liar. Because I am. I lie to myself. I lie to... not intentionally. I think when I am really working on something that means something to me, then my work doesn’t lie. And it is just what it is. Does that make sense?

Debora                 Oh, ya. How comfortable are you with me transcribing this?

Sarah                    Yeah. Sure.

Debora                 Okay.


Sarah                    When I was playing, exploring with the wire, the circles I had already cut what intrigued me was the shadows. Yeah, just the shadows it created. So the next step I think is making photographs of them. And having them printed properly. Because I think they are really quite stunning. It really was the shadows they created, and hanging them together, and also playing with the light. Different lights differently. Warm light and cool light. And the kind of colours that would come out of white paper. And the shadows.

                              One of the first things I was taught in art school was that shadow is never grey. Or black. It ‘s mauve, it’s burgundy. It’s yellow. It’s all different colours. It was my son who pointed it out to me. Seriously. We were driving home on a day like today, really cloudy and he was only three or something. Three and a half. We were driving home, and he was sitting in the back seat. He say, ‘Mummy, look. Look at all the colours in the clouds.’ And I looked. And I think that is the first time in my life I ever saw colours in clouds. So then I asked him, ‘what colours do you see?’ And he started, ‘I see pink, I see green, I see yellow, I see purple, I see...’ It was the darndest thing. I never have forgotten (obviously) I have never forgotten it. So, my three year old taught me to look. Differently.

Debora                 Lovely. I love that story.

Sarah                    So, I think that is why I love grey, and I love anything with white, and shadow. Not using manufactured colour. The shadows, they stir something in me.

Debora                 It will be interesting to see how you use that in your next body of work. Do you have something in mind?

Sarah                    What I am going to do is submit this piece to various galleries around, and outside of Victoria, too. And I am also going to start exploring with different materials. I would like to start playing around with plastics, things like that that are more durable, although, I love the fact that paper is natural, is biodegradable, and it is transient. That is the other thing I love about this... is that it is not going to stay like this forever. The other thing too, is that, and I learned this as an artist, once i am kind of done with the work, I don’t really care what happens to it. Someone can come and buy it, or take it or I can give it away, or whatever, but when I am done, I don’t have any... there is only one painting I have an emotional attachment to that I will never sell, but anything else... It is kind of strange. Like if someone came in and said they wanted to buy this right now, I would say, oh great. Although, maybe not quite yet, I don’t’ think I am not really quite finished. But you know...

Debora                 Yes. This could be a template for a manufacturer too. It not is easily repeated, but it is not impossible to repeat.

Sarah                    I know I have had a few people say I need to get a design person in, and a marketing person. No. I just want to do the work. That is the most important thing to me.

Debora                 Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. 

Precarious Circumstances
Gallery 1580
1580 Cook St
Victoria BC

Debora Alanna is a multimedia artist living in Victoria, BC  visit her blog here:

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