Sarah Lapp is one of my favorite local artists. Is she my actual favorite? She just might be, y'all. I LOVE HER WORK. I've known of her since she was a student at UMW and I was working at the gallery on campus (So, 5+ years) and I helped hang her senior group show. Her piece was my favorite in the exhibition. I remember dragging Tom through duPont as soon as he arrived at the opening to share with him my discovery. I was just so EXCITED because it was so fresh and fully realized and stood out with talent, skill and a distinct point of view. Not to say the rest didn't have those things but Sarah's stood out. It was large scale, it was colorful, and it was abstract. The holy trinity.
Abstract painting reaches me emotionally way more than any representational painting could. I know that's true for a lot of people (just google "Rothko chapel" and read about the spontaneous crying in front of his work) and not true for lots of others (just ask one of my old bosses while I was in college. I had a Rothko postcard pinned to the cork board on the wall of my soul-numbing cubicle.....she walked past one day and made that "my pre-schooler could paint that" remark as people like to do).
To that point, Sarah mentions below that Rauschenberg has been a major influence on her work and is one of her favorite artists. I recently wrote a blog post about not "getting" a Rauschenberg in a college Art History course -- but after Sarah, an artist I do get - explains her connection to him, suddenly I'm able to contextualize his work which allows me to enjoy it on a level I wasn't able before.
That's one of the things I love most about abstract painting. It demands of you to dig deep and get at the core of the artist's process, and influences, and about who they are -- it becomes personal and emotional and challenging. Sarah's work is all of those things. So, hopefully, no matter where you fall on the "abstract/representational art" spectrum, you'll find my conversation with Sarah interesting and her art intriguing. I found her thoughtful answers to be incredibly inspiring. Read on to enrich your weekend!
1. Have you been painting from an early age? What's your training and education like?
I have always loved art, but my early arts education was pretty lacking. I grew up in Wyoming and the art that I was exposed to was typically very brown, realistic, and lacking any signs of the hand. There were lots of western prints, and for the most part how they were made was a mystery to me as a kid. I did have lots of fantastically illustrated books, and I remember being frustrated because I couldn't figure out how to make the marks and layers that comprised the pictures. The problem in hindsight was that I wasn't familiar with enough mediums. Perhaps I was trying to duplicate the feel of pastels, but with a magic marker. I credit these books with a lot of my later success with understanding compositions though. I still read the same ones to my kids, and the lines are just as intriguing.
The other inspiring exception in my early environment were the train cars that would constantly pass through the Wyoming landscapes. When I would see one covered in bright, graphic graffiti, I would find it fascinating, and invigorating, I was totally engaged by them, and that carries through to my work now. I actually finished my formal arts education at the University of Mary Washington. The understanding of the parameters of the visual language that I got right away in my studies there really made everything fall into place for me that I had been essentially storing, but not really understanding for almost thirty years. The most valuable parts of my education there were the things that validated what I was doing as something with its own integrity, and equally as important; those things that made me question what I was doing so that I could further understand it.
2. Let's say a museum buys one of your paintings. Which museum, which painting and where do they hang it?
So there are no margins on this plan... This is a fantastic question because now I am thinking what that would look like. The Hirshhorn. Somewhere between "Old Iowa Stories" and a piece I did a few years back called "Patriot". They snuggle it up to Rauschenberg's "Dam". But with breathing room.
3. Who would you count as your major artistic influences? When I look at your work, I see the Abstract Expressionists. Do you identify with their work and artistic philosophy?
Yes, I would say abstract expressionism is a big part of it. The work I feel closest to is very gestural as well. The aforementioned Rauschenberg, his work just sinks in when I see it, Gerhard Richter as well, I especially appreciate his eloquence in dealing with the purely abstract or figurative work. Helen Frankenthaler's work is more effusive to me than my own, but I find it inspiring. Jasper Johns is another whose artistic philosophy I really relate to. People can either dismiss what a piece of work means or expect it to have a big statement almost interchangeably. For me it is a more personal, and somewhat quieter dialogue that I am creating in my work. It has meaning and weight to me, but It isn't necessary for it to have the same meaning to a viewer. Their emotive response is their own.
4. How do you know when a painting is "done"? I am always curious to know how abstract painters are able to step away from a painting for good. Is it intuitive or have you visualized the finished product from the start?
It is very intuitive. Sometimes, I am searching for resonance, sometimes, for dissonance. Sometimes for tension, sometimes resolution. I am watching the piece carefully as I work through it to find where there are things that pull it one way or another, looking for outliers. At the end, it is lots of standing back, seeing how it all works together, and usually if I am on point, leaving a bit out. Lots of times when I realize what my point is, I want to go over it again. But it is better the first time.
5. You've currently got a show up at Bistro Bethem with another local artist, Stacey M. Schultze. What are the most challenging and most inspiring parts of preparing for an exhibition?
Stacey and I have a show that runs through the beginning of April, yes. This is the first time I have been able to work with her closely, and it really is a pleasure. Anytime I work with other artists, my main pleasure is just that, an exchange of artistic minds. I learn a lot about my own work and processes by talking to other artists about theirs, and hanging a show where you have different artists work creating a conversation with each other in the space is a really neat dynamic. The biggest challenge for me is that you never know what your going to create next. 'This one I just made was great, maybe the next would be even better, and interact with the others even better'... and it just goes on and on until you hang.
6. Can you tell us what your process is like when you're starting a painting? Do you start with a concept, a blank canvas or a general idea of what you'd like to accomplish?
I paint intuitively. For me this means that I start by putting paint on the canvas and then watch the conversation between the different aspects of it as it evolves. I watch how colors and volume and weight of the forms interact with each other, and much of my time is spent pulling what I have put on around with my knife and my fingers until it becomes clear to me. They do all mean something to me. I can't necessarily tell what it is when I begin, but it is a process of realization as I make sense of my own world through the manipulation of the materials. I frequently take paint off as much as I put it on, and the scgrafitto technique that I am particularly fond of is marks comprised of prayers. I don't want or need them to be legible, just genuine and there. During more turbulent times in my life, I haven't been able to access the part of my mind that works strictly intuitively, and I started employing photo emulsion transfers as a departure point to get beyond not knowing what I might be processing. I really enjoy both working strictly abstractly as well as putting recognizable imagery in abstract landscapes. This has an ethereal quality to me, one more from memory, and a sense of timelessness than how we imagine a constructed version of reality.
7. What music do you listen to to get inspired while you're painting?
Pandora is fantastic. I have one station that is pretty much soft crooning folk music, Bon Iver, Iron and Wine, Gregory Alan Isakov, Vance Joy and the like, and another that is more Cold War Kids, Awolnation, and... Kid Cudi, maybe some Passion Pit mixed in. Lots of color composition aligns with musical composition, only color happens in fixed time, whereas music in real time, so I can't downplay the energy of new artists that come into my stations.
8. You've been an artist for a number of years now. How do you think your art has changed and evolved since you began? Can you give us an idea of the direction your painting is headed currently if it's any different than what you're doing now?
When I started painting, I remember taking classes where we were to investigate why we made the work we did. Then, I had no idea of why, or what was important in my own work to me. Now, I deeply understand each work, and while I am much quieter about what its value is to me personally, I feel closer to it. I am working a lot more now than I have before, mostly because I have to, and I can. My work is getting bigger, I like to feel engulfed in them, and I am currently playing equally with complete abstraction, and abstracted figurative images. I like the dialogue they create between the two, and I notice my abstract becoming more representational as far as eluding to subject mater, and my figure pieces becoming more abstracted. The quality I am going for in my work is that of being emotive. Whichever way it gets there is fine.
9. I love your tattoos. Can you tell us about them? Did you design them yourself? Do they hold specific meaning to you?
Thanks! I do have a very big and bold half sleeve as one of them. I am a single mother now, but I played the supportive role of military spouse to a man during all of his active duty years. With three children, and the necessity to reinvent our life with every move, it became paramount to me to be the anchor for our family as we were always in a state of impermanence. There is a saying, "give your children roots, and wings". My sleeve was initially created about that. The family that I built needed to be the roots, hence there is a deeply rooted tree, and giving my children the tools to be the most competent, whole and stable people they can be was their wings, so, there are birds leaving the branches. I imagine when I get more work done, there will be fewer feathers, more leaves, and swing from the roots. But, who knows, you have to think about those things for a while.
10. If you weren't an artist, what other profession could you see yourself enjoying?
My initial undergrad projects were in dietetics and dance, no real correlation, but still important. My favorite jobs have always been ones where you work with your hands, or pull things together in a way that wasn't expected. I can see myself working in urban gardening, or other things that build community through physical projects and interactions. That way, you get good things done, and people get to know each other in the process.