Can you tell me a little bit about you?
I’m currently based in a small college town in the American midwest: Columbia, Missouri. I was born in Hamburg, Germany and grew up partly there and partly in France, in a suburb of Paris. I attended the Fine Arts Program at the UdK in Berlin and stayed there for 6 years. Right after graduation, I moved to Cologne and a year later to Bonn. I relocated to London, UK the following year and stayed there for 5 years. I ended up in Missouri two years ago in order to settle with my family. We’d like to build a studio, house and small permaculture farm on some wooded land near town.
I have a family background of migration. Moving cities, countries and continents has become a more or less natural part of my identity. Both my parents immigrated to Germany and met there. My mother is French and my father is Chilean. My husband has a similar background as his father immigrated to the United States from Mexico and his mother from Guatemala. My husband and I grew up in very different cultural and socio-economical environments but we share many insights and views on life and the world we (want to) inhabit.
Art has accompanied me on this path from the beginning. It has undergone just as many metamorphoses as I and will continue to do so as long as I live.
When did you first discover art, or realize you wanted to make it yourself?
My parents and French grandparents exposed me to art from a very early age and they also always encouraged my love for drawing and painting. They took me to galleries, museums and sculpture parks, showed me the inventiveness and beauty of architecture in all its forms (from the simple house to the cathedral), sent me to art classes and workshops and went with me to theater plays and concerts. Experiencing art was not only a part of our daily life but also of our many travels. It translated into all areas of life where beauty, intentionality, innovation, tradition and the handmade come into play. I’m deeply grateful for this. I understood from the very beginning: Art is important. I was ten years old when I told my friend: I want to become a painter.
What do you like most about working where you do?
The only thing I like (and hate) about working in Columbia, MO is the lack of distraction. Although I wish I had more opportunities to view amazing art in person, this secludedness has given my practice a boost and I feel like I finally “found myself” here, in the middle of hilly farmland, very far away from home.
What ideas are you exploring in your practice?
For many years now, I have been very interested in intimate spaces, maybe as a counterbalance to the many different public spaces I’ve had to adapt to in life. Intimate spaces, such as the home or my Self are zones that I have more control over, spaces I can arrange and rearrange as needed. I have studied the Self intensely for years, such as during my studies in art therapy or in my mediation practice.
In my paintings, these intimate spaces take shape as abstracted interior scenes – especially windows and curtains –, as the human body – especially faces, hands and female body parts –, and as domestic objects such as vessels (especially vases) and quilts.
The malleable, sometimes hybrid boundaries between inside and outside are very interesting to me. This is an intersubjective area we negotiate with others on a daily basis. It’s the space where we connect, too.
Lately, I have been thinking about negative and positive space on the painting surface, and with it about the container and the contained. The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion coined the term of containment in therapy as based on the earliest mother-infant interactions where the caretaker absorbs all difficult emotions of her child (such as pain or fear) to psychically digest and manage them for him or her. This container function is very important for the child’s growing ability to do this for himself as he or she grows more mature.
As the mother of a now three year old, it is striking to me that these ideas and experiences play out, more and more often and increasingly explicitly, in my work. In my window paintings, the empty space between the image framing curtains tend to take on the shape of a vase or another holding vessel. Negative space becomes positive space that holds, visibly or not, another negative space whose content we can only wonder about.
What is your process like?
Because of the time constraints I am experiencing as a mother and teacher, my time in the studio is very limited and therefore very work-focused. I arrive, get changed, and start. I work until the last minute. I usually have to rush to get all the brushes clean before I have to pick up my daughter from daycare or from my husband’s care. Sometimes, they don’t get cleaned.
I work about 6 hours at a stretch (with no breaks), 2 or (rarely) 3 days a week. I sometimes go in for an additional hour or two in order to make quick moves that don’t require me to totally dive in. The shorter sessions also enable me to just look at the paintings and to reflect on them and the process I find myself in.
Studio time is very intense for me and I often depart with a sense of alienation from the world, my head in a cloud of oil and solvent fumes and when I close my eyes, colors and shapes pop up. It takes me a while to transition into the world. But never the other way around.
Pieces on canvas usually take months to finalize because of the many layers of oil paint I apply onto the surface. Works on wood panel happen much quicker and really refreshen my practice. I usually have 5-15 paintings in progress and I move around from one to the next as I please.
If it works out, I draw, paint or make things at home with my daughter which sometimes enables me to get some rough ideas on paper. However, I tend to keep studio time and private life very separate as I’ve found that being a mother and wife require my entire presence as well.
What is the last thing you read?
The last book I read from the first to the last page was “L’invention de soi, Une théorie de l’identité” by the French sociologist Jean-Claude Kaufmann. It’s a remarkable piece of work on the development of identity within different socio-economical and cultural environments, and the necessity for our modern selves to create a story line of our life that appears coherent and personally driven. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in group dynamics (within the larger society we’re inhabiting, the sub-cultures we’re exposed to or engaged in, and the family culture(s) that we’re entangled with) as a space for identity building. Unfortunately, I don’t think this book has been translated into English.
What are you passionate about?
Art, obviously, but also:
Self-care. Because I want to be happy.
Argentine Tango. It speaks to me from very deep within.
Table manners. I can’t help it. It’s where I come from.
How do you spend your time when you’re not making work?
It took me all my life to understand that for me, less is more. I only recently made drastic changes to my life-style. When I’m not in the studio, I’m now sleeping in, having coffee on my couch, am reading and meditating. In the afternoons, I play with my daughter. Three times a week, I teach German at the university. It makes me happy to connect with others and to share my love for German language and culture, a love that took me years and many healing experiences to develop.
How has your work evolved over the last few years?
From 2004 to 2010, while studying Fine Art at the University of the Arts in Berlin, I researched concepts and practices of artists that explored the built environment, such as the city, the home and the studio and its direct influence on our body, mind and artistic practice. Artists such as Valie Export and Francesca Woodman were important influences as they inspired many projects within the media of photography and video. Their practices also reflected my own questions and processes around gender, power, and identity.
Over the years, my studio practice and academic interests have undergone many changes due to relocations and changes in my personal life. While I was fascinated by the architecture and history of Berlin (and identifying what position to inhabit in society, and within the hierarchical structures of the university) in my early twenties, I returned to painting in 2011, when I started my art therapy studies. The safer space of the art therapy program enabled me to reconnect with a medium that I have loved all of my life. The immediacy of the medium gave way to an intuitive, responsive and sensual approach to art making.
Painting was and is again my first love. There hasn’t been any need for the exploration of other materials and media for almost 10 years.
Do you have a day job or other work that you split your time between?
I have always considered having a day job a necessity. I like that day jobs require different skills than studio work and that they keep my mind open and agile. For the past ten years, I have been working in education and as an art therapist (I hold another master’s degree for that), which has always been a source of happiness and strength even if it has limited my studio time. I’m grateful and feel honored to be in touch with and serve so many people from very different walks of life. Being financially independent is another important benefit to having a day job.
That said, I look forward to the days when my child is a little older, my income a little higher and my work hours a little decreased, and so my studio time is much less confined.
What do you do when you’re find yourself in a creative rut, or feeling unsure about what direction to go?
I do something else! I allow myself to not go into the studio and to do something totally unrelated. I want to be able to come back with a clear mind and fresh eyes.
Alternatively, I clean up the studio and sometimes rearrange it too. I stretch and prime new canvases. Or I ask for a critique. Usually, a creative rut or uncertainty about what direction to go doesn’t stay for too long.
What does it mean to you to have a “community?”
Having worked most of my artistic career in a rather isolated manner, due to my many relocations and the time it takes to meet the right people and find the right spaces, I can only imagine how nourishing community must be when you’re rooted in a special place and within a special group of people.
I do believe that a supportive community is tremendously important as it offers opportunities for exchange, critiques, exhibitions, collaborations, sales and more.
In such a remote place as Columbia, MO, social media sometimes becomes a kind of Ersatz for community but I know that these connections don’t quite have the same quality nor do they necessarily lead to the same results as in-person communities. That said, I’m always excited when opportunities arise in this way!
How significant has attending art school been on your practice?
This seems to be a question most North-American artists worry about. I do get the impression that most artists here think that you need to have an MFA in order to be a “real” artist. The reason for this might be the way undergraduate studies are structured in the USA.
In Germany, the education system and especially art schools differ very much from the American model. There are rigorous entry exams and only a small percentage of applicants are admitted to Fine Arts programs. When you’re in, you are being trained to be an artist from day one. You are not required to take classes that are not related to art or to your practice. Professors and other instructors model and encourage independence, self-motivation, and the development of a strong art historical and theoretical knowledge, as well as a striving for innovation, experimentation and collaboration. There is no question that you will graduate as an artist, regardless of how many years of study you have accomplished (usually between 4 and 6 years). Although it was hard for my twenty year old self to be exposed to such an independently minded and highly competitive environment, I am now deeply grateful for it. I do believe that attending the UdK Berlin was very significant in the way I constructed my identity as an artist, perceive art and pursue my artistic practice.
How would you define “success” in art?
If I can make art on a regular basis over the entire span of my life, as I please and when I need it, then I would consider myself successful! Even more so, if my work would be part of the current conversation of contemporary painting (and/or is still relevant to the future discourse).
In the secludedness of my studio space, when it’s just me and the painting, I would consider myself successful when a painting feels honest while pushing my boundaries; one that got me (or still gets me) out of my comfort zone (or doesn’t cease to surprise me), yet exudes clarity and ease.
Anything else you would like to add?
Thank you Kate for this opportunity to share my thoughts and experiences with you and your audience!
Find more at saraharriagada.com and on Instagram @sarah_arriagada!
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