Sara Jones is an artist, designer, and curator based in Brooklyn, NY. She received a BA in Fine Arts from Connecticut College, and MFA and Museum Studies Certificate from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Tufts University. Her work has been shown at locations including Galeria Impakto (Lima, Peru), Camel Art Space (Brooklyn, NY), Peter Fingesten Gallery at Pace University (New York, NY),Gallery Hanahou (New York, NY), Avis Frank Gallery (Houston, TX), and Storefront Space (Chicago, IL). Jones attended the Vermont Studio Center in 2010 and 2013 (with a third session scheduled for this November), and her work was featured in the 2013 Northeast edition of New American Paintings.
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Sara Jones co-taught one of the first classes I took in grad school at the SMFA, a course with the foreboding name, “The Death of Painting.” Shortly after, Sara moved to New York, teaching and doing graphic design work for The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at The Cooper Union and Pratt Institute, as well as continuing to build her own art practice. Kirk and I recently reconnected with Sara, and have been excited to reacquaint ourselves with her work. On our most recent trip to New York, we finally made a point to do a proper studio visit to see her new work, which investigates pattern, architectural structures, depictions of space, and the subtle things that make the familiar unfamiliar.
Andrea Evans: Hi Sara, thanks for having us by your studio! I don’t think I’ve seen your work in person since you were in Boston; it was really nice to see what you’ve been working on.
So I remember your graduate thesis work: a series of small paintings of the interiors of your grandparents’ home. There was much attention to pattern and detail, and I know the work dealt with your memory of those spaces and the emotional content of these patterns and decor. An interest in pattern, the decorative, domestic spaces, and architectural structure can still be seen in your current work. I’m curious, has the content attached to these subjects changed for you? How has your focus shifted over time?
SJ: First of all, thank you, Andrea and Kirk, for coming down to New York and visiting my studio! I’m excited to share my new work since it’s been so long since you’ve seen anything in person.
Pattern, the decorative, domestic spaces and architectural structure are still major themes for me in my work, although the way I am thinking about them has shifted. When I was in Boston, the work was very specifically attached to personal experience: the experience of having spent so much time in a home that was decorated heavily in pattern, patterns that hadn’t changed since my grandparents had first moved into the house in the 1950s. I was interested in how that constant visual information and stimulation starts to have a psychological impact, and in tandem with that, I was investigating the meanings of these domestic spaces we create: ideas of home, specifically the German “heimlich” and its opposite “unheimlich” (translated to English as “uncanny”). This came about because my grandparents had passed away and their house was being sold, so with these interests in domestic space came added investigations into memory, loss, destruction, impermanence, etc.
After grad school, the issues in my work that still resonated with me were the ones attached more to formal and perceptual issues I was bringing up through my depiction of space, pattern and architecture, rather than my connections to specific spaces I had inhabited. My work has become more abstract and less a depiction of actual observed space, although I am still very much interested in depicting space—often simplifying it to planes tilted in perspective or playing with flat areas of pattern.
AE: I often think back to our “Death of Painting” class that you co-taught with Daniela Rivera and Lucy Beecher at SMFA. We studied and talked a lot about Freud in that class, and his writing on the uncanny made a pretty big impact on many of us. I know his ideas were an influence on your work at that time. Is Freud still playing a role in these recent works as well?
SJ: Yes, it’s true. I was definitely reading a lot about the uncanny at the time. Anthony Vidler’s The Architectural Uncanny made a big impression while I was working on my thesis, and that book was actually a big influence that turned my work resolutely towards investigations of space, architecture, and our domestic environments as these built spaces that we believe we have control of. Before reading that book, I think my work was much more just about memory and how pattern exerts itself in our minds, without thinking so much about the perception of physical space and the ways inhabiting architecture or a built environment influences our experience.
So to answer your question, Freud is not directly as involved in the current work, but back then he sent me on a path of investigation and discovery and I am still grateful to him for it.
AE: You studied design alongside visual arts and have worked as a designer at multiple times throughout your life. How has your background in design informed your art practice? Do you see a clear boundary between these areas of “design” and “art”, in the grand scheme of things, and in your own practice?
SJ: In undergrad I studied both graphic design and painting in tandem, and it served me well in that I was able to get a design job right out of college. Design has a huge influence on me and how I look at the world, and therefore a huge influence on my painting practice. It has taught me a lot about composition, and there’s so much consideration that goes into combining disparate elements.
For me there are no boundaries between “design” and “art”. They completely influence each other, and I am constantly applying painting techniques in my design work and design thinking in my painting work.
Kirk Amaral Snow: Architectural drawings are about imagined space, things that may come into being. You seem to subvert that through the use of materials that come into actual space, and combining different “projection systems” in the same image. Can you talk a bit about these approaches?
SJ: Yes. This is exactly what I mean by what I was saying earlier when I described my interests shifting towards the formal and perceptual issues that go along with depicting space. After grad school, I spent 7 years working in the School of Architecture at The Cooper Union, and that had a huge influence on my work. I was constantly surrounded by architectural drawings and was intrigued by the potential they carried to become space. During the time I was there, the school was shifting towards teaching and including more digital technology and computer-aided drafting into the curriculum, and I was noticing the shift in believability between the spaces that were being imagined in the computer vs. the spaces that were being hand-drawn. All of a sudden, the lack of physical engagement in the drawing via the hand and body caused a loss in the understanding of human scale in relation to a building, while at the same time in some ways the drawings were becoming much more believable because of the power of the computer to render things three dimensionally. No longer was everyone constrained to trying to figure out 2 point perspective or axonometric drawing on a piece of paper, but at the same time a certain humanity was being lost.
Those observations got me thinking about what I was ultimately trying to do in my work, and I began to have fun with subverting perspectival space by having what you call various “projection systems” in one painting, or having a three-dimensional element actually enter into space. Most often I do this through my use of thread, which I see as just another drawing tool, but one that can come off the surface of the painting and engage with “real” space.
AE: Speaking of this, there is a physical, tactile quality to your work that comes not only from the varied ways you apply paint to the surface and your consideration of the painting substrate, but also in your incorporation of pattern and thread into the surfaces of themselves. When did you start bringing thread and embroidery into your work? What is the impetus behind this use of material and technique?
SJ: The main use of thread in my work is as a drawing tool: I love that it can be used to draw both two-dimensionally (as in a more traditional embroidery technique) or three-dimensionally by coming off the painting and into the room. It also serves as a way for me to render the pattern I incorporate using the same language that was used when the pattern was originally conceived, meaning that it refers to textile design, embroidery, stitching, rug making, etc. in an almost literal way. The thread and embroidery came into the work about 7 years ago: I was spending a lot of time painstakingly painting pattern, and realized that I could instead spend a lot of time painstakingly embroidering pattern and it would give me flexibility and dimensionality as a material that I could not achieve with paint alone.
AE: While you are using materials and techniques that come out of the craft tradition, as well as detailed and methodical practices, your use of these approaches is not always tidy and neat. There is an attention to the craftsmanship of the work, but paired with your painstakingly rendered ornamentation and pattern, we are also confronted with punctured surfaces, splintered wood, and unruly clusters of loose threads, as if the work is coming apart at the seams. Can you talk more about this juxtaposition? Is it a representation of something not yet complete, or something slowly falling apart?
SJ: I think of it more as something falling apart, although the idea of it being something not yet complete seems a bit more optimistic! The fact that things are falling apart is still strongly related to the themes of loss, destruction and impermanence as they relate to our relationship with our built environment that I started investigating in grad school. Something that I often think about (and used to make work about) is natural disasters, specifically hurricanes. I grew up on the Gulf Coast, so I witnessed a lot of hurricane damage over the years. The pieces that have these elements of violence or messiness are addressing the juxtaposition between the emotional connections we make to the things we build and the almost guaranteed impermanence of those built things. (This can also be seen as a metaphor with any kind of relationship we have, whether it’s with our built environment or in our personal relationships with one another).
KAS: When we were in your studio, you mentioned the failures of modernist architecture becoming apparent when these spaces become lived in. This brought me to another thought that ties to the “rug” pieces; beginning with Adolf Loos, many of the modernist architects had oppositional feelings towards the concept of “ornament” or “decoration”. Are these two ideologies oppositional as you use them in your work?
SJ: Yes, of course. It’s something I think about often…I’ve always been drawn to the clean lines and the aesthetic put forth by the Bauhaus and other modernists, but the question of human nature and how we actually live always creeps up for me. Very few people actually live the way the modernists intended us to—we all crave some sense of comfort from our surroundings, and for many people, pattern plays into that. Also, one of the very valid and admirable points of modernism (starting with Loos) was that the clean design and minimal lines of modernism were to discourage waste: Loos thought superfluous ornament contributed to the obsolescence of objects. He believed simple objects never go out of style and therefore would be treasured for all time and would not need to be replaced. He also referenced how much time a laborer would waste by decorating an object. In many senses that is completely valid, but in today’s society, where pattern is so easily created digitally, or where disposable fashion is commonplace, I like to consider the value of actually spending time doing something by hand: the object (in this case the painting) becomes imbued with the attention to detail and craftsmanship that couldn’t be gotten any other way. Our relationship to craftsmanship and handmade things has shifted, I think, and they become the things that we treasure for all time because we recognize the work that has gone into them. (As opposed to the clean, sleek, modernist design of Apple, for example, where we crave the newest product as soon as it comes out and our old version gets thrown out and is immediately obsolete).
AE: I’ve noticed that your most recent work seems to be leaning more towards abstraction. While there are some clearly recognizable (and sometimes even representational) imagery, your use of color and pattern is becoming flatter. There is much less emphasis on creating the illusion of a 3D form. The use of perspective is still there, but in general there is a much more streamlined depiction of these spaces. What has attracted you to this way of dealing with space, and spaces?
SJ: At the moment, I have become much less interested in traditional representation of objects 3-dimensionally, becoming more interested in how we read space through flat planes that are either shaped to follow rules of perspective (such as a trapezoid) or how the use of pattern influences our perception of space. I’ve simplified these elements because I am currently much more engaged with investigating the relationships of these simple forms and because there’s a lot of territory there for me to cover: especially when I combine simple planes and shapes with more complicated embroidery or patterning. I think my design thinking has also pushed its way forward recently. In design, you often think about the use of “white space,” and I think that these simplified forms allow me to consider the “white space” in my paintings a bit more. There’s more room to experiment with how the disparate elements work with or against each other if you leave room for “white space.”
AE: One of the recurring “images” in your work is that of the void. In some cases, this takes the form of a blank negative shape in the middle of a room, or a dark knotty cluster of threads. What is it about the “void” that interests you? What does it represent or speak to in your work?
SJ: The void is one of my favorite things because it’s a distillation of all my thinking about memory and of what was once there (whether it is a thing, building, emotion, feeling, etc). It came out of my interest in documenting destruction after hurricanes, and I was specifically drawn to uprooted and destroyed swimming pools. I have several paintings and drawings I did in 2007-2008 that specifically use these swimming pools as subject matter. The pools were interesting to me because in their original intention, they were meant to exist as voids (literally holes in the ground), but then when they lost their established function as swimming pools after the storm (having been emptied, cracked, uprooted, or otherwise destroyed), they came to even more fully embody their existence as voids: emptied of all meaning and function. It was an interesting paradox for me, and I started using them as a metaphor for all the other stuff I had been thinking about. Eventually, the void in my work became much more simplified, existing now as a blank shape, a cut hole in a panel, or a knot of thread.
AE: Tell us about Kind Aesthetic. Has this had an impact on your own work in any way?
SJ: Kind Aesthetic is a creative agency I started with Andrea Wenglowskyj in 2012, and we’ve also developed a suite of services for artists and creatives called DELVE. DELVE started as a series of networking events for artists and creatives in New York City, and has grown to include bespoke workshops and a popular Toolkit that helps people best communicate what they do online, in person, and in writing. DELVE is about making tangible progress on goals, empowering artists and creatives to hone the professional skills they need to put their best work into the world, and inspiring the DELVE community to take action on projects that truly matter. Both projects work in the same way: we help our clients tell the right stories in clear, compelling, visually stunning ways by using a number of creative tactics.
We love listening to what drives the creativity of our clients and enjoy helping them define and clearly communicate the uniqueness of their projects–both online and in person. Finding and defining the genuine power and truth behind the story of a creative entrepreneur, organization or brand allows us to synthesize an idea into a real experience that thrives in the world, such as a design competition for a thriving New York organization, a comprehensive new website and online selling platform for an artist, musician or fashion designer, or by curating amazing artists and speakers into live events.
The work we do with Kind Aesthetic and DELVE is endlessly inspiring. Helping others get their projects off the ground is very motivating for my own art practice. We are constantly helping people solve creative problems and manage their time wisely, and I’ve definitely taken that to heart in my own practice. I feel very focused when I’m in the studio these days. The best part about my collaboration with Andrea is that since we are both practicing artists, we give each other the space and time to work in the studio: one day a week I cover Kind Aesthetic business while she focuses on her art practice and she does the same for me. It’s allowed for a great freedom: knowing someone has your back and is paying attention to the daily emails and other business distractions so that you don’t have to.
AE: What do you have coming up next? Where can we see your work in the future?
SJ: I am gearing up for a busy fall! In October, I’m excited to be included in a show at Storefront Ten Eyck in Bushwick called “Abstraction and its Discontents.”
I will also be participating in Gowanus Open Studios October 17-19th, so I welcome everyone to stop by the studio!
AE: Thanks Sara for your time!
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For more on information on Sara Jones, her work, and Kind Aesthetic: