This is part of an ongoing series on the how, where, and why behind some people making and doing awesome things in the Midwest.
Originally born in Vienna, Austria, Sarah Albinson is a Minneapolis based artist and educator with Inverted Arts. I was originally struck by a series of "unraveling" sharpie drawings that she is doing. She graciously let me into her studio and talked with me about her process and background. Here's what went down:
Zach: Tell me who you are and what you do.
Sarah: I am a visual artist and I create my thoughts in visual form, my conversations with people and with myself and just with life in whatever form I can. I’m a visual processor.
Zach: What are you working on right now?
Sarah: I’m working on a couple different projects. The one that I was doing during this session was The Aloe Plant Project which ideally will be a triptych of healing plants that are in almost the right environment, but they’re potted, so they’re like domesticated, wild things. It’s a conversation about displacement, maybe even being a foreigner, which is a lot of how I was brought up and currently phase in and out of feeling.
I’m also working on this line and unraveling series of giant, very detailed pictures of beasts kind of letting their strengths become fragile in the process of either being created or evaporating. So those are the two main ones.
I’m also gonna start a series of dreams. I have dreams about architecture all the time. So I’m gonna start doing the building plans that I always have in my dreams. I just started realizing that for years that’s been a really consistent theme, so I just wanna see where that goes.
Zach: How did you get to where you are now? Did you study art?
Sarah: I did. I really, honestly, didn’t want to. (laughs) I fought that idea for a very, very long time. I wanted to do social work, I wanted to work internationally. But I basically was forced to. In college I had switched between visual art and social work so many times that eventually they forced me to do art, otherwise I wouldn’t graduate. So I not only did art, but I graduated with every concentration that was possible in two-dimensional art. The cool thing is that art and that degree has actually gotten me every job out of college. I was hired as a flight attendant because I was an artist. I get to work with Inverted Arts and travel internationally because I’m an artist. I actually got hired as a barista over all the other candidates because I was an artist. So art has actually been the thing that has opened all the doors and the thing that I have fought for years.
Zach: Have you always considered yourself creative? Did you grow up in a creative home?
Sarah: Maybe, kind of. My dad would write songs and sing them but not of a professional level at all. My brother was an incredible visual artist as a child. So I was kind of like, 'That’s your thing, I’ll do my own thing.' And my thing was people. So I didn’t really consider myself a creative until high school and my teacher sat me down and was like, “Sarah, I think you need to really look at this.” And for whatever reason, I believed her and took all the art courses I could in high school. I don’t know why it didn’t hit me until college that that was something I really cared about. I haven’t always considered myself creative but it’s very much ingrained in my life. If you cut off art from me, you cut off my air supply.
Zach: Tell me about Inverted Arts.
Sarah: It’s a non-profit that works with primarily poor and disadvantage people and groups. We're in Minneapolis but we have partnerships in the Dominican, Mexico, Kenya, India, and a couple other places. What we do is create opportunities where kids ages 15-22 get the opportunity to have experiences with professional artists and learn a craft or at least be introduced to it. From there, those that show dedication and skill are chosen to be scholarship candidates and we just try to empower artists that don’t have the means to empower themselves to actually create.
Zach: How do you approach a new piece?
Sarah: I think it depends a lot on the project. I like unforgiving mediums. I like watercolor, I like pen. There’s no undo button, there’s no eraser. You would think there would be more preparation for me going into it, but a lot of it is, 'Ok, I have a vague idea of what this needs to look like, I’ll do an outline sketch.' Like, for those things (the unraveling series), nothing other than the form of the elephant was predetermined. From there I just explore it and when I mess up I either throw it away or try to redeem it. Typically, my initial gut reaction to “this is over!” is generally wrong and I’m able to figure something out and resolve it. But yeah, a lot of it is just diving in to the deep end and figuring it out and having the willingness to start over and mess up. And from that, figure out the dialogue and that turns what my initial piece was into a pre-piece that really just a study for something greater and sometimes it’s the end product. Kind of like a verbal processor, you get halfway through your sentence before you realize what you’re saying.
Zach: What are you influenced and inspired by?
Sarah: Definitely a lot of artists. The dialogues that you have, the interactions, the chaos of life end up making me ask a lot of questions. They’ll say something, kind of like with the aloe plant, where I was talking with my friend who just feels completely stalled and she’s incredibly gifted. We were talking and all of a sudden I had a vision of an aloe plant in the rainforest. Weird things like that, it just kind of comes out of the cracks of conversations between weird life experiences and your reactions to them. I’m extremely drawn to unusual encounters and opportunities and traveling and adventuring and exploring and out of that comes a weird variety of conversations. I think because of that, my art is not consistent. Because I don’t really know a distinct line of where my inspiration comes from, my style always changes and my form of processing changes.
Zach: Do you feel like your work overall has changed much since you started?
Sarah: Very much so. It’s still heavy on the drawing side, but line has become something that I really want to master and learn how to wield with intelligence. That’s why I switched to pen from pencil. I use to be very big in to realism drawing with pencil and now I’m very interested in what one line can do. And now I’ve moved into color so I’m not sure where I’ll go from there. I used to draw tiny things, really intricate, but now I’m just wanting to get bigger and bigger. I think things are getting more intricate and larger. (laughs)
Zach: Why do you choose to do something creative?
Sarah: (laughs) I think I lost the battle not to be. At one point I thought it was a choice and, as cheesy as it sounds, I just don’t think it is. I do other things but this will always be the thing that feels most true and most right and I will sacrifice sleep and health because I just can’t not do it, whether it ever matters to any one else or not. I think I’m still in the process of learning why, I just know that I can’t not.
Zach: Describe your workspace.
Sarah: It’s interesting because I do about fifty percent of my work here, which is cool, because it’s a collaborative space. Giant ceilings. It’s in a place with history. It’s got exposed brick. It’s got really nice natural lighting. It’s really nice to have some interaction, to just have other people in the room doing the same thing. The other space that I work out of is my room, and there are a bunch of projects that I can’t do in any other space than that. It’s because it’s solely my space. It’s just safe. It kind of feeds both sides.
Zach: Do you anything that you hope people take away from your work?
Sarah: More than anything, if I could ask anything of a viewer, is just that they would walk away intrigued by a dialogue that I had started. That they would keep processing whatever it meant to them and find hope or meaning or more questions. That it would feed a thought process that was valuable to them, whether it’s the one I thought I’d started or something different. I want people to come in closed and ask questions. If anything, I just want someone’s mind to start working in a way it never had. I don’t need control over what that looks like, I just want to press GO. Put a little gas into the thinker.
Zach: What’s the most challenging part of what you do?
Sarah: Honestly, probably believing that it has value, which maybe sounds really dark. Part of that battle had been “you can’t make money off of this,” which isn’t true. I make a good chunk of my income off this, but when there are people starving in the world, and I come in contact with that a lot, or there are people just really hurting, visual art is not measurable in the scheme of that as far as how it can help. And that does plague me. Especially when my work is in that sphere a lot of the time through Inverted Arts and because my parents worked with refugees. So whether it has value. When I pass are my images gonna mean anything? Am I living up to my potential? Those are the things, that when I’m not able to create, are on my mind. What can my work give to the greater sphere? And if it doesn’t give anything, is that OK? It’s something that weighs on me quite a bit.
Zach: What’s the most rewarding part?
Sarah: The process, like the finished products, feel kind of like babies that have left the home and I want them to be on walls other than my own and live lives other than my time with them. It feels like they’re meant to be interacting with other people and other people put their stories in to it. So it’s meant to go.
For me, it’s like when I’m learning how colors interact with one another…like when the buffalo collide (another unraveling piece), at first I thought that was all about pride and stubbornness and when I started to create the collisionary part of the piece I realized I couldn’t make it to be the explosion I wanted it to be. So it became this interweaving of two independently strong creatures and they maintain their individuality and their strength and their momentum but their minds were one. I realized that was me actually learning a ton about love and affection. It was a completely different mindset and a completely new conversation and all this really deep internal processing. That was incredibly powerful and rewarding to me and helped me grow and gain a vocabulary for some thing I didn’t really have at the beginning.
I also like learning how to problem solve. Learning how to deal with mess and chaos through something that you’ve worked on for eight months and you mess up and you have to figure out how to handle that. It’s hard but I feel like it’s really valuable. Those are a few of the things I find consistently rewarding.
Zach: What goes through your mind when you look at this? (The elephant piece)
Sarah: It started to feel really foreign. To me, I look at it and I go, ‘Wow, you’re a beginning to a very long road.’ (laughs) Because there’s only more pieces following you. But I feel like it was also the moment my art reached another level. Committing to getting better independently, no one gave me that assignment. I purposefully put myself through eight months of tiny little lines and a lot of late nights. But I look at it and also still think what that means and what that can look like and whether that’s fragile and whether that concept itself is strong. Even memory, whether memory is as strong as I think it has the potential to be. It brings me down that conversational piece to. And it also just makes me tired.
Zach: What’s on your music playlist?
Sarah: I listened to a ton of Andrew Bird today. I’ve also been listening to Shakey Graves, that was my playlist in Africa. Broken Bells latest album. Little Dragon. I feel like my music goes through a lot of different phases but I think I’m going back to a folky roots that I really enjoy. I like Tom Waits a lot, and Tom Petty, and The Rolling Stones.
Zach: What advice would you give to people pursuing a career in a creative field.
Sarah: Depends on who I’m talking to. I had a lot of people telling me that I had to do it, that I needed to do it. I, for whatever reason, didn’t listen to them that closely. It was out of fear.
Maybe this is what I would tell people, to not be afraid of looking fear straight in the face, being honest about it, and genuinely taking some time to wrestle with it and coming to piece with whatever decision you make instead of drawing out that wrestling factor for six years, like I did. Being honest with yourself in the beginning. Do you love this? Can you give it up? Do you actually prefer stability over the unknown of doing something that you love? Which one matters more to you? Being honest about that conversation and giving yourself grace and freedom when you change your mind, but at least starting from an honest point. I’ve talked to so many people that have bought in to the fear. If you have the fear, admit it, acknowledge it, and then I would encourage you to walk straight into it and see what happens.