in conversation with Sarah Thibault
“Starfish” is when you’re alone in bed and you spread out your arms and legs
each limb acting as a point of the star.”
How did you first get interested in art and begin making works?
“That was the beginning of my interest in the transformative potential of art. I saw it as a vehicle to transform the everyday into something special.”
I think all children are creative, but I grew up in a family that valued art - my dad is a musician and my mom is a painter- so I was encouraged to use those talents. I used to draw for hours at the kitchen table. As a family and at my school we used to go often to the Walker Art Center (a great museum in Minneapolis). I loved walking around the sculpture garden which has the iconic Spoon Bridge sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and the museums painting collection. When I got older I became interested in fashion and would design clothes a lot. I think that was the beginning of my interest in the transformative potential of art. I saw it as a vehicle to transform the everyday into something special.
What attracted you to painting specifically?
I have a lot of different outlets, but I have always loved the immediacy of painting and drawing. I remember one time when I was younger I was looking at some Impressionist paintings and had the thought: “I can do that,” and not in a dismissive way. It was a moment of being called to do a thing and here I am many years later trying to make good on that idea.
Your paintings are a very intimate, quiet but with strong emotion. Night, loneliness and insomnia are the themes evident in your works, can you talk about this choice and how you approach these themes in your works?
The work started out because I was having trouble sleeping so I spent a lot of time looking at my walls and out my window at night. I had an air purifier and a dehumidifier that had coloured LED lights on them and they would run all night because my room was very damp and mouldy. I noticed that they cast the most beautiful shadows around my room when it was dark, in addition to the light of my laptop and other screens that you’re not supposed to use at bedtime but of course everyone does. I became interested in the dramatic transformation that happened to these familiar surroundings as a result of this accidental ‘stage lighting.’
I wanted to present these intimate scenes as paintings to examine and magnify the idealised part of how our culture interacts with screens. On social media, we tend to only present ourselves at our best. Even when we are taking candid photos there is usually some prep work - for example when women take selfies wearing green face masks but put on eye makeup and do their hair. It’s important for us as a culture to make space for vulnerability and imperfections.
How does autobiography enter into your work?
I tend to be influenced by my environment and often respond to my visual surroundings in some way- usually through photos that are the source material for my work. Right now I am feeling very influenced and curious about the effects Instagram and social media are having on our culture - like many of us are - and so that is very present in my work.
Can you tell me about the series Mandala? They are believed to effect purification and healing, is that correct?
Yes, a mandala is an image that is meant to be used in meditation to help people heal and find enlightenment. Technically it is supposed to represent the universe. For me, I made these during a fairly stressful period of my life, so I found it very soothing and meditative to make them since they rely on symmetry, naturalistic forms and bright colours to create their compositional structure. I typically use photos to drive my imagery, but for this body of work, it felt 'freeing' to work in an intuitive way to create these paintings.
What are you working on right now? What is informing your work right now?
I have a solo show up right now at Royal NoneSuch Gallery in Oakland, CA called Starfish. I’m not sure what it means outside of America, but in the States “starfish” is a slang term for when you’re alone in bed and you spread out your arms and legs - each limb acting as a point of the star. In the exhibition, I am showing five large-scale paintings so that the figure is suggested as spreading out like a starfish across the gallery space, as well as being present each of the works. The show is about independence, taking up space and externalising a desire to check out from the world, especially given the current political climate. The paintings are the biggest I have made to date and it has been really fun working this large. I plan on finishing a few more in the series before I leave for artist residencies this summer.
What is the next project?
I will be going to the Nes Residency in Iceland for the month of March. There I will work on mostly writing - I have been slowing working on a book, and drawing to prep for my next paintings. After that, I’m going to Crete and Lisbon where I’m hoping I can start working on some new large-scale paintings.
Why do you think art is important and what is it for you?
“It’s important for us as a culture to make space for vulnerability and imperfections.”
Making art is the way I make sense of the world, and also one of the ways that I can make sense of my inner life. I tend to need a lot of alone time to clear my head and luckily as a painter you need a lot of alone time to get anything done, so it works out. I have recently been able to commit more time to make art, so it has given me the chance to figure out what my priorities are, rather than just working deadline to deadline like I was in the past.
What I have realised is I want to make work that is able to transform dark into light. To take crappy things in the world and make something good out of them. I am drawn to comedy for its ability to do this through humour, something I focus on in my writing. In my painting, I try to use beauty and colour to make it easier for people to digest challenging feelings or issues - like insomnia or loneliness. I want to give people (and myself) a space to externalise those feelings and feel connected to others - because we are all in it.
Sarah Thibault is an artist living and working in San Francisco. Selected exhibitions include projects with Interface Gallery, HILDE Gallery, Steve Turner Contemporary, Mark Wolf Contemporary and ART in Embassies. Thibault and her work have been featured in Artsy, CARLA, The San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Magazine, SFAQ, The Examiner, The Huffington Post, and 7x7. Thibault is the Founder of the online publication Artists + Travel and a Charter Resident of the Minnesota Street Project studios. She holds an MFA from the California College of the Arts, a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and a BA from the University of Wisconsin- Madison.