Sarah Lewiecki: Pastel Paradox
The biggest perk of being an Art History major and Studio Art minor is being surrounded by incredible, bright, creative minds. I spend nearly all-day-every-day in Scales, the Fine Arts building at Wake Forest University, and it's a very cool community to be part of. I'm always left in awe by the lessons my professors teach, the profound concepts my classmates argue about, and the beautiful art being created.
One of the artists I admire (and stalk) the most here at Wake is my classmate and friend Sarah Lewiecki. The small town Massachusetts painter is known for her feminine pastel works laced with dark undertones. I met with Sarah, once in her studio space and a second time over coffee, to talk about everything from art to school to style to technology. Here is Part 1.
Gracie Wiener: What was your childhood like? Were you encouraged to be creative?
Sarah Lewiecki: I grew up in a small town in Massachusetts on the North Shore. I spent time in nature, outdoors, in the woods, and at the beach. My twin brother and I used to invent things together and build forts in the forest behind our house. I loved it. We were always making things. Creativity in my family spans a wide spectrum, but everyone is inventive and intuitive...it sort of ties us together!
GW: When did being creative turn into being artistic? When did you start to pursue art?
SL: I can't say there was a precise moment or period of transition when things "changed." My involvement in the visual arts has gradually developed with age and education. One of the biggest decisions I made in the past few years was deciding to apply early decision to Wake Forest instead of art school.
GW: So, how did you end up at Wake Forest instead of a traditional art school?
SL: It's hard to articulate. Wake just felt right. I am very passionate about education and learning. I love school. Maybe that makes me a nerd? I don't know. But pursuing my education in a liberal arts setting was something I really cared about as a senior in high school and I still feel that way now. Taking classes outside of the studio space and removed from art specific topics influence my artistic process and how I make things. It helps me approach projects with multiple perspectives. I believe practicing different ways of thinking is as valuable to creating as formal technique.
GW: Did you know you wanted to be a Studio Art Major? How did you find your "place" in Scales?
SL: I actually did not think I would major in Studio Art. Before my first semester of college, I assumed I'd study English Literature and Art History. But painting changed my entire outlook. After the first week of class, I was hooked. I haven't missed a semester of painting class since then, aside from studying abroad. Scales is such a special place. I love it.
GW: Do you find any advantages or disadvantages of going to Wake instead of an art school or more art-focused school, like RISD or NYU? That is definitely something I have faced with Art History, Studio Art, and fashion.
SL: Yes, there are certainly ups and downs. However, I think that as undergraduate students, we have plenty of time to continue our educations at institutions that revolve entirely around the visual arts. Right now I feel lucky to be building a strong base in the humanities. Cultivating a breadth of knowledge will only compliment that art form I concentrate on!
GW: Yes! I totally agree with you there. That's something I have to remind myself whenever I question going to Wake.
GW: How do you stay inspired? What do you need in your creative environment to get in the zone?
SL: There are definitely a few key parts of my painting process... The first thing I need is music. I like to listen to an odd assortment of genres. One of my favorite playlists I've been painting to lately is half Grateful Dead and half Kanye West. And Post Malone...his new album Stoney is very fun to paint to. Besides music, I need to be in "Scales clothes" - outfits I can get dirty. The studio kills nice clothes because literally everything has paint on it. The final thing I need near me almost at all times is a sketchbook or notebook. I constantly write about the work I'm making and it helps to have nearby incase I want to refer back to it.
GW: Do you have a favorite medium? Are there any mediums you are hoping to explore?
SL: I love oil paint, but I'm super excited about trying video and film.
GW: There are definitely common themes in your works - The Madonnas and Eves, the bubble lettering, the pastel tones - what inspires you to use these themes?
SL: I draw my inspiration from a huge range of sources. For example, the Madonnas and the Eve drawings that I do come out of my interest in Christianity and creation stories - sort of just the Abrahamic religions in general. I'm also interested in religious literature, how the stories have perpetuated as time has gone on, and how the characters have become these archetypal figures. That's really the inspiration behind using religious imagery and themes. I also think that the aesthetics of certain sects of catholicism are really beautiful. I think religious shrines, decoration, and iconography are really pretty and it's huge for me. I love it.
The random words I'm using in my paintings come from my interest in writing poetry and short stories. I like to use bubble letters because it's fun. It creates this weird paradox of having beautiful, fun, pretty letters spelling dark words like war or blood. The pastels are meant to contrast and coat what is more grotesque underneath. I love pastels. I'm really drawn to how fun and beautiful they are. I also think they can be kind of dark.
GW: Do you find inspiration other places too?
SL: Literature is probably one of my biggest inspirations. I love Flannery O'Connor, and I'm really into existential literature. Waiting for Godot is one of my favorite plays. I also love the color pink, specifically pastel pink. It's kind of sickeningly girly.
GW: Does being an Art History Minor influence your work at all? For example, are there movements or artists you learn about and admire and try to channel? I definitely get some Chuck Close-ish vibes with the circles in Paradise double portrait. Is that someone you are influenced by?
SL: I'm definitely inspired by Chuck Close. Right now, I am trying to find a way to incorporate his influence into my work without copying his style. It is something I am trying to reconcile. It is new to me, so I wrestling with that. In terms of other artists and movements, I can't help but let the things I'm learning come through in my work. In some ways, it is more of a hindrance because it makes you more conscientious as a maker, as a artist, whatever you're doing. It can be a really good thing, but it can be a limitation. So, I'm trying to not let it interfere with my own aspiration.
GW: I totally understand what you are talking about. Sometimes being naive is better. But, I love Art History, especially as an artist. I feel like we could talk about that all day, but we can save that for another time. So, next question. You just got back from studying abroad in London where you focused mainly on Art History, but you had also the awesome opportunity of interning at a gallery. What was that like?
SL: It was definitely an eye-opening experience that I am still figuring out since I am still interning for the gallery. It is a super cool contemporary art gallery in Shortage. It is amazing. They house both emerging and established artists. The strike a really good balance. I am actually going up to New York this week with them to the Armory Show. Working with the gallery is an amazing experience. I got to meet a lot of artists while I was in London, which was a great way to expand my network.
GW: Did working at the gallery and being in London help you figure out what you want to do long term?
SL: Working for a contemporary art gallery is really interesting from my perspective as an artist since I get to see it from both sides. I'm learning a lot. I want to be an artist after I graduate, and being in London really affirmed that.
GW: One thing I have always continuously struggled with is staying on top of what is happening in the art world and who the new hot artists are. I feel like I could tell you anything and everything about the art scene during the Renaissance, but barely for this decade. Do you ever have a similar problem? Did working at a contemporary art gallery help that?
SL: Being at the gallery definitely helped. The art world is like a small exclusive club and I try not to limit what I consider to be "good" art. I try to be observant of things on Instagram and on the Internet that seem like they might not be taken as seriously with professional critics. It doesn't matter though. It's still people making art and I want to be in tune with that.
I am also reading art and art fair magazines, like Art Forum, Artsy, and Art News. Those are great sources. I also read the Frieze Bulletin. I'm on so many mailing lists... Going to those art fairs really teach you a lot, too. I went to the Frieze Art Fair in London. I am going to the Armory Show, as I mentioned, and the Venice Biennale. Those are all great experiences for learning and exposure. But really, I'm just super thrilled to be going to three major art fairs in six months. I would never think I would be able to do that, so I am really grateful.
GW: You also have your own Instagram account for your art. Do you think technology is beneficial for artists today or is it kind of a death trap?
SL: Technology is a challenge for me. A lot of technology is not intuitive. So, that is hard for me because of my learning style. I learn through internalizing information and that is really the only way I can understand it, by knowing it deeply. But, I can't know technology deeply since it is constantly changing.
In my own work, I use Photoshop to work on my photography projects. I don't really use any technology in my paintings. I try not to. Sometimes, I'll project images onto a canvas if I do not want to paint over an entire section and I want to see what something would look like. But, for the most part, I try to avoid technology in painting and drawing. My public art projects involved technology. I did an Instagram project on Instagram as a critique of Instagram...
So yes, I definitely have a love and hate relationship with technology. It is definitely beneficial and is a great tool. However, I think it can really easily be taken too far and it is very often. I think everyone should take a step back.
GW: I totally agree. There's this whole new generation of artists who very reliant on social media, especially Instagram, for sharing their work and spreading their name. It's not a bad thing. That's how we find and connect with the artists we interview and feature. However, there are certain people that are extremely "Instagram famous" and it's not necessary from their work. It's more from their looks or personality. That definitely frustrates me.
SL: Yeah! There are many artists on Instagram with huge followings and lots of people want to buy their art, but they don't receive any recognition in the art world. They are achieving their dreams and getting rich from their work, but in a very untraditional way.
GW: It definitely...
SL: Gives you anxiety?
GW: Yes, for sure. But, it reminds me of stuff throughout Art History. The celebrity artist is nothing new, only the platforms available today are. We've seen this multiple times before. To me at least, it's more about whose art has the ability to withstand time and holds an importance to critics.
SL: Totally. And I mean as much as I want to tear these people down, I have to give it to them. They have made a business out of their art and themselves. They have found their audiences and their market and have run with it.
GW: They are kind of like the Kim Kardashians of art. Once again, I feel like we could talk about this for days.
GW: Back to something you touched on before. You said you want to be an artist after graduating from Wake and more specifically in New York. I feel like you probably get asked this a lot - and I'm sorry - but do you have any idea how you want to pursue that plan?
SL: Yeah, I'm going to move to New York City soon after I graduate and try to put my work out there. I want to establish myself as an artist and hopefully I can do that. I just care about making things. I'm going to try my best and if it doesn't work out for me in that way, I'll continue to make things, but in a different setting. Like, after I get my MFA. Which I want either way, but I'd put it on the back burner if my art was becoming popular without it. If it wasn't, I would go ahead and go back to school. I am really passionate about education and would like to teach at the University level if my path lead me there. But I guess I lead my path, don't I? Teaching is not a backup plan for me. It is something I am interested in in a different way than I am interested in making art. I'm really just going to try it and see what happens.
GW: Oh, wow. So, you definitely have it all planned. That's brave and exciting.
SL: Yeah it's exciting, but it's also scary. I could fail, but it is something I love, so it's worth pursuing.
GW: That's awesome. It'll be so fun and cool pursuing your passion. I'm excited for you. I guess lastly we've been talking about your art and you as an artist for while now, but do you consider yourself an artist?
SL: Not yet. I love art and I know a decent amount about it, but I am not an expert. To me, the title "artist" implies expertise, accomplished understanding, and depth of experience in the art world. As a student, I am not there yet. I hope to one day be able to consider myself a painter, but I have much to learn before then. In the meantime, I will say that I consider myself a "maker." I have to make things. It goes beyond a hobby or a passion. It is the largest part of my identity and I want to avoid a title that categorizes it all as art. I won't get too existential, but I'm not even sure if "art" is real and I want the things I make to be real. My paintings are technically art objects given the nature of their material, but they come from a place inside me I wouldn't necessarily call "art."