Interview: Sarah Grass
1) Could you introduce yourself? Where are you from, where did you go to school?
My name is Sarah Grass. I’m an artist/educator originally from Somers, NY, a small suburban town about an hour north of New York City. I went through the public school system there and then got my BFA in Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts in 2007. I’ve been at SVA in some form ever since. I was an advisor in Continuing Education for 6 years, graduated from the Art Practice program in 2016, and started teaching in 2017.
2) When did you first engage with art? When did you first see yourself as an artist?
I first engaged with art by making it.
I think by the time I was aware other people were artists I already saw myself as one. It wasn’t entirely my decision. I was told I was an artist and agreed to it, just like I was told I was a girl and I agreed, or an American and I agreed, despite underlying complexities. I grew to love the blurry specificity of the Artist label— a monolith encompassing all types of creative humanity. Being called an artist made me feel somehow understandable, or at least allowed to pass as an acceptable unknown. I was also just a child who loved to draw and did it well according to the adults in my life.
Early dog drawing by Sarah Grass
3) Why dogs? Why not cats? What makes dogs so special?
Dogs are so radically vulnerable. Their eagerness in affection is remarkable, their openness inspirational. I see this unfettered devotion as an antidote to the violence of ego defenses— to the isolation our ego defenses leave us in. The symbolic dog helps me access this soft spot in myself. A defenseless side strong enough to offer my vulnerabilities to everyone. I draw dogs for everyone who identifies with my vulnerability— our vulnerability.
4) What pulls you towards the medium of drawing?
Drawing has major processing power. A single drawing is the extrusion of multiple channels of thought and feeling. It extends beyond the limits of language systems, beyond the limits of my conscious mind. Drawing is direct connection with the subconscious— an introverted language system.
Although I’m not fast and loose with drawing (mine take at least a week to complete, usually two) my material process is rather simple. This allows me to hover in a state of unknown that I find less tolerable in more complex media. I have a background in sculpture/video and several awkward painting experiments under my belt. Drawing feels the most open to me for now, and that openness is key to my conceptual concerns, to that doggish vulnerability I aspire to.
“Productive Bitch,” Ink and colored pencil on paper, 8x10”, 2020.
“For My Dogs”, Ink and colored pencil on paper, 11x14”, 2021.
5) What is the psychological nature of your dog portraits? Is there some kind of psychedelic or sexual vibe that you perceive or imbue in either the work or the subject?
I definitely perceive the drawings as psychedelic and sexual. They’re descendant of Surrealism, depicting impossible scenarios of the unconscious mind. The psychedelic comes from a hyper-permissive drawing process that does at times feel like a mind-altering substance.
The Dachshund has a strange sexuality. She’s an androgynous phallic shaped female caught in a storm of reproductive contradictions. She was born to breed but psychologically spayed by the collective unconscious of a man-dominated society. She’s most often depicted alone, between the patriarch (blue gloved human hands) and her unborn offspring (there’s often activity in her reproductive organs). The Dachshund is tasked with mediating the past and future of her species. Embodying a prism of sexes and genders, she fights to balance masculine and feminine energies under the pressures of a system that doesn’t support her. I use the metaphoric Dachshund to express my own ancestral and reproductive angst.In my drawings, I am a non-conforming man-made, man-bred Dachshund.
“Invagination,” Ink and colored pencil on paper, 7x10”, 2021.
“Nieta con Huevos / Granddaughter with Eggs”, Ink and colored pencil on paper, 11x14”, 2020.
6) What was your work like before you came to draw portraits of dogs?
Before the Dog Drawings I was working on a series called Unmanned. Unmanned formed through a process I developed to encourage my feminine voice. Using a method similar to Surrealist automatism, I aimed to bypass my egoic, male-dominated limits in order to allow more intuitive, feminine paths of thought.
I drew in streams of consciousness, improvising complex networks of image and text. The drawings included psychological research, current events, personal experiences, and fleeting ideas. At the start of this deconditioning, this “unmanning”, there was a lot of writing in the drawings. By the end, my words had completely vanished. With practice I became extremely permissive, allowing nearly all thoughts to participate with little regard for linearity, logic, or defined conclusions.
What I found most fascinating about this process was the impossibility of achieving chaos. There was always an inherent form or structure to the work. Sometimes it would be in the visual balance, but others it would be a web of conceptual meaning. This fascination of mine is well put by Gilles Deleuze in The Anti-Oedipus Papers:
“I’m interested in the way a page of writing flies off in all directions and at the same time closes right up on itself like an egg.”
“Arachnean Attachment”, Ink on paper, 8x10”, 2018.
“Capture,” Ink on paper, 9x12”, 2019.
The shift to the Dog Drawings happened while my solo show, Unmanned was up and I moved into a new studio. Dogs are what I draw to reset. They exist before I think about what to draw. This time I decided to let the subconscious dog impulse out full force. Unmanned was such a solipsistic practice of narrative drawing. The dogs could connect more easily to others while retaining a deep connection to my subconscious, animal instinct.
7) How do you compose your drawings? Do your drawings come from pure imagination, or are they based on some form of references?
I do use some references, but loosely. I often draw directly in pen, forcing myself to make lasting decisions. I’m a very slow worker so the permanence of a decision keeps me moving and reacting. It keeps the drawing alive.
My composition method remains similar to Unmanned. I’m still very permissive and intuitive, making decisions as I go. Though I now focus on a recurring main character, the space gets worked out step by step. I’m a detail-oriented person who likes to get lost in “the weeds”.
“Heel” Ink and colored pencil on paper, 7x10”, 2021.
I’m often unaware of the big picture until I’m about 80-90% done. At that point I can figure out what the drawing will be. That’s when it gets light. The energy drops from my head to my body, I turn the music up and dance around until I’m done. Last week it was the Mortal Kombat soundtrack, which had me hysterically laughing. There’s this track, Goro vs Art (Art was a character in the film) but the alternate meaning was just too perfect. I kept loud-whispering to myself, “FINISH IT”.
When all is said and done I give the work a title. It’s no different than naming a real dog… you want to get to know them a little bit first.
“Coping”, Ink, colored pencil and watercolor on paper, 2020.
8) What are your color concerns in your work? How do you create the gem-like, saturated colors with fine detail and texture?
“Gem-like” is a beautiful way to describe my color, thank you! I just started incorporating color into my drawings about 2 years ago. It was terrifying at first and very stop/go. I’m not a color-oriented person. I wear very little clothing that isn’t black, a shade of grey, or denim. That’s changing with the drawings though. I’m falling in love with color and getting to a place where it feels second nature— finally intuitive enough to match the rest of my process.
“Radicant Wolf (mutable roots)”, Ink and colored pencil on paper, 9x12”, 2020.
9) Is it important to have a unique style or a voice? What is more important? A style or a voice? How did you arrive at your own style, and how did you come to acquire your own voice?
I think it’s inevitable to have a unique style or voice. Style comes from habit, but also the unique mechanics and perceptions of our unique bodies. Voice is similar, maybe having more to do with a conceptual point of view? While unique style and voice are inevitable, I think it is important to recognize and analyze them— to honor and defend them rather than disown. In other words, be yourself.
I acquired my style and voice by making lots of work along a long path of personal development. On the other hand I think there’s part of it we always have, but can only come to know after years and years of work. Human years unfortunately, not dog years.
“Infinity Control” Ink and colored pencil on paper, 7x10”, 2021.