Sarah Fisher is a Houston-based painter and mixed media artist primarily focused on portraiture. On November 17, 2018, Alex Irrera met with the artist in her studio to discuss Fisher’s background, her approach to art-making, and some of her current work.
Alex Irrera: Can you talk a bit about your background in the arts and how you came to your current practice?
Sarah Fisher: Well, I took a circuitous route. I studied marketing at the University of Notre Dame. I received permission to take all my electives in the art department with a view toward getting a job at a big, national-level ad agency, which I did. I really wanted to be a creative, but I didn’t have the confidence at the time—so I took a couple of interim steps, including account management and communications, and then as a copywriter, a copy director, and a freelancer. By age 27, I was a one-woman ad agency. I did some work in the early 90s that won quite a few awards and launched my early business. When I was 30, my husband was transferred to Singapore, where I continued my advertising business as well. I moved there as someone who was quote “never having children” and left three years later with an 8-month old. That was not a surprise, but it was a wonderful development that launched me down my second act: motherhood. Raising two children has probably been the most creative job I’ve ever had and the most fulfilling. We moved around a lot, so I stayed at home for 13 years and did a lot of pro bono work. Then, 12 years ago, we landed in London. I grew up watching my mom—who is a very talented painter—pursue art while she was raising five kids. So at 42, I decided that I finally had the nerve to try to learn to paint, and I entered the Hampstead School of Art. When we moved to the Netherlands a few years later, I found an abstract painter in The Hague who was giving group lessons. While she wasn’t doing the kind of work that I was interested in—because I was focusing on portraiture from the beginning—she taught me how to work with oils.
When we moved back to Houston in 2009, I enrolled in Francesca Fuchs’ intermediate painting class at the Glassell School of Art. She’s been a wonderful mentor. Later that school year, I became very distressed and angry about the issue of bullying in schools. While standing in the middle of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s Alice Neel exhibition, I decided to quit painting and start a non-profit. I pulled out my bag of advertising skills and started Positive Works with one of my best friends. But five years on, the non-profit work was getting to be very heavy. My husband, who is my biggest supporter, kept saying, “Paint. Why don’t you go back and paint?” After a year of his kind nudging, I nervously walked back into Francesca’s class. I was so worried that I was going to forget how to do it. What I found out was—no. My painting was bolder and actually stronger than when I quit. It took me a little while to get my confidence back, but then it just poured out of me. I think the non-profit work gave me a different kind of confidence as well. I was doing both for a while, but now we’ve shut the non-profit down. I started painting full-time two years ago when I entered the BLOCK program at Glassell. That was a life-changer. I gained a community of artists who were working hard to have professional voices. There was a lot of camaraderie and support, and you become part of the wider Houston art community just by being in the program. That ended May of 2018. I moved into my own studio in June, and that’s been fantastic.
Alex: How do you select your subjects?
Sarah: A couple of ways. I accept commissions—so the sitters are selecting me, which is wonderful, an honor, and very humbling. But other people… how do I explain it? I get a really deep feeling when I meet certain people. I met Clint Willour back in 2010 when he visited Francesca Fuchs’ advanced critique class. I had read Molly Glentzer’s feature story on the show of his donated works to the MFAH, and I had seen the show. I gathered the nerve to send him an email because I just had to paint this incredible human being. For other people, I know right when I meet them. I met Bill Lassiter through a friend at an opening at Moody Gallery. A week later, I was at his house having a photo shoot. It just happens all kinds of ways. Sometimes it’s a photo I see; it’s not always a photo I take. It’s a person or an image that I have a visceral response to. So I’m always open, and it’s fun not knowing what my next response will be.
Alex: What are your strategies or goals for capturing personality when creating a portrait?
Sarah: I think so much of it is instinctive and intuitive. It starts with the photo shoot. I ask two questions: How would you like to be seen? And, how would you like to be known? I’m looking to capture—in a gaze or a stare—the moment when this person confidently said ‘yes’ to being painted. It’s not always easy, but we do get there.
Alex: Many of your portraits are painted from a low point of view, almost at the knees of the sitter or from the perspective of a child or a pet. How did you arrive at that point of view, and does it have significance for you?
Sarah: I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I think that’s true. I take the photos on my phone. This goes back to trying to help people return to the confidence point. It’s much less intimidating for them to look at my phone instead of at me holding a large camera. I do tend to hold my phone down low. It just gives me the look I want. I guess I’m better able to get that straight-on look—the deep stare that I find most beautiful. Clearly, I’m not going for the smile. [Laughs] I’m going for the authentic, soulful gaze.
Alex: You often use color for depth instead of value (or lightness or darkness). Can you talk about what inspired that?
Sarah: I look for relevant, but unexpected, palette combinations. I’m also very interested in abstraction, so I’m abstracting a lot of these backgrounds. I think it was Georgia O’Keeffe who learned from Arthur Dow that it’s about filling the space beautifully. That’s what I’m really interested in.
Alex: You paint subjects of a variety of ages, but it also seems like you have a specific interest in an older generation.
Sarah: I think there is an openness and ferocity in these older people I’ve met. I’ve known Mary [of works like “Moxie” (2016) and “100” (2017)] since she was 79. I’ve painted her three times, and I’m going to paint her again. It was her authenticity. These people have very strong personalities. They are getting older, but their spirit is almost getting younger. You can feel their personalities almost pushing against what is happening to their physical selves. Before Mary recently died at 101, I went to her 101st birthday party and took a bunch of pictures. I will do more paintings of her. I admire the gutsiness of these older people, who are now friends of mine. If I have the privilege of being older, I hope that’s how I am. I want to be a gutsy, authentic, straight-talking, fun, positive person.
Alex: In your artist statement, you say you “record the human need to be authentically seen.” I really liked that, and I think there’s a lot to unwrap there. You are committing to the truth of your sitter as your subject, but you’re also expressing an awareness and validation of your role and the audience’s role in perceiving the subject. I was wondering if you could expand upon that statement.
Sarah: I remember, in a critique with Glassell instructor J Hill, he said that it’s about the space in between. You have the work of art, and you have the viewer; but the perceptive space is where the action is and where the conversation is. I’ve already collaborated with the sitter or made the self-portrait. When someone is engaging with my work, will the expression of the collaborative experience help that viewer move along a continuum of wanting to be seen? I think that would be a cool byproduct of the work. Or will that encounter lead someone to be open to the authenticity of the next person they meet? This probably goes back to my wanting to be heard and seen as a kid. I’ve never lost that. Don’t we all want to be seen and known for who we are? I think it takes a lot of guts to allow ourselves to be seen. Now we’re in the day of the Selfie, but how authentic is that? That’s why I say that I paint what I see. Clearly, I don’t do plastic surgery on my self-portraits. I paint the lines, the imperfections. So maybe it’s my way to kind of rage with paint against perfection and what society certainly demands of women in particular, which I reject flat out. I think it’s damaging and can make life unnecessarily difficult.
Alex: Do you want to discuss some of the artists who have influenced you over the years? We talked a little bit about Francesca and Alice Neel, and I know that you have been connected aesthetically with Neel in the past.
Sarah: Yes, Alice Neel was an early influencer. She hung in there and painted people for decades when it was not cool. She did it compulsively but beautifully. I admire the vulnerability she was able to communicate. Currently, I am looking at the work of several other artists. I just went to New York for the first time in years and saw an exhibition of work by David Wojnarowicz. What I loved about his work was the multi-disciplinary aspect and the authenticity and the power. He spoke out during the AIDS epidemic. Tragically, the disease killed him in the end, but it was the honesty and the manner in which he shared his journey through his art that really struck me. I also love Louise Bourgeois for her honesty—how she was unafraid to just put it all out there from such a deeply emotional place. And again, I’m intrigued by the multi-disciplinary aspect of her work: the prints, the sculpture, the writing. Michael Bise is another hero of mine. I admire the bold nature in which he processes his life through his work. And Vincent Valdez—I just had the honor of meeting him. Again, it’s gutsy, courageous, bold, between-the-eyes painting—important work that I completely support. It’s inspiring.
Alex: Let’s talk about some of your recent work that has been on display. Congratulations on being a 2018 Lawndale Art Center Big Show awardee!
Sarah: Thank you! Such a thrill, such a shock.
Alex: What was the impetus behind your tape piece in the show “Stain — Self Portrait”—or is sticker piece a more accurate description?
Sarah: Yes, they are dry cleaning identification stickers. I had just spent five months working on my Hurricane Harvey volunteer painting “That was Harvey. This is Houston.” I worked on that 10’ by 16’ oil painting from September 1, 2017 to January 31, 2018. Making it was just so important to me as a Houstonian and a human being, but I was really burnt out by the time I finished it. So, it was February. I always want to make something… I’m a compulsive maker. I was doing errands, and I took my favorite skirt to the dry cleaner. It had a stain on it, so I asked Dawn at the counter for a stain sticker, which I had done many times. When she gave me one, there was just this moment—like the moment when I meet someone I want to paint. I had this sticker in my hand, and that word ‘stain’ just stopped me in my tracks. I looked at Dawn and asked her, “Where do you get these?” She said, “Online,” and looked at me like I was crazy. She ripped off a few more stickers for me, and I got in my car and immediately started googling ‘dry cleaning stain stickers.’ Eventually, I found a brand in this beautiful, yet alarming, saffron yellow. The word ‘stain’ was big—in an amazing sans serif, italicized, powerfully bold font. They were cheap, and I ordered thousands of them.
My first sticker piece is from a photo I had one of my boys take of me wearing cowboy boots and sitting in a rocking chair on my 53rd birthday. I thought using the ‘stain’ stickers made a very interesting psychological statement about getting older and dealing with life. For my next piece, I began looking for a surface [for the stickers] that was a little easier to work with than canvas. I discovered Arches’ oil paper. I painted my face onto the paper and started going round and round with this obsessive ‘stain’ concept. I have to tell you, it was very satisfying. While working on that second self-portrait, I was thinking, ‘Come on, you know you really want to do a life-size, full-length ‘stain’ self-portrait.’ I discovered that I could buy the Arches paper on a roll, which gave me the height I needed to move forward. The full body piece in The Big Show took more than three months to do. There are over 20,000 stickers on it. It was a very empowering piece to work on, and I didn’t plan it out. I knew I was going to have my hands outstretched. I was interested in the idea of drowning in the imagery [of the stickers] but also in coming out of it. You know the feeling of being swallowed up but also finding the courage to move through something? I was in a very emotional place at that time. I’m glad I had the nerve to throw it out there for The Big Show because it’s so different from my other work—although it’s a continuation of the self-portraiture. I’ve had such a strong response to it, which has been really humbling and exciting.
Alex: To finish up, let’s talk about your Harvey painting. It was recently on display at Bush Intercontinental Airport. Tell us how the painting came about. Who are the people in the painting?
Sarah: Absolutely. The spring and summer before Hurricane Harvey, I was thinking very deeply about how important it is to me that we’ve been able to raise our kids in the most diverse city in the country. I am a huge fan of Dr. Stephen Klineberg. He’s one of my heroes too. He not only says that we’re the most diverse city in the country, but that every city in America will look like Houston in 20 years. We have such an opportunity to show the rest of the country how to leverage and celebrate diversity. Dr. Klineberg has painted the city with his data. I would love to paint his data. That’s where I was in the summer of 2017, and here comes Harvey. My family’s home didn’t flood. We were very lucky. The Tuesday night after the storm hit, the George R. Brown Convention Center was full, and they were going to open NRG Center as a shelter with BakerRipley. I went over there the next morning, along with hundreds of others, to volunteer. I think everybody felt that, if you were among the un-flooded, you wanted to help. I was working out in the NRG parking lot as part of a group that was pulling donations from this never-ending line of cars, trucks, and vans. I was working with 35 to 40 people. It was a really good, very diverse group of people—from age to race to you name it. We had a system for unloading and were working beautifully together. It was an amazing experience. The shift ended, and we were finally getting to talk to each other. I looked around, and I thought, ‘This is exactly why you want to paint the [Dr. Klineberg’s] data. This is Houston. Get the photo.’ I asked our supervisor to call everyone interested together to take a picture. Immediately, everyone assembled themselves. I did no art directing. I took three photos on my phone. You see how happy everybody was to be there and how it was an intensely joyful, altruistic experience. I love Houston. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but it’s incredible. I just felt so proud. I needed to paint the photo life-size, so I ended up doing it on eight panels. I shared the whole thing on Instagram and Facebook because I thought, ‘This is a community project.’ I also needed the support because I had never attempted a painting that size. I shared my progress over five months. When I finished it, I heard from Tommy Gregory at the Houston Airport System. He wanted to show it at the airport. We were on the phone, and I was in tears. You can never imagine an opportunity like that could happen when you start something. But when I was making the painting, I had thought that it would be wonderful if it could travel around the city in a grassroots way. It was up for two months at IAH, and then it went to NRG, GRB, Houston FoodBank, and Memorial Middle School. Its next stop is Strake Jesuit High School. Their motto is “Men for Others.” Of course, a lot of their families were directly impacted by Harvey—but many of those boys were also out mucking homes, and I think some of them were in boats helping to rescue people. That’s why they wanted to show the painting. There are a couple of additional location possibilities for the New Year. It’s just been a very grassroots thing.
Sarah Fisher’s painting “That was Harvey. This is Houston.” is currently on view at Strake Jesuit College Preparatory in Houston. Her mixed media work “Bravery is Contagious” is part of the inaugural Lawndale Lending Library. Follow Sarah Fisher at www.sarahfisherart.com and on Instagram: @sarahfisherportraits.