I just sent my very first full-length, 300-or-so-page manuscript off to my editor. Is it official? Am I a writer now? Or do I have to publish to be that?
Actually, I felt like it was the moment when I finished the first draft. Done, complete, the end, though to be continued… No one was there to tell it to. I got myself a four-pack of grocery store sparkling white wine beverages (not really champagne, but good enough) and I had a little private party with Candy and Luke and Sam. Those people are, of course, my fictitious characters. Yes, I drank their bubbly for them. Because I needed to celebrate in a way that no one in the real world could understand at that moment. My first book was completed. I had done it!
How did I get to that point? With hindsight, I see that it was a circuitous route, but what does hindsight mean when you’re living in it?
I was a painter. How antique and esoteric, right?
Nevermind how I got there, but I was in love with art and I was good at it. I got a Bachelor’s of Fine Art in Painting. Painting! Can you believe that? My school specialized in classical art making: painting, sculpture, drawing, printmaking…all with devoted adherence to humanistic form and technical perfection. I also did some photography, and oh did I love self-portraiture…
But I did more than that…
Art was fun and wonderful…then I moved to New York. I went to grad school there because everyone said I had to (and I admit, I was curious), and I ended up with a studio overlooking Union Square. How lucky was that? Well…
New York was tough. Not just because there are a million artists there, trying to make it (whatever that is), and an inundation of art (good art, bad art, everything in between), but because I was required to think too much about making art (how? why? for whom?), and that took most of the joy out of it for me. Grad school wasn’t about learning to make art, since you are expected to already know that much by the time you get there, but about learning how to make it for the right people. Selling it. That made sense, but I found a great schism between why I wanted to make art in the first place, and how I must alter it in order to make curators like me.
Not surprisingly, I wasn’t very commercially successful in New York. But, I think I made some pretty good work there, that I’m still proud of. Plenty of angst helped out…
And I was able to use Parson’s extensive printmaking labs to learn some more in my extra time. Etchings, screen prints.
Not long after graduating, I was back in Florida, feeling very disillusioned. Still making art, and still not making much money doing so (or even trying to, it seems). Then, two major events happened for me.
First, I had a child and began reading a copious amount of picture books and interactive eBooks for children. If you haven’t delved into this genre, I encourage anyone with a love for eye candy. Some is good, some isn’t, but when you happen upon the marvelous specimens, it can take your breath away. And as a parent, what a golden opportunity to spread around some of your own personal and deeply held parenting beliefs. Suddenly, making art meant something to me again, and I began illustrating a children’s picture book of my own, called “Liam Learns.”
Second, I got a Kindle! The first Kindle that I owned would display beautiful monochromatic etchings and drawings in sleep mode, mostly classic illustrations of famous authors or clips of illustrated works like “The Book of Kells” or cathedral blueprints. I was impressed with the clarity of the imagery and excited about the idea to bring illustration back into the hands of the everyday reader.
I decided to try my hand at illustrating an eBook by choosing a work from the public domain. My first published literary work was an illustrated edition of “The Song of Solomon.”
Shortly after completing that project, I decided I wanted to try writing my own material. I had been in a bad car accident in between my undergrad and graduate school degrees, which had left me with permanent physical injuries and lasting emotional baggage. I thought that writing about the experience would help in the healing process, and so I began a short memoir. The exercise not only helped my state of mind over the tragedy, but was the catalyst for my own reinvention as a new kind of artist.
I remember clearly sitting with my husband, discussing my writing, after he told me that (in a nutshell) I made pretty good art, but my writing was ten times better than my art. When I expressed alarm at giving up a career path that I had clung to for so long (it was who I was) and admitted that, though I truly didn’t even enjoy making art any longer, I felt I had to. I had already decided to be an artist.
“Does writing make you happy?” he asked.
“Yes,” was the easy answer. I hadn’t known so much joy in painting in years.
“”Well, why don’t you decide to be a writer now?”
So, that’s what I did. I put everything I had into writing my first novel, “The Tramp,” and I loved every second of it. I learned to write while I was writing, I read book after book (even some books on writing), and I started going to writer’s club events. I found I really liked writers, too. And I was finally able to put some of my painting skills to use again, in the working cover.
Towards the completion of “The Tramp,” I met with an old friend that I had known since Elementary School, and we had a conversation that brought things full circle for me. When I sheepishly admitted to being in the midst of writing a novel, joking that I knew how random that must seem after all my years being devoted to visual art, she shook her head vehemently and looked confused. She had known me since I was a child and remembered my penchant for storytelling as a part of who I was at heart, and my writing a book seemed a natural step to her. In that moment, I was reminded of my roots and experienced a sort of epiphany. Was the reason art making always seemed to fall short for me that I had actually been trying to tell stories, all along?
Taking a hard look at some of my work, it suddenly seemed obvious. For example, consider my Icons series below, in which I wrote words, overlapping and intermingling until my handwriting became illegible. Then I painted intricate patterns within the jumble, finally fixing an explanatory icon on top. I was accused of being cagey; just say it! I still don’t know why I couldn’t.
Perhaps I was simply using the wrong medium. An early indication came in grad school, when my professor read part of my dissertation during one of my critiques. He picked out a particular passage to help me better explain my paintings, since I was tongue-tied as usual:
“Possibly, my comfort with a dissolution of the boundaries between high-brow and low-brow art stems from my first experiences with art; trips to Europe with my family that always spotlighted architectural marvels, extravagant cathedrals, spooky abbeys and castles, and famed, hushed art museums. In misty courtyards, our feet slipped on moldy cobblestones that dotted shockingly green, soggy grass with gnarled skeletons of wheezing stone soaring overhead. We listened to the echoing halls of Parliament in London, while we sat in a shadowy alcove and made crayon rubbings of medieval brass tablets; the stubby cartoon men wore archaic armor and dour expressions, drowned in carved vines and symbols and letters and shields. Incense mingled with morose Latin chanting and theatrical organs in cavernous cathedrals: a thick soup of air that flowed between proud marble effigies, crusty icons with desperate faces and golden haloes, unbelievably elaborate altarpieces and twisting cupolas made of every shade of marble. I did not experience these as relics separate from the time and place in which I found them, and my memories of the art of European cities blend with memories of the people, like an uncomfortably familiar breakfast at a tiny B&B across from a German matron wolfing down sausages, or our rental car bumping down a dirt road in Scotland in search of what locals told us along the way was “Cherry Footen Castle” (Sheriff Hutton Castle), recorded by my grandma in her diary with tears of laughter.
“Sarah, is this what your artwork is about?” he asked.
“Well, yes,” I shrugged to his knowing expression.
Storytelling is my artwork. Writing is my passion and painting will always be part of it. I’m not sure where the journey will take me next, but I know I won’t look back.