“In a few years I hope to look back and ask myself how in the world I painted in my kitchen for so long! My kitchen is my desk. I live with my boyfriend, also a work at home artist, in a 900 square foot rental ranch house in South Austin. I spend my time painting split between my 6’ x 6’ studio (an extra bedroom in the house) and the kitchen. Since I often work large, and paint flat, the kitchen is the best space in the house because it’s spacious and open.”
Sara J. Vanderbeek is an Austin-based painter born in St. Louis, MO. She graduated with a BFA from Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in 2003. She received a scholarship to Anderson Ranch in Colorado and did post-graduate research as Visiting Scholar in Japan with RISD via a grant through Christie’s Auction House, New York. Vanderbeek had her first solo show at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, TX in 2011 and has been included in several group shows nationally. She is currently working on a series of portraits of artists in their studios.
FROM YOUR DESKS: How do you work?
SARA VANDERBEEK: Very messily. I’m a true slob. Ask my Mom. I work best at night. It’s really hard for me to paint during the day – I do it, but I always get more done at night. I think it’s partially a nostalgia thing from being at RISD and always working late into the night. I’m very process oriented. There is a deliberate set of steps I take for each painting. First is the photo session. I always work from photos I take myself and I always prefer to spend a good amount of time with my subject in their home or studio. There’s an elaborate photo-editing process where I go through the hundreds of images I captured, find the ones I believe best capture the personality, and then make a photo collage in Photoshop for my composition. Then, I start the paintings with a single color painted line drawing and go from there. Same routine every time.
My work is about people I know. It has been a long-term goal to paint all of the people in my life.
FYD: What is your favorite sentimental object at your workspace and why?
SV: My dog, Lu is definitely my most prized studio possession.
FYD: What is your favorite or most required work tool?
SV: I couldn’t make my paintings without music. There are certainly spaces in my life for silence, but when I’m working, I need noise.
FYD: What inspires you to capture who you capture?
SV: My work is about people I know. It has been a long-term goal to paint all of the people in my life. I have always been drawn to painting people. When I started painting, I was really influenced by the Bay Area figurative painters like Richard Diebenkorn, David Parks, Elmer Bischoff, Joan Brown, Nathan Olivera and Alice Neel. Her portrait of Andy Warhol subconsciously inspired this new series about artists! Portraits Of The Artists is part of my larger body of work, with a focus specifically on artists I have met, worked with, or been influenced by. The paintings are celebrations and tributes of the artists. It’s always been a personal connection that inspires my decisions of whom to paint.
FYD: How did your Portraits Of The Artists come about?
SV: Last fall, I was working on a few paintings for collectors in San Antonio and had the idea to paint them in front of art in their collections. I was entranced by the act of trying to reproduce someone else’s art in my own style. The paintings, Brad, 2011, Clinton, 2011, and Marge, 2011 were among the first examples of this (see below). I thought about the artists I’ve known and thought it would be fun to do a series about them. In December, I went to New York to photograph artist Julia Rothman for a commission. I set up studio visits with other New York artists I’ve known or worked with. I visited the studios of artists Stephanie Chambers, Chuck Close and Lesley Dill. That is really what officially started the project.
FYD: A person’s workspace often reflects the type of person or work one produces. Did you feel this way about the artists you showcased?
SV: Definitely. Trenton’s studio (see right and below) was a great example. His work is stuffed full of the characters he has invented – his paintings feel like collections of worlds and stories. His studio and home are jam-packed with collections of toys, figurines, shelves and bins of stuff! I agree that artist’s studios are like mirrors or self portraits in a way. Though I’m not sure what painting in my kitchen says about me…
FYD: You mention “persistent restlessness.” What do you love about persistence? And how does one stay persistent without becoming over-exuberant?
SV: It’s funny I said that because I am persistently restless in that there is so much that I want to do and make, but I also constantly struggle with my work – my paintings scare me a lot. There is nothing scarier to me than finishing building one of my surfaces and looking at that white gesso void. Sometimes I sit and stare at the blank wood panel and wonder what the hell I’m doing. I’m completely neurotic. I think this fear and neuroses keeps me from over-exuberance.
I agree that artist’s studios are like mirrors or self portraits in a way. Though I’m not sure what painting in my kitchen says about me…
FYD: For someone like Chuck Close who is used to turning out his own portraits, how did it feel to capture his image?
SV: Awesome. His outfit was amazing. He was wearing an African-patterned robe and was sitting in front of his most recent painting of Phillip Glass. He talked about how he started making portraits of all of his friends and how they just happened to become famous. He was like, they weren’t famous when I started painting them, but now they are. I also have a photo of him flicking me off – he was talking to one of his printmaking collaborators, Donald Farnsworth about another photo shoot where he flicked someone off–so he did it for me too.
(Black and white photo above courtesy of Donald Farnsworth)
FYD: Besides the value of their time, what did you learn from these artists as a whole and individually?
SV: How absolutely inviting they were. I expected some of the artists would be inaccessible because of their fame and success, but that is far from what I have experienced. The artists have been welcoming and supportive of this project.
I knew Chuck Close only briefly in 2001– after I helped edition an etching of his at Pace Prints in New York. At the end of my internship, I looked in the Rolodex at Pace, found his number, and called him. He invited me over to his studio that day. I heard he loved Krispy Kreme donuts so I brought him a dozen. About 1/2 hour into the visit, we were talking about his daguerreotypes and he asked me if I would like to be a model. I said yes. He said that I would have to audition which required that I get completely naked (since the daguerreotypes were nudes from the neck to the top of the thigh). So there I was, stripping naked in Chuck Close’s studio. Pretty surreal. That Fall he ended up putting the project on hold. Ten years later, I wrote and asked if he would be part of my project. It was a pipe dream but he followed through and invited me back to his studio! When I returned, I asked him if he remembered me. Since he has face blindness, I said, “I know you probably don’t recognize me, but do you remember who I am?” He responded, “I don’t recognize you, but I would probably recognize you naked.”
Lesley Dill bought me cookies and we had coffee and chatted about women, faith, the devil, art school. I love Lesley!
I cold called Trenton Doyle Hancock– we have a bunch of mutual friends in Texas. I sent him a Facebook message about my project and he invited me to Houston to visit. He’s amazing. When I first met him, I felt like I had known him for years. We hung out at his studio for a while and then he invited me to his house to look at his toy collection which is absolutely incredible! I also got to see his amazing thrift store art collection, and his beautiful Robyn O’Neil drawing (who I want to meet and have part of this series too.)
FYD: You have reached your goal for the project. Will extra money help you go the distance for new artists you want to showcase?
SV: Yes! I’m hoping to continue funding past my goal to help make this project bigger and better. The list of artists naturally keeps growing, and I’m hoping the support and enthusiasm for the project will continue to grow. I’m humbled and flattered by all of the support I’ve received so far and excited to see what will happen in the remaining 20 days of my USA Project campaign…and beyond!