Sarah Symes: A self-discovered process
The much-travelled artist Sarah Symes lived in London, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vancouver before settling in Ottawa with her husband. Sarah studied Architecture at the prestigious University College London before training and working as a Graphic Designer.
She describes herself as a fearless creator making abstract textile art through a self-discovered process. Having exhibited in the USA, Canada and Europe, Sarah’s honours include the prestigious ‘Best of Show’ award at the 2007 Los Angeles Art Association exhibition.
In our interview with Sarah she tells us why the LA lifestyle led her to a career as an artist and why being both business-minded and creative is just part of the job.
The limitations of the medium
What initially captured your imagination about textile art?
I was 10 years old and standing in a school classroom. We were asked to make a picture using scissors, glue and fabric scraps. I spent the afternoon excitedly cutting and sticking a vast collage of colours and shapes.
Looking back on that day, I was captivated by the same thing that captivates me today – the limitations of the medium. Where a set of paints offers limitless possibilities, a pile of fabric does not. I enjoy the challenge of making fabrics work together and find reward in the creativity this inspires.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
My earliest influence was my Dad. He is an architect and painter and he always brought home the best quality art materials. He taught me to treasure them as the valuables they were and when we did art together it was always the real thing – other kids did craft projects, but we were making art.
My life path has had an enormous influence on my work. I have lived in London, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver and now Ottawa. All that moving around has brought about significant changes to my outlook on life and art. If I try and summarise how these many experiences have influenced my work, I would say this: My career as a graphic designer has evolved alongside my textile art and gives me an invaluable edge in presenting and promoting my work. Living away from family and friends has forced me to be self-sufficient and become my own worst critic and greatest champion. Moving house 20 odd times has forced me to adapt to working anywhere and this has made me comfortable with change, not just in my changing studio space, but also in my changing mindset.
Sometimes bad things happen in life and they help put creative challenges in perspective – I am now a fearless creator and I believe that I can make anything. When a client recently approached me to make a very large textile piece (Dreamcatcher), I eagerly accepted the challenge. As expected, it was physically demanding and I had to adapt my technique to cope with the size and weight of the fabric, but it worked out really great in the end.
What was your route to becoming an artist?
At school, I excelled in art classes despite the pressures of a highly academic school system. I worked hard to get good grades across all subjects and went on to study Architecture at the prestigious University College London. I became increasingly dissatisfied with the highly conceptual teaching methods and quit the course to train as a Graphic Designer. I worked as a designer for the next five years, only making textile art occasionally at evenings and weekends.
When I moved to Los Angeles in 2005 the Californian lifestyle opened my mind to a career as an artist. In 2006 I made a large textile piece and had it stretched on a frame. Driven to do more, I spent 6 months devoted to making the 20 pieces that would become my 2007 Beach Series. A local gallery liked my work and starting exhibiting me and soon after that I made my first sale. Since then, I have called myself a professional artist.
An improvised process
What is your chosen medium and what are your techniques?
My medium is textiles. My self-discovered process is the result of many years developing skills and techniques with fabric. Each piece begins as a sketched idea. I select quality fabrics and carefully pre-wash and hand dye each piece as needed. The fabric is then cut into squares or strips and stitched together using a sewing machine. It’s an improvised process, more like painting or collage than traditional textile work, enabling the gradual build up of colour and texture. The finished piece is stretched over a wooden frame and completed with a hanging wire. Each piece is a unique, gallery-quality work of art.
How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
I describe my work as abstract textile art. My work has hung in fine art galleries alongside paintings and sculptures. I was the only textile artist in the 2007 Los Angeles Art Association show and I won ‘Best of Show’. Gallery owners and collectors wouldn’t hang my textile art unless I presented myself as a fine artist.
Tell us a bit about your commission process?
I begin the process with a phone call to get a detailed brief from the client. Then I sketch some ideas and mock up detailed room views of the proposed artwork in location. At this design stage, I also send out a cost sheet, so that the client can make a decision based on design and cost. When the design is confirmed, I will begin making the textile piece. During the making process, I send daily photos to involve the client in the process and give them the opportunity to see it coming together. My making time depends on size and complexity. I seek final approval before stretching it.
Demanding and exhausting
What currently inspires you and which other artists do you admire and why?
I am currently inspired by my trip to the Rocky Mountains in October 2013 and my time spent in Cuba in June 2014. I am developing work inspired by both of these experiences. The artists I most admire are Rothko for his emotional multi-forms and Klee for his deceptively simple abstract compositions.
Tell us about a piece of work you have fond memories of and why?
I don’t have fond memories of my own work. They are rarely a pleasure to make. The creative process is demanding and exhausting and I am always happy to walk away from them when they let me go.
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
Over the years, my process has become more about the end result and less about the technique. I’ve learnt to let go of my own rules and stay focused on my vision for the work. There is no fast track to making great art, you just have to put in the time.
Finding a balance
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
Stay true to your vision for your art career and don’t get distracted. Distractions come in many guises.
Say yes to every reasonable request.
Graciously accept compliments and forget them. Graciously accept negative comments and remember them.
Don’t give up.
You seem to be very business-minded as well as extremely creative; how do you find that balance, what are your top tips for creating art to sell and what are your most effective promotional tools?
Being business-minded and creative is just part of the job. Being a professional artist means running a business. The internet has opened up a whole new art world and artists and buyers have never been more connected. Every artist must find a balance between making art and promoting art that doesn’t erode their creative process. I find writing blog posts tedious and repetitive, but I enjoy sharing quick Instagram snaps.
My top tips for creating art to sell are these:
Don’t waste your time on expensive art prints or reproductions. The art galleries often push for this. The unique beauty of textile art can rarely be captured in a photograph and it’s better to spend your time and energy on original work.
Don’t over-price your work. Understand that sales are key to your success.
Don’t spend more time promoting your art than making it.
Buy art. Know how it feels to be an art buyer.
Be open to finding another source of income. Selling art is hard. Months away from making textile art won’t affect your career, as long as you make art as often as you can. Time away might even improve your work.
My most effective promotional tools are my website, my Etsy shop and the art galleries that hang my work. In that order. This generates interest and I get invitations to do interviews and shows which further promote my work. Additional to this, I have an Instagram feed, a Facebook page and a Pinterest account.
The challenge of making do
What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?
Nothing. I thrive on the challenge of making do. It’s definitely a condition I have developed from moving around so much! I have many times lived without all my sewing equipment for months on end and it didn’t stop me creating.
How do you go about choosing where to show your work?
Primarily, I show my work on sarahsymes.com because it receives more visits in one day that a gallery would in a month. I also choose to showcase my work on Etsy, Pinterest and Instagram because these platforms all have strong artistic communities and an interface that presents images beautifully.
In the real world, it’s not so easy. There are not many art galleries open to textile art submissions. I have been lucky to find a few who are and I’m very thankful for their support. I still hold fast to my dream of one day having a solo show.
Where can readers see your work this year ?
All of my work is on sarahsymes.com and for anyone in Canada, my work is currently on exhibition at the Orange art gallery in Ottawa.
For more information please visit: sarahsymes.com
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