In the winter of 2017-2018, L.A.-based painter Sarah Cain created an installation Mountain Song at Elk Camp on Snowmass Mountain. The abstract work, which features multiple perspectives that Cain builds in her signature fashion through layering canvases with colors, patterns, and textures, was part of the Aspen Art Museum’s series, Art in Unexpected Places, which was then in its twelfth year. In February 2018, on the occasion of the installation, the AAM’s director Heidi Zuckerman interviewed the artist. The interview will be published in its entirety in Conversations With Artists Vol. II, a compilation of Zuckerman’s interviews with artists that will be released in October 2019 by Aspen Art Press (see the first volume here). Here is an excerpt of that conversation.
You use a variety of different mediums, but can you talk about working with stained glass? It seems like a challenging departure from your other work.
I’ve been working in stained glass for the past couple of years, creating a large-scale public art piece, as well as discreet windows for various gallery shows. I’ve been working with this historic studio in Los Angeles. They made all of Frank Lloyd Wright’s glass for his first buildings; they’ve been around since the 1800s. As we’ve been going along, I’ve been figuring out how to use the material to fit my way of painting. I’ve never worked with glass before. I love that I don’t have control over it, and working with these masters is humbling—I know nothing compared to them. It’s so overwhelming, wild, and exciting to see it coming together. I always make all my work myself and never have assistance, so it’s a huge learning curve to communicate to people how I want it to be.
After I do big works on-site, I come back to the studio and ground myself with works on paper, which come out of illuminated manuscripts and Shaker drawings. A lot of the stained glass relates to these works on paper. I have transitioned recently into making talismans painted on dollar bills. There’s a grid of sixteen of them in the staircase at Elk Camp. They’re small, but I believe in the magic of them. If you talk to them or hang them near where you sit, they’ll bring you money.
How do you know they work?
Oh, they work. The first dollar bill I found folded up outside my studio in a little triangle, right when the recession started. When I unfolded it, I realized that the paper is made from hot-pressed paper, just like the music sheets I was drawing on. The first group I made was called Eye of the Storm (2008), and it hung like a mobile. The pyramid or the eye always remains within the painting so you know it’s a dollar. They always pull through for me. I’ve given them to tons of friends. The funniest was my friend, the artist Colter Jacobsen, who said he had to take his down because it was working too well. I told him there’s no such thing—just donate!
While I was making one of my favorite paintings, Black Magic (2016), before I even added string to it, my cats were seeing things in it that I couldn’t see, and were jumping and diving into it. It must have been the yellow and the black paint in it; they were going crazy.
There’s often a mystique around artists. Some of that is about why and how artists do what they do. When I was looking at your work at Elk Camp today, I was thinking about how immersive the environments you create are. You’ve also talked about your studio space in the past, the cats you live with, and how there can only be a certain number, and your overgrown garden. I wanted to ask you about the psychic space in which you live and work. Is it seamless or fragmented?
It’s really connected. There’s no division between my work and my life. I used to create these huge plastic bubbles around me when I was making my on-site works so people wouldn’t get in my psychic space. I’m getting a lot better at tuning them out. To make my work, I have to live in this world where boundaries fade away, but to protect myself, I also have to have boundaries. It’s been a funny learning experience.
When I was younger, I hated going to museums. I felt like they were places where great works of art go to die. I wanted to make pieces that were active, that made viewers feel and see in the present tense. As I’ve been doing more and more of them, the paintings also have that energy.
You used the word “junk” earlier, which seems to be referencing the effects of your daily life more than trash. How do you choose what leaves the role it used to be and enters into this space of art?
Sometimes it’s a feeling around an object, and sometimes I’m so annoyed by an object, I need to transcend it. I’m good friends with the assemblage artist George Herms, and we have this California-funk, scavenger thing going on. It comes out of poverty, too, to be honest. I’m finally at a point where I can buy the materials I want, but I used to work in abandoned buildings because I couldn’t afford the studio rent. I’m interested in the immediacy of necessity retaining a purity in the work.
“I Always Braid My Hair: Heidi Zuckerman in Conversation with Sarah Cain” took place on February 18, 2018 in Aspen, Colorado on the occasion of the artist’s installation Mountain Song (2017) at Elk Camp, Snowmass, a commission by the Aspen Art Museum and the Aspen Skiing Company, which was part of the series Art in Unexpected Places.